Friday, February 13, 2015

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?

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