What They Learned: Caroline Gihlstorf ’23

In her linguistics thesis, Gihlstorf’s topic was inspired by a class she took her junior year.

In the fall of her junior year, Caroline Gihlstorf ’23 took her first class with Associate Professor of Linguistics Brook Lillehaugen. The class inspired Gihlstorf, a double major in linguistics and computer science, to work with Prof. Lillehaugen on her senior thesis, “Towards an Explanation of ‘Optional’ Resumptive Pronouns in Colonial Valley Zapotec and Macuiltianguis Zapotec Relative Clauses.”

I was first interested in pursuing it because it was a chance to propose a potential connection between two different topics I had learned about during my Fall 2021 class,” Gihlstorf said. “I continued expanding on it for a paper I wrote in another class I took with (Prof. Lillehaugen) the following semester, and I continued it even further for my thesis in the fall. My advisor was really supportive of my initial idea and continued to encourage me and give me pointers as it developed. She also guided me through how to work with native speakers of the languages I was interested in for my thesis, for which I am most grateful!”

Gihlstorf says that a major takeaway for her was learning how to conduct independent research, relying on herself to identify meaningful questions to ask, to search for sources, and organize and present her data. 

“I learned that researchers can never know everything,” Gihlstorf said. “I had the privilege of working with a speaker of Macuiltianguis Zapotec (MacZ) (the language I most deeply explored in my thesis) and her husband, who is a linguist whose research also focuses on the language. A lot of the time we didn’t really know what was going on. We each had different levels and types of expertise, and we needed to collaborate in order to get a better sense of the phenomenon we were exploring.”

Gihlstorf hopes that her research will help other researchers continue the work that she started. “Macuiltianguis Zapotec and Colonial Valley Zapotec (CVZ), the languages I worked with in my thesis, are not given the nearly as many resources as languages like English, so my hope is that my thesis may serve as a resource for someone looking to do more work with MacZ and/or CVZ.”

Given her interest in what language technologies know about language and how that knowledge is represented, Gihlstorf plans to begin a PhD program in computer science this fall. 

“My linguistics thesis taught me how to be disciplined in my research and gave me the experience of delving into a specific area of research for an extended period of time,” Gihlstorf said. “My linguistics knowledge has also helped me in other work I’ve done in computer science related to language technologies, and I hope to be able to use and build upon it to explore different linguistic phenomena in language technologies.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.