Moscow, 21/4 Staraya Basmannaya Ulitsa
Phone: +7 (495) 772-95-90 *22734
Ekaterina V. Rakhilina
The School of Linguistics was founded in December 2014. Today, the School offers undergraduate and graduate programs in theoretical and computational linguistics. Linguistics as it is taught and researched at the School does not simply involve mastering foreign languages. Rather, it is the science of language and the methods of its modeling. Research groups in the School of Linguistics study typology, socio-linguistics and areal linguistics, corpus linguistics and lexicography, ancient languages and the history of languages. The School is also developing linguistic technologies and electronic resources: corpora, training simulators, dictionaries, thesauruses, and tools for digital storage and processing of written texts.
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First of all, professor Geeraerts, thank you for your talk; we really appreciate your willingness to share expertise with our students and staff. I know that apart from this lecture you also did a short course on cognitive sociolinguistics. Could you tell us how it went? Did you get any feedback from the students?
That went very well. It was four lectures, and I thought the students were quite interested. What I specifically liked was the level of interaction. When the students have questions, they do ask them, and that’s a very good thing. I could notice that the questions arose out of very good background. When you teach, it’s always pleasant to get a bit of feedback.
So did you get the impression that our students knew some things that were a prerequisite to your course?
Yes, I do think so. The audience was very mixed, and of course not everybody participated. But overall it went very well.
And what about individual consultations with our students? You had quite a number of them, didn’t you?
Oh, yes, I think I saw at least 15 students. They all presented their projects in different fields and subfields. Some were purely variational studies, some sociolinguistics ; a number of them were vocabulary-oriented. Also some historical, diachronic work. That was really interesting, because, on the one hand, I myself have also been involved, so I could relate to what the students were doing. And then on the other hand, what the students had to show was quite interesting and I could see that the students had really good methodological background. They were able to come up with actual description, data-based description of linguistic phenomena.
Any particular research that caught your attention?
When I mention these three things — historically-oriented studies, lexical studies, sociolinguistics studies — it’s precisely the things I was or am involved with. In the lexical field, the lexical typology approaches that are being practiced here are obviously very interesting. On the more sociolinguistic side there were studies on dialect change, standardization of language and dialect loss. That was one of the topics that I included in my lectures, so there was a lot of correspondence, a lot of overlap. But that was probably one of the reasons I was invited, so no surprise here.
By the way how exactly did this invitation happen?
The initial invitation came from Nina Dobrushina, but I’ve also been acquainted for a long time with professor Rakhilina, the head of your School. I’m not sure whether professor Dobrushina knew I was already in Katya Rakhilina’s network.
And when did you get acquainted with professor Rakhilina?
I don’t even remember, that was so long ago. Probably we met at some conference. Actually, she had already invited me to Moscow twenty years ago.
Did you make it to Moscow back then?
So it is not your first visit to Russia. But it is your first visit to the Higher School of Economics, isn’t it? How do you like it at our university?
I think the linguistics program is very strong – judging from the students and also judging from what I learned about the way it’s constituted. I particularly appreciate the combination that is immediately there between computational approaches and more purely linguistic approaches. Which of course in a sense continues a relationship between mathematics and linguistics that used to be there as a typical feature of Russian linguistics. I think that is an extremely good starting point for doing this type of thing.
You seem to be quite into computational approaches yourself. But is such a combination a typical thing in linguistic departments of European universities?
No, it’s not so typical, it’s emerging. And let’s say it’s computational in a different sense: not so much computational modeling but statistical corpus analysis. It’s definitely not natural language processing.
But still, statistical data enables you to derive more objective results
Yes, certainly. That has been an emerging trend in Western linguistics for the last ten years or so. And it’s technology driven as more texts and tools become available. But it is definitely the case that it is not always as well-entrenched in the curricula for training linguists as here. In that respect I really think positively of the way the program is built.
And now I’m going to ask a question that all true scholars hate. Does your research in cognitive sociolinguistics have any practical application, for example, in natural language processing? Or is it purely theoretical?
It’s not meant to be purely theoretical. You try to come up with data, and that data could be useful in different applications, not necessarily technological ones. You could think of pedagogical approaches. To give you one example, in the type of sociolinguistics and variational studies we have been doing there are methods for indicating the degree of typicality of different lexical items for certain varieties of language. So usually lexicographers will make a distinction between the vocabulary of Netherlandic Dutch and Belgian Dutch (Flemish). That’s of course not a binary phenomenon, that’s a cline, and the question is how you assign the index of specificity. That’s the kind of things that come out of the more corpus-oriented approaches. In similar ways, if you think of translation studies, you need certain types of frequency information. With these fundamental studies — I wouldn’t call them theoretical, I’d call them fundamental and not specifically practice-oriented — we come up with new forms of frequency information, and that could play a role as input for teaching methods or as input for translation approaches. In the long run (but not that long really) I really see a growing convergence between the foundational fundamental studies and the applied studies. Because applied studies can use information that comes from the more usage-based fundamental studies. And obviously there also will be feedback in the other direction. The needs of specific applications will formulate the questions for fundamental research. And I can end by saying that specifically in Europe that type of combination will become more important, because financial support for purely theoretical research may start to decline. There is a tendency to ask for validation of results.
I think we have a similar tendency here in Russia. Whenever you write a grant proposal, you are supposed to claim some sort of practical ‘applicability’. Well, you just mentioned lexicography as one of the potential fields which can benefit from your research. And I know you are involved in lexicography quite a lot, you were an editor of the famous Van Dale dictionary. In your practice did these two things actually correlate, did your research and your lexicographic work benefit from each other?
(laughs) Well, actually this is a painful question because it didn’t work out. The Van Dale dictionary is a commercial firm, and they did not have the means to implement the measures that I thought would be necessary. And that’s why I am no longer doing it.
So that was your typical ‘academia versus industry’ conflict, right?
Yes, in a sense. The background is that in a sense Dutch is too small a language for its lexicography to be sustainable in a commercial context. But of course we also have government-funded institutes for lexicography and lexicology, and we cooperate with them, so there is that to ease the pain (laughs).
I know that you also hold a BA in philosophy. How did that happen, and do you still use something from that background in your research?
I did that in parallel with linguistics.
Was it a common practice at the time?
No, that was a personal choice.
And then you went on to be a linguist. Did you always know you’d be a linguist, or did you at some point consider a career in philosophy?
When I started my academic studies I hesitated between language and philosophy. I started with languages at one point, did my Bachelor’s in philosophy in parallel, but then from the MA onwards I concentrated on linguistics. But it is and interesting combination, because there is quite a number of points where these two things overlap, specifically if you focus on the philosophy of language. Sometimes I have this idea that doing a bit more philosophy might be a nice retirement project (laughs).
Your visit was really beneficial for our university. Do you often do such academic visits to different places? Do you plan to do that in future, maybe come again to the Higher School of Economics once more. Do you think we could widen the cooperation between HSE and your department at KU Leuven?
I do travel a lot, I get plenty of invitations. But this case is more important because there are clear points of contact, of similar interests. I think we should be thinking about more institutionalized form of cooperation. Then, of course, all the administrative questions come up: what can we do together, what form can it take, and so on. But the parallelism is big enough, I think, to see that there could be an interesting mutual cooperation. So we’ll probably be talking about that.
Thank you, professor Geeraerts, and have a good day in Moscow!