Why Tech Companies Like Google Seek Linguistics Scholars

Graduate Center Kyle Gorman seated in the dining hallThis fall, Professor Kyle Gorman (Linguistics) was named the new co-director of the master’s program in computational linguistics. Gorman came to The Graduate Center with experience both in academia and in high tech: After working as a postdoctoral researcher and later as a professor at the Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Spoken Language Understanding, he joined a former colleague’s team at Google.
At Google, Gorman was the principal author of Pynini, which he defines as “a powerful weighted-finite state grammar extension for Python” — a phrase his students understand. He also taught a course at the company, driven by a thirst for teaching that led him to join The Graduate Center. Gorman recently spoke about the role of linguistics in technology and the career outlook for graduates of the M.A. program:
Computational linguistics is an interdisciplinary field that draws on expertise in disparate areas such as psychology and computer science. Is your background more in the humanities or in technology?
I’m from a humanities background, and that’s really important to my work. But linguistics plays a role in technology and medicine and other subjects along those lines, and I think that’s been underestimated.
I worked at Google on speech products: speech recognition and synthesis — the systems you use when you’re asking your phone a question. A surprising amount of the complexity in these systems is because they interact through language. You need to support dozens, if not hundreds, of languages.
A lot of systems are developed for English by people whose primary language is English. When it’s time to add new languages, the complexity really increases. There are about 40,000 languages, and we have to think about how each one differs and about commonalities that allow us to build systems that work for multiple languages at once. The study of these issues resides within the field of linguistics — there’s no other field that’s really concerned with these questions.
Would a student who graduates with an M.A. in computational linguistics typically search for a position with a big technology company?
There are three main paths. One is to the big tech companies that produce speech and language technology. These companies — like Google, Facebook, and Amazon — are aggressively hiring linguists right now.
Some of our students wind up working for small startups. They might have a position in user experience research, and the company doesn’t know they need linguistic knowledge until someone tells them they’ve got it. With linguistic expertise, students learn to analyze data and think critically. And linguistic analysis and programming skills can really make a difference with those companies as well.
A third path is to the public sector and grant-funded research. Military contractors are interested in the same question as Google: They want to be able to quickly support speech and language technologies for languages you’ve never heard of.
What drew you to The Graduate Center?
I’ve known about CUNY for a long time, and when I learned about its institutional history, I found it amazing — this is a system that was built for the less fortunate, and that is affordable. The Graduate Center in particular is capable of catering to first-generation students affordably. That’s very impressive to me.
I believe in public education. And I think that every university system should be doing it the way that CUNY does.
Why did you call your website Wellformedness?
That’s a bit of linguistics jargon, and it’s the property of some kind of linguistic construction — it might be a word, or a sentence — of being well formed. It’s a fun word, and no one had used it yet, so I bought it.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Linguistics | Linguistics