The testimonials include students from every track, so you will surely find someone relatable!
What was your academic or professional background prior to the master’s programme?
After general upper secondary school, I got a vocational qualification in music with classical singing as my major. After that I did my bachelor’s degree here at the University of Helsinki with phonetics as my major.
Lots of people might have never heard of phonetics. Why do you think phonetics is an important field to study?
Speech in itself is something people often take for granted, even though it is so central to our existence and the world around us. Speech as a phenomenon spans multiple areas of study, from anatomy to physics to topics like language learning. With all that and more, there will always be something new to uncover.
How did you decide on studying phonetics? Who would you recommend the subject, and do you have any pointers for those who are wondering whether phonetics could be their thing?
For me, my background in singing and general curiosity towards how things work sparked an interest into the workings of the human voice, alongside a lifelong interest in natural sciences. But no matter your exact background, I would say if you have that spark of curiosity about any aspects of speech, you are going to find a whole world to explore. One of the greatest things in phonetics is the vastness of it: pre-existing skills and interests can encourage and inspire you to find your own niche close to an already familiar subject or introduce you to something entirely new.
It is quite a wide and interdisciplinary field. What kinds of things could a student specialize on? Would you like to tell us about your thesis plans or your plans after graduation?
Some broad topics that come to mind are for example speech synthesis, language learning and psychoacoustics. Someone might find their interests in deep learning networks or signal processing, while someone else is more inclined to study articulatory phonetics, speech prosody or the progress of learning to speak a new language. I find many of these topics highly interesting, but my main interest since my bachelor’s thesis has been Lombard speech i.e., speech produced in noisy conditions. The phenomenon can be considered psychoacoustic, but like so many topics in phonetics, it can be researched through multiple approaches be it articulatory, neurological, acoustic or other.
Have you taken courses from the other tracks, minor studies from outside LingDig, or perhaps exchange studies?
I have done minor studies in computer science. During both master’s and bachelor’s I have also taken courses in cognitive science, language technology, and mathematics. Some courses I have taken to make use of in phonetics and others simply out of general interest.
What do you think sets LingDig apart as a programme, and why should people choose LingDig or University Helsinki in general?
If phonetics provides a wide selection of topics, LingDig takes it to another level yet in an orderly manner. We students are able to easily reach out and explore outside our own specific field and make use of the cross-disciplinary nature of the program, even if by just discussing topics with people from different strands to gain new perspectives. What I value the most is that we are being taught by research scientists who are on an exploratory mission of their own, not always just teaching us but sometimes learning things alongside us and sharing their research.
How have you found student life outside of the classroom in the University of Helsinki?
I have enjoyed my time immensely. Most of the close friends I have these days are from studying at the university, be it through similar study tracks or from taking part in the student choirs and theater.
Harnessing natural language processing for industry
Dean is an international student in the programme’s language technology track. His background before enrolling in the programme was in management consulting focusing on supply chain and manufacturing operations—a field he has gone back into, equipped with newfound skills. For Dean, it was a combination of family reasons and the focus on natural language processing that led him to study at University of Helsinki.
The diverse applications for natural language processing (NLP) outside of the academic study of language attracted Dean to language technology: “In my prior work, I noticed a lack of capability to process unstructured data e.g., emails, phone conversations for the purposes of planning demand even though very mature data science and machine learning workflows were in place to process quantitative data for supply planning.”
Outside of his professional field, Dean credits natural language processing with enabling people to communicate in new ways: “NLP has taken the field and applications for translation leaps and bounds forward. The majority of people in the world could not really communicate with one another before. Now NLP applications allow them to communicate in real time or near real time in very many situations.”
“I never thought I would train my own machine translator as a result of taking one course. That was a defining moment.”
Studies in the language technology track are very much hands-on, and from the very first courses onward, students build practical applications that can solve natural-language related problems. “I never thought I would train my own machine translator as a result of taking one course. That was a defining moment”, Dean says.
The programme is taught by scientists who are at the top of their fields, and teaching is heavily integrated into research done at the university. Recently, students have been offered courses such as “NLP for endangered languages” and “Creative Natural Language Generation” that are taught by researchers who are currently making advances in the field. Dean goes on to say, “even though the instructors have to work their socks off to make it happen, it is really nice for students to have Mathias Creutz and Yves Scherrer (and previously Miikka Silfverberg) teaching so many courses. It really gives the NLP track a lot of continuity.”
Apart from NLP, Dean has taken elective courses in cognitive science. In his opinion, what sets LingDig apart is the combination of the different tracks, such as digital humanities and cognitive science, into one programme while the university’s top-notch reputation doesn’t hurt either.
What is your academic/professional background before the master’s studies in Helsinki?
I did a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish language at Oklahoma State University before starting my Master's studies. I had the privilege of studying abroad during my bachelor studies which lead me to explore the idea of completing a master's degree abroad. With the exception of a year off to work and improve my Finnish I essentially started by Master's studies straight out of my BA studies. For this reason, my only relevant work experience before coming was work as a research assistant in my undergraduate studies.
How did you end up in Finland and the University of Helsinki?
I came to Finland on a study abroad from which I never returned. After mastering Spanish, I decided to further my linguistic repertoire and simultaneously connect with my Finnish heritage. Thus, I came to Helsinki on what was supposed to be a five-month exchange. After taking a year break to improve my Finnish, I applied and was accepted to the Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities Master's program.
How was it to settle in Finland and Helsinki?
I had a relatively positive experience moving to Finland. I was fortunate to have networked significantly before arrival and moved in with a Finnish family initially, which accelerated my language learning and integration process. I grew up in a Finnish-American family, so I was somewhat accustomed to the culture. I quickly learned how easy it is to move around the Helsinki Metropolitan area both by public transport and bike. After moving to a HOAS apartment for the first time, I was surprised at the lack of interaction with roommates here compared to what I experienced in my home country and countries where I had studied abroad previously. I have, however been pleasantly surprised at how well the Finnish system accommodates students with discounts on all levels. Finland offers affordable housing, meals, and generous discounts.
Why did you decide to study general linguistics?
I originally started in the diversity linguistics track before the program changed in 2020. I chose the general linguistics track because it best aligned with my interests. This track has allowed me the flexibility to hand-pick my study plan by permitting higher flexibility to choose courses within the LingDig program that fit my interests.
Why did you choose this (lingdig) programme? What sets it apart from other programmes?
I chose this program because of how multidisciplinary it is, and the high-quality research being conducted here was a huge plus. During my exchange studies, I realized the myriad of languages that one can study here, and it was arguably the most enticing. I have been able to study Basque, Catalan, Swedish and Finnish, which I do not think is possible at any institution in my home country. I am particularly interested in minoritized languages, language revitalization, and the overall realm of sociolinguistics. Although focusing on the sociolinguistic situation of Basque has been challenging without scholars in the area, I have been able to find support within the program and from the Spanish Philology department.
Ultimately I chose this program because it allowed me to focus on the linguistic situation of the Basque Country through general linguistic studies. Through researching the program before applying, I knew I could learn from scholars working on topics of my interests ranging from language revitalization to multilingualism. What sets the University of Helsinki apart is its multidisciplinarity. As for the LingDig program, I would say the interdisciplinary. In no other institution where I have studied was it possible to pack all of my vast interests into one degree.
Tell us about your studies. Have you taken courses from the other tracks/programmes/done exchange studies? What are your minors? What is interesting in your studies?
I will graduate with a minor in Finnish Language and Culture as well as in Basque Studies. I have peers who have focused on aboriginal languages in Australia and another who hopes to create the best language learning technologies of the future. In the LingDig program everyone has a unique study plan that they can tailor to their interests and needs.
An exchange study can be challenging to fit into MA studies, but it is not impossible. I was able to take part in a summer study abroad language intensive study course in the Basque Country thanks to funding from the Etxepare Institute in the Summer of 2020. I aspire to do a study abroad in the Basque Country to gain research experience with researchers who focus on areas directly related to my interests upon the completion of my MA thesis.
Would you like to tell us your thesis plans and what you are thinking of doing after graduation?
I have been fortunate to have received funding for my MA thesis from Etxepare Insitute (Institute for the Basque language and culture). The grant I have been awarded funds fieldwork/data collection in the Basque Country. My thesis aims to explore the realm of sports and its potential to be a key breathing space that connects the gap between language competency and usage in the revitalization of the Basque language in the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC). On a broader level, this research looks to understand the role of sports in promoting minority languages. This work will look for strategies applicable to the Basque context that can be extrapolated to other minority languages. The objective is that these potential findings can contribute to scholarly knowledge in the field of sociolinguistics and be applied in other minority language contexts.
My long-term goals include obtaining a Ph.D. in linguistics and working as a researcher in academia. I am exploring programs in the Basque Country, the United States, and Finland. In the short-term, I will apply for a Fulbright grant to research with the DREAM research group in the Basque Country during the 2022-2023 academic year. I am nonetheless open to the opportunities that may arise.
General linguistics is quite an interdisciplinary field. Why should people choose to study it?
I think general linguistics is ideal for someone interested in diversity and variation of language. I feel like the job opportunities for linguistically savvy individuals are increasing, especially with how linguists can analyze and break down languages. These skills are pivotal in numerous fields. I have increasingly seen positions that value linguistic knowledge ranging from information technology to marketing and communication. There is also a company in Helsinki that recently has hired multiple persons for the position of ontology linguist.
Tell us about your academical background
Well, I started my studies in 2017 in the bachelor programme of languages here at the university of Helsinki. My major was linguistics, which means that I studied general linguistics, phonetics and language technology. Beside the mandatory courses I studied mostly general linguistics – it was the most interesting one for me. I find the questions general linguistics studies super interesting and I’m glad I found the programme! I also studied communication, social psychology and some random courses, like introduction to law. I ended up writing my bachelor’s thesis about legal linguistics and the subordinate clauses in the Emergency Power Act, that the government approved in the spring 2020. I graduated as bachelor in October 2020, when I got the final courses for my minors done.
How did you end up studying linguistics?
In the spring 2017 I was quite certain I’d only apply to study Finnish in Helsinki and Jyväskylä. Studying Finnish and becoming a journalist had been my dream for many years at that point. But when I was filling the application form, I saw this “The world’s languages and language sciences” title and immediately I was googling what that means. The study track sounded so interesting that I just had to put it in my application. During the whole application period I was still battling if I should put Finnish or linguistics as my first choice and I changed the order like every day. When the period ended and I couldn’t change my application anymore, linguistics was there as first. I started studying for it and searched for previous exams and thought that this is so interesting that even the old exams are fun to do! I hoped that in our exam the tasks would be similar, and as it turns out, they were! I think I was the only one who genuinely enjoyed doing the entrance exam. I got in and studying linguistics has been so rewarding and the courses were so interesting I had trouble choosing which one’s I had time to do. So long story short: by accident really!
Have you taken courses from the other LingDig tracks or perhaps in other programmes or faculties alltogether?
Yes. I have taken courses from the other tracks and other programmes and other faculties. I love to learn and I love the feeling when a new field and its basics are introduced to me. There is no way that I could pass that opportunity! In the bachelors I did both my minors to the Faculty of Social Sciences and the open university has proven to be super useful. I have studied introductory courses of law, art history, religion and rituals, criminology and religious studies. I think it’s great to see how other faculties and study tracks emphasize things and how they look at the world: it is a great place to question the point of views you have learnt in your own study track or faculty. I would also recommend everybody to check the JOO studies, where you can study in other universities in Finland and include those studies in your degree!
What are the benefits of studying in the Faculty of Arts?
There are so many benefits and I hope the world around us would also see them! In a world where machines do the jobs we used to do, it is more and more important to understand us, humans. How we look at the world, how we behave and what we feel. We can’t solve the problems we will face in the future with only math, economics and computer science. We need to understand humans and in every problem there is, small or big, we need multidisciplinary expertise. Someone to know the machines, someone to know the humans, someone to know the nature and someone to know the economics. That’s how, in my opinion, we would reach the best and lasting solutions. Humanistis bring to the table so much that I can’t even list it all. We always hear things like “humanists know how to handle big amounts of material” “humanists know how to produce quality text” “humanists have good communication and lingual readiness” and stuff like that and it sounds so general. Like can’t everybody write a good essay text, or doesn’t all university students have the know-how of big amounts of material, but it turns out, no they don’t. It is actually valuable to be able to screen big amounts of material and then know how to write clear, understandable report on what was important in that material. It is valuable that someone thinks about the human perspective in a world full of humans.
On the other hand, in my opinion a benefit is also the free structures inside the faculty. The Faculty of Arts is the culmination of academic freedom, in my opinion. The degrees aren’t as structured as in some faculties and the freedom to do minors and other elective studies is great. Some degrees have so strict structures that there is no space for minors, or you must take certain courses a certain time or your graduation might be delayed. In our faculty, a third of the bachelor's degree is reserved for minors only! In the master’s a fourth is for minors, but within 60 credits I can do courses from the other tracks in the programme as well. This means that I can tailor my own degree to suit me and my purposes. I also love that our teachers really are the best in their fields. I have for example taken a course about an endangered language in Russia and the teacher had just arrived in Finland from researching that language.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope that in five years I have a master’s degree in linguistics, but also from some other field. I’d love to work abroad, for example EU or embassies would be a dream come true.
What is your academic/professional background before the master’s studies in Helsinki?
My academic career is not a traditional one. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in modern languages, tourism and business in 2017, after which I moved to Dublin, Ireland to work in the tourism industry in sales and administration for the following 3 years. After working full-time like a real grown-up for a few years, I felt that I had moved to fast after my bachelor’s degree, entering a field that was not making me happy. I had to go back to study what I enjoyed the most and that is linguistics.
Why did you choose this (LingDig) programme? What sets it apart from other programmes?
I chose this programme for more than one reason but I definitely knew that I wanted to come to Finland to study. I looked into the master’s programmes that were offered in many universities and universities of applied sciences here and I chose the LingDig MA programme because it was in line with my previous studies and was going to give me a more comprehensive preparation on linguistics. Moreover, I really liked how multidisciplinary the programme is and the fact that students can choose courses autonomously and from many different programmes. Since in my bachelor’s degree the courses were already preestablished and I appreciate that here you can build your own study plan as you prefer.
Why did you decide to study general linguistics?
During my bachelor’s degree I studied a lot of linguistics especially of Indo-European languages. When I found the LingDig programme I looked through the study tracks and realised that the general linguistics one was very much in line with my background and would have given me the opportunity to explore the field in more detail. Finding out about the LingDig MA programme was a beautiful surprise because I never had so much freedom in choosing the courses and study areas that I wanted to take. The programme allows me to explore the variety of disciplines that are related to linguistics without necessarily having to choose only one or two. I would have never thought that I would be able to learn Python programming as part of my general linguistics studies a few years ago, but the University provides introductory programming courses for linguists like me. You can do so much during your studies, and you don’t have to follow anyone’s schedule but your own!
Have you taken courses from other study tracks and/or minor studies from outside LingDig?
I’m currently doing a minor in Finnish language and culture. My goal when moving here was to learn Finnish as best as I can during my master’s studies so that I can have some work experiences locally as well. I have also attended courses in programming for linguists from the Master’s Programme in English Studies. Having never studied programming before, I found these introductory courses very helpful. I’m hoping to do some more programming courses on my second year. I believe they will be very helpful for my future career.
Would you like to tell us about your thesis plans (if you already have any) and/or your plans after graduation?
My plans after graduation are a little fuzzy. I definitely would like to find a job in a company as opposed to doing research and would love to be able to apply the knowledge that I gained during my master’s studies. I am keeping an eye on a couple of companies here in Helsinki where I would love to work after graduation. I acknowledge that in order to get a job “more easily” proficient Finnish language skills are required so I am aiming at improving these firstly.
“Looking at your field from different perspective can help in finding new approaches and ideas that you would have not thought of before.”
Senja started her academic career in 2014 in religious studies at the Faculty of Arts. Her minors were North American studies and Theology. For her master’s degree she applied to the Faculty of Theology, where Senja mainly studied Old Testament exegetics. “My background is not in linguistics or in anything particularly related to the LingDig programme”, Senja says, but adds that she has still enjoyed studying in the programme - even though COVID-19 situation has in many cases made it impossible to meet other students in person. “The programme offers a great variety of very interesting courses from different fields. All the staff is very nice and very willing to help with any issues. I really like the relaxed atmosphere of the programme.”
Digital humanities started to interest her after a corpus linguistics course. After looking for similar courses, she came across the LingDa programme (which is now called LingDig). The introductory course to Digital Humanities convinced her that it was something she’d like to study. She applied to the programme - even though it felt a bit scary - and got in. “I was a bit afraid if I made the right decision because I don’t have much knowledge in programming or stuff like that”, Senja says and comments that not knowing programming hasn’t been a problem. “All the teachers and staff of digital humanities have been very helpful and patient with explaining things and helping me find ways to do the things that I am interested in. The small groups have made it possible to get a lot of personal guidance and the digital humanities programme really allows everyone to create their own path based on their interests.”
The importance of digital humanities relates strongly to finding different perspectives to your field and understanding what can be automated - and what cannot: “Performing certain tasks computationally can speed up some parts of humanities research which is good because often humanistic research is not well funded and being able to automate certain things is just sensible. This does not mean that all tasks can or should be done computationally.” Senja emphasizes that not everyone in digital humanities needs to be a master of programming or computer science: in digital humanities you learn what can be done computationally, how to perform some basic things and how to communicate your research ideas to those who have better knowledge of computational things. “Working as a research assistant at ANEE (Ancient Near Eastern Empires Centre of Excellence) has really opened my eyes to all the different things that can be done computationally”, Senja says. Working at ANEE is a part of her specialization in Ancient Near Eastern studies and how to apply digital methods in those. “This has made it easier for me to specialize like I have, because I have connections to researchers that are actually doing what I am studying.”
For those wondering if digital humanities is their field, Senja strongly recommends participating in the Helsinki Humanities Hackathon. “I participated in the spring 2021 and even though the event was held completely online it was amazing experience to get to work with students and professionals from different fields from all over the world. My group studied linguistically very varied Finnic Oral Poetry.”
At the moment Senja is in the process of writing her master’s thesis on Neo-Assyrian names. “Most likely I will focus on the theophoric elements of the names. I decided on this subject because names are very interesting and can reveal quite a lot about the Neo-Assyrian society. I did a small project on this as part of Digital Humanities Project course, so I have some idea what can and cannot be done.” Her plans for after graduating are not certain yet. “I would like to work with digitizing archives and different materials, but I am open to all possibilities. I am also considering of possibly continuing my studies to obtain a PhD, but I haven’t made any decisions yet.”
What was your academic and/or professional background before starting your master’s programme in Helsinki?
Prior to starting my master’s at the University of Helsinki I studied a double major of anthropology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. I worked variously in archaeology research projects and teaching philosophy to academically at-risk high school students.
Why did you decide to study cognitive science?
I decided to study Cognitive Science most centrally for the reason that it draws on both disciplines in my academic background in a way that facilitates addressing the questions that drive me.
Who would you recommend the subject to? Do you have any pointers for those who are wondering whether cognitive science could be their thing?
I would recommend studying Cognitive Science to anyone interested in questions about the mind and its processes. My pointers for those who are wondering whether Cognitive Science could be their thing would be to read some classics in the history of the subject and, if possible, take an introductory course.
Have you taken courses from other study tracks and/or minor studies from courses outside LingDig?
Yes, I have taken courses in the Finnish language and from the philosophy department.
Would you like to share with us your thesis plans (if you already have any) and/or your plans after graduation?
I am pursuing a philosophically-oriented thesis and I plan to continue in academics after graduation.
What do you think sets LingDig apart as a programme, and why should people choose LingDig or the University of Helsinki in general?
People should choose the LingDig programme if they are multidisciplinary-minded and wish to explore related questions in a broad way, within an international work setting.
How have you found student life outside of the classroom in the University of Helsinki so far?
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have not personally had much interaction with student life at University of Helsinki.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Thank you for seeking out student testimonials — it’s great for prospective students to be able to see what the program offers from a student perspective!