Q&A with a Language Professional is a series of interviews dedicated to showcasing the wonderfully diverse career paths we linguists and language professionals might take and what language means to us all. Same set of questions – yet very different answers indeed!
This time, the questions are answered by Mariam Dar, Computational Linguist and Forensic Analyst. See what her take is on language, work, success, passion and the everyday challenges working as a fellow language professional.
What does ‘language’ mean to you?
Mariam: Language is one of the most powerful tools available to us. We think, express, and communicate through language. It is the building block of every aspect of life; be it a relationship, line of work, human evolution, or progress.
What is your journey about?
Mariam: My journey is about uncovering my potential and taking the fork on the road, as and when it comes. It abounds with unexpected paths as I always focus on the process, the learning and growth that takes place along with it, more than the outcome. I like to be in a state of perpetual challenges; as soon as I get comfortable with my existing level of skillset, I get utterly uncomfortable in parallel, which pushes me to go further. These lines by Robert Frost in “Road not taken” sum up my journey rather eloquently;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Where did you start from, and where are you now?
Mariam: I started with a Masters in Linguistics from England, which then led to a Ph.D. and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the same field. As Linguistics is cross-disciplinary in spirit, I have branched out quite extensively.
I initially worked as a Psycholinguist focusing on language development, speech disorders, and delays. For the most part, my work involved developing assessments, tests, and tools for language diagnostic purposes.
During my Ph.D., I ventured into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning and have been working as a Computational Linguist since 2015. My areas of expertise are Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU); I develop and improve machine learning-based AI-powered speech recognition systems. My recent projects include working on extending and improving Virtual Agent Siri and keyboard with Apple as well as building an AI-powered voice-operated automotive virtual assistant to provide an informative and entertaining in-car experience for German car manufacturers.
Around the same time, I embarked on Forensic Science and have been active in the field since 2014. In my work as a Forensic Linguist/Analyst, I analyze linguistic evidence, both speech and text, for legal purposes. I perform tasks such as textual analysis (suicide notes, text messages, emails), author identification, speaker/dialect profiling, speaker comparison for court cases. As an Associate Member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), I am involved in discovering and improving new Forensic methods tools that can help in crime prevention and present my research findings every year in AAFS Scientific meetings. I have also been trained to be an expert witness that allows me to testify in court if needed.
Currently, I am focusing completely on AI and Forensics: my work as a Computational Linguist and Forensic Analyst occupies most of my time and very happily so.
Tell us about your successes and career highlights.
Mariam: During my PhD., I established the first-ever experimental Linguistics lab in Pakistan for my research on language development in children. During the same time, I created the first-ever Bilingual Urdu-English Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) which is a useful assessment tool for research as well as clinical settings such as identifying speech delays, early diagnosis of disorders related to language delay, developing /modifying interventions, and clinical treatments, etc. I am currently working on expanding the CDI to additional regional languages of Pakistan.
My cross-disciplinary work in Linguistics is one of my biggest career highlights. I used my expertise in Linguistics to plunge into new domains, which allowed me to learn exciting new skills and grow exponentially. My work on AI-powered Virtual assistants and Forensics serves a valuable purpose in making this world a better place, one project at a time 🙂
What does an average day look like in your life?
Mariam: As I tackle several directions in Linguistics, my day does not follow any set pattern. It involves considerable screen time, office meetings, countless refills of tea, and doodling. For the most part, it involves an exuberant amount of thinking aloud, even to the point of endangering my reputation as a sane individual.
Have you ever thought of changing directions, and if so, why?
Mariam: I have never thought of changing directions. But yes, I do believe in challenging yourself constantly. For that very reason, I branched out and explored cross-linguistically. Diversity is the spice of every profession.
What’s the most common misconception about your field of work?
People do not understand the impact, usefulness, and practicality of Linguistics in general. Predominantly, it is associated with language learning, teaching, or even worse, grammatical rules. In practice, it is a scientific study of language that involves extensive and rigorous statistical analysis; the role of Linguistics in AI is largely misunderstood in the outside world.
Where are you heading? What is the rest of the journey like as you see it now?
Mariam: I want to plow deeper into Machine Learning, I am heading towards Deep Learning and trying my hands on a plethora of technical skills that come along the way. For my Forensics work, I am aiming to research more extensively and build algorithms that will help in the prevention of crimes.
Any books / movies / exhibitions / events / art that you would recommend us language professionals to read / watch / visit?
Mariam: I get a shedload of questions regarding my work in Forensic Linguistics. For anybody interested in exploring Forensic Science as a Linguist, I recommend attending AAFS Scientific meetings. Here is the link for more information.
Do you have a favourite quote, or a life mantra you live by?
Mariam: I believe in taking the plunge, and the line
“everything you want is on the other side of fear”
speaks to me. Never be the one to say no to yourself, let somebody else say no to you. If you yearn for anything, even remotely so, whether it is applying for a new job, starting something on your own, or even asking somebody a question, take the plunge because the only thing that can truly stop you is you. By and large, you will be astounded by the number of times you will get a “yes”. Challenge yourself, take risks, ask questions, be bold and live life by your own rules.
How can we find you in the online space? Website, LinkedIn, or email perhaps?
Mariam: LinkedIn. And my email is maryam.dar at gmail dot com
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Mariam. Congratulations on the fantastic achievements. Wishing you all the best for your future plans.
We’re excited to announce that Mariam will be joining us at Signal Festival as part of our panel discussion on AI in the language industry. Details under the image.
Now, we’d love to hear from you. What thought or insight resonated with you most and why? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Important: share your thoughts and ideas directly in the comments. Links to other posts, videos, etc. will be removed as they come across as spammy.
Looking forward to hearing your voice on this.