Career Profiles in Linguistics
Our Career Profiles feature Linguists in the world of work. Each include a short description that highlights their essential skills, experience, characteristics and how they add value to their job.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún - Indigenous Language Advocacy
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a linguist, writer, and teacher based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is best known for his work in mother tongue education and the interaction of language with technology. He is a Fulbright Fellow (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, 2009) and recipient of the Premio Ostana Special Prize for Mother Tongue Literature 2016.
As we explore his career profile, Kola paints a picture of his life and advocacy spanning the fields of education, technology, literature, journalism, and linguistics
How did you find your way into linguistics?
I could say it’s serendipitous, but that would mean that all the building blocks set by parents, teachers, and other conditions around my upbringing played no part. That wouldn’t be true. With hindsight, it feels like there was an unconscious plan all along. As far back as I remember, I was always interested in languages, particularly in the tension between Yorùbá which I speak as a first language, and which we spoke at home, and English, which was spoken in school to the exclusion of anything other language.
My interest wasn’t overt, and my first admission to the university was for a first degree in Theatre Arts, which I eventually turned down for Linguistics. Then, I had some misconceptions about what linguistics was about. Like many people, I thought that it would merely let me learn many new languages. After the first year as an undergrad, I knew better. I discovered phonetics, phonology, morphology, sociolinguistics, and syntax (which I didn’t particularly like). It was enchanting, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else.
How do you understand your background in linguistics as shaping what you do / how you do what you do?
Most of what has brought me satisfaction as an adult has come from work with languages, doing things I love with it. Understanding how language works, and how it influences society, has helped me better appreciate the world. Shortly after my undergrad, I got a Fulbright scholarship to teach Yorùbá at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for a year. That was a fun and thrilling experience.
Two years later, I got an MA in Linguistics/TESL from the same university. My initial plan afterwards (besides getting into a PhD program) was to move to Rwanda, which had just shifted from French to English as its official language, to teach English. But I got a job at a high school in Lagos, Nigeria to do the same thing so I moved there instead in 2012. All the while, my interest and work in languages kept pushing me in productive and interesting directions.
In 2012-2014, I led an effort which successfully pressured Twitter to allow the platform be translated into Yorùbá. In 2015, I founded YorubaName.com. Later that year, I got a job at Google as a Speech Linguistics Project Manager to head their team working on speech synthesis for Nigerian English, a position I held for about year.
What does a typical day look like now?
Today, my day begins with a few hours of writing, before the house wakes up. I’m working on a collection of essays, a memoir, a book of interviews, and some academic papers. Then, at 8, I help prepare my son to go to school (he’ll be three years old in a few days). When he’s out of the house, I do some more writing and reading. I’m a content provider on an international debating platform, so I put in some hours of work there. I also serve as the head lexicographer at YorubaName.com.
At around 2.30pm, I go to pick my son up from school. When he’s home, I can’t do much reading or writing, so I engage him around the house. Sometimes, that time allows me to read or do some work on the YorubaName project. Evening is for dinner with my wife and son. Occasionally, there is a little time for reading/writing before bed.
Can you give an example of a recent project?
In November 2016, I helped translate a short story Upright Revolution by the renowned African novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o into Yorùbá. More about that in these two recaps of Aké Festival 2016. It was a collaborative project that I enjoyed working on. I’m also working on a translation, into Yorùbá, of a Nigerian novel. The YorubaName.com dictionary is an ongoing project that has also brought me satisfaction.
It began as an undergraduate project but has now, with help from friends and colleagues, grown into a bigger one with about thirty volunteers around the world. It has got a lot of positive reviews, offline, and around the web, and that is exciting. We’re currently working on expanding that platform to include a full online dictionary of Nigerian languages (with audio), beginning with Yorùbá.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best thing about working as a linguist (whether full time or part time) is the thrill in learning new things about a language or about languages. I have learnt way more about Yorùbá in the last one year than I did in the many years before, and I’ve found ways to challenge and refine my thinking over a number of issues. It is also a field that has allowed me to be part of solutions to problems that affect a number of people, myself included.
In June 2016, for instance, we released a free downloadable tone-marking keyboard software to allow people write in Yorùbá and Igbo online. That brought me a lot of satisfaction. The worst part would be that people tend to be needlessly self-conscious about their grammar around me too often than necessary. I assume that this is not the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
What else do you do apart from linguistics?
Creative writing. I find literature stimulating, particularly creative non-fiction. I also read, and review, fiction. That is where I spend a lot of my free time. I was recently published in Literary Wonderlands (October, 2016), an anthology edited by Laura Miller, about creative works in sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, and magical realism around the world. My entry was about Nnedi Okorafor, the only Nigerian in the list.
As a critic, I’ve given some attention towards the pervasive attitude of writing/publishing Nigerian words, in contemporary literature, without proper diacritics, when the same courtesy is usually afforded to languages like French or Swedish. It is one of the holdovers from colonialism which has denied Nigerian literature a dynamism expected from a country of so many languages. I’m hoping that my intervention makes some significant changes happen in the nearest future.
Reach out to Kola via twitter @kolatubosun, LinkedIn, or Medium. To stay up to date with what he is currently working on, check out his blog KTravula.com or yorubaname.com. Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Naming, Non-Profit Communications, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing,Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!
Sara McElmurry - Assistant Director for the Immigration Initiative at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Sara McElmurry is the Assistant Director for the Immigration Initiative at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where her work primarily focuses on writing policy papers and framing communications around the topic of immigration.
Sara recently spoke on the phone with guest blogger and fellow linguist, Lauren Johnson, about her winding path, from undergraduate degrees in Communications and Spanish and her early career in the non-profit sector, through her experiences studying abroad and her decision to change degrees (and schools) mid-program, up to her most recent role with the Immigration Initiative. Her Career Profile is a great example of how passion and circumstances often combine in unexpected and serendipitous ways.
It all started with high school Spanish.
I loved the way that learning a second language gave me another way of seeing and thinking about the world, and I wanted to major in Spanish as an undergraduate. But I had a professor who suggested that I double major so I wouldn’t starve, so I decided to double major in Communications and Spanish. But I knew I didn’t want a ‘traditional’ advertising career. I was more interested in social justice.
My first jobs were with non-profits, but it was my study abroad experiences that helped guide my career path.
After working in the communications department of a few non-profits, I had the inkling to go back to school, and I enrolled in an internationally focused public service management program. I loved the international aspect, but I realized that I wanted to be more engaged in the day-to-day, doing the work rather than being an administrator.
Linguistics was originally a means to an end.
I had been a part-time volunteer ESL teacher, and was really inspired by the immigrants I met, especially their enthusiasm for learning. I also really enjoyed the cultural exchange aspect. So I started looking at programs in the Chicago area to switch to a TESOL program and found Northeastern Illinois University’s linguistics program. Then in between my public service coursework and my linguistics courses at NEIU I participated in a study abroad program in Chiapas, Mexico, examining sustainable development, and as a side project I worked on indigenous language preservation—in this case Mayan—and I realized that linguistics could be a way to answer the call I felt towards a more service-oriented career.
My thesis was on how the media can shape the immigration debate.
I focused on the case of Elvira Arellano. Her son was a US citizen, and to avoid deportation she claimed sanctuary in a church on Chicago’s West Side. I examined and coded the media mentions of her and her case, looking for how they framed her as a mother, or as “undocumented” versus a “criminal.” At one point most of the surfaces in my apartment were covered with newspapers! But I really began to see that linguistics could be used to help shape and reshape pubic opinion and perceptions, and I was especially interested in continuing to apply linguistic concepts to the immigration debate.
My graduate training in the principles of second language acquisition gave me an appreciation for the challenges that face anyone attempting to master a second language, especially in adulthood. This in turn has influenced my work with immigrants, my interest in promoting more inclusive language policies, and my advocacy for bilingual education.
Having a strong base knowledge of semantics has helped to make me a more effective communicator.
I worked full-time while attending grad school, and so I was always looking for ways to apply what I was learning, rather than just focusing on theory. In my current role with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which is more of a research-based, think tank atmosphere, I look for ways to offer information and encourage a dialogue rather than giving prescriptive suggestions or focusing on advocacy. And when I was working with the Latino Policy forum, I helped develop a project called the Comment Corps, which uses volunteers to moderate the comments section of articles that talk about Latinos. We asked them to keep an eye out for negative statements and gave them talking points to help balance the comments with facts (you can learn more about the Comment Corp and other similar efforts here.)
Don’t discount your “soft skills.”
I think being an effective communicator is undervalued. Linguists especially have the added skill of understanding how powerful language can be and how interactions can shape perceptions. Many of my coworkers come from more ‘traditional’ degree programs like international policy or political science. But I think there’s a lot of value to bringing together people who contribute different perspectives, beyond what you’d expect.
Communications and linguistics are two very different fields.
Communications is similar to journalism, where you’re taught to objectively tell a story using crisp, colorful copy. You learn skills like how to write a lead and how to construct a story using the inverted pyramid. For public relations and advertising you learn how to be persuasive. But there’s not really a discussion about rhetoric. That’s the gap that linguistics can fill.
I’m really excited by the work being done by the FrameWorks Institute.
Recently, the FrameWorks Institute has conducted research on immigration, focusing on the different phrases being used, and their implications. For example, the negative connotations of immigrants as a “them,” “others,” or “criminals” versus the more positive concepts of the US being a nation of immigrants, or the use of the term “undocumented” versus “illegal.” In fact, advocates successfully got the Associated Press to drop “the ‘i’ word” (i.e. illegal) from their style guide. Obviously, in my current role with the Immigration Initiative this kind of research is highly relevant. We want to promote the idea that immigrants are about maximizing resources and not just an issue of law and order.
For more information about Sara, you can view here LinkedIn profile here. And she has graciously provided a link to her Master’s Thesis, which was published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, and you can learn more about her work on indigenous language preservation in Mexico here.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lauren Johnson is a linguist and theater artist, based in upstate NY. She currently works as a consulting researcher examining humanitarian intervention and violence against women in Darfur, Sudan. A highly accomplished binge reader and trivia buff, she is always accepting recommendations for what to read next. You can read more about her here: http://plainspokenlinguist.wordpress.com
Alexis Raykhel - Natural Language Processing (NLP)
Alexis Raykhel is a computational linguist at CognitiveScale, a tech startup with a focus on cognitive science based solutions to various data problems. She is also into knitting, crocheting, and reading as much sci-fi as she can.
She recently took the time to answer my career profile questionnaire – thank you Alexis for this insight into your work and your journey!!!
How did you make the switch from student to professional?
During graduate school I realized that I was not interested in being a full-time academic. I decided that after my master’s I would instead look for a job outside teaching. My studies were focused on cognitive science, so it was a natural path towards the world of tech companies looking for “cognitive” solutions. “Cognitive” outside academia has more to do with shaping algorithms to be smarter, but understanding how brains process information is one way to contribute to programming problems. I was able to use programming here and there in grad school (writing algorithms for statistics, or to make a graph, or to analyze a dataset), but it wasn’t until after I got my current job that I really learned anything about software development.
That said, if I hadn’t been able to say “yes, I know how to generate bigrams in python,” or “I’ve used a terminal to grep before,” I doubt they would have looked twice at me. Knowing enough about programming to understand (not necessarily implement!) how algorithms and your computer work can make a huge difference.
Can you give an example of a skill or ability that you use at work / have used to show an employer how you would be suited to the tasks/duties/responsibilities of the job?
Believe it or not, my current employer had me do some “homework” before my interview. This homework involved drawing syntax trees! It was amazingly familiar. It turns out that natural language processing (NLP) depends heavily on grammatical structures, so being able to understand and manipulate those is important.
How do you tend to find job opportunities?
Talking to people in everyday hobbies has led me to learn about industries I didn’t know existed and jobs I never would have thought to apply for. Now that I have a tech job, I spend a lot of time reading blogs and posts by other professionals. This helps me find companies that do work similar to what I’m currently doing, so in the future I will have a place to start looking. LinkedIn has companies organized by type, so once you’ve found the buzzword associated with your favorite sector of the economy it can be easy to find relevant companies.
What resources would you share with someone who is just starting down their career path?
ONet is awesome. LinkedIn. Scouring the jobs listed on linguistlist just to see what kinds of jobs are out there and then using those keywords to expand your search. If you are still in school, go visit your career counselors. Even if they don’t find you the perfect fit (mine sure didn’t!), they will connect you to great resources and give you a better idea of what the world outside academia looks like.
What do you do as part of your job?
I research patterns in written language. I contribute to a proprietary ontology that helps our NLP tools give better results.
Can you give an example of a recent project that you worked on?
Generative x-bar parser. Yes, seriously! It was amazing to work on something so very academic in a business setting. We are now working on various aspects of entity recognition in texts which can help narrow down query results. This involves writing programs that look at the structure of a text to determine the relevant bits and then using semantic understanding to solve problems.
What aspects of your previous experience are most applicable now in your current role?
I use my research skills on a daily basis and apply my understanding of semantics to every aspect of NLP. NLP without semantics is fairly weak.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Best – working with smart, passionate people. Learning from them and from practice. Being able to take academic subjects and find ways to apply them IRL.
Worst – moving very very fast. It is true that academia moves at a glacial pace. We are trying to do in a couple years the work that a team of academics might do over a decade.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to create opportunities for themselves in NLP?
Work on a programming project you are interested in and put it on a version control site like Github. It doesn’t need to be something new and exciting; you can write a part of speech tagger, or a tokenizer, or any NLP program! Or make something new and exciting! The important part is learning how to do the coding, making a complex project, and structuring your program. Putting any project onto a site like Github will show that you are looking for critiques and understand one of the most widely used versioning control sites out there.
Additionally, be flexible and be open. The tech world is all about learning new things. It doesn’t matter if you are a fast learner or a slow learner, only if you are willing to ask questions, challenge yourself, and really learn.
What emerging trends do you see in your field/ changes that will impact this work in future?
There is a lot of machine learning, and in NLP that means understanding widely used techniques like bag of words. Machine learning in NLP is also used a lot for semantic understanding, and while in the past all NLP was purely statistical and structural, it is becoming more nuanced as people realize we need a better way to know what words mean in different contexts.
Networking – how / where is it done in your field?
Networking is huge in the tech world. If you are new to tech, then join a Meetup group in your city for programmers. If there isn’t one, then join an online forum and talk to other people learning the things you are interested in (stack overflow is good for asking and answering questions; reddit is good for finding a forum specific to the topic you are interested). Even if you don’t have all the skills just yet, finding a connection to the tech world could get you an entry level job. And if you do have the skills and just need the networking, start at learning-focused groups or contributing to other people’s open source projects.
Contact Alexis email@example.com – she shares that she loves chatting with people, so please reach out!