31 March 2011

Can we trust quotes on language products?

I've said before that you can't really trust anyone when it comes to language learning.  In the last couple of days I've had my nose in a few books that have nice little quotes on the back saying how invaluable to the learner.

There are two problems in general, depending on whether the quote is from a learner or a subject matter expert.

With learners, the problem is quite simply that we often overestimate our own abilities.  So is it really effective, or is it just a flawed perception on the user's side?

With experts, the problem is slightly different.  On the simplest level, the expert can see when all the information is there, but can't honestly say whether it explains it well enough.  Any reviewing expert has the same problem as the author: being an expert, he is blind to the difficulties in certain concepts.  A book can make fairly large leaps in logic, but because the expert knows what's in the "gap", he understands what the author means, and doesn't notice the hole in the information.

A particular problem here is the use of jargon. I have one Gaelic grammar book that is widely praised as suitable for learners, yet is riddled with imperfect passive dependent forms, based on a very brief outline of grammatical terminology at the start of the book.  I don't have a linguistics degree, but I'm better informed than most Gaelic learners, and I still find the book very heavy going indeed.

But at a deeper level, this is a very dangerous situation.  An expert knows the information he's looking for, and a book that lets the expert find the information quickly and unambiguously looks the most "correct" to the expert.  But the learner needs a more subtly structured, integrative approach.  A great teacher will tie all the concepts together as they appear, and to an expert this looks messy -- the information is spread out throughout the book.  So an expert isn't just blind to the gaps in an overly technical resource, in a learner-friendly work he is blinded to the presence of the information by the very things the learner needs.

This is why my favourite resources take a lot of flak from "educated" quarters -- the teaching hides the information it's teaching from casual view, but reveals it to the learner as and when appropriate.

13 March 2011

United we stand, divided we fall: Multiple minorities

Anyone living in Scotland will be familiar with the big noise made in the media over Gaelic.  Mostly it's just about how a minority is getting money (incidentally, the figures aren't really that high), bolstered by the claim that it was "never spoken here".  Every now and then we see that argument reinforced with "what about Scots"?

The claim "never spoken here" is untrue in most places, as most parts of Scotland had Gaelic at some point in history, and a lot of it still had some even only 200 years ago.  But this is an irrelevancy, and people get there blood up picking over the semantics of never.  In the final analysis, history is less important than the present: if people don't identify with a language now, then it simply isn't their language.  Sadly a core minority of Gaelic activists do not accept this and get people's backs up by effectively telling their fellow countrymen that they aren't true Scots.

Some people who support Scots call Gaelic an incomer language from Ireland.  Some people who support Gaelic call Scots an incomer language from England.  Well so what?  Every language came from somewhere else to start off with.  (And incidentally, Scots came from overseas, not from England.  Common thought still says Gaelic came via Ireland, but it came from Iberia before that, and somewhere else before that.)  The simple fact of the matter is that both are present in Scotland today, and both are part of lineages that have been spoken in parts of what is now Scotland for well over a millennium.  In my book, that makes them both "Scottish languages".

In arguments such as these, people often reach back and invoke the names of legendary historic Scots.  A recent blog post claims Wallace and Robert the Bruce as Gaelic speakers.  "Wallace" is an Anglo-Saxon name for a speaker of Brythonic (related to the modern "Welsh").  So maybe he spoke Gaelic, but he mostly likely was at least bilingual.

Robert de Brus was from the Norman nobility, and though to have been brought up in the Scots-speaking southeast, or in the northeast of England where even now the everday speech is more like Scots than Standard English.  His mother was a Gael.  Why did a Norman lord marry a Gaelic countess?  This romanticised in legend as some great romance, but in truth the most likely explanation is that the de Brus line had been claiming the throne since the death of Alexander, and Bruce's grandfather (after being denied the crown in favour of Baliol) realised that he needed to get the Gaelic clan chieftains on-side if one of his descendants was ever to be crowned king.  So he married his son to a Gael.  When the young Robert the Bruce courted the chiefs and lairds, he would have been able to address each and every one of them in their own language, and as one of them.

In his blog post at Tocasaid, Mac an t-Srònaich seems to suggest Scots is a massive conspiracy to divide the people of Scotland by separating them from their true language.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Scotland has always been divided and has always resisted the imposition of a shared identity from one of its groups.  Scotland was at its best when a few visionary leaders were willing to stand up and bridge that divide and develop a common purpose that still respected individual identity.  This is the model we should be following.

Come on now people let's get on the ball and work together.

12 March 2011

The death of the word

I've been thinking about writing a post under this title for a while, but every time I think about it, it changes.  I figured I'd just publish and be damned, and if I change my mind later, I'll post again.

Right now there's a bit of a spat going through the courts been Apple and Microsoft.  There always is, but this one's a bit special.  Apple have claimed "App Store" as a trademark, Microsoft say it's a generic term.  Apple say it must be a trademark as they invented it, Microsoft say it must be a generic term because it's modelled on the generic pattern for shops in US English -- hardware store, liquor store, general store -- with the generic term app simply stating the type of shop/store it is.  ("App" is short for "application" -- ie any piece of computer software that serves a useful purpose, rather than being a game.)  Microsoft also point to several examples of the term being used generically in the press.

What's going on here is that no-one wants to create new words any more.  If you make a new word, others can use it; and if they can use the same word, they can compete for your customers.  It's much easier to make a new name, trademark it, and stifle the competition.

Imagine you're going for a meal.  Do you order a burger for yourself and a kids meal for the children?  No, you get a "Big Mac" and they get a "Happy Meal".  You buy these from a place marked "McDonald's".  Not "McDonald's Restaurant", not "McDonald's Burger Bar", just "McDonald's".  McDonald's don't want to use words, because they want to trap you into coming back -- you can't ask for the same thing anywhere else.

If you go to any gym now, all the workouts have TM or R after them.  Salsacise and Zoomba are just keepfit with Latin American music, RPM and Spinning are just exercise bike workouts.  But put a trademarked name on them instead of a generic one, and suddenly they seem unique, and your audience is locked in.

Consider also the BlackBerry, the only serious mobile email device prior to the arrival of the iPhone.  There were other systems that could do the job -- Nokia and Microsoft were selling them.  But why did the BlackBerry take off the way it did?  Because it was first to market and they did not coin a word.  It was BlackBerry.  It was not a "BlackBerry(TM) mobile emailer", it was a BlackBerry.  When people talked to each other about it, the only word was BlackBerry.  Talk about Windows Mobile or Nokia and you'd get asked "so it's a BlackBerry then?"  And what then?  How do you explain the concept of doing the same thing as a BlackBerry but not being a BlackBerry?

05 March 2011

Community of slaves?  LiveMocha's new business model charges for free labour.

LiveMocha started out on shaky ground -- free courses with free help through the power of Web 2.0 and social networking.  The scope for monetarisation was always limited, and initially they seemed to expect to make their money through targeted advertising.  For what?  Well, the only known factor about their audience was that they wanted to learn specific languages.  Unfortunately, the sort of people who look for free online language courses aren't generally that interested in paying for commercial language books.

The second side to LM's monetarisation was their so-called "premium packages".  These premium packages basically consisted of the same material in an off-line format for MP3 players and iPhones.  Considering the low quality of the LiveMocha material, it wasn't a brilliant deal.

However, "free" is a great price, and LiveMocha's strength wasn't in the quality of the material, but in the availability of the chat facilities and corrections from native speakers, so they built up a large user base and had to monetarise it one way or another, and from that came their tie-up with Harper Collins to launch their
"Active" language course range.  When they launched it, they took down the existing free courses for English, French, German, Italian and Spanish -- easily the most requested five languages on the site.

Ok, so they have a right to stop doing stuff free, but the problem is they're still expecting their customers to do their marking for them.  I logged into LiveMocha for the first time in months and suddenly I'm getting requests to mark material that others are paying to do... but I'm to mark it for free.  I don't have access to this sort of task for the languages I'm learning, either.

I'm not impressed.  The price they charge is quite high (and you pay per month, not once per course, which I find interesting) yet they expect people to work for free, not even for any sort of credits (or at least, not yet.)

To me that's abuse of the community, and a quick way to kill any goodwill they may have accumulated up to now.