Saturday, December 19, 2015

TESOL 2016

So I've been invited to Baltimore, and I'd like to invite everyone to the presentation, which is on Friday April 8, I believe; I'll confirm that as soon as possible.

In the past year I've had several high-level writing classes, and I've been consumed with the proposition that their writing system involves technology in a way that is simply not always clear to me. I can ask them, cajole them, beg them to tell me about it, and maybe they won't. It could be that they suspect that I won't approve, and they just don't want to divulge the details. Another possibility is that their system actually changes a lot, from time to time, and they don't want to characterize it in one way or the other.

In particular I've become interested in the concordance, and its various applications. More on this later. See you in Baltimore!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Session Report 2015

Leverett, T. (2015). For better or worse: Grammar technology and the language learner. Internet Fair Classics, TESOL Convention, Toronto, Canada, March.

About fifteen presenters present at the same time, and people go from computer to computer watching what each person puts forward. Mine is not especially sexy; I type bad grammar into Ginger or Microsoft Word, and see what happens. Lots of people are interested in Ginger although I make it clear that I'm not a sales rep. I do believe that Ginger is among the best. But I also make it clear that I study what these things don't teach, so I'm more interested in the fails, so to speak, that teachers are left with at the end.

Apparently I got some unexpected support this year; in the past I felt like I was a voice in the wilderness. But in some major colloquium that had Bridges in the name (that’s actually not much help; most of them had Bridges in the name) – on Thursday, in which major SL writing experts were worrying about the state of the field, it came out that there is a substantial amount of technological involvement in student writing. Yes! When people happened upon my Internet Fair Classics presentation, they mentioned it. It seems that the problem has caught the attention of the experts.

As well it should. Writing is completely different from the way it used to be; what we see now in student writing is a product of choices they’ve made using the technology; a product of impressions they picked up from the technology, so, to understand their writing, we need to understand the technology and the way they relate to it. It’s that simple. But I think I’m not alone in saying this, and I'm not the first to notice a new situation.

This year, almost a dozen stopped by and watched as I put ungrammatical sentences into grammar software, and we discussed cases like “defiantly”, commas before “which”, “another hand” and “anther hand”. These are problems that I’ve been focusing on, with the exception of the second, so I tend to bring them up myself. They illustrate points related to student use of technology.

One thing I like about TESOL is that people bring up some of the other variables that are important in understanding student use of technology. Here are a few that I was reminded of. Some students are on scholarship, so actually learning the language may be less important than getting where they’re going. Some students are in a big hurry, and don’t read definitions well because they don’t understand the definitions. Some students really really don’t have access to technology, or have gotten it so recently they really don’t know what to do with it. In some cases, their level is way ahead of ours.

There is now a pen, that looks like a highlighting pen, that you can scan across a line of text, and it will translate it into any language you wish. Have you seen it?

What else is new from TESOL? People from Yemen couldn't go home; their airport was closed. People from Tunisia, or people who visited there recently, were traumatized. People had come from far and wide and were trying to use limited time wisely; this described me as well. But Canada could tell these teachers they had to bring a passport, and it didn't make much difference.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The vanishing teacher

There are two kinds of people who are interested in my presentation. The first thinks that grammar technology can solve all their problems. They often feel that grammar is simply an obstruction, very complicated, too difficult to understand and explain; if the computer can simply solve the problem, why shouldn't it? We should make computers do all that stuff that is simply too hard to teach and learn anyway.

The ironic thing about their approach is that the complex relationships between words that we call grammar is probably the one thing the computer can't ensure, so we get all this grammar technology, and they do the best they can with it, and the bottom line is, there are many times when the computer simply can't figure out whether you want too, to or two. To most of us, it's fairly obvious, and you're unconscious if you don't know the difference. But to the computer, how is it supposed to know what you mean? 

So these teachers, they come up to me and say, show me what this stuff can do, and how it can teach my students stuff that I can't. Or, better yet, how it can simply "fix" or straighten out the wretched stuff my students produce. Surely the technology can apply itself to this situation, and teach them a thing or two, simply by repeatedly showing them what's right. 

Now ironically, I've been doing this for many years, and in fact computers can do much better with the than what they were doing when I first started out. Google has in fact put millions of dollars into language translation and into making computers think like we do, and they've gotten some results - machines that can do pretty well with the translation of a language. But they haven't solved the problem yet. If they could guarantee us that they have the right version of to, or there, or even whether, that would be one thing. But they can't.

Now the other kind of person who is interested in my presentation is much more aware of grammar, and the problems, and the intricacies, and is highly conscious of the price of a single mistake. So these people are disgusted with grammar technology; they wish it had never come upon the scene, because they know it has made life more complicated. They are basically seeking my permission to prohibit it altogether.

Now I am a big complainer. I worry about all these problems that grammar technology can't solve, yet. I'm afraid - both that computers will take over people's jobs, and, that the ESL teacher's job will become only the grammar that computers can't solve (as computers will take care of the vocabulary, the word order, the sounds, etc.) and that thus a vast wide swath of ESL teachers will be overwhelmingly unprepared for the job. But I'm not ready to outlaw the technology altogether. If I were to teach you to drive on a Model T, how would that help you in the modern world? You would have skills that you basically wouldn't need with today's cars. And you and your Model T would be an anachronism, a hazard, on today's roads.

So no, I wouldn't say to simply prohibit the stuff; that's not realistic, and it does them no favors. There's no way out for us here, the teachers; we have to learn grammar and teach it, because somebody has to explain straight-up how the language works, and why some things "make sense" and other things don't. The other ironic thing is, simply, that grammar looms as the one big puzzle that remains for computers to put together. And when we can finally explain it, somebody will be able to program it right in to the computer, and then, finally, our job will be over.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Marital metaphor

Because my presentation has always been called "For Better or Worse," I have always tended to compare people's relationship to grammar technology to marriage. The first thing I found was a similarity: People are attracted to the technology because they think it will solve all their problems, but instead, it creates a whole new set of them.

There are plenty more similarities. For example, they often don't rationally question their alliance; having latched onto one kind of technology or another (for example, Spell-check, Grammarly, or Google Translate, they stick doggedly with it until they find something better. They kind of have an uneasy alliance with it; they recognize its convenience; they believe it in the absence of any other kind of guidance, and, they accept its versions of reality until otherwise told that they are garbage. Stick them on some other kind of technology, and they won't feel quite right, almost as if they've betrayed their favorite system.

Now, the teacher can outlaw technology altogether; the teacher might also convince the student that one should never even touch the stuff. This would be called taking vows of celibacy. Some people are very attracted to this system, and some would say that they belong in a monastery, where it doesn't matter. One can definitely get closer to God by having no technology anywhere near the process, but the problem is, first, that only about 5% or less of the population is really cut out for this kind of life, and second, the poor writer gets no experience, so that when the real thing comes along, he/she has no clue what to do with it. In the history of the world, people have often taken vows of celibacy; usually they don't last for long. However, I must say, teachers like celibate writers for the same reason women are attracted to celibate priests: They have no bad habits to unravel. They are honest, raw, fresh, unpracticed. They don't have a clue, but you can work with that. There's a certain rustic kind of innocence, a lack of confidence, that is more appealing than strictly bad habits.

The rest of us have issues. We misinterpret each other, and have bad habits of perception and feeling, deeply engrained. It takes marriage counseling to figure out how we got into this mess, and why we do things that are so clearly not in our best interest. We thought that the technology worked in a certain way, but it took us in another direction, and in the end, we had no control over the relationship. Frustrated and angry, we have less of a handle on how it works than we ever did. But now, we couldn't give it up if we tried; we are so used to using it, we can barely function without it.

Grammar can be defined as the relations between words that the computer can't catch, or, that can't be properly programmed into the computer. Simple things, like the -s on verbs, are easily programmable, for the most part, and are only an issue in extreme circumstances. Grammar is the stuff that native speakers know but don't know how to explain, because it can't be put into words easily, and nobody ever explained it to us in the first place. To the marriage counselor, the secret is to get each person to realize what they really want. Do not ask marriage to do something it cannot do. Recognize the fallibility of your partner and work to make yourself a better partner. Undo the dangerous and twisted perceptions, that are really habits of talking to yourself, that undermine your progress. Try to remember the time when you were sure this was the answer, absolutely what you were looking for, the end of your constant seeking and dissatisfaction.

A one-night stand would be when you tried something, but you got the sense that it wouldn't, and shouldn't, become a permanent thing. You weren't even sure you'd ever try it again. Are you sorry you did it? Maybe. A lot of people experiment. There's no sense being judgmental about it.

A shotgun wedding is a kind of forced alliance; you are given a certain situation, and you have it whether you wanted it or not; you were deprived of that nice long period of mulling over whether it was really the right thing or not. Now that you are together, everyone notices that it's not a perfect match; in some ways neither of you had a clue what you were getting into. There are some things you will never understand. Nevertheless, you live with it; it is what it is, and it's easier, and better, to work with it the way it is, as opposed to, say, taking vows of celibacy, or having a string of one-night stands.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Brush typing

This was recently described to me as follows: One can actually become more efficient at typing by typing fewer of the letters of the word, and letting the auto-correct find the right word. One does not have to hit the keys exactly, but rather, one can get pretty close and still get away with typing only about 2/3 of every word that one needs.

My sense is that lots of people are getting very good at this. It's dicey, and there are errors associated with it. But in the end, if you can cut your typing time by 2/3, you should! And those who do, will be faster and more efficient.

Labov and the New Dialects

One of my heroes in this world is William Labov, who once said something to the effect that the secret of life is to get the world to pay you to do something you want to do anyway; he, of course, was famous for mapping American dialects carefully. In fact, he was quite good at it, and went out across the US (or had his minions do this) to record people speaking and document where, for example, one would say "soda" instead of "pop", or how one's vowels actually sounded.

This geographical mapping has shifted and become much less distinct, due to the fact that everyone is watching the same television, and interacting heavily in an online world that has YouTube, Facebook, and digital television shows. The new dialects in writing are caused by the technology people use to produce what they write. So, for example, if people make non-words (like definately) you know that they not only had no spell-check interference, but also no auto-correct function, that on modern programs, would simply change this to the proper spelling.

What I'm saying is that if I can become better at spotting the differences in the ways computers alter people's writing, I'll be like Labov. There was a famous story once, of a guy who claimed to be able to place what block of New York City a person lived in, based on that person's accent, after hearing that person speak for a while. This claim was actually backed up, or it was said that the man was reasonably accurate; I'm not sure it was Labov. But the people in single little blocks of New York City are no longer spending as much time talking to each other; instead, they are online with old friends, and their language is not as distinct as it used to be. Their writing, however, gives us infinite clues, which, so far, most people have been unable to read. it's the modern version of dialects.

Front lines part I - Office Dell

My office computer is a Dell, unlike the mac laptops I usually use, but far closer to what I'd say most of my students use for their daily writing. Its Word is probably Word 2011, and is preset to Auto-correct and give grammar and spelling "services". One can change the AutoCorrect options by going to File, Options, Proofing, AutoCorrect Options. What I could not do was find out what Word it was for certain, or find out the difference between red squiggly lines and bluish squiggly lines. This may seem obvious, but I looked for a simple explanation in a place where people would look for it, and I never found it. Perhaps my idea of "simple" or "in a place where people would look for it" is altered by my mac experience.

It autocorrected definately and simply made it into definitely, without even asking me. It was defenetly that it had trouble with, and asked me if I wanted to change it to decently or defiantly before it gave me the option of definitely. This gave an important clue to what is actually happening on the battlefield. The ones that end up as defiantly are the ones that start out a little farther away from what was originally intended. On this dell word program, it gave simple definitions for the alternative choices, and I found this to be very convenient. I could read what decently and defiantly meant, until I could figure out which choice I needed.

The blue squiggly line came when I typed in Anther hand, which is something my Saudis would often try. It was able to offer Another to me, which I liked, but which still would be ungrammatical. Lots of Saudis produce Another hand in the process of learning On the other hand, but they are at least getting out there and using the new constructions that they have heard.

The program was unable to flag I am go, and simply left it there. My focus is on what actually happens in the trenches here; I'm moving on to mac programs and older versions of Word.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teaching in the New World

I've become a little frustrated at lack of data, so I've scattered an appeal in three different places: in the writing lab where I work, in the meeting of ESL teachers and graduate students, and finally, in my class itself, which is a high-level class training people to become teachers at the university. This last one has students in many departments, Math, Chemistry, Petroleum; many of them are at the end of their learning curve, having succeeded in almost everything in English, except perhaps the tone, or the rhythm, or their ability to answer questions successfully.

So today, in a short interlude where we were waiting for a student to show up for his midterm, I posed a question to them: How has technology changed your learning, the way you learn, the way you write, or your understanding of grammar? And then, how is teaching in the New World going to be different from the way we have always understood teaching?

One teacher pointed out that learning in her country, and generation, always involved writing things out in elaborate, or at least careful script - but that students today don't want to learn cursive, and in fact it is being downplayed in the schools, not even taught in some cases. Given the choice between working it out on the board, or using smart-board technology to get it where you can see and manipulate the figures, they'll go for the smart-board every time. This implies to me that if you were to have an essay test, and simply demand that students write out an answer, by hand, that consisted of two or more sentences, they'd actually be at a disadvantage.

Students reported a phenomenon. A Brazilian student had a nephew, six years old, already fluent in listening to English; the Saudi student had seen the same thing in the son of a friend. YouTube is available everywhere; it has good things that they want to see. They watch it over and over again. Their ability to hear it and understand is very good. They are not always able to transform this into spoken English fluency, but their general ability to manage spoken television/YouTube English is much better than it used to be. I asked other students if they had noticed this phenomenon; they had. Increased availability of entertaining English is definitely part of the New World paradigm.

One student pointed out a glaring weakness of the computer translators: humor, which is at a very high level, and often depends on tone. Computers can't pick this up yet, he said, implying that they were on their way to being able to deconstruct, use and interpret tone. But for now, such things as SNL are totally beyond them, since they can't provide or understand the cultural context for most of the humor.

As students (and I only had a few of them; roughly four or five remained, the rest taking the midterm on other days) they freely admitted that they knew more about technology than their teacher did. They used it at home if they could. It was very convenient for understanding and doing certain things. Generally the teacher did not approve of it, either because it created language the teacher didn't approve of, or because getting the computer to do something was allowing the student to not do it. Of course, they would not always tell the teacher of the technology they were using to do their assignments. They were well aware that sometimes the computer gave them the wrong translation of a word.

One said something really perceptive about the new Google Translate app. Such apps, he said, are really useful if you are just visiting a country. I go to China, he says, I need to know a few words & phrases, like "bathroom", "Give me three of these," and "thank you!" But we can't expect such things to teach us the language. And we can't learn the language in a couple of weeks anyway. His point, I think, is that what we consider "learning the language" really is learning the grammar, because it deals with the way words are used together, and the pure word-word translation part of it, which may involve some pronunciation issues, is readily accessible by computer. 

Based on my discussions with students, I have formulated a number of questions. First, how do students view teachers who prohibit technology altogether? Second, if students know more about apps than teachers do, generally, how do students feel that teachers are keeping up? Would they always tell the teacher about a new app that made their life easier? 

How many students now have the Google app? What is the likelihood that they are sharing this information with their teachers? How are they finding it most or least useful?

Is it even possible for them to identify the structures they've had the most trouble with, on the basis of what they know and have been through? For example, most students can look back from this point of relative fluency, and say, in effect, I've had trouble with the passive; the word grammar-check kept telling me it was wrong. With a little coaching they will tell you what they learned from the computer, and whether or not they learned or gathered some false information, and they may even be aware of trouble they had as a result. But most often, they're aware of this on a less accessible plane, still struggling with it, still basically unwilling to share their struggle with a teacher. After a while I felt like I was pulling teeth. They either didn't know what had confused them (although passive voice is a subject that comes up regularly) or were barely aware of what they didn't know.

If our generation learned things by writing them out in cursive, using kinesthetic learning techniques, one could say, to engrave things in our brains. Obviously the younger people are tending to find these of no use; they don't want to take notes or write things out by hand. So, are they learning things more shallowly, or not at all? Can one simply transfer the skill of learning through cursive to learning through tapping on a keyboard?

Finally, if a generation of Anglophiles pounds on our door, having watched YouTube for fifteen years, but never having written a sentence, what will we do? Will their good listening skill and easy familiarity with American cultural norms transfer into a faster learning curve? The old Krashen doctrine said that listening came first, and was the foundation of all other learning, that oral interaction skills preceded everything else and was an essential and basic component of their learning. They should, based on what we know, have a foundation of something. Whether this aligns with the kind of knowledge that will really help them, remains to be seen. And what we should do about it? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Best ways to learn a new language

According to this issue

Korean is a language that heavily uses topicalization, which is a process of letting your listener/reader know what the sentence is about, so that you don't have to have a subject later on. You could, for example, say, As for me, at 7:00 going to a party. We used to get on our Korean students for using In my case at the beginning of every sentence they made, but they did it because that's how you would set up a sentence in Korean. The basic method of setting up a sentence is different. It seemed to us English speakers that it was much more efficient (and natural) to simply say I am going to a party at 7:00. But we are using an entirely different system.

So I was helping a Korean student the other day, and he had produced several sentences that said, in effect, According to this issue, the problem is x and y...I could see that this was in effect the same problem. The topic was the issue at hand, and he'd identified the topic. According to was the wrong expression; With respect to might have worked better; but the real problem was simply that it's very rare to even need to identify the topic in English; we have myriad other ways to put the reader's attention on a different topic. We tend not to use that way of establishing the topic.

The reason I mention this is that computers can't pick up the cultural preference of ways of alerting a reader to a new topic. The computer could make the According to expression grammatical; it could ensure that there was a noun after it, and that it wasn't the main structure of the sentence. But it couldn't tell him what it meant. And it couldn't tell him that in English one tends to establish the topic differently.

Machine translator grammarians are proud that they have been able to work in the grammar of concordances, such that their software will catch the fact that, for example, we generally say interested in rather than interested by or interested with. If the computer can catch the expression, or the opportunity, to put you on the same path as 90% of English speakers, then it has made your output make more sense to English readers and has made you a better writer. But if it's unable to get you to construct sentences differently, or it can't alert you to a subtle difference in what we take things to mean, then its job isn't done.

Our job as teachers is to do the jobs that computers can't do. We might take on the whole language and decide that it's best to teach students without ever using computers, and in this case we might be better off, because we're talking about the mindset of the person who sits down to write, and the tendency to start off in a certain way, or set up a sentence in a certain way. But our problem is that the student has had the computer with him/her for every moment of his/her learning, so the English he/she has been producing is already without the benefit of this direction of teaching, and this student is quite used to putting these topicalizing expressions in front of everything he/she creates, without the benefit of auto-correction essentially reminding him/her that it's inappropriate. It's similar to any habit-forming experience that basically had to be undone in the past.

We once had a group of Malaysian speakers who basically reported to us that 1) they spoke quite a bit of pidgin English in their lives before they had arrived in the US; and 2) in this form of English it was quite common to omit the -s ending in the process of matching subjects and verbs. It was difficult to convey to them how important this was in the construction of our language, when in fact, even if they were able to understand its importance, they were unable to undo years of bad-habit overlooking of the requirement. These days the computer automatically fixes the failure to match; it simply puts the -s on the verb and forces you to remove it deliberately. But what we are seeing is a higher level of bad habits, because students find it easier to create the basic sentences, allowing the computer to match subject and verb, and allowing the electronic dictionary to provide the necessary words; therefore they can make longer and more complex sentences that all have easily obtained, but not always appropriate, words. We might even mistake what they are doing for a very high level of sentence construction. It would be better understood as a high level of misguided sentence construction habits. And the computer doesn't recognize what it sees well enough to point that out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Teaching new dogs old tricks

The next time you assign an essay, don't make any requirements about what students are able to use in the process of writing: Word grammar-check, spell-check, grammar software, whatever they want. Watch what they do. Watch carefully the process and what happens between when they think of something to say, and when they actually have something on paper. The computer is involved every step of the way, and you should be aware of how that influences the process.

Now of course, you could tell them NO. Don't use it, I don't want to see you using it, it's wrong (you could even disable the computers that they are using). What that means is, they would use it all the time, except when they are in your class. But then you might as well be teaching primitive hieroglyphics, because it would be just as useful - it would be primitive writing compared to what they would use every day. They would produce things that would look nothing like what they would normally produce. You would have a much clearer view of what they actually know. It also might be easier for you to figure out what they meant, since the computer would no longer alter what they write making it harder for you to interpret. So, sure, there would be advantages. But the biggest disadvantage is that you would be teaching them to write without using any of the tools they would normally use. It would be like teaching someone to drive a car, only using a Model T. One side of us says "that's the real driving, that's what driving was meant to be." But the other side says, "You were unable to teach the things they need the most," i.e. how to use the tools of the modern car.

Intuitively, there is something gratifying about teaching to drive on a Model T. That's the real thing, right? All the modern conveniences just get in the way, don't they? If you taught someone the true skill, unadorned, unchanged, wouldn't that be better?

No, they wouldn't let you, because it would be unsafe to put someone in a new car without the awareness of what the modern tools do. And the same with writing in the modern world. In the old days, it was harder to manage a clutch, make a turn, etc. so you spent more time mastering that stuff. In the modern world, if you spent a week learning how to use a clutch, you'd be wasting your time. You should teach them how to write as we know the process today.

That's why you should recognize the machine and its role. Tell them the difference between one grammar check and the other. Teach them how to use spell-check and avoid errors. Get them to use their memory for the stuff they need to memorize.

In the future, this might not include words. Why should they learn new words, when the machine can just provide them? Ah, but what the machine can't do, is construct them into simple, meaningful sentences. Only you can teach them that!

Friday, February 13, 2015

TESOL presentation - all invited

I will be presenting at the TESOL International 2015 Electronic Village Classics in Toronto. 
Presentation Title: For Better or Worse: Grammar technology and the language learner
Presentation Description: This presentation shows the technology that students are using to learn and write, so that practitioners can adjust accordingly
Day and Time: Friday, March 27 2:30-3:20 PM
Computer Station: MAC 4

Polly Lingual

I've always loved languages, because they are a window into people's souls, and you can, by knowing their avenues of expression, understand their avenues of feeling and interpreting their worlds. Those who defend the process of learning a language as good for the human soul have always defended that idea - that it expands your horizons to see how others think, and express themselves, and use different words to express what is essentially the feelings that all humans have.

I studied languages all through college, every chance I had. I took some German, and then a class in French, and then two years of Russian (I'd already had Spanish in high school), and then, in graduate school, a semester of Sanskrit. When I lived in Korea I studied it, and I also studied Yiddish and a few other languages a little. What limited me really was number of words. You'd have to have a few thousand to really get started on any of them, and the thousands I'd learn to get started on a new one would in effect push some others into the dustbin of my memory. So I'd be most current in Korean, for example, and forget all my Spanish words (not the grammar, really, I managed to hang onto that) - and when I'd start speaking Spanish again, I simply didn't have the words.

This single greatest impediment to me has now been eliminated. So, now, if I want to learn a new language, all I have to do is apply Google Translate, or its phone app, to that language, and the words are taken care of, I've got the words. I still have to learn how to pronounce it in a way people can understand it, and I've still got to construct some kind of grammar, and I still have to see how words are interrelated. But if my brain could only hold a few thousand words, and that was preventing me from learning a third or fourth language, that part, now, is no longer a problem. I need a word, I can get it. If I'm writing, GT will take care of it; if I'm speaking, using my phone effectively will put all the words right at my fingertips. Now I should say that this isn't quite true for every language yet (I have a friend who is hankering for Mongolian, but Scottish Gaelic is another example) - and in fact it is the languages that have a shortage of either computer programmers, or people who are completely familiar with the grammar, that are having the most trouble. But slowly, people will fill in the gaps. They will all be covered, or they will disappear.

Another problem is that machine translators have trouble with metaphoric variation, so that when you say on the other hand, the machine has to figure out whether you are actually referring to your hand, in which case the literal word meaning "hand" will be useful, or whether you mean "however," in which case some other word will be more useful in the language you are trying to translate to. People used to think machines could not get past this block, but they can. There are unusual ways to do it, and there are more standard ways to do it. Machines will get better at it.

My mind is now free to concentrate on my biggest job as a language translator, which is unscrambling jumbled words from one language to another. One gets better at this, though. One can now learn ten, twenty, thirty languages, so more of our ESL students will be coming from this kind of pattern. The words won't be an issue. Eliminating memory as a requirement for learning good languages will be like eliminating memory as a requirement for telling long stories, as what happened when they invented the printing press; languages will be in a new era, because they'll have so many more participants, and memory won't be a requirement for anyone to participate in a new one.

Grammar technology and the new world

The biggest news this year is undoubtedly the new Google Translate app, which is free, which hit the market a couple of months ago, and which has left everyone wondering what its effects will be. One can now point one's phone at anything - a sign, a teacher, a television - and get a rendition of what is being said on one's phone.

It has not been established that this app can work with everything - a large university lecture, a complex political speech, or a work of literature, for example - but it clearly has the potential to change the way we do many translating tasks in life. We cannot expect students to not know about or choose not to use such an app; rather, we can assume that most will have it within a few days and will be well-established in patterns of using it within a month or two. These patterns may be entirely out of the sight of teachers in many cases, since students are well aware of teachers' generally prohibitive and negative attitudes toward such things. Also, since the app only covers the top thirteen or so languages, some students will be naturally excluded.

I personally don't think it will stay this way. The first time I saw the app, on the phone of my Saudi student, I noticed that it had roughly thirteen languages,  maybe up to about eighteen (at least two were Chinese) - but it included one that it called "Maldavian" which I took to be Maldivian, the language of the Maldives, a popular tourist resort for Saudis. Maldivian would never make it to the top thirteen in the US, but someone clearly had their eye on the market for Saudi phone users, and was quick to come up with something they could use and use today. Why is it free? And why would they scramble so hard to make everything available? I'm not sure. But I say, if you don't have Mongolian yet, wait a while, and soon you'll have something. These may not be effective translators in terms of grammatical output. But it's more than we had yesterday, and it's sure to have an effect, one way or the other, on how we live our lives.

I don't get a whole lot of specific feedback on how the machines - GT, Grammarly and the grammar-checkers, Word grammar-check, and electronic translators - affect student writing and learning. Either teachers are afraid of it, hate talking about it, aren't clear about what exactly is being caused by the machines, or really don't care. There are other possible reasons they're not forthcoming (they're busy, they don't like me, they don't care for the way I ask for feedback, etc.) - but my impression is that fussing over grammatical errors puts them in waters they'd just rather avoid altogether. After all, what's the difference between a straight-up error and a machine-created one? Isn't an error an error?

I'd say, no, and it matters a lot, and we should pay attention. This is my reasoning. We can see what happened with spell-check, although you can feel free to dispute the degree to which these changes happened, or any part of my assertions. First, spell-check was developed and applied almost universally with very little resistance; it was seen as convenient and providing a service that people needed. Second, people got in the habit of using it, though they didn't always use it correctly, and often changed words into inappropriate alternatives (thus, cupertinos like defiantly as in I am defiantly going to the concert). Third, non-words (like definately) disappeared, but cupertinos, their/there/they're errors, etc. abounded, partly because of the explosion of informal writing, but also partly because, in general, people were out of the habit of using their memories to process the differences between real words, and the machine systematically eliminated the non-words. Finally, the culture reacted to the proliferation of there/their/they're errors (its/it's, etc.) with an onslaught of memes (Grammarly itself is happy to see these, and creates a number of them, for entirely self-serving purposes; it doesn't hurt them to have everyone know how bad it is to get them wrong). The process included shifting of the battle lines and heightened awareness and self-consciousness regarding grammatical errors; many teachers feel heightened self-consciousness is already the problem. But in a world where this heightened self-consciousness becomes a loud noise in their heads as they try to go forward on the arduous task of learning a language, does it help them if we ignore the situation? I don't think so. That's like saying, let's not worry about the war and violence that has been done to you, and is going on around you, let's concentrate on paying your phone bill.

People who are trying to master a language in an environment where the language they produce is clearly subject to judgment have a difficult task laid out for them. It's like learning to walk on a tightrope when your first task is Niagara Falls. We should watch the stakes of what they do, as well as the process they come to trust when they create writing. If they don't feel like sharing with us the details of their process, then we aren't really teaching "writing" as they know it. We're teaching how we feel they should be doing it, and then they're going off and doing what they want, without our knowledge or input. There's a disconnect there, and we're getting language that is all real words, put together poorly, not meaning exactly what they say, and we're not clear about where it's from, or what they meant, or what to do about it, so we do what? Avoid the situation?