POSITION: Assistant Professor, Tenure Stream
ACADEMIC UNIT: Language Studies
PLACE OF BIRTH: The Hague, NL
JOINED UTM FACULTY: 2018
“Linguistics looks at the deep questions about what makes us human.”
Like many people, Barend Beekhuizen, an assistant professor of computation linguistics, discovered his career path quite by accident. A love of reading led him towards the study of literature, but in university, he quickly discovered linguistics, a field which he felt was “novel and exciting” and full of possibility.
“Linguistics looks at the deep questions about what makes us human, and there were a lot [of questions] that hadn’t been answered,” Beekhuizen says. “The field was wide open.”
He discovered computational linguistics while working towards a master’s degree, eager for a more objective method to test and compare linguistic arguments. Computational linguistics, he found, “sharpens ideas.” In formulating software programs to test his hypotheses, “I was forced to be extremely precise and to get my concepts and theory in order so I could test them.” In short order, Beekhuizen was hooked.
His early research centred on language acquisition, examining patterns in how caregivers talk to young children. Currently, he works with TED Talks recordings that are translated into 50 or 60 languages to study how ideas of dimension (for example, height and length) are expressed, and then examine common patterns. For instance, he has found that in most languages different words are used to describe a building (tall) and a person (long). In English, however, tall is used to refer to both buildings and people.
“The way we talk about the world in various languages is not random and unstructured,” he says.
Beekhuizen also enjoys being in the classroom. This fall, he will be teaching graduate students a language and computers course, a variation of one he taught to undergraduates last year.
“It gets the students up to speed on computational techniques that will make their lives as researchers easier,” he says. “They’ll learn tools to get information from the data they want to study.”
- Beekhuizen, Barend & Suzanne Stevenson (2018). More than the eye can see: A computational model of colour term acquisition and colour discrimination. Cognitive Science 42(8): 2699-2734
- Beekhuizen, Barend, Julia Watson & Suzanne Stevenson (2017). Semantic Typology and Parallel Corpora: Something about Indefinite Pronouns. In Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
- Beekhuizen, Barend, Afsaneh Fazly & Suzanne Stevenson (2014). Learning Meaning without Primitives. Typology Predicts Developmental Patterns. In Proceedings of the 36th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society