Photo: Researchers in the psycholinguistics lab use eye movements to investigate the cognitive processes involved in reading and language processing.
UMass Amherst’s Department of Linguistics has held top spots for years in the rankings established by the National Research Council (third place in 2010) and QS World (second place in 2018). Quite a feat, and one that department chair Joe Pater calls unique. “The QS World rankings are reputation-based,” he says. “The NRC is metric-based. UMass Amherst is the only department in the top three in both.”
Why the acclaim? “We have a strong academic core, we’re forward-thinking, and our culture of excellence has existed from the start,” says Pater.
We have a strong
academic core, we're
our culture of excellence
has existed from the start."
- Joe Pater
The department was one of the first founded within generative linguistics, a new way of thinking about language structure developed by Noam Chomsky, considered by many as the father of modern linguistics. The department can be summed up in one word: intense. Pater calls his people “intensely committed to doing top-level research, teaching, and service.” Their drive for excellence and their deep sense of who they are as a department have helped them establish a solid reputation, generating a number of pioneers in the field and an ability to recruit top faculty and students.
This intensity and commitment extend beyond the department. A commitment to joint enterprises and a strong interdisciplinary nature drive innovation, which in turn creates new fields built on traditional strengths. “This is one of our biggest distinguishing factors,” says Pater. “We have collaborations in cognitive psychology, computer science, philosophy, communication disorders, and underrepresented or understudied languages. This helps keep it new and exciting.”
Computational linguistics is the department’s latest research realm. Pater and colleague Gaja Jarosz founded the Society for Computation in Linguistics, which held its inaugural meeting in Salt Lake City in January 2018. “Existing societies focus on trying to create useful applications through computing,” says Pater. “We use computation to focus on understanding how human language develops.”
This new direction has already had a positive impact on students. Professor Rajesh Bhatt is leading the development of a computational linguistics major with the College of Information and Computer Sciences, the first “CS + x” offering.
“We want our undergraduates to get jobs and to have that relate to their core expertise in linguistics,” says Pater. “Some programs try to force a computational component, but for us it’s been organic.”