STEM Spotlight: Language and Linguistics Club

by Mark Hu, STEM Editor

“STEM Spotlight” is a new repeater exploring what STEM clubs at Harker have been doing during remote learning. This week’s featured club is the Language and Linguistics Club, which strives to share the joy of linguistics and problem solving through weekly meetings and speaker events.

The Language and Linguistics Club (LALC), which was founded in 2006 by club adviser Dr. Shaun Jahshan, has sponsored the North American Computational Linguistics Open (NACLO), a three-hour contest including logic and computational linguistics problems, every year since then.

While on campus, the club usually meets every Monday after school to discuss various topics in linguistics in lectures led by club officers, but during remote learning, the club has focused on holding more content-packed meetings, such as a lecture on the Klingon language, and various speaker events, including a talk given by Sarah Roberts, upper school journalism and middle school speech and debate teacher, on her experience as a Linguistics major at UC Berkeley.

Dr. Brian DIllon, Associate Professor in Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains garden path sentences and predictive texting in his talk on Dec. 14. LALC Club has planned a series of speakers from various colleges that will continue into the second semester. (Mark Hu)

“[Remote learning] definitely changed a lot, especially the structure [of the club],” Luisa Pan (12), club president, said. “A lot of students are more hesitant to join weekly club meetings, so we’ve had them a lot more spaced out. We’re trying to make each meeting count a lot more in terms of importance.”

The club has planned a speaker series including professors from Northwestern University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that began with a talk by Dr. Brian Dillon, Associate Professor in Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, on garden path sentences, fixations, and predictive texting the Monday before winter break. The series will continue into the second semester. 

“The talk was pretty interesting. When [Dr. Dillon] talked about using neural networks to predict the next words in a phrase or sentence, that was really cool,” Olivia Xu (9), who attended Dr. Dillon’s talk, said. “I’m looking forward to the other speaker events.”

Although the virtual format poses challenges for the club in the process of explaining and discussing the strategies to solving sample problems, LALC plans on sponsoring NACLO again this year, and students have the option to test at home.

“In past years, we would prepare for NACLO by having big sessions working with people in person in Dr. Jahshan’s room on the whiteboard, but that’s not possible this year, and it’s a lot harder to convey that kind of teamwork aspect and preparation through remote learning,” Alex Zhai (12), vice president, said.