Linguistic diversity keeps on growing and new experts are needed constantly

Can we save languages that are spoken by a very small number of people? Which one is more difficult to for artificial intelligence to learn: to communicate in natural speech or to drive a car? How can you tell where someone is from just by hearing their dialect? Answers to these and many other questions are found in the Master’s Programme in Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities.

We talked to the programme director Matti Miestamo and student Paavo Rinkkala about the Master’s Programme in Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities at the University of Helsinki.

"First of all, our programme is unique in combining studies of linguistic diversity with language and speech technology in this breadth and depth,” says Miestamo.

This programme is perfect for anyone who is interested in languages but cannot choose between them, and for those that want a strong grounding in digital research methods.

“In our research of linguistic diversity, we are in principle studying all the languages in the world. On the one hand, we compare different languages from a worldwide perspective, and on the other, we document languages that have hitherto remained unstudied,” says Miestamo.

A comprehensive view of all aspects of language sciences

The globally unique and multidisciplinary Master's Programme in Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities offers a comprehensive look at all areas of language sciences. The students select their study track from five alternatives: cognitive science, digital humanities, general linguistics, language technology and phonetics.

 “All five perspectives have been brought together in our common courses and all of them share the perspective of diversity,” says Miestamo.

The University of Helsinki has reached the global peak of research in all five specialisation options.

Special attention is paid to the quality of teaching by using a number of different teaching methods. This ensures that the learning processes of the students are supported in the best possible way.

 “Our modes of teaching include lectures and seminars, practical training, reading groups, fieldwork and traineeships,” says Miestamo. 

A harmony between age-old questions and modern solutions

Digital humanities is a broad field, but one in its infancy, making it an exciting time for new and aspiring researchers to get involved. Essentially, digital humanities is about applying modern data processing to the problems that the humanities have historically sought to solve.

“Digital humanities are in my mind a great mix of both humans and machines, where technical process and the heart of the humanities are combined to produce something new altogether,” says Paavo Rinkkala, a student of digital humanities.

Collaboration is more than an idea when it comes to Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities. If digital humanities represents a harmony between age-old questions and modern solutions, there is room for researchers of varying backgrounds to get involved.

One area that has very well embraced modern solutions is cognitive science. This science – the multidisciplinary study of the mind – has changed rapidly since the exciting yet philosophically challenging development of artificial intelligence.

“As the world grows more complex, I think there is a need for good unifying science that studies how different cognitions of humans, animals and artificial intelligence work, and how they can understand each other better”, says Rinkkala.

The need for expertise in these areas is constantly growing

Linguistic diversity is increasing in our societies and both language technology and artificial intelligence have taken huge leaps ahead in recent years. The need for expertise in these areas is thereby constantly growing.

“For example, if you think about Helsinki twenty years ago and compare it to today, the change has been remarkable. The number of languages spoken in the city has increased significantly, and we need a more in-depth understanding of the various aspects of this diversity,” Miestamo sums up.

The programme profile is extremely international with all the teachers possessing extensive international networks, so anyone wanting to become an international expert in linguistics will have a good opportunity to do so at the University of Helsinki.

In addition, the University has a long tradition in both Finno-Ugrian and East Asian language studies stretching back to the 19th century.

“In this ethnolinguistic tradition language and culture are studied in relation to each other and a good understanding of language requires an understanding of cultural aspects as well. Furthermore, also language technology and speech technology have a strong tradition in Helsinki, based on pioneering work done here over the last decades,” says Miestamo.

The wide spectrum of humanities

The Master's Programme in Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities does not provide a direct route to any one profession; the career path of each student is largely dependent on their choice of courses during their studies.

Many master’s degree students in the programme aim to become researchers. They may also end up in different expert positions in society, in politics, administration or education. Students of language technology frequently find themselves employed by IT companies or they become entrepreneurs.

 “This shows the wide spectrum of humanities,” says Miestamo.

His own background is in language studies. Miestamo used to study French, English and German before deciding to change his major to general linguistics. He defended his doctoral dissertation in general linguistics at the University of Helsinki in 2003. Miestamo has worked as a professor of General Linguistic in Helsinki since 2014 and as the director of the Master's Programme Linguistic Diversity and Digital Humanities since 2017.