Carnegie Mellon University
December 13, 2019

Linguistics Senior Teaches Foreign Language By Finding the Similarities

By Stefanie Johndrow

While studying a foreign language, cognates — words that have similar spelling and meaning across multiple languages — are reminders of how many seemingly dissimilar languages are related. Satoru Ozaki, a senior in Carnegie Mellon University’s Linguistics Program, has structured his educational career around piecing together what these patterns in languages are, what they mean and how to apply them.

Ozaki’s interest in linguistics blossomed before arriving at CMU. As a high school student, Ozaki would read textbooks about Old Icelandic languages. As a college student, Ozaki took this interest and turned it into a learning opportunity.

“Introduction to Old Icelandic,” is Ozaki’s Student College (StuCo) course he taught this fall. According to Ozaki, Old Icelandic — a language spoken by the Vikings and Norwegians through the 9th to 14th centuries — has many similarities to English.

“For very basic vocabulary like eating, drinking, living, sleeping and dreaming, you will see a very nice parallel between the English words and grammar and the grammar and words in Old Icelandic,” Ozaki said. “So there’s an intuitive aspect to learning a language.”

For Ozaki, having his students know or understand Old Icelandic grammar perfectly isn’t the goal of the course.

“When people think of old languages, they think of inscriptions, scriptures or decoding this ancient mystery, but it’s just another language. You can look at it with the same analytical tool you use to look at languages like English. I hope the biggest takeaway from that class is linguistics can be applied to an old language,” Ozaki said.

As a linguistics major, Ozaki has spent his own time diving into foreign languages. He is currently taking a Swedish level six course at the University of Pittsburgh.

“People are generally not so aware of what courses they can take or what things they can do here in Dietrich that has to do with linguistics, so I encourage people to explore their options,” Ozaki said.

Ozaki’s StuCo class is just one of many ways he’s examining linguistics. Ozaki also acts as a teaching assistant for “Nature of Language” and is working on a research project with CMU’s Language Technologies Institute. Ozaki is conducting research of his own through an honors thesis with Tom Werner, director of CMU’s Linguistics Program and associate teaching professor in the Department of Philosophy.

Ozaki’s thesis focuses on a syntactic phenomenon in the Japanese language, and it started with a conversation he was having with his grandmother, who lives on an island in the Sea of Japan where they speak a distinct dialect called a Sado dialect.

“I was always curious if I could study that dialect and see how it relates to standard Japanese in some way, looking at it theoretically,” Ozaki said. “I was having a conversation with my grandma, and she said a sentence that really stood out to me. I understood what she meant, but it felt like wrong grammar to me. I asked her a few things about the sentence she said, and she told me it was totally fine.”

As part of his research, Ozaki is exploring the Japanese language and its parallels to other languages similar to Japanese. Ozaki presented early findings at an undergraduate conference at Cornell University.

“It’s like this intellectual puzzle. You take a language and you look at what you can say in this language and what you can’t say in this language and you can also compare between two languages and see the underlying rules that sort of govern human language,” Ozaki said. “I can look at all of these languages that sound totally different and have really drastically different structures in grammar but maybe there’s something fundamentally similar within all of them.”

Housed in the Department of Philosophy, the linguistics major is a collaborative effort among the Departments of English, Modern Languages, Psychology and Philosophy, and the School of Computer Science’s Language Technologies Institute