Why you want a CS + Linguistics degree

4/1/2024 Emma Maxwell

Written by Emma Maxwell

CS + X series by Women in Computer Science at Illinois

Revolutionizing language’s digital frontier

In a world where Siri schedules our meetings, Google Translate accompanies us when we travel, Alexa controls our lights, and ChatGPT is everything from a conversation partner to a programmer’s rubber duck, the computational linguists' work impacts the daily lives of everyone around them. The intersection between technology and language science is one of the most relevant technical growth and research areas today.

The field of computational linguistics is diverse and ever-growing. Popular subfields include natural language processing, which involves teaching computers to understand and manipulate human language, and machine translation, the automated process of translating one language to another.

The Curriculum

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has offered a degree in computational linguistics since fall 2014. Students receive a more general education in computer science and linguistics before delving into their intersections. First and second-year computer science courses include Java and C++ programming, discrete mathematics, data structures, and statistics. Early linguistics training includes coursework in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

After students have established a strong computer science and linguistics foundation, computational linguistics coursework becomes an option. All CS + Linguistics students take Introduction to Computational Linguistics (LING408), which covers parsing, natural language processing, finite-state methods, computational semantics, and more. The linguistics department also offers courses in computational morphology, computational syntax and semantics, speech signal processing, and machine translation. The computer science department offers machine learning, artificial intelligence, applied machine learning, and natural language processing coursework.

On-Campus Opportunities

In addition to the diverse coursework in computation linguistics, CS + Ling students have the option to explore their interests through a variety of campus opportunities.

Linguistics is an ever-present subject that can be applied to various other topics, with research in these areas being widespread at the university. Students interested in the intersection between linguistics and psychology can apply to be research assistants in the Language Acquisition Lab, which studies how children learn their first language. Another opportunity resides in the Language and Learning Lab, which uses large bodies of text to study how people learn language.

Pure linguistics research can be pursued through any of the three laboratories under the linguistics department. The Phonetics and Phonology lab researches how linguistic sound is produced, processed, and patterned by humans; the Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism Lab focuses on the differences in how the mind processes the first and second languages; the Electrophysiology Lab studies the neural processes underlying language production and processing.

The computer science department has a massive research area focused on artificial intelligence, with many faculty focusing specifically on computational linguistics and natural language processing. In addition to all these amazing labs, students can contact professors and other faculty working in their areas of interest!

Beyond research, Illinois is home to hundreds of student groups for any and all interests. The League of Linguists (LOL) is a registered student organization (RSO) in the linguistics department that hosts socials, lab tours, and seminars for anyone interested in the field. SIGNLL is a special interest group housed under the Association of Computing Machinery that guides students through small group projects in natural language processing. The university is home to many other computer science organizations (including WCS), language conversation groups, and RSOs for any passion a person can have.

Post Graduation

A degree in computational linguistics can open numerous doors. For students interested in entering the industry, products like Duolingo, ChatGPT, Google Translate, QuillBot, and many others require the expertise of a computational linguist. Large Language Models are very popular, with dozens of leading tech companies racing to develop the most sophisticated chatbot. Nearly every retailer and service provider with a website has some form of automated customer support. New technologies are constantly in development for real-time translation earpieces to better facilitate global communication; they rely almost entirely on speech signal processing and machine translation experts.

In addition to these highly specialized fields that require the knowledge of a computational linguist, CS + Linguistics graduates are prepared to enter the technology industry in any capacity with their technical training. Computer science department graduates are well-prepared to pursue consulting, software engineering, data analytics, web development, and more.

Undergraduate training can also lead to a very successful career in academia. Illinois is one of the few universities in the United States to offer an undergraduate degree in computational linguistics. Students who pursue a graduate degree in the field will enter with a strong foundation, not only in pure linguistics and computer science but in the unique ways they intersect. Research in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and more continues to grow daily. In 2023, a University of Illinois Professor was announced as leading a team with 5.8 million dollars in funding. Research in this field is in high demand, with the demand continuing to grow as the capabilities of technology continue to advance and can be applied to more areas of everyday life.

Advancements in computational linguistics touch lives in so many ways. Machine translation allows for global connections without the concerns of language barriers. Preventing bias in artificial intelligence technologies becomes increasingly necessary with every passing day. Improvements in human-computer interaction reduce barriers to using groundbreaking technology. Text-to-speech systems and synthesizers increase accessibility and improve the quality of life for people across the globe. This field is changing the world. Don't you want to be a part of it?

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This story was published April 1, 2024.