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.