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What is Computational Linguistics?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Computational linguistics is a general field which encompasses many aspects of psychology, linguistics, logic and computer science. It is concerned with helping computers understand linguistic issues in order to become better at automating aspects of translation, generation, speech and comprehension.

Computational linguistics was born after a number of failed attempts at automated translation. In the late 1940s, the U.S. government saw a need for machine-handled translation of texts, particularly Russian texts. It was assumed, given the ease with which computers had been adapted to handle mathematical problems, that teaching them to translate language would be a simple affair. It quickly became apparent that the problem was much more difficult, however, and the discipline of computational linguistics was created.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

In the early days of computational linguistics, the field was dominated by computer scientists. Since the 1970s, however, it has become apparent how complex language actually is, and contemporary computational linguistics makes use of experts from a number of fields.

Machine translation has always been a major goal of computational linguistics, and one in which the field has made enormous strides. The task is very complex, requiring the identification of parts of speech, an understanding of grammar, an extensive vocabulary, and mechanisms for dealing with colloquialisms and slang. Machine translation is far from perfect, but with each year the translations become more accurate and less forced.

Speech recognition is another area of computational linguistics which has seen much public interest. After a few abortive attempts at mainstream speech recognition software in the mid-1990s, the field went silent for a time. In the early 21st century, however, a number of new speech recognition software suites arrived on the market boasting extensive learning systems and high rates of accuracy. This has led to a renewed interest in speech recognition software by the general public and an accompanying increase in funding and research.

Speech generation is a related field of computational linguistics which has seen steady development since the 1980s. Reaching a natural-sounding reading of written text is a very difficult problem, but one that holds enormous potential benefits. For non-sighted users, speech generation software can be critical to enjoying the fruits of the digital age.

Computational linguistics also plays a large role in automated grammar correction systems, such as those integrated into most popular word processors. An accurate grammar checker requires a sophisticated ability to identify parts of speech and a comprehensive list of grammatical rules and exceptions. While most mainstream grammar checkers still have many problems, they are already becoming indispensable for many in the new generation.

Computational linguistics is an exciting field drawing from a wide range of disciplines. The problems it has to address are many, and none are simple. The futurist visions it looks forward to, however, make it a struggle well worth while. From the dream of a universal translator to word-perfect speech recognition, the goals of computational linguistics cannot help but evoke a sense of wonder.

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