What is your best one or two sentence explanation of computational linguistics? I have been doing it for a few years, but find myself stammering for a quick, layperson explanation.

As an example, I was at the checkout counter at the grocery store, and the cashier asked what I do. How would you explain it to her?

  • What have you been doing exactly? Many people differentiate computational linguistics, natural language processing and language technology.
    – michau
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 21:59
  • 4
    If you want to make it real layperson-like, tell people "I make Siri". They will be impressed and not ask any more questions ;) Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 22:50
  • I usually start with something like that
    – Adam_G
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 23:04
  • you could probably say it in 10 seconds, but then 10 more will follow....
    – nmc
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 16:41
  • wikipedia is not good enough for that?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 2:28

2 Answers 2


"Computational linguistics is trying to teach computers to understand ordinary language" would probably make sense to most laypeople.

The problem, of course, is that if you tell people something they actually understand, they may respond "Oh, wow! How do you do that?"—and you're back where you started.

  • 1
    Hehe. Exactly...
    – Adam_G
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 3:11
  • 1
    That's only one subfield of computational linguistics, it's not all natural language processing!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 21:48

Computational linguistics is the modelling and processing of natural language with computers.

Edit: If you have another ten seconds of time, it will help to add examples of applications:
Computational lingustics can be used for automatic translation, communication between humans and computers (such as Siri or talking to your navigation system), autocorrect or language learning programs, but it is also used to improve search engines, spam filters, automatic summarisation and tagging tools, or even to help deteting criminals (don't forget that last one, probably less than 1% of linguists actually do that but it sounds pretty cool ;) ).

  • Thanks, but looking for a layperson explanation
    – Adam_G
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 22:34
  • 1
    Replace "modelling" by "representing". Is that better? Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 22:41
  • 1
    @Adam_G You can't get much more layperson than this. If you want to limit explanations to specific words then edit your question.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 23:16
  • @Adam_G Maybe you find it more layperson-suited with the application examples I just added. Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 17:17

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