Sunday, February 15, 2015

SIUC Linguistics Alumni Coordinator

I am asking for help with this job because I am semi-retired, I'm busy, and I don't know how many more TESOL Conventions I will be able to attend. I think it's extremely important, to SIUC, to its graduates, and to the future of Linguistics. I hope somebody will help.

There is a Facebook page which one keeps an eye on. I could be more aggressive about being sure each of its members is an actual graduate, but I consider it good enough to keep it free of spam and keep its messages related to the department. It does not specify that it is for alumni, but the current students have other active pages that they use more regularly, and this one is mostly for alumni.

Every year at the TESOL Convention, we try to have an SIUC gathering. Sometimes it is poorly planned, nonexistent, or poorly attended. SIUC Linguistics has a huge community, important in the TESOL world, and if those who attend the conference know about the gathering, and are able, they will usually drop by and say hello. Most are successful ESL/EFL professionals spread around the world. One year the President of TESOL was a Saluki and he stopped by. Many of our grads were at SIUC at a different time than I was (I was at SIUC 1994-2012) but I have come to meet some who were there before me, and some who have arrived since. Needless to say this would be true for any alumni coordinator. You would get to know them and learn what era they occupied.

To me, these grads are SIUC's greatest resource, yet SIUC barely knows about it. If the Alumni Office ever tried to reach me or find out who or where these folks were, I never knew about it. It could be that many of them have joined the Alumni Association separately and want to maintain relations with their specific department separately, but I tend to believe that, since there is a price to maintaining a relationship with the Alumni Office, they prefer to stick with the department itself.

Our shining moment came a couple of years back when the department was in danger of being extinguished entirely, and the Chair asked if alumni could simply report where they were, what they were doing, and how they were using their MA degree. I used the list of e-mail addresses that has been passed down to me, and simply asked everyone. The response was significant, and I forwarded it all to the Chair. People higher up got a sense of who our graduates were and what they were doing. To make a long story short, the department was saved (there were other reasons, too, I'm sure), and I felt vindicated.

I maintain that e-mail list, but I'd like to hand it over to someone. There's an unspoken rule: I use it only to tell about the convention reunion, in other words sparingly, and since it doesn't overpower anyone's inbox, people stay connected to us. We don't sell their e-mail addresses and they remain loyal Salukis.

Keep in mind one other thing. Folks who worked at Nakajo for many years have no alumni department, that I know of, so we are it for them as well. They come to the TESOL reunion, and find each other, but rarely do many of them know many of us very well, unless they actually worked in both locations. I don't know about you, but the people I've taught with over the years are in many ways my closest friends; I don't want to lose touch with the lifeline that helps me find them, or at least find out what may have happened to them. Sometimes, if someone is looking for a certain colleague from their era, and this isn't my era, I can't help them right away, or use my meager record-keeping system (I have only e-mail addresses, besides their personal accounts) to find someone who can help them. But as long as we keep some form of reunion / gathering / accounting system alive, there is hope. And that, I think, is important, and I don't want to let that go, and let that fall silently into the depths of my un-dealt-with e-mail. Thank you for reading this far; contact me if you're still interested!

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Friday, February 13, 2015

TESOL presentation

I will be presenting at the TESOL International 2015 Electronic Village Classics in Toronto. 
Presentation Title: For Better or Worse: Grammar technology and the language learner
Presentation Description: This presentation shows the technology that students are using to learn and write, so that practitioners can adjust accordingly
Day and Time: Friday, March 27 2:30-3:20 PM
Computer Station: MAC 4
All invited!

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

GT app

So today in class we were talking about technological innovations in our field, and I happened to mention that in language learning, the big one was the new Google Translate app, which you could hold up to anyone who is speaking any language and it would translate it into any other language. Now by "any" I mean the top thirteen, and right away my colleague who was really interested in Mongolian was asking whether it had Mongolian, but of course the GT guys have barely started with Mongolian, let alone Kazakh, Hopi, Tongan, or Jamaican Creole.

After a few minutes a woman admitted that she had it, and she even showed her phone. Sure enough, there was an app on it and I spoke "Hello how are you" into it, and it translated it into Arabic. I took her word for it that it was reasonably good Arabic, not perfect, she said. By now students from the next class were entering and we were under pressure to leave; all this happened when class was essentially over. But when one student said, "of course it'll do 'How are you,' but what about anything else?"....so I tried "Open your book to page 143 and write ten sentences" in a kind of reflex ESL-teacher mode. She again translated it into Arabic. It worked, she said. Not perfect, but it worked. An Iranian student vowed that she would download it immediately and see how it worked for her.

I didn't catch the name of the app. I also saw the list of available languages, which included Moldavian (???)...I have a fellow teacher from Moldova who insisted that wasn't her...but I reserved judgment on that because I'm well aware there could be a Moldavian and it could be among the top thirteen. Some people are obviously left out; in my class, I have Sri Lankans, Bengalis, a Brazilian Portuguese speaker (who was gone)...a few more. More on this later. This is what I want to know.

1. Obviously it's ok if you hold the phone right up to someone's mouth and they speak loudly and clearly right into it. But at what point does this fall apart? The back of a small class where people are whispering? A crowded cafe? Where is it most useful and least useful?

2. Obviously the skill involved in using it is a kind of grammar de-scrambler...it's possible that the computer is quite effective at figuring out the words it has just heard. Also it reportedly can figure out which language it's listening to, though I saw her specify, Eng. to Arabic. So - can you set it on figure out the language? Does it make mistakes with the words? If so which ones? How much descrambling do you have to do?

3. How fun is it to use? Do you enjoy it? Or do you have to hide it from the average teacher?

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

ESL/EFL Writing teachers, Help!


Dear ESL/EFL Writing teacher: For years I have been studying the influences of technology on ESL writers’ grammar and expression. The influences are not all bad; for example, the computer’s constant reminder that subjects and verbs must be matched has virtually eliminated a wide range of the most common, simple matching errors that we used to see regularly. But computers, specifically electronic dictionaries, programs such as Google Translate, and Word grammar-check and other (sometimes free) grammar software have altered students’ learning curves as well as their production. I am most interested in the ways their learning and writing have been hampered, because it is most useful for teachers to be aware of that, in order to teach more effectively. But anything you can point out, good or bad, about computers’ influences on students’ learning and writing will be helpful to me.

If you have read enough and don’t wish to say anything, thanks anyway for your time! If you do the survey, it will take about half an hour, and I will need it in two weeks, roughly at the end of February; thanks in advance! I will send you a free book upon your completion; be patient if you live abroad. You can see the books at my press website (tlevspress.blogspot.com); there is poetry and short stories (ESL eventually, but you may have to wait). This is obviously self-serving in terms of getting my own books out there, but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather give it away to, than my fellow teachers here and abroad! Feel free to forward this message to other ESL/EFL teachers you know who might be interested. More information about what I’m doing (and the TESOL presentation it is for) is on my blog: tomleveretts.blogspot.com. Thanks again! –Tom Leverett

Note: This was pasted, verbatim, on Facebook. All ESL/EFL Writing teachers are welcome to participate, though. My fear is that as I become a little removed from the ESL/EFL writing trenches, I lose touch with what people are experiencing. I need to know what you are seeing!

My TESOL presentation is For Better or Worse: Grammar technology and the ESL/EFL Writer; it's part of the Internet Fair Classics. Stay posted for details on time and place; hope to see you there!  Its website is here, though I've had trouble updating it, due to changes in uploading technology.

To participate in the survey, write me at thomas.leverett@ttu.edu. I will send  the survey by word file (it is about 2 1/2 pages). Thanks in advance!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ITA story

In our business we are the gateway; if people are good and capable teachers, at least as far as their speaking goes, they go on and teach at the university, and if their speaking, or some aspects of their teaching, falls short, they stay with us until everything improves. We are always afraid of disasters further up the chain. If there is a teacher at the university who can't be understood by students, that's indirectly our fault.

Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30, there was an explosion in the Chemistry building. Today, I decided to see what I could find out about it, and I checked my roll until I found the one student who was in the Chemistry department. After class, I asked her if she knew anything about the explosion.

In a nutshell she said this. There were two students under the direction of one TA. The TA was in her lab; she knew the TA (both she and the TA were Chinese). One of the students poured an acid in with a base, in a toxic waste container, and it blew up. People ended up in the hospital and came back with bandages covering glass wounds. Nobody was killed, fortunately. Also, it was the second explosion at the Chemistry building, although I know nothing about the first (I remember it vaguely, and I think it was worse, but I didn't do research on it, and have no idea what caused it, or how much worse).

Then I asked her about the TA. She said, you passed this very TA in the summer workshop, whereas you flunked me, so here I am, in your class. Now this floored me. I did not remember flunking this particular student, although it could be possible; in the summer workshop there are many students, and we often grade them for very short presentations and hardly see them the rest of the month. Same with the name she gave me; it sounded familiar, but I didn't recognize it as someone I knew well.

But the question remains. I'm a father, so I know how you can have native English, and still give someone instruction, and still have them do something stupid, or dangerous, or both, for no better reason than that they weren't thinking. Lots of times, it has nothing to do with language at all. But if you're a good teacher, and presumably Chemistry students want to be chemists, at least on some level, and if your communication is clear, and if your instruction is clear, generally they don't dump acid onto a base, even in a waste container. So, to what degree could this have been caused by language, or communication skills, or some other kind of failure?

Good question.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Google translate muscles into the personal conversation business

Luckerson, V. (2015, Jan. 14). Hands-on: Google Translate Is Now a Way Better Travel Companion. Time. Hands-on: Google Translate Is Now a Way Better Travel Companion.

Dougherty, C. (2015, Jan. 14). Google Translate App gets an upgrade. New York Times blog. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/14/google-translate-app-gets-an-upgrade/?_r=0.

May, P. (2015, Jan. 14). Google's new Translate app shines in a crowded field. San Jose Mercury News.

The new app makes a lot of promises. Life will be much easier, they say, for every schmuck like me who is about to sojourn into a place where the local language is different from mine. I'll simply point my phone at the "atenciao piranha" sign (see picture, third article) and I'll know that there are piranhas in the river.

The first things that are wrong with this picture are 1) I can't turn on my cell phone outside of the country, and 2) I can't seem to keep it charged. There's also the fact that 3) it's pretty obvious by the fish picture that the sign is about fish, and, 4) I wasn't about to go skinny-dipping in the Amazon anyway, but let's disregard those. Here are some more serious ones. 5) Translation programs can make things worse, 6) Not every language is as easy to translate as Portuguese, 7) Siri can add an unexpected dimension to a personal situation, 8) phones don't work as well after you smash them into the concrete barriers that hold up hotels.

Here are some interesting points brought up by the articles. First, the fact that Google has moved in on this business has increased the success of machine translation so that it is definitely on a track toward better in virtually every language. It promises 38 (out of what, several thousand?), ok, but it's improving on those 38, and it's got the money to hire people that are making those better. So we're living in a time when machine translation, instant, by phone, is in its infancy, but nevertheless, capable of overturning everything we know, if only because it can only get better. The last time I checked Google Translate, Spanish and French were already pretty good (the first article mentions this), a number of languages were miserable, but there was a wide variety and clearly an arc toward better in each one. If they are getting better, we are dealing with a dynamic system which as one article says "might put high school Spanish teachers out of business."

Here's one thing that's scary. The geeks at Google are proud of themselves in that they made Google Translate better by turning Google's massive calculation apparatus on the languages themselves. May quotes Cattau as saying, "We base translation on machine learning, by looking at billions of Web pages that have been translated into other languages," says Cattiau. "We find 'dog' has been translated millions of times into 'chien,' for example, so the computer now knows the two mean the same thing." Ah, but the computer is doing exactly what people do, basing its experience entirely on learning and reality. Thus, we can trick the computer, or we can change the meaning of things simply by changing the way they appear. How is the computer supposed to know? It's pretty easy with a word like 'chien' which is pretty uncontroversially, universally recognized to be 'dog'. Their claim of course is that roping in thousands of translation statistics helps them strengthen their assertion that 'chien' actually means 'dog' which is not complicated, in this situation, by other factors. In the world of translation it's usually complicated by other factors. Translation is dogged by these problems, in fact.

More later. I'm going to see what my phone does with "y'all cain't".

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Monday, January 12, 2015

War on Passive, bib.

Gopen, G. (2014, Winter). "Why the Passive Voice Should Be Used and Appreciated" Litigation, (ABA Journal), Vol. 40 #2, pp.16-17.

Leverett, T. (2014, Oct.). Documenting the war on passives. thomas leverett weblog. http://tomleveretts.blogspot.com/2014/10/documenting-war-on-passives.html.

Sheffield, N. (2011). Passive Voice in Scientific Writing. Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource. https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=passive_voice. Accessed 1-15.

Pullum, G. K. (2014, Jan. 22). Fear and Loathing of the English Passive. Language and Communication. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf. Accessed 1-15.

Rhodes, S. (1997). The active and passive are equally comprehensible in scientific writing. Doctoral dissertation, Univ. of Washington. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/9033/9819294.pdf?sequence=1. Accessed 1-15.

Neurobonkers. (2015). The Passive War: "The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger". The Big Think. http://bigthink.com/neurobonkers/the-passive-war-the-blind-warning-the-blind-about-a-nonexistent-danger. Accessed 1-15.

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Watson, A. (2012, Feb. 20). Navigating ‘the pit of doom’: Affective responses to teaching ‘grammar’. English in Education. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1754-8845.2011.01113.x/. Accessed 1-15.

"...Interviews with 31 (secondary English) teachers reveal two discourses which frame the ways in which teachers express their feelings (about grammar teaching): a dominant discourse of grammar as threatening, reactionary and dull, and an oppositional discourse which positions grammar as inspiring, fascinating, and empowering." (from the abstract).

Jean, G. & Simard, D. (2011, Aug. 10). Grammar Teaching and Learning in L2: Necessary, but Boring? Foreign Language Annals. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1944-9720.2011.01143.x/. Accessed 1-15.

"...Results showed only slight discrepancies between students’ and teachers’ beliefs and perceptions, and very few differences according to the target language and students’ gender or age. The main findings suggest that grammar instruction is perceived by both students and teachers as necessary and effective, but not as something they enjoy doing." (from the abstract)

Myhill, D., Jones, S., Watson, A. & Lines, H. (2012, Nov. 27). Playful explicitness with grammar: a pedagogy for writing. Literacy. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1741-4369.2012.00674.x/. Accessed 1-15.

Truscott, J. (2006, Oct. 27). The Case Against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing Classes. Language Learning 46(2), 327-369. June 1996.

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