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?