Definition

computational linguistics (CL)

Contributor(s): Corinne Bernstein

Computational linguistics (CL) is the application of computer science to the analysis, synthesis and comprehension of written and spoken language. Computational linguistics is used in instant machine translation, speech recognition (SR) systems, text-to-speech (TTS) synthesizers, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, search engines, text editors and language instruction materials. The interdisciplinary field of study requires expertise in machine learning (ML), deep learning (DL), artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive computing and neuroscience.  

A computational understanding of language provides human beings with insight into thinking and intelligence. Computers that are linguistically competent not only help facilitate human interaction with machines and software, but also make the textual and other resources of the internet readily available in multiple languages. Business goals of computational linguistics include:

  • Translating text from one language to another.
  • Retrieving text that relates to a specific topic.
  • Analyzing text or spoken language for context, sentiment or other affective qualities.
  • Answering questions, including those that require inference and descriptive or discursive answers.
  • Summarizing text.
  • Building dialogue agents capable of completing complex tasks such as making a purchase, planning a trip or scheduling maintenance.
  • Creating chatbots capable of passing the Turing Test

Most work in computational linguistics – which has both theoretical and applied elements – is aimed at improving the relationship between computers and basic language. It involves building artifacts that can be used to process and produce language. Building such artifacts requires data scientists to analyze massive amounts of written and spoken language in both structured and unstructured formats.

Typically, computational linguists are employed in universities, governmental research labs or large enterprises. In the private sector,  vertical companies, like Caterpillar typically employ computational linguists to authenticate the accurate translation of technical manuals. Tech software companies, such as Microsoft, typically  hire computational linguists to work on natural language processing (NLP), helping programmers to create voice user interfaces (VUIs) that will eventually allow humans to communicate with computing devices as if they were another person.  

More job opportunities exist for linguistics experts to help developers improve Internet search engines, build virtual assistants and integrate speech recognition with other language processing techniques. Demand is also growing for computational linguists in the public sector as government grapple with the continuous growth of unstructured data. 

Although the concept of CL is often associated with AI, CL pre-dates AI’s development, according to the Association for Computational Linguistics. 

This was last updated in March 2018

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