Emily M. Bender has a been a member of the faculty at the University of Washington since 2003. She is currently a Professor in the Department of Linguistics, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, the faculty director of the CLMS program, and the director of the Computational Linguistics Laboratory. She is the past Chair (2016-2017) of the Executive Board of NAACL as well as a member of the ICCL (the committee responsible for Coling), and PC co-chair for Coling 2018. Prior to coming to UW, she held temporary positions at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, and worked in industry at YY Technologies. She received her PhD from the Linguistics Department at Stanford University, where she joined the HPSG and LinGO projects at CSLI. Her AB (also in Linguistics) is from UC Berkeley, and she also studied at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

When did you first join the LSA? 

During my first year in graduate school (1995-1996) in time to attend the LSA meeting in San Diego.

How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined? 

I have been the LSA's delegate to the Association for Computational Linguistics and served on the Committee on Scholarly Communication in Linguistics as well as its predecessor the Technology Advisory Committee.

What are you currently researching/working on?

I work at the boundary between linguistics and natural language processing, looking both directions.  On the one hand, I work on computational methods in linguistic analysis, and most specifically on grammar engineering.  Like other computational methods, grammar engineering allows linguists to do hypothesis testing at much larger scales, because tasks that are well-suited to computers (e.g. calculating grammaticality predictions across many many test sentences) are delegated to computers.  Since 2001 I have been developing (together with students and other colleagues) the LinGO Grammar Matrix, which is both a collection of hypotheses about cross-linguistic similarity and variation across a range of syntactic phenomena and a starter-kit for creating broad-coverage precision grammars of any human language.  On the other hand, I am interested in how linguistic knowledge can be injected into work on natural language processing (NLP) to make it more effective.  This includes looking into the role of compositional semantics in natural language understanding as well as looking at the role that knowledge of linguistic structure can play in things like feature design and error analysis.  

How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

One big change is the degree to which our field is becoming less obscure.  The first time I ever encountered linguistics was in perusing the course catalogue before starting my freshman year at UC Berkeley.  Now, when I go talk to middle school students, many of them have already heard of it!  I think this is due in part to the increasing prevalence of language technology in everyday life.  But another big piece is the work of linguists doing K-12 and other public outreach, such as Lori Levin, Drago Radev and the other organizers of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad, Kristin Denham's Ling-in-Ed site, linguistics bloggers like Rachael Tatman and Gretchen McCullough and Lauren Gawne of Lingthusiasm, and linguists doing public scholarship, like John Rickford's work about the Oakland Ebonics controversy and Alicia Beckford Wassink's English in the Pacific Northwest project. Greater public awareness is very exciting because I think it puts us in a better position to influence public policy on issues that make a real difference in people's lives.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Make sure to take a broad approach to your studies.  As de Saussure said language is un système où tout se tient.  I like to translate that as "a system where everything hangs together". This means that even as we specialize in one aspect or another of linguistic structure or language in the world, ultimately our analyses must fit into a bigger picture.  I firmly believe we do better syntax if we understand something about sociolinguistic variation, better phonetics if we know something about prosody and its relation to pragmatics, etc. In addition, I think it is wise to take advantage of opportunities to broaden your tool box: Take a statistics class; learn basic programming.  These tools will open up a broader range of questions you can pursue.

What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field? 

The LSA serves as an invaluable focal point for field-wide discussions that, for example, allow us to develop norms for ethical research and work towards making the field as a whole as well as individual institutions truly inclusive.  At the 2018 meeting in Salt Lake City, I particularly appreciated the Symposium organized by Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson on Linguistics and Race: An Interdisciplinary Approach Towards an LSA Statement on Race and the session on Our Linguistics Community: Addressing Bias, Power Dynamics, Harassment, organized by Penny Eckert and Sharon Inkelas.