30 January 2011

Review: Lidl's "United Office" 6-language pocket translator

So a few weeks ago, Lidl's weekly specials in my area were "office supplies".  As a somewhat obsessive language learner, an electronic dictionary for 7 quid was something not to be missed.

Of course, I knew it would be rubbish.
And of course, I was right.

The first thing I noticed when I opened it up was the quick reference guide under the lid.  This I recognised from a pocket dictionary that someone had in my high school.  And it's been a good 15 years since I moved on from that place, so I knew straight off that we were looking at first generation technology.  This technology appears to have been widely licensed as a "white label" system from a Far Eastern company, and I've seen a couple of devices with different physical layouts, but obviously the same underlying tech.

The dictionary
Well, the first function that any electronic dictionary needs to have is the dictionary itself, so we'll look at that first.
As might be expected from its 13-character, single-line screen, this "pocket translator" certainly isn't a translator, and even the term "dictionary" is stretching things a little.  It's more of a "glossary" than anything else.
The dictionary contains no explanations whatsoever, just a series of one-to-one mappings of equivalent words across languages.  It's as though it were a single big table of 6 languages by however many words.

But some words don't map cleanly down to one translation, so while there's one "affirm" in English, there's three entries for "affirmer" in French: "affirmer (1)", "affirmer (2)", "affirmer (3)".  Affirmer (2) gives us the English "assert", and "affirmer (3) gives us the English "aver", a word that even I would have trouble understanding and I'm pretty good at English, what with speaking it my entire life...!

Well that "aver" is in there for a reason, suggesting that the equivalent German, Spanish, Italian or Dutch must be of some use

And therein lies the problem.  If there is a meaningful distinction in one language, that distinction becomes part of the table, and the dictionary compilers had to find something to fill the row for every language.  In a dictionary where you know the native language of the reader, it is accepted to give out the odd rare word or two in the reader's language as it won't be misleading.  But when you don't know, the end result may be that the reader learns to speak in a way that is not well understood by natives of his target language.

The phrasebook
The phrasebook functionality follows the same table-based style.  It has the usual stuff -- good morning, how are you, where is ...?
However, there's no way to search it other than to start at the start and run down the list.
So the content's OK, but the delivery stinks.

I like Hangman, but if you're not going to give me any clues, I'm left in the dark.  A 5-letter French word?  There's quite a few of those...
The Anagrams are a bit better, but the whole things too random for me to bother attempting to use.

The calculator
The numbers are all over the "QWERTY" line of text, with the operators on the line below. It wouldn't have been difficult to mimic the layout of a standard calculator by splitting the numbers across rows.  That would have made the calculator much more easy to use for anyone with a calculator already.

The verdict
It's rubbish.  But then again, I knew that and I bought it anyway, because it's cheap rubbish. It's smaller and lighter than a single Langenscheidt "Universal" dictionary (the truly pocket-sized dictionaries from Langenscheidt), so at £7 I can hardly complain.  I'll probably take it round Europe several times, and I'll probably never use it.  In that sense, it's a bit like the warning triangle in the back of the car -- it's a just-in-case thing.  For that, it'll do.

Update, 29/07/2011
Still haven't used it.  I wonder if I'll actually need it before the battery goes flat. (CR2032, non-rechargeable.)

Update, 07/01/2012
I hadn't used it and I was moving out of a flat.  I figured I'd never ever use it, so I binned it.
By the time I need anything like that, I'll probably have got myself a smartphone or something anyway.

21 January 2011

The internal dialogue.

A lot of successful language learners talk about having an "internal dialogue" or "internal monologue", where they're constantly practising their languages in their head, whether by providing a running commentary or imagining talking to peopl.  (This is slightly different from the "din in the head".)

I've always done something like that, even before I started learning languages.  It was part of a general tendency to overanalyse everything, and while I'm getting rid of that tendency, I have found the continuing internal monologue and/or dialogue quite useful in learning languages.

But I have found it increasingly difficult to employ consciously, as I keep finding that my internal monologue/dialogue keeps switching on in a different language from what I intended.

Of all people, it was Wikileaks' Julian Assange who gave me an insight into what's going on here.  I read an article on him on the New Yorker's website several weeks ago -- here's the relevant passage:

He lived and hiked among dense eucalyptus forests in the Dandenong Ranges National Park, which were thick with mosquitoes whose bites scarred his face. “Your inner voice quiets down,” he told me. “Internal dialogue is stimulated by a preparatory desire to speak, but it is not actually useful if there are no other people around.” He added, “I don’t want to sound too Buddhist. But your vision of yourself disappears.”


And there's my problem -- if I have no anticipation of needing a particular language, my brain won't pick the right one.  When I was going to Barcelona for a holiday, my brain went into overdrive, rehearsing everything in Catalan, because I knew it would be useful.

In fact, a lot of my ability in Spanish can be credited to a lovely Spanish woman I had a massive crush on.  I looked forward to seeing her and I anticipated conversations, and my brain was always rehearsing new language as I was picking it up with the goal of impressing her.  I even picked up a bit of her accent and ways of speaking.

The upshot

If you want to learn a language, you've got to practise it, and the internal mono/dialogue is a very efficient way of doing that - in fact it's hard to learn without some kind of subconscious practice.  So in order to learn, you've got to keep your brain anticipating a need for the language.

Many courses aim to do this by having imaginable situations - at the airport, in the restaurant, etc - but these don't really work for me.  Why not?  Because while I can imagine the situation, I don't anticipate a need for language.  I already know that airport staff in all major international terminals havea good level of English.  In most cities I've visited, the menu's written in two or three languages, including English, and the bill comes with numerals, so I don't need to know the numbers to know how much things cost.  (In fact, when I moved to Spain, I didn't know my numbers and relied on the display on the till when I went to the supermarket!)

So when you're trying to learn, you need to have something in your future to anticipate -- whether it's a holiday in the language, a lovers' tryst or simply just telling a language exchange partner about the film you saw last week.  Your brain will practise once it knows it needs to.

But going back to these situations, actually, it's far easier to anticipate universals.  Things like "I don't know" and "I want to..." come up all the time.  In your native language you say these things several times a day.  how often do you present your passport?  How often do you buy spaghetti carbonara?  If you provide your internal dialogue with the language it can anticipate for everyday use, it can rehearse that language every day.

14 January 2011

The question of identity and language.

One of my New Year's resolutions was to get away from a particular language forum.  I've been spending too much time arguing various things there, and sometimes I do make a bit of a fool of myself.  So I'm off for a bit to cool off, although I'll be popping back in for a couple of particular topics only.

Anyhow, I thought I'd take the opportunity to firm up my thoughts on a particular topic that we'd been discussing in December - the importance of accent to the learner.

The first angle I'd like to cover this from is the idea that your accent is part of your identity, the "face" of your voice, as it were.

Accent: your voice's face?

OK, so as I said, many people see their accent as a major outward component of their identity.  Personally, I cannot accept that, as it would basically make me two faced.  When I was a child, I spoke with a Scots accent (in fact, I spoke a language that was neither Scots or English, but a little of both), but I learned through the education system to speak with a more SSE (Scottish English) accent.  Eventually, through university friends and work, I adjusted myself to an even more Englicised[*] way of speaking.  Now my accent, grammar and vocabulary all vary across this spectrum depending on who I'm speaking to.

( [*] Yes, I made up this word.  However, "anglicised" doesn't cut it in this situation as Scots and English are both Anglo-Saxon tongues.  Only one of them is from "England", though. )

Does this make me an attention-whore?  Not really.  This is a completely natural part of language, and we all do it to an extent.  Linguists call it convergence.  The idea is that when we want to show social closeness to others, we talk in a way more like them.  On the other hand, if we want to show social distance, we talk less like them.

Studying this concept several years ago led me to an interesting philosophical standpoint:

True identity is relative.

On first reading, that may seem a little insane, so let me explain.

Consider the difference in social etiquette in Spain and Scotland.
In Scotland, when you're introduced to someone, you'll probably give them a little wave, or if you're very bold, you might go as far as a timid handshake.  Only on very rare occasions will you kiss or hug them - maybe they're a brother's fiancée or something.  In Spain, on the other hand, guys will immediately go for a firm handshake if they're in range, and a guy and a girl or two girls will almost invariably kiss.

If you define "reservedness" as part of a "Scottish identity" and "forwardness" as part of a "Spanish identity", then you are suggesting that a guy from the UK who goes to Spain and starts merrily kissing the chicas has lost his identity, but I don't feel this is the case.

When I'm in Spanish company, I tend to act the same way as they do, but I don't feel that my identity is threatened.  In fact, I feel that I am projecting the same self-image as I do when surrounded by my friends in Edinburgh.

If I was to continue to act in a "Scottish" way while with Spanish people, I would seem completely antisocial, but that's not my identity.  In order to seem equally sociable in Spanish-speaking company as I do in a Scottish country pub, I have to act differently.

Similarly, if a Spanish guy comes to Scotland and continues to act in a "Spanish" way with Scottish people, he will seem excessively outgoing, possibly to the point of being creepy.  He too has to modify his behaviour to seem as reserved to us as he does to people in his own country.

Essentially, socially conditioned behaviours are not our identity; they're not even "markers" of our identity; they are simply a means of transmission of identity.  Some of the worst excesses of racism and xenophobia can be traced to the tendency to view behaviours as fixed markers of identity.  Anyone who acts differently is shunned.  Even homophobia is rooted in the same idea -- if you behave differently, you're "them", not "us".

And language is nothing if not a socially conditioned behaviour.

So this takes us back to the idea of linguistic convergence.  We do not speak like people in order to "be like them", but to show that "we like them".  Ever wonder why some foreign people don't want to talk to you?  They're not being snobbish -- they think you're being snobbish, because you're diverging from them.  Maintaining a heavy foreign accent isn't "keeping your own identity", but distancing yourself from the other party -- rejecting their identity, in effect.

In fact, I find myself converging when I speak to Spanish speakers from different regions.  The most notable example was when I was chatting up a Venezuelan (or was she Columbian) and my accent changed massively.  Yes, when you fancy someone, you converge very heavily towards their accent. 

I'm sure I'll get a couple of responses starting "ah, but what about...", so I'll try to pre-empt the biggest one.

"What about regional accents?  Do people from London have problems with people from Glasgow?"  No, because convergence does take place.  People from London and people from Glasgow find it difficult to understand each other, and they do modify their speech to help each other along.  There's give and take, but with a heavy-accented foreigner, the native is forced to do all the converging.  There's no reciprocation, so it becomes an imposition.

Native speakers do try to accommodate to non-native learners, but really, the lion's share of the effort has to come from the learner, he is the one that is demonstrably further from the social norm, and the native will normally only converge towards a neutral way of speaking, like a newsreader or teacher's professional accent.

Because, in the end accent is linked to their identity... for a native speaker.  When you ask someone to change their accent, you are actually asking them to modify their identity.

Your native accent is not part of your second-language identity.  You have to construct that identity for yourself.  Using your first-language accent in your second language presents an identity of being an outsider and being indifferent to the speakers of your host language.  Show them you want to get on with them and they'll want to talk to you.

07 January 2011

The myth of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Generation

I've been on YouTube a bit today doing a bit of research into future articles, and on one video I watched, Steve Kaufmann commented on the idea that has been doing the rounds that attention spans are shorter than ever.  I grew up in the "MTV Generation", allegedly, and the "SMS and Twitter Generation" is apparently even worse than mine.  Let's combine the two into the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Generation -- the ADHG.

This is belief pervades much of modern thinking.  For at least a dozen years, TV companies have been trying behind the scenes to devise ways of writing bite-sized TV programs for the ADHG.  The conversation has switched from ideas of "webisodes" (the BBC experimented with this for two Flash-animated Doctor Who stories at the turn of the century, for example) to talk of TV programs for the mobile phone.

But this is nonsense.  Cinemas may no longer show 4 hour epics, but aside from that, run lengths in most media have stayed stable.

A great example is the Star Trek series, simply because it has been running so long.

Looking at the details on Wikipedia and IMDB, you can see that in 1966 the original stories with Captain Kirk ran at 50 minutes each.  The Next Generation, 1987-1994, was 45 minutes long, but this was mostly down to the increase in advert breaks, and the effective time taken to watch an episode would have remained the same.  Deep Space Nine from 1993-1999 was exactly the same, as was Voyager (1995-2001) and finally Enterprise (2001-2005) was a mere minute shorter, which again we can put down to increasing advertising time.  So over half a century, no more than 6 minutes of storytelling time has been lost, and the viewers are sat in front of the goggle-box for the same amount of time as before.

Now, what came out of the "webisode" model?  Aside from the Doctor Who serieses already mentioned, the big one would be Sanctuary done with full CG sets.  There were initially 8 episodes at 15-20 minutes each... but eventually they switched to a 42 minute television format, because that was more popular.  So where's the evidence for reduced attention spans?

OK, yes, there's now 8 minutes less story time than a 1966 major drama, but that 8 minutes is 8 minutes more advertising -- that's 18 minutes of advertising to 42 minutes of viewing.  Almost a third of your time in front of the TV is not following the story.  To me that suggests a longer attention span, not a shorter one, but hey....

Anyway, this is a language blog, right? and Kaufmann was talking about how this mythological short attention span leads to daft ideas like 140-character Twitter messages for language learning.

Indeed, there is a massive amount of material out there for the ADHG.  Radio Lingua's Coffee Break series, for example, consists of "podcast" courses of 80 lessons of 15-20 minutes.  Of course, there's a lot of wasted time due to the faux-radio culture of podcasts. There's an announcement, followed by a theme song followed by a "welcome to the show", a short jingle, and finally the lesson starts after a full minute and a half (10% into the recording).  And of course each episode ends with a goodbye, a jingle, and then an advert for the site (just in case you got it somewhere else).  If quarter of an hour is too much for you, the same site offers a One Minute series.  The invasiveness of the jingles, welcome, goodbye and site advert at the end is even worse, as each one-minute lesson is wrapped up in an MP3 of 3 minutes or thereabouts.

With so little time, something has to give.  The One Minute series suffers from an acute lack of revision.  As far as I'm concerned, if there's no revision, there's no teaching. What you're left with is a phrasebook, not a course.  Coffee Break does retread some ground, but they do fall into the old trap of telling you to relisten to old lessons instead of programming in sufficient revision in future lessons.  (Older LP, cassette or CD-based courses had to balance the cost of the additional recording media with the value of programmed revision, but a podcast class has no such excuse!)

And it's not just audio media that suffer for this perceived lack of attentiveness -- books are changed by the same philosophy.  Everything's broken down and segmented into semi-self-contained units and sub-units, which means not exploiting connections.  I was working with high-school kids using a book that introduced any new structure in the positive and worked on that, then in the negative and worked on that, then in the interrogative...  But you know what?  The rules for forming negatives and interrogatives in English are almost entirely regular, so these shouldn't need to be taught individually for every new strucure.  But we have to keep things short -- it's the ADHG, don't you know.

But here comes the non-sequitur.  At the same time as lamenting the lack of attention spans in "kids today", the course books exacerbate the problem.  In the process of trying to make the material relevant to kids, they ignore the appropriacy of the format.  Kids love magazines, right?  So let's make our books more like magazines!  Long before I took my sabbatical as a teacher, I'd read about this.  Magazines are designed as much not to be read as to be read.  You flick backwards and forwards, you glance at pictures, you read little lists of facts that distract you from the main article -- everything you don't want in a classroom.

Many school books actually undermine the learners' attention spans.  So maybe the ADHG isn't a myth, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy.