Year 1 Retrospective

IMG_20160915_212159Well, my first school year is now over! (Almost. I still have a couple projects to finish.) There’s a lot to say on many topics, so I wanted to write a year 1 retrospective, in order to have one place that summarizes my feelings on the program as a whole. (Caveat: my experience is very much biased from the US perspective.) Anyways, here we go!

Contents

  1. Bureaucracy
  2. Accommodation & Costs
  3. Getting Around
  4. Food
  5. Weather
  6. The University System
  7. The LST Department
  8. Courses
  9. Final thoughts (TL;DR)

Bureaucracy

Getting through the bureaucracy to get your student stay permit takes 3 months (the full time of the Shengen Visa waiver you get as a US passport holder). The hardest part is just figuring out what to do and when to do it. You have to go to a million different offices, and bother people constantly to figure out what to do and then to get it done. Most things take twice as long to get done as you would expect. Also, the Internet is one thing that seems to take extra long to set up. I already had internet set up at my place, but many friends reported that it took them a whole month.

The good news is many people speak English really well. In fact, many people speak 2-3 languages fluently. (Most of Europe is more multilingual than the US, in fact.) The people at the Welcome Office at the university will most likely be able to communicate with you, plus they know what you have to get done.

In terms of learning German, unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time to do it, because I really spent a lot of time on my LCT courses. So my German isn’t as good as it could be, which is just a shame, but it definitely did improve some since I got here (I’m probably low B2 level now).

Germans do seem to like rules, and even young people are less likely to overlook rules, whether official or unspoken societal rules (e.g. politeness, respect of authority), but although the bureaucracy is bad, it’s not that bad. You can manage it.

Accommodation & Costs

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The dorms aren’t too bad for the price. It’s a 1-person room, with a kitchen and bathroom included.

Finding a place to live at the start of the school year is really hard. You will get interviewed by your potential roommates to see if you are a good fit. With that said, costs are pretty low. Most rooms in a shared flat go for 250-350 euro (plus or minus for heating/water/Internet). If you come for the intensive German course at the start, they set you up in a dorm for a month, and this is a great opportunity to focus on German, get to know the area, meet cool people, and have time to find a real apartment and get your paperwork done. It’s expensive though.

By the way, the houses tend to have these weird shelf toilets. They are pretty gross and loud when flushing. LPT: If you place a couple of sheets of toilet paper down at the start, it makes clean-up easier. Yes, it’s a bit of a waste of paper, but otherwise, you waste water when you have to flush the toilet some more in order to clean it with the brush. Ew.

If you sign up for the German national health insurance (which was worth it for me because I am on regular medications and need to have regular doctor’s visits), you will pay 90 euro a month. If you’re on this, you won’t pay anything to go to the doctor or dentist (English speaking ones can be found), and medications should be cheap, I think. This is really nice compared to the huge premiums we pay in the US, plus copays, plus deductibles. Ugh.

Electronics are way more expensive here than in the US. Buy your laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. when you are in the US. Also, shipping things here is not always that reliable. Stuff seems to get caught up in customs, or vanish sometimes, so you probably don’t want to be shipping expensive electronics. Have someone bring them when they visit, or bring them back yourself.

In short, cost of living is quite reasonable, and the Erasmus Mundus scholarship should more than cover it, unless you are like me, and spend a ton of money on travel and food (way more than I need to or should). Still, you can very easily find a HiWi for some extra cash and be just fine.

Getting around

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Art in front of a cafe in SB.

There are buses that go around Saarbrücken, but Google maps doesn’t show them. You can get updated schedules through the Saarfahrplan app. The buses don’t come as often as you’d like (especially on Sundays and holidays), and sometimes road construction really hampers them. On the plus side, SB is small enough that you can get around by bike pretty easily. In short, I think having a bike was worth it.

SB is centrally located in Europe, so you can travel around pretty easily. There’s an app for Deutschebahn, but it doesn’t work very well (it always crashed for me). I prefer using the Trainline app, because they make it really easy to find the cheapest tickets and you have the ticket on your phone when you need to show it. In retrospect though, I would have bought the student pass for Deutschebahn, because I travelled a lot and it would have been worth the money. As for the trains, Deutschebahn is pretty awful, so be prepared for train delays. Transfers of less than 10 minutes are risky and not recommended.

Paris is only two hours away by train, so I visited it at least four times. They have the best cheese, and that makes me very happy. Luxembourg is two hours away by bus, and also a great place to visit. Trier, Heidelberg, and the Saarschleife were nice day trips nearby. Frankfurt is a couple of hours away, which is great for catching planes elsewhere. Flights on Ryanair can be as cheap as 25 Euro, but you have to book way ahead of time and fly out of Frankfurt Hahn, which is no where near Frankfurt (there’s a bus that goes there from SB though).

Food

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Decor at Zing, a local bar.

Typical foods from this region are high in carbs and starches, so make sure you cook with plenty of vegetables at home. The cured meat and cheese is great though. The US has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to cured meat and cheese in comparison. I’m also going to miss real Bretzeln (soft pretzels).

I didn’t go out to restaurants in SB too much, but I did enjoy a few:

  • Zing – great local bar with a chill atmosphere to hang out at with friends
  • Flammkuchenhaus – all you can eat wood-fired Flammkuchen (like a very thin pizza with creme fraiche for the sauce and all sorts of toppings)
  • Mei Thai – really good Thai curry, and you can get it real spicy (not just German spicy)
  • Henry’s Eismanufaktur  – homemade ice cream with interesting flavours
  • China Restaurant – all you can eat hot pot with reservations, great for big groups
  • Taiha’s – very affordable Chinese food
  • Street food – whenever they have a street food festival, I get Baumstriezel, whenever I am at the train station I get hot Bretzeln, and whenever I am on campus I get Laugencroissant (which is a totally Saarland thing)

In terms of shopping for food, keep in mind that everything is closed on Sundays! This is a very annoying thing about Germany. Do your shopping on Saturday!

In terms of grocery stores, you have a wide selection. I usually go to multiple stores to get everything I want though:

  • Edeka is the best grocery store, but it’s all the way on Mainzerstraße in SB.
  • Aldi, Lidl and Rewe are also ok.
  • Netto is a cheap budget store. The produce there is kinda crappy, but you can definitely save money by shopping here.
  • Kardstadt has a grocery store in the basement that’s a bit expensive but has good fish.
  • Diskontopassage (the thing that looks like a subway in the center) has various specialty stores.
  • There’s a farmer’s market on Saturday from 8:00-14:00 in the center at St. Johanner Markt. This is a good place to get fresh vegetables, and there is a vendor there that has the best yogurt ever.

Speaking of food, the cafeteria (Mensa & Mensa cafe) at the university is pretty bad. They serve mostly bland carbs, in too-salty sauces. They sort of manage to make edible curly fries, Schnitzel and Flammkuchen, but that’s about it. Anything that claims to be “Chinese” food, or “Gulasch” or anything even slightly non-German sounding is basically really gross. There are no easily accessible microwaves, so bringing your own food can also be tough. But I found a microwave on the second floor of C7.1 building. I don’t think it’s meant for general student use, but no one has stopped me thus far!

Weather

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Frost in SB in January.

The weather is not unmanageably cold, but it is annoyingly cold. There are weeks in winter when it snows, and weeks when it goes below freezing. Most days it hovers around freezing though. Personally, since I come from sunny SoCal, I was happy to have a winter coat, gloves, hats, a wool scarf, sweaters, and layers.

The summer doesn’t really start until June/July. Even in the summer, it’s not always that warm, and it can rain a lot. It can get hot (30+ degrees C) but it doesn’t stay hot. Most places don’t have AC. Windows don’t have screens, so in the summer you get bugs.

It seems the pathogens here are somewhat different because from September to May I was sick as many times as I had my period (both period and illness randomly skipped in March). That’s just not right. You’re not supposed to be sick that much! But since June I seem to have broken this streak.

When you are sick, if you want meds, you have to go to the Apotheke (pharmacy) and talk to them to get what you want. For some meds, like pain meds (e.g. ibuprofen) I think you need a prescription. So consider bringing those with you from the US for less hassle as you are settling in. Also, they don’t have NyQuil pills here in Germany. They have MediNait, which is like the disgusting liquid version of NyQuil. I would definitely bring NyQuil from home.

The University System

The university systems in the US and in Germany are somewhat different. It’s hard for me to judge how much of it comes from the specific universities I attended, and how much from the German system in general, but here is my comparison.

US (UCLA) Germany (UdS)
There is a central admin for grades, rooms, finals, hiring post docs, organizing a curriculum, etc. Each prof does their own admin for the above (as I understand it)
University-wide website for courses and dept.-wide prof pages Each prof does their own webpages
Many profs prioritize research over teaching Nearly all profs prioritize research over teaching
Some teacher training sometimes provided, and profs get evaluated for every class Evaluations happen haphazardly (do profs even look at them?)
Assignments, midterms, finals, and often attendance count for a grade Assignments qualify you for the final, but the final is your entire grade, attendance is optional
You need to be signed up and paid for to take the course You can visit whatever lectures you want (great way to learn extra topics)
All classes start and end at the same time, with breaks and finals at the same time Exact time frames are up to the department and prof for each class
Sign up for courses in the first ~2 weeks, drop in the first ~4 weeks Sign up for finals near the last month of the semester
Tuition fees are huge (>10,000) so you have to take out loans Tuition is nearly free (~230 euro)
Most classes require you to buy books It’s up to you if you want to learn from books

In general, I think you get a better education in the US, because you have guidance in the topics and accessible professors willing and able to explain complicated topics. Professors are able to synthesize all the information out there in the world, and you are guided in correct direction and progression for the best learning outcomes.

In Germany, most classes are little more than a list of topics with some crappy slides, and you have to go out and teach yourself those topics. Professors don’t have time, don’t want to, or maybe just don’t know how to guide you down the path of learning, so you waste a lot of time flailing about every which way before finding the right way to learn the topic. The number of times I heard “just go look it up on Wikipedia” from a professor is shameful. My entire year of study here is best summarized as being a year of independent study, plus some exam hoops to jump through.

The LST Department

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Homemade card game about countries, kind of like “Go Fish!” on steroids, in Czech. Plus beer, of course!

Let’s start with the good. It’s a very international program, which is great. The other students especially are smart, fun, and just a joy to be around. Without them, I would have probably dropped out a long time ago. The faculty has plenty of smart researchers and you can take many different subjects and topics that sound interesting, so that’s nice. There’s a strong computational focus, and there’s also a good psycholinguistics section. The pure theoretical linguistics isn’t as strong as it was at UCLA, but it’s fine as far as I can tell. Overall, the education seems better than at some of the other LCT partner universities (I’ve heard bad things about San Sebastian, and Nancy in particular.)

Unfortunately, the department here is completely disorganized, and this shows in everything:

  • There’s no centralized web site for the department, sometimes no website at all for courses.
  • Classes start at irregular times, not in sync with the rest of the uni.
  • Finals happen within a wide span of two months, so it’s hard to plan around them.
  • Intensive block courses fill up any breaks you might have, so you won’t have vacations.
  • The same slides, assignments, and final exams (yes, even final exams) are reused year to year (so get study notes from the previous year if you can).
  • Requirements are a mess, and second year LCT students get especially screwed, since they have to take a lot of extra crap for no good reason. Don’t come here as a second year LCT.

Speaking of requirements, there’s actually a lot of prerequisite knowledge that would be really good to have before you start this program. The program takes people from varied backgrounds, but the truth is, that if you have already studied certain subjects, things will just make a lot more sense.

For those of us with linguistics backgrounds, keep in mind that since you cannot take bachelor’s level math and computer science courses for credit, you will lag behind most of the time. That’s not to say you can’t pass the program, just that you won’t get as much out of it, which is a shame. So I would say, try to learn up on math and programming before you come.

In general, I would recommend knowing:

  • Calculus
  • Linear Algebra
  • Statistics & Probability (though you will be taught much of this)
  • Python programming
  • A proper course on introductory linguistics where you have covered phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics (or at least basic logic).

I would also like to say that I would probably not recommend doing LCT as a self-funding student without the scholarship. There is an option to come to LST (the local Saarland program) directly, or to transfer from LCT to LST once you get here, and if you don’t have the scholarship, then you should consider this. (It makes sense to do LCT with the scholarship, since you get a free education out of it.)

The reason I say that, is because although Saarland has it’s problems, it is one of the better schools in the consortium as far as I can tell, and interrupting your studies to start over at a second university (basically doing most of the first year two times) is not worth it. Maintaining consistency, getting to know professors, and getting the chance at better internships here (since most jobs want you to be around for a while) is probably better than swapping schools. The other intangibles you get (e.g., meeting awesome people, living abroad, learning a new language, etc.) are still attained if you stay at Saarland. Of course, I haven’t done my second year at Trento yet, so take this with a grain of salt. I might change my mind after the end of the second year, but this is just my impression so far.

Courses

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Machine translation and speech recognition are big topics here.

Since there are no official course prerequisites, and most courses don’t really mention requisites, I would just like to summarize what I learned here about the implied requirements for the courses I took (or started taking and dropped). I’ll also take this time to give mini-reviews of the courses. I’m going to be completely honest in them, so if a prof ever reads this blog, hopefully they will understand that my criticism is meant to be constructive rather than destructive. There are many courses I didn’t visit, so this will just be a list of the ones I did visit.

In general, finding study notes and mock exams from previous years will help you.  I also cannot stress enough that you should work with other students whenever possible, because you have to teach yourselves mostly everything in the German school system, which is much easier to do when you have another person to bounce ideas off of.

Core Courses:

  • Computational Linguistics (Koller), prereqs: python
    • Great introduction to basic comp ling algorithms, but the class moves quickly, so be prepared to work hard. No exam, final project instead. You won’t get grades back for a shamefully long time. Recommended for learning the basics, as long as you don’t need grades right away to graduate.
  • Foundations (various profs), prereqs: none
    • Why is this still in the curriculum? It’s a waste of time, but it’s a required course. Fine to skip class most days (don’t skip Klakow’s), but review slides rigorously for final.
  • Language Technology I (Dehdari), prereqs: none
    • I had Dehdari for this, but he left SB recently. This is a gentle introduction to basic topics in comp ling, but the topics you will go over are covered in more depth in all of your other classes. Only recommended for easy credits, not that useful otherwise.
  • Language Technology II (van Genabith), prereqs: none
    • You can bring all materials, including a computer to the final. Skip lecture, study the slides, get an A. Only recommended for easy credits, pointless otherwise.
  • Semantics (Vanhuizen), prereqs: none
    • Good balance of lecture to exercises, and expectations are clear. Some exercises can be much harder than what was explained in lecture, but prof is very approachable. Recommended as a good introduction to semantics.
  • Syntax (Avgustinova/Clayton), prereqs: syntax
    • Syntax is a great topic, but this is not a well-taught introduction, so you’ll lose your passion for it. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.

Other courses:

  • Methods of Mathematical Analysis (Clayton), prereqs: calculus
    • I didn’t finish this class. It’s billed as a class to teach linguistics students the basic math skills they need, but you will be teaching almost everything to yourself. The final was reported to be way harder than the assignments. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.
  • Speech Recognition (Klakow), prereqs: linear algebra, machine learning
    • I didn’t finish this class, but my impression is that it is one of the hardest CoLi classes, probably for the same reasons as the other Klakow classes (see SNLP review just below).
  • Statistical Natural Language Processing (Klakow), prereqs: python, machine learning
    • Terrible slides, awful tutors, little guidance, hard homeworks, even harder final. It’s possible without having taken machine learning (I managed it), but it will take you a long time, and you will teach yourself everything. Recommended only if you handle frustration well, and have a good partner to study with.

Seminars:

  • Natural Language Generation (Koller/Demberg), prereqs: general knowledge of NNs
    • Present on a topic with ~2 other students. Can work together as little or as much as you like. Good seminar to write your paper in because you get a lot of material to base it off of. Recommended for writing your paper, and if you are ok waiting on grades to come back.
  • Question Answering in Applications (Neumann/Heigold), prereqs: none
    • Boring, but a good place to do that oral exam requirement since it will be exactly what was in your presentation. Not recommended due to how boring it is.
  • TTS/Voicebuilding (Moebius/Steiner), prereqs: none
    • TTS is boring, but required for Voicebuilding. It’s ok to skip most classes, but study the slides rigorously for the final. VB builds a voice with MaryTTS which is an annoying system to work with, but you learn a lot of other tools (linux, gradle, sox, docker, etc.). You’ll likely get good marks in these. Recommended for the tools.
  • Semantic Parsing (Koller), prereqs: semantics preferred
    • You are helped and encouraged to make a good presentation, and you have a lot of freedom for the project, so you get out of it what you put in. You can do it without having taken semantics (I did), but I think it’s better to take it first. You will get a good grade if you do the work. Recommended if you are interested in this topic.

CS Courses:

  • Artificial Intelligence (Hoffman), prereqs: programming, basic algorithms
    • I didn’t finish this class. A lot of the linguists take this class to fulfill the CS requirement, because it seems manageable. It still takes a lot of your time, and to me, it didn’t seem to be that practical.
  • Database Systems (Dittrich), prereqs: Java
    • I didn’t finish this class. Inverted classroom is nice. Mandatory quizzes, final based on quizzes. Homeworks are a lot of work. This is one of the classes that seems like it could be manageable for linguists, as long as you have time for it.
  • Software Engineering (Zeller + Tutor), prereqs: object-oriented programming
    • Completely dependent on project assignment and group dynamic. Homeworks are required for a grade, but a massive waste of time. Don’t rely on your tutor for much help on them either. Final is 3x longer than mock exam, so use the cheat sheet you get wisely. This class is very practical and you will most likely learn new technologies, which is the good part, but it will take a lot of your time. Competency-wise, it’s manageable for linguists trying to get the CS requirement. Recommended if you have lots of time, and you get the project and group you want.

Language courses:

  • Deutschkurse für internationale Studierende (DaF)
    • The summer intensive program is expensive but worth it to get settled (good chance to search for accommodation) and get acquainted with other international students. They have weekend trips which are great for getting to know the area.
    • Both summer and yearly courses are very dependent on what profs you get (Ralf is great), but this is a great way to meet other people from all over the world, and an ok place to get conversation practice. You probably won’t learn much grammar, so teach that to yourself.
  • Deutschkurse through MPI
    • Also very dependent on what profs you get (Kate isn’t great), but it’s worth trying this one out as well to see what meshes with your learning style best
  • Sprachenzentrum language courses (Italian, and French)
    • At the lower levels, these courses are taught entirely in German. They like to spend most of their time explaining the grammar, and you don’t get enough speaking practice or a large vocabulary.
    • The higher level conversational classes seem to be a lot more fun.

Final thoughts (TL;DR)

  • This is a year of independent study, with some exam hoops to jump through
  • Don’t come here as a 2nd year LCT student, the requirements are too stupid
  • The program is disorganized, so be ready to follow up on everything yourself
  • Finals and classes happen at weird times throughout the year, so vacations are hard to plan
  • Before coming, try to take calculus, linear algebra, and python, plus statistics/probability if there’s time, and at least an introductory linguistics course plus maybe syntax since the course here on it isn’t very good
  • The other students are amazing and make this worth it, plus living abroad is always a great experience in my opinion
  • The scholarship is more than enough to cover a frugal cost of living in a shared flat, and a small job for extra cash is easy to come by (email your profs)
  • Travel is easy, but don’t take train transfers of less than 10 minutes because Deutschebahn is often late
  • Get the Saarfahrplan app for bus schedules, and the Trainline app to buy train tickets, Ryanair for cheap airfare from Frankfurt, plus the bus that goes to their airport
  • Health insurance and going to the doctor is easy, even with medication prescriptions, but bring Nyquil and pain meds from home
  • Electronics are expensive, so buy them at home
  • The weather likes to hover around freezing most of winter, bring hats
  • Lifestyle is typical for the West, and many people speak English
  • Everything being closed on Sundays and stores closing at 8pm really sucks
  • Saarbrücken is pretty boring, and a little dirty, but it’s got almost everything you’ll need to live a normal life (except on Sundays)

Overall, I enjoyed my first year. I got to meet so many amazing students, and see a bunch of new things here in Germany and in Europe. At the end of my first year here, I would recommend the LCT program for the intangibles, and the free education. Without the LCT scholarship, I would recommend coming to Europe for a cheaper education, but not swapping schools in the middle. Mainly, if you are really dead set on getting a good education in computational linguistics, and/or are not strong in teaching yourself, and are willing to stomach the massive loans you have to take out, consider top US schools like Carnegie Mellon or University of Washington instead.

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