Common Denominator: Using Math to Measure Language Similarity

Hi everyone! My name is Emmaline Rial, and in December I’ll be graduating with a degree in Mathematics and a minor in Computer Science. I wasn’t always a STEM person – in high school I was passionate about art and music. To everyone’s surprise (including my own), I became a math major, but I still find time to pursue art and music in my spare time.

Studying Language with Math

In this day and age, (and especially right now given lockdowns and stay-at-home orders), the internet and online platforms play a huge role in our communication. But how we communicate – the words we use, the meanings we assign to them, and the style by which we convey them – varies person to person. How do people respond to these idiosyncrasies in language? Do they adapt to find common ground with other communicators? If they do, can these adaptations or adjustments be measured?

This is the question I will be exploring this summer. Under the guidance of my mentor, Frits Pil, and his research group, I plan to examine twitter data to determine what happens when groups of people communicate over time. In particular, I’m curious to see if I can quantitatively measure similarities between the language of different twitter users, and whether interactions over time lead to more similar language between communicators.

Being able to understand how people react to differences in language could provide insight into how we can be more effective communicators.

Onward and Upward

I’m interested in learning how to work with a more applied framework in math by going to graduate school, which is part of the reason I was drawn to the Brackenridge fellowship. This summer will be a fantastic opportunity for me to really delve into those questions which interest me, and help me narrow down the work I care about and how I can pursue it further. I’m particularly interested in using math in a public service-oriented setting, such as how researchers are currently modeling COVID-19 and providing critical information to policymakers and the public.

Given that I have an interdisciplinary background myself, I’m excited to be working alongside other curious and ambitious minds and have discussions about our respective research areas. Further, meeting regularly with my cohort and the other researchers will allow me to gain experience communicating my work and sharing my ideas, which is crucial in whatever field I decide to pursue.

Fun Fact: I grew up on a farm and I trained all of our animals (sometimes useful behaviors, sometimes not).

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