Rujul Gandhi’s love of reading became a love of language at the age of 6 in a garage shop “What’s behind the word?” With the discovery of a book called. With a focus on history, etymology and linguistic legends, Gandhi, as an MIT senior, is fascinated by words and the way we use them.
Growing up in the United States and largely in India, Gandhi was surrounded by many different languages and dialects. When she moved to India at the age of 8, she saw how knowing Marathi allows her to connect more easily with her classmates – the first lesson in how language shapes our human experience.
Initially thinking that she might want to study creative writing or the performing arts, Gandhi first studied linguistics as his own field of study in a ninth grade online course. Now a linguist at MIT, she studies the structure of language from the alphabet to the sentence level and also learns how we understand language. She finds the human side of how we use language and the constant change of languages, especially coercion.
“When you learn to appreciate language, you can appreciate culture,” she says.
Communicate and connect with technical support
Taking advantage of MIT’s global teaching laboratory program, Gandhi traveled to Kazakhstan in January 2020 to teach linguistics and biology to high school students. Lacking a good understanding of the language, she engaged in careful conversation 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 allows her to work more meaningfully with her students.
Technology also helped Gandhi and her non-English-speaking Russian father overcome the barrier of communication. With the help of Google Translate, they developed a shared interest, including Bollywood music in the 1950s and ’60s.
When she began studying computer science at MIT, Gandhi saw more opportunities to connect with people in both language and technology, which led her to pursue an advanced degree in both linguistics and computer science and electrical engineering.
“The problems I understand through linguistics, I can try to find solutions to them through computer science,” she explains.
Encouraged by ambitious projects
While seeking those solutions, Gandhi is determined to prioritize social influence. During her time at MIT, she realized that working directly with people and being on the supply side of large projects gives her strength, especially through the various leadership roles in campus organizations in the Student-led Education Program (ESP). 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.
Gandhi finally embraced the virtual experience after canceling her second directorial, Spark 2020, last March due to the epidemic. She co-directed Splash: 2020, a virtual program that hosts about 1,100 students. “By interacting with the ESP community, I am convinced that an organization can operate efficiently with a strong commitment to its values,” she says.
The plague increased Gandhi’s appreciation for the MIT community as many came to her asking for a place to stay during campus closures. She says MIT sees itself as a home – not only caring for itself, but also enjoying the opportunity to care for others.
Now, she is breaking down cultural barriers on campus through the performing arts. Dance was another of Gandhi’s favorite things. When she could not find a group to practice Indian classical dance, Gandhi took matters into her own hands. In 2019, she and a couple of friends started Dancer, a student organization at MIT. The team hopes to get its first-person view this fall. “Dance is like its own language,” she observes.
Technology born of empathy
In her academic work, Gandhi wanted to research linguistic problems from a theoretical point of view and then apply that knowledge through experience. “The good thing about MIT is that it allows you to get out of your comfort zone,” she says.
For example, at the 2019 IAP, she conducted a geographical linguistic survey of her native Marathi language with Deccan College, a linguistics center in her village. Furthermore, through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), she is currently working on a research project focusing on phonetics and phonology, focusing on how language “relation” or interaction affects the sounds used by speakers.
The following winter, she also worked with the non-profit Tarzimly, which connects refugees with translators via a smartphone app. She notes that translation systems have evolved rapidly in allowing people to communicate more effectively, but she also acknowledges that they have a greater potential to reach and improve more and more people.
“How are people going to use it if they can’t stand up for themselves and connect with public infrastructure?” She asks.
Completely changing other ideas, Gandhi says it will be interesting to see how sign language can be interpreted more effectively through a smartphone translation app. She also sees the need to further improve regional translations in order to better connect with the culture and context of the language-speaking areas, ensuring linguistic changes and new developments.
Looking ahead, Gandhi wants to focus on designing systems that better integrate the theoretical developments in linguistics and making language technology more widely accessible. She says that when people are involved in the work of bringing technology and linguistics together, there can be more results, and she says that her projects can gain more meaning when she focuses on empathy for the experiences of others.
“Technology born of empathy is the technology I want to work with,” she explains. “Language is basically a human thing; you can’t ignore people when you design language-related technology.”