21 January 2014

Video commentary: 5 techniques to speak any language

Sometimes it's nice to run with a theme, and although I'm mixed it up with a few unrelated posts in between, I started discussing what we can learn from learners a couple of weeks ago, and followed up with a discussion on the limits of my own self-awareness. I figure it makes sense to build on this theme and have a critical look at what others say.

I came across the following video last month, where Sid Efromovich presents his "5 techniques to speak any language" at TEDx UpperEastSide. You can watch the video (~15 min) now to make up your own mind, or skip straight down to my analysis.

Now, the first thing to note is that the video blurb says that Sid grew up in Brazil, which tells us that either he is an exceptionally good learner (I never noticed any flaws in his English) or that he was a childhood bilingual -- unfortunately not even his personal website tells us which. Not knowing his starting point makes it quite difficult to evaluate how suitable he is as a model for any individual (if he's natively bilingual in Portuguese and English, that wouldn't be particularly unusual, but for those of us who were brought up monolingually, it doesn't match our world).

Now lets move on to the actual talk, and Sid's rules.

1: Make mistakes

My first reaction when he gave the title was "here we go again," as I expected the usual line about how we learn from our mistakes. Yes, we are more than capable from learning from our mistakes, from which the hardliners conclude that there is no learning without mistakes... and yet the things I've learned best were learned right first time.

Thankfully, that's not what Eric goes on to discuss. Instead, he talks about how we all have a "database" of sounds and structures that our brains identify as correct, and that everything outside that database is flagged as "wrong" by the brain.

This throws us into a little paradox where our fear of making mistakes causes us to make mistakes.

His example is the Spanish letter R, which he gives with the word "Puerta". The Spanish R is markedly different from the English R, but close enough that a beginner's brain will try to replace the wrong-sounding Spanish R with a correct-sounding English one, which Eric refers to as the "closest relative sound".

In this rule we have something of real value to the learner. I've discussed the difficulty of dealing with foreign phoneme maps many times, but I never made that last logical step and talked about perceived wrongness and correctness, so a big thank you to Eric -- this idea alone made the video worth watching for me.

Caveat emptor

However, in that same example of puerta, Eric starts to show the limitations of his language awareness, as he appears to be claiming that it is only the Spanish R that isn't in the English "database", which is simply untrue.

The P, though close, is subtly different, as Spanish is a language more typically distinguished by aspiration, and English by voicing (in the pairs P/B, T/D, C/G). It's a very subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

The Spanish UE doesn't exist in English, and any attempt at approximating it is going to be wrong -- one typical English pronunciation of Puerto Rico is /ˌpwɛərtə ˈriːkoʊ/, whereas the Spanish is /pʷeɾto ˈriko/.

Finally, there's that last syllable ta. This has a clear vowel, because all Spanish syllables do... but not all English ones. It is exceptionally difficult for an English speaker to pronounce a clear vowel in the syllable directly preceding or following the stressed syllable, because in English these are almost always reduced to schwa -- that feeble little "uh" sound.

So there's the first alarm bell... his pronunciation is good enough to show that he internally knows the difference, but he's not consciously aware of everything he does, which (as I keep saying) is the limitation of anyone who claims to speak from experience.


2 Scrap the foreign alphabet

Rule number 2 is a doozy. Eric reckons that the foreign alphabet "will give you wrong signals," at least for languages in the same script as your own, and he is correct. It is difficult for an English speaker to see the letter "I" as representing it's so called "cardinal" value (the Latin I) because that's not the sound it has in English.
So far, so logical. What is the alternative?

Some (not Eric) propose learning aurally first, ignoring writing completely. (I disagree, because there are differences that a beginner might not be able to hear in the spoken language, but they'll be seen in the written language.)

But Eric is in favour of writing down. Does he suggest learning the IPA? No, instead he proposes using your own pseudo-phonetics, based on the sounds of your own language.

His example for this whole section is the Brazilian currency: the Real. It's a great example, because it is immediately misleading, having as it does the same spelling as an English word. His suggested phoneticisation, though, is very troubling: hey ouch . In writing it this way, he's using the same "closest relative sounds" he warned against in rule 1, which is a total contradiction. A Brazilian Portuguese R is not like an English H: it's a guttural sound, more similar to the German/Scottish CH (Bach/loch)... but not even quite the same as that. The L isn't quite the w-glide of ow/ouch, and even if it was, you're going to have to find a different notation for it in different situations (in can occur after vowels that an English W wouldn't appear after). And there are other problems too, but that'll do for now.

The main thing is that having presented only two rules, we already have a contradiction and fundamental incompatibility, throwing into doubt Sid's credibility as an instructor.

But setting that aside for a moment and looking at this rule in isolation:

Avoiding the native spelling is by no means a necessary step in learning a language.

Myself, I have at times learned to pronounce a language from its written form before making any serious attempt to learn the language, and to me that's far more useful, because I'm able to look at dictionaries and phrasebooks to learn new language, whereas if I'm stuck with my own idiosyncratic phonetics, I won't have access to any external sources whatsoever. I say learn the alphabet, but learn it right. Even if idiosyncratic phonetics did work (and I don't think they do), the cost in terms of isolation from materials is simply too high.

3 Find a stickler

He reckons you need someone who'll correct you, and you probably do, but he doesn't address the serious limitations of this, or how to avoid them.

First of all, correction is ad hoc. You say what you want, you get a correction. Fine, but language and a system, and therefore effective correction has to be systematic. A lot of the corrections you get from a native speaker are going to be extremely different from what your mistake was, and therefore don't really correct the source of the error, just the superficial form.

Secondly, if you make an error, you may be misunderstood. If someone says "I will do it yesterday," do they mean "I will do it tomorrow" or "I did it yesterday"? Where an error is ambiguous, the correction given has as much chance of being totally wrong as being right.

But worst of all, sticklers often teach things that are outdated. For example, the English you and I as subject isn't current in most parts of the English speaking world, but a stickler will "correct" you and me even if says it himself. Similarly for there's three things. Or he might "correct" can I...? to may I...?

How do you avoid these things? How do you choose your stickler? Well, for the first one, you're not looking for a language buddy, you're looking for a teacher. For the second and third, you're looking for a good teacher. You need someone who is an expert not only in the language, but in showing others how to become experts.

4 Shower conversations

Eric then suggests talking to yourself, a technique lots of people use. For many of us, that language practice is in the form of a silent internal monologue. The acknowledged limitation with this is that it's not practising pronunciation.

Eric's idea of having your conversations in the shower gives you a safe area to practice pronunciation, but the bigger point he raises is that by having a conversation as opposed to a monologue, you're more likely to identify gaps in your knowledge.

I'm not sure that this is actually true, and as a result he glides by what should have been his most important point, and worthy of being a rule in and of itself: mind your gaps.

When you're speaking, it will be your natural tendency to avoid and skirt round gaps in your target language knowledge, and doing so is part of being a successful user of the language. However, it is all too easy to become so proficient at avoiding gaps that you stop looking for them, and stop learning new things. The really successful learners continually seek out gaps in their knowledge and plug them with new information. Obviously it's less embarrassing to identify those gaps when you're on your own than when you're in a conversation, so it's a good starting point, but on the other hand, the reality is that you cannot say anything to yourself that you don't expect, so you can't find as many gaps speaking to yourself as you can when speaking to others. If you can be bothered, you can carry a notebook to jot down any gaps you come across, but while I had such a notebook for years (for Spanish), I only ever noted down 2 or 3 things in it...

5 Buddy Formula

Sid's final rule is a "formula" for finding the best "language buddy" for practise. Now I object to the trite, twee abuse of the term "formula" here, because it's just a rule that he chooses to write with an equals sign:
Target language = best language in common
He raises a very good point in his justification for this: that clear communication is the motivation for learning a language, and that if you know you can get your message across more easily in another language, you're going to switch to that other language.

You will get no argument from me on that -- I often find myself banging into that wall, and I often caution against so-called "immersion" classes where the class has a common language anyway (eg. immersive Gaelic for English speakers) because it risks conditioning people to view the language as a barrier to communication instead of a means of communication.

But more than that, Sid offers no advice to dealing with the big problem that all learner-learner conversations carry: learner errors. If one English learner says pod-ae-to, and the other says pod-ah-to, they're both wrong, and there's no stimulus for correction. Or perhaps one of them gets it right, then the other gives a well-meaning "correction" that teaches them the wrong thing.
...unfortunately, no feedback on errors.


So what can we take away from Eric's advice? Even if his rules were all unarguably correct, they alone are not going to teach you a language -- in fact, they're pretty peripheral to the main learning process.

But his rules aren't correct. Rule 2 is a dogmatic assertion that glosses over a very complex issue.

Neither rule 3 or rule 5 is wrong per se, but neither is essential, and Sid's description is inadequate as advice for the learner, because it doesn't give any concrete advice on how to circumvent any of the problems a learner will face.

Rule 4 fails on similar, but slightly more interesting, grounds. Again, he has failed to really give enough advice on how to avoid potential pitfalls, but in rules 3 and 5, those were pitfalls I don't believe he'd really thought about himself. With rule 4, he does talk briefly about the pitfalls. He identified a problem, and identified a suitable solution. He has used that solution and it should be useful to many others. But there is nothing unique in the shower conversation that forces you to identify your language gaps. If his rule had been "Mind the gap", his shower conversation could have been given as one possible technique to address it, and then he would have been forced into providing a description of how to structure a shower conversation such that it addresses the goals of a "mind the gap" rule.

16 January 2014

Is language like science...?

Quite often, when I talk about the rules of language, I find I get hit with the response "Language isn't like science!" When I talk about teaching language systematically, people say "Language isn't like science." When I talk about language in schools, I'm told it's destined to fail because "Language isn't like science."

Well, I'm in the middle of trying to sort through a lot of old stuff that had been stored in the loft, and I came across a piece of paper on which I had hastily scrawled the following:
Language isn't like science.
It's about choosing the rules, not knowing the rules.
Now this is not a statement of my belief; rather it's my attempt to understand the logic behind the statement, so for anyone other than myself to get my full meaning requires a bit more explanation.

The reason people say "language isn't like science" is because of their misconception of the nature of science. To them, science has been presented as a series of rules to be memorised. They have been conditioned to think that the end goal of science is to be able to regurgitate the rules on demand, because that's all that was required of them in school.

That is not science.

Science is the art of investigating natural phenomena and finding explanations and models for them. These explanations and models are mostly a combination and application of existing scientific rules, and sometimes of identifying and creating new rules.

Or to put it another way: science is not about the knowledge of rules, it's about the application of rules.

But would the same statement not hold for language too? Language is not about the knowledge of rules (we can all agree on that) but the application of rules, surely?

Science is very often taught badly, in that there is such a focus on the rules themselves that students never get the chance to integrate those rules into a working body of scientific knowledge. This leaves the student able to recall the rule or law by name, but not recall the rule when addressed with a problem that requires that rule in order to reach a solution. You cannot solve a useful scientific problem this way -- the only type of problem that can tell you explicitly which rules are required to solve it is a problem that has already been solved, and science is about creating new knowledge, not repeating the known ad nauseum.

A good course in science will instead train the student in identifying the characteristics of a problem domain and noticing patterns that relate to particular laws or rules: they will teach them how to select the appropriate rule for the given situation.

That, I contest, is the very same process we go through when we try to formulate an utterance. We have a bank of words and grammatical rules at our disposal, and we have to select the appropriate items from it to express the message that we want.

So language is a lot like science, and the objections typically raised against grammar teaching are systemic problems that also affect science teaching. It's a problem that the late, great Richard Feynman recounted in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman?, when he talks of his experience on sabbatical placement in Brazil. It's a problem that affects all education systems to a greater or lesser extent.

But the problem comes when reformers attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater: "rules teaching has failed," they tell us, "so we need to do away with rules."

That, to me, is a ridiculous philosophy. How can you choose which rule to apply if you don't know what rules exist? How can you search for it if you don't know what it is?

Let's be clear, I do not have to be able to recite the present tense endings of regular -ARE verbs in Latin in order to usefully "know" the rule, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be taught them. I initially learned Spanish, for example, by the explicit teaching of the endings, and the explicit teaching of rules like 2s = 3s+"s" and 3p=3s+"n" (NB: this is my notation, not the way I was taught the rule!), and not by memorising the list of conjugations or a table. But that was still explicit teaching. I did not learn by osmosis, I did not learn by exposure, I did not learn by magic. I was told what my range of choices was, then given sufficient opportunities to make those decisions that I eventually could make the decision subconsciously.

13 January 2014

Learners and learning: "I wish I'd known then what I know now..."

These are the favourite words of many internet polyglots, and continuing on the theme of what we can learn from learners, they are one of the most important reasons why you should take any advice from someone who has "been there" with a pinch of salt.

The problem with this philosophy is simple: there's no guarantee that you would have been ready to learn that then. I'll use my own learning techniques as an example.

What I wish I'd known

I took French and Italian as high school subjects, and didn't learn all that much in either, considering the time cost. When I started learning Spanish and Gaelic, I was simultaneously studying English language at degree level with the Open University. When I moved on to degree-level Spanish, I was annoyed that none of the linguistic concepts I'd been taught in the (mandatory!) English module were used to speed up the learning process. Too many things were left undescribed and confusing to my fellow students, when a ready explanation was available.

The English course didn't just occupy itself with the traditional grammatical concepts of parts-of-speech and syntax, but addressed language in terms of multipleframeworks: Halliday's systemic functional linguistics and metafunctions, the idiom principle vs the open-choice principle (language as a series of set phrases vs a series of free grammatical choices), lexicogrammar, corpus linguistics and collocation, directness and indirectness, agency and affectedness... the list goes on.

Knowing each of these concepts allowed me to disambiguate or disentangle my own confusion about new word or phrase forms, and I know that I would not be as successful a language learner today without having undergone that course of study. (This of course is in direct contradiction to a significant number of language learners who flatly refuse to accept that conscious study has any value whatsoever.) Now I have often wished I had learnt all that earlier... but would I have been ready? If I had not already learnt (a little of) two foreign languages, would I have been as open to the instruction I was given? Or if I had not been actively engaged in learning two languages simultaneous to that study?

I cannot know, therefore I cannot say for sure, but I believe that it would have helped. I temper that with the knowledge that the course I took would be overkill for most learners, but that there are certain concepts that help immensely. (eg indirectness as a form of politeness; compare; "shut the door","can you shut the door" and "could you shut the door" -- the imperative is direct and rude, can is somewhat indirect, and could is very indirect, making it polite. This same rule about indirectness holds for most European languages, but not e.g. Japanese. It is very easy to draw a learner's attention to the presence or absence of this pattern, but many courses fail to even attempt this.)

So I would advise learners to learn this stuff (if I only knew of a good book!) but I would also caution them about trusting my advice blindly.

What I might have wished I'd done

When I bought myself a DVD player, it was because of language. I had taken a French level test with the OU before starting my study, and while my reading and writing were at a pretty good level, my listening level was disproportionately low (incidentally, this worked in my favour in the end, as otherwise I might have started with French rather than English) so I needed to improve my ear.

Fast forward 9 years, and I now find myself watching Gaelic TV or French films and noticing unusual turns-of-phrase on the fly, by comparing the soundtrack and the subtitles. This, as it turns out, is a highly effective way of learning the sort of stuff that doesn't make it into the textbooks.

So would I recommend it? Not really. 9 years is a long time, and it has taken me a lot of practice to get to the point where I can do this -- when I started, the subtitles would soak up my attention, and I wouldn't just "not understand" the audio track, I wouldn't hear it -- my mind blocked it out. It took me several years to stop blocking it out, and years after that to be able to consciously follow both languages, and even now I'll generally slip into either reading or listening -- it takes active concentration to do otherwise.

Now I could have forgotten all the time and effort and told myself that I obviously hadn't worked hard enough soon enough, and that if I had, I would have learned even better and quicker than I did, but I simply don't believe that's true. I don't think this technique, which is now one of the most useful in my arsenal, is actually worth the effort of learning to most people.

This serves as a useful reminder to me that everything I do now is a refinement and improvement of things I've been doing for years. These techniques can't just be "done", they have to be learned; which means that I can't just "tell" people to do them, I have to teach them... or keep my mouth shut.

So there we have another problem in learning from successful learners: all too often they will simply tell you what they do now, with no real conscious understanding of how hard it was for them to reach the point where they could.

09 January 2014

A plug or a polemic?

Whenever a book on language is released, it is traditional for the author to try to get a column in a newspaper raising some pertinent language issue, then launching into what is little more than a sales pitch for his book, describing how it addresses the problem.

It was refreshing then, to see an article in the Guardian where an author decided that the best way to use his 15-minutes of fame was not to plug his wares, but instead to pull out a polemic on the state of linguistics in general.

Harry Ritchie started off with a pertinent language issue, as is tradition. His issue was the often overlooked problem that our culture of "talking properly" in schools is actively disengaging children from their learning. (Most language experts agree on this fact, by the way; it's just the political and school systems that reject this.) His book, as far as I can gather, is simply an attempt to explain real language patterns in a clear and engaging way (I have not read it, so cannot comment on the success or otherwise of this) and he could have continued in the typical manner by throwing up multiple examples drawn straight from his book, slowly pushing the reader into wanting to know more.

But he didn't. Instead he went tangential to the content of the book, delivering a finely-tuned polemic about the state of the linguistics world, and pinning the blame on the door of Noam Chomsky.

And he is right to do so.

I was twice introduced to the world of linguistics: once through the Introduction to Machine Language unit in the University of Edinburgh's artificial intelligence department, and once through the Open University module The English Language: Past, Present and Future.

Both courses were very good, which should be no surprise giving the academic stature of Edinburgh's AI department and the OU's English department. However, both started by looking at structural grammar through the view of Noam Chomsky's generative grammars.

Given the research and refinement in the half-century since Chomsky, it should be no surprise to find that his model is primitive and of little use, and yet it is still taught as the sina qua non of modern linguistics. I've written my own little piece about this before, so I'll not repeat myself too much, but I'll say this:

Chomsky wrote a model of grammar that was based almost entirely on reading language one-dimensionally and sequentially, a model that so badly fits real language that it allows the generation of meaninglessness such as colourless green ideas sleep furiously, and then extrapolated from that nonsense that meaning and grammaticality were entirely separate things.

He wrote a demonstrably broken model, then used the brokenness to try to draw conclusions about the real world. And people treat him like some kind of genius for  it...!

07 January 2014

What can learners tell us about learning?

Last month, David Mansaray appeared on the How-to-learn-any-language forums discussing a new series of podcasts about language learning. His previous interviews focused exclusively on polyglots, but now he wants to expand that scope:
"I plan to interview polyglots, linguists, teachers, expats, successful students, interpreters, lexicographers, etc.."
It's definitely a good idea. There is a lot to be learned from polyglots, but sadly, there seems to be very little that can be learned from the internet polyglot community.

The problem is simple: most are happy to tell you what they do, but a great many are not happy to let you find out what they do. You can listen to what they say, but you can rarely probe or challenge it, which is a nuisance, because very few of us are ever fully aware of what we do.

Stepping away from the world of languages, consider this story I was told in my university days. There was a cheese factory near Edinburgh, and one of their employees specialised in determining when the cheese was ripe enough for packaging and selling. He was nearing retirement, and the company hoped to make a machine to do his job rather than training a replacement, so they called in experts on AI and machine learning to try to create a robot for the purpose. They asked the man how he determined when the cheese was ready, and he told them he prodded it with his thumb, and he knew if it was ready based on how springy it was. They set up a machine that bounced a little thumb-sized probe on the cheeses and measured their springiness. The problem was, there was absolutely no correlation between the measurable springiness of the cheese and the expert's judgement on whether it was ready or not. Eventually they discovered that in prodding the cheese, the man had been breaking the surface, which released a scent that he subconsciously detected. As computers can't smell (yet), the project was abandoned, and an apprentice hired.

Going back to language, for years I derided those who talked about "shadowing" other people (ie repeating audio books or films verbatim), thinking it was a passive process that wasn't truly "linguistic". I didn't shadow, anyway. But then I remembered that I used to shadow DVDs in Spanish. Not religiously, not obsessively, but from time to time. I did it, and I can't say it didn't help me -- it might have, it might not have. I can say I believe that it is of minor utility at best, but I have to be careful not to say what it "is" or "isn't".

If I can enter calmly into a discussion with other people, I can often be made to realise that I have fixated on one thing and completely ignored something else, and I can in turn make them realise that they have done the same thing. The end goal of such a discussion shouldn't be to walk away with a better understanding of each other's techniques but for each to walk away with a better understanding of their own. When we enter such a conversation with the view that we are correct and the goal of convincing everyone else that we are, we add no value.

Interviews can be a starting point, but only if the interviewee is engaged in discussion rather than merely lecturing those he sees as less informed.

03 January 2014

Cross-language interference and failing to learn by exposure

Last month I was talking about the dangers of taking a hard-line view in your learning techniques. The specific example I used was spaced recognition software, and unfortunately my post focused too heavily on the example and not on the general principle I was trying to highlight.

Well, as it turns out, I stumbled across another example on a visit to a very wet and windy Edinburgh two days before Christmas. I waited for the worst of the rain to pass before leaving Haymarket station, then headed towards the centre of town. On my way, I passed a Turkish barber's with the following phrase in the window:
Now the error here isn't as bad as you think, because this was in Scotland. In central and southern Scottish dialects, there is a distinction between the two functions that the English word not carries: negation of a preceding verb is carried out with nae and negation of a following adjective with no (as I understand it, in the north both situations use nae). The owner has obviously learned this use of no through spoken usage, and therefore has no explicit, formal knowledge of how it functions.

The use of the hyphen indicates that he views it as a prefix, closer bound to the adjective than it truly is. This is no surprise to me, as I know many Spanish people who pronounce phrases like no bad as though they are a single word. Given that this sort of colloquial speech is never taught, it is clear that the Turkish barber and my Spanish friends learned the structure by exposure.

Now I have always respected the role and importance of exposure in the learning of a language, but there are those who would exaggerate that importance and promote exposure to being the single determining factor of language learning, and that everything else -- study, teaching, practise -- is just window-dressing, a distraction to keep the learner motivated until such time as they accumulate enough exposure to "acquire" the language. but here we have an example of a feature that is learned in most cases with nothing but exposure, while all the study, teaching and practise is carried out using Standard English, and I have met precious few who have acquired the structure correctly.

Part of the problem is English's stress patterns. Spoken English has at least three stress levels: primary stress, secondary stress, and unstressed -- Spanish has only stressed and unstressed, as do many other languages. They just don't seem to recognise the three levels in English without conscious teaching. Worse: the opposite of necesario in Spanish is no necesario so they've got a pattern to match it to that misleads. Yes, innecesario also exists in dictionaries, but it's not the most common form (the presence of a double N marks it out as a pretty antiquated form), and there is a tendency for Spanish words to replace an in- prefix with no, and crucially, this no is spoken indistinguishably from a prefix -- it could just as easily be written nonecesario as no necesario. (The reason it isn't is probably just the usual case of orthography being a bit conservative and etymological, rather than a perfect model of the modern language.)

And Turkish, of course, is an agglutinative language, so prefers affixes to particles in almost every situation.

So as a soft-liner, I would say that a lack of conscious awareness or directed practise is to blame for the failure to learn this structure correctly, and that exposure, while a vital part of full language acquisition, couldn't correct for that, regardless of quantity and intensity.

A hard-liner would put it differently, claiming instead that these people simply aren't getting enough exposure. With my Spanish friends, I could accept that, but not with a barber. How many professions offer the same opportunities for exposure as this? Have you ever had a haircut without getting a long conversation thrown into the bargain?

The problem, as I've always said, is that all language has a high level of redundancy -- there's more information encoded in the language than we would need to understand the message. (It evolved this way in order to allow us to understand each other even with background noise. If you count up in English from 1, you'll be saying a different vowel every time up to and including 8 -- the numbers are so different that it would be very difficult to confuse one with another.) So if you don't need everything to understand the message, why would you even notice it? "Good enough is good enough," as they say, and the brain has no motivation to notice more when it has already got the message.

A quick resolution...

Well, it's the new year, and looking back at the latter half of 2013, I didn't write much here, did I? It's a pretty good indicator that I'm not thinking enough (although there's a few thoughts sitting in my draft folder that I never expanded into full posts). So I'm resolving to get back to my at-least-once-a-week schedule, whether that's via restarting the wee investigation I started into the repetition of vocabulary in extensive reading back in the summer of 2012, reviewing TED talks and YouTube videos, or merely musing on the latest bit of pop science reporting on linguistics.

The other big thing I have to do is my programming project. I started coding some language-learning software over a year ago, using it to teach myself Corsican, and ever since then I've been trying to refine it and improve it to the point where other people can use it. I have to admit that I've been faffing about a bit, and really not making the progress I should, and that is going to have to change pretty seriously. I've been letting gaps in my knowledge turn into serious sticking points, rather than just getting stuck into the research and self-education needed to work through it. On the other hand, I do feel myself thinking like a programmer for the first time in over a decade, and I can remember why I always wanted to be a programmer -- it's just that now I actually have something worth programming.

So yes, expect to hear more from me in the next few months than in the last few.

Happy New Year, everyone.