Turning Her Love of Languages to Computational Linguistics
A speaker of Yoruba and Chinese hopes to develop high-tech skills that will help eliminate barriers to analyzing languages.
Zainab Akande grew up speaking Yoruba — her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria — and in high school and college, immersed herself in Chinese. Although she was on the pre-med track, her love of languages led her to graduate Queens College with a degree in linguistics. Now she’s joining the Graduate Center’s M.A. with Computational Linguistics Concentration, where she hopes to develop skills in teaching computers how to understand and analyze language.
The Graduate Center: What made you decide to switch your focus from pre-med to linguistics?
Akande: High school was the first chance I had to take a language. So I took Chinese because I was wanted to take something interesting and not a typical language. I even did a study abroad in China for a summer, and I was super immersed into it, and loved it. It was the first language I ever picked up outside of home, and I was so into learning languages after that.
In college, I transferred from the College of Staten Island to Queens College, because they had a big East Asian Studies program. I got to the last intermediate level of Chinese that they offered. From there, it jumped to a native-speaking level. I looked over the textbook, and it was so hard for me.
And so I looked for any course that was still open that I could take. And one was linguistics. I had no idea what linguistics was. I emailed the professor, and he let me into the class, and I got introduced to an entire new world.
I graduated with my degree in general linguistics, and I was still on a pre-med track. I had always wanted to be a doctor. But I graduated during the pandemic. I had been working in a nursing home, and we lost whole floors to the pandemic. I felt like, I do not want to do this. I was pretty lost for a while.
And I just started searching up jobs in linguistics. I was reading every single description and thought computational linguistics sounded interesting. So I decided to see what it was about. I applied to the GC for computational linguistics and here I am.
GC: Chinese and Yoruba are both tonal languages. Is that part of your interest in both of them?
Akande: When I was learning Chinese, we learned about tones, but I didn’t realize that tonal languages were a thing per se. I didn't even realize Yoruba was as a tonal language until probably three years ago. I didn’t learn Yoruba formally. I wouldn’t know the appropriate tones to write it. I can speak it, and understand it, and read it.
Akande: No, I didn’t, but I was referred to him by my professor from Queens College, who told me that Kyle Gorman was the computational linguistics person there, and he was a really great person to work with. And that was one of the big influences in why I chose the GC. He has a genuine interest in linguistic theory and phonology, which are two of my big interests in studying tonal languages.
GC: Do you hope to work in industry after graduation, or in academia?
Akande: I’m not 100% sure. But I’m 90% leaning towards industry. I want to work with big tech companies and see how applications [of computational linguistics] could really work.
I’m excited to learn to work on processes to improve translation websites. I’m really interested to see the world of what I’ve worked with in Yoruba and computational linguistics collide. We’re at a point where it takes a lot of manual work to get the data that we need all in one place. It took me a span of six months just to annotate the work for my thesis — before analyzing anything, before I had even made a hypothesis. One of my goals would be exploring ways to automate that process.
That would make it easier, even for people who don’t speak Yoruba, to be able to analyze it. Computational linguistics has the potential to eliminate that barrier, where if I don’t speak this language, I’m going to have a really hard time analyzing it in a way that’s going to yield fruitful results. That’s my goal, why I want to go industry-related.
GC: Why did you decide to stay within the CUNY system for your master’s degree?
Akande: I’m 100% CUNY, all the way. The GC is really the perfect place for me — it’s in Manhattan, and I was born and raised here, so I have a pretty big network of Yoruba speakers that I know culturally, that I come across every so often. Just having that link, and being able to have my data set right here — that’s the biggest resource that I need. And I didn’t see myself going somewhere where I wouldn’t come across different cultures and different people. I really wanted that as well.
Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing