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At the crossroads of language, technology, and empathy | MIT News

Rujul Gandhi’s love of reading blossomed into a love of language at age 6, when she discovered a book at a garage sale called “What’s Behind the Word?” With forays into history, etymology, and language genealogies, the book captivated Gandhi, who as an MIT senior remains fascinated with words and how we use them.

Growing up partially in the U.S. and mostly in India, Gandhi was surrounded by a variety of languages and dialects. When she moved to India at age 8, she could already see how knowing the Marathi language allowed her to connect more easily to her classmates — an early lesson in how language shapes our human experiences.

Initially thinking she might want to study creative writing or theater, Gandhi first learned about linguistics as its own field of study through an online course in ninth grade. Now a linguistics major at MIT, she is studying the structure of language from the syllable to sentence level, and also learning about how we perceive language. She finds the human aspects of how we use language, and the fact that languages are constantly changing, particularly compelling.

 “When you learn to appreciate language, you can then appreciate culture,” she says.

Communicating and connecting, with a technological assist

Taking advantage of MIT’s Global Teaching Labs program, Gandhi traveled to Kazakhstan in January 2020 to teach linguistics and biology to high school students. Lacking a solid grasp of the language, she cautiously navigated conversations with her students and hosts. However, she soon found that working to understand the language, giving culturally relevant examples, and writing her assignments in Russian and Kazakh allowed her to engage more meaningfully with her students.

Technology also helped bridge the communication barrier between Gandhi and her Russian-speaking host father, who spoke no English. With help from Google Translate, they bonded over shared interests, including 1950s and ’60s Bollywood music.

As she began to study computer science at MIT, Gandhi saw more opportunities to connect people through both language and technology, thus leading her to pursue a double major in linguistics and in computer science and electrical engineering.

“The problems I understand through linguistics, I can try to find solutions to through computer science,” she explains.

Energized by ambitious projects

Gandhi is determined to prioritize social impact while looking for those solutions. Through various leadership roles in on-campus organizations during her time at MIT, especially in the student-run Educational Studies Program (ESP), she realized how much working directly with people and being on the logistical side of large projects energizes her. With ESP, she helps organize events that bring thousands of high school and middle school students to campus each year for classes and other activities led by MIT students.

After her second directing program, Spark 2020, was cancelled last March because of the pandemic, Gandhi eventually embraced the virtual experience. She planned and co-directed a virtual program, Splash: 2020, hosting about 1,100 students. “Interacting with the ESP community convinced me that an organization can function efficiently with a strong commitment to its values,” she says.

The pandemic also heightened Gandhi’s appreciation for the MIT community, as many people reached out to her offering a place to stay when campus shut down. She says she sees MIT as home — a place where she not only feels cared for, but also relishes the opportunity to care for others.

Now, she is bridging cultural barriers on campus through performing art. Dance is another one of Gandhi’s loves. When she couldn’t find a group to practice Indian classical dance with, Gandhi took matters into her own hands. In 2019, she and a couple of friends founded Nritya, a student organization at MIT. The group hopes to have its first in-person performance this fall. “Dance is like its own language,” she observes.

Technology born out of empathy

In her academic work, Gandhi relishes researching linguistics problems from a theoretical perspective, and then applying that knowledge through hands-on experiences. “The good thing about MIT is it lets you go out of your comfort zone,” she says.

For example, in IAP 2019 she worked on a geographical dialect survey of her native Marathi language with Deccan College, a center of linguistics in her hometown. And, through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), she is currently working on a research project focused on phonetics and phonology, focusing her attention on how language “contact,” or interactions, influences the sounds that speakers use.

The following winter, she also worked with Tarjimly, a nonprofit connecting refugees with interpreters through a smartphone app. She notes that translating systems have advanced quickly in terms of allowing people to communicate more effectively, but she also recognizes that there is great potential to improve them to benefit and reach even more people.

“How are people going to advocate for themselves and make use of public infrastructure if they can’t interface with it?” she asks.

Mulling over other ideas, Gandhi says it would be interesting to explore how sign language might be more effectively be interpreted through a smartphone translating app. And, she sees a need for further improving regional translations to better connect with the culture and context of the areas the language is spoken in, accounting for dialectal differences and new developments.

Looking ahead, Gandhi wants to focus on designing systems that better integrate theoretical developments in linguistics and on making language technology widely accessible. She says she finds the work of bringing together technology and linguistics to be most rewarding when it involves people, and that she finds the most meaning in her projects when they are centered around empathy for others’ experiences.

“The technology born out of empathy is the technology that I want to be working on,” she explains. “Language is fundamentally a people thing; you can’t ignore the people when you’re designing technology that relates to language.”