News Story

Linguistics Team Wins Competition, Professor Receives Accolades

A team of Ph.D. students representing the Department of Linguistics Corpling Lab won top marks in all five categories of DISRPT 2021, a recurring computational linguistics competition. The competition invites teams from around the world to build out and improve computational models that decode human discourse, which includes identifying meaningful portions of text, detecting cue words and identifying the relationships between segments.

Decoding and Recoding Language for Computers

Seemingly simple aspects of human discourse can be difficult to understand for a computer. Amir Zeldes, an associate professor of computational linguistics, sums it up like this: 

“When faced with a text such as ‘Kim fell – Yun pushed her,’ humans reconstruct a story in which two events happened, involving the same two people, probably the second event before the first, and the first was caused by the second,” he explains. “But a computer first needs to identify the two events, understand how they relate to each other and infer things like causality or temporal order.”

This year’s DISRPT, or Discourse Relation Parsing and Treebanking Shared Task, was co-organized by Zeldes, who heads the Corpus Linguistics Lab. The Ph.D. students studying with Zeldes built a system that outperformed teams from around the globe, including two from Germany, one from France and one from India. 

Janet Liu, one of the Ph.D. students who competed in DISRPT 2021, says that “it was a great learning experience as you can discover new things to try with low or no cost.”

The team, composed of students from the Departments of Linguistics and Computer Science, named its system DisCoDisCo, short for The District of Columbia Discourse Cognoscente. The system performed best in all five shared task categories of the competition. The students representing the Corpling Lab are Luke Gessler (C’21, G’25), Shabnam Behzad (G’25), Yang Janet Liu (G’26), Siyao (Logan) Peng (G’24) and Yilun Zhu (G’26). 

For more information on the team’s research, check out Georgetown’s winning paper, which was published in the Anthology of the Association of Computational Linguistics. 

Lauds in Linguistics

The high marks earned at DISRPT 2021 aren’t the only linguistic accolades due for recognition.

The American Association for Applied Linguistics awarded Professor Alison Mackey, Georgetown’s Chair of Linguistics, the 2022 Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award. The award “recognizes and honors a distinguished scholar for their scholarship and service to the profession in general and to AAAL in particular.” Mackey joins a cohort of 27 seminal scholars who have received it since the award was created in 1996.

Previously, Prof. Mackey received the 2019 Georgetown’s Presidential Teacher-Scholar Award and the 2019 Provost’s Career Research Award. 

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)