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.

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