New computational linguistics degree preps students for a growing industry

Interdisciplinary undergraduate program combines world languages, linguistics and computer science.

Six students looking at three computer monitors, backs to the camera.

New computational linguistics degree preps students for a growing industry

Interdisciplinary undergraduate program combines world languages, linguistics and computer science.

Six students looking at three computer monitors, backs to the camera.

A new interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program preparing students for jobs in computational linguistics will be offered in fall 2022 at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Designed by University linguists and computer scientists, the program explores such processes as machine translation, speech recognition, text-to-speech synthesis and interactive voice response. The program is unique in that it also incorporates world languages: students in the program will develop proficiency in Spanish or French while completing the degree.

Head shots of professors involved in creating the computational linguistics program. Clockwise from top left, Ian Clayton, Emily Hand, Gerald McMenamin and Casilde IsabelliIan C
Professors involved in creating the new computational linguistics program are, clockwise from top left, Ian Clayton, Emily Hand, Gerald McMenamin and Casilde Isabelli.

“Computational linguistics is a growing area of university study that is sought-after and commercially viable,” Spanish instructor Gerald McMenamin said. “It is one that will provide internships for students and jobs for our graduates. We are excited to present this new option for study to our students of language, linguistics and computer science.”

McMenamin originated the idea for the program back in 2019, after noticing a need in the job market for computational linguists.

“That’s when I went to Cassie (Professor Casilde Isabelli, chair of World Languages and Literatures) and said, ‘we should get into this, because there are jobs.’”

The two worked with Ian Clayton, associate chair of English, as well as Computer Science & Engineering Assistant Professor Emily Hand.

Hand in particular sees a growing need for computational linguists.

“From a computer science perspective, it’s not super-exciting now to just know how to program,” she said. “Many computer scientists that take a job in natural language processing will need to work with a linguist. If they have that background already, they will be way more attractive to a potential employer.”

Classes a student might take for this degree include CS 302-Data Structures, ENG 412A-Linguistics and either FREN 306 - French Composition II or Spanish 303 – the Study of Language: Myths and Concepts. Students interested in this program should review the Univeristy Catalog for exact class requirements.

Job prospects

Students with a bachelor’s in computational linguistics can find jobs in such fields as voice recognition, machine translation, data mining, predictive text messaging or improved search engines. Careers in computational linguistics also may focus on using the tools of computer science to better understand human language, including styling large data sets or better understanding the properties of human language with computer models and statistical analysis.

The University’s computational linguistics program also can provide the necessary background for graduate school in linguistics or computer science. McMenamin gives the example of recent University graduate Ashley Keaton, now in the Ph.D. program in linguistics at U.C. Davis. Keaton’s research, which is faculty-directed and extramurally funded, focuses on the study of differential listener perception of robotic vs. naturalistic synthetic speech.

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