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.

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.

Sheffield, N. (2011). Passive Voice in Scientific Writing. Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource. Accessed 1-15.

Pullum, G. K. (2014, Jan. 22). Fear and Loathing of the English Passive. Language and Communication. Accessed 1-15.

Rhodes, S. (1997). The active and passive are equally comprehensible in scientific writing. Doctoral dissertation, Univ. of Washington. Accessed 1-15.

Neurobonkers. (2015). The Passive War: "The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger". The Big Think. Accessed 1-15.


Watson, A. (2012, Feb. 20). Navigating ‘the pit of doom’: Affective responses to teaching ‘grammar’. English in Education. 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. 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. 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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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Social media

Sometimes after a long and difficult class it takes me a while to get its blogs in order, because I'm so burnt out and rushed by the Christmas holiday that I put everything aside, and then it takes enormous effort to reopen the situation. But this time, I had seven very good papers, and had a lot of fun putting together the class blog for my writing class, ESL 5301. These seven students all took different approaches to studying social media, and together we collected data and they wrote the papers you see in the blog.

Sure, there were some ways in which the study wasn't perfect. In an attempt to put the whole survey on a single piece of paper, both sides, I put the demographic info in one line, thus causing us to lose a few people who simply didn't fill out the whole line. We had a limited number of responses anyway, so it wasn't a truly representative study. But it gave us some insight into people's use of social media and their attitudes toward it. Here are some of the things we found:

YouTube, which was studied in the first paper, is really one of the more interesting social media, in the sense that people use it for a wide variety of things besides purely entertainment. In language learning alone it has become an enormous library of speech samples, studied vigorously by almost all internationals here in the US and used for a variety of purposes including supplementing their class lectures, learning how to fix things, etc. Since our population, including ESL teachers by and large, is mostly oral, but the world population is generally more oral than visual, we tend to overlook language resources that aren't little read-along visual things that assume people learn the language by knowing how things are spelled. YouTube puts the language in their laps. Read that first paper.

Facebook is still king of the social media; people may be more enthusiastic about SnapChat or Instagram, but everyone has FB much like everyone has a phone. Twitter is not dominant, but rather occupies a small but vocal piece of the picture. Read the facts, not that our 158 people accurately represent them.

Hashtags - I was really interested in what I could find out about hashtags. Really there should be a separate study of hashtag linguistics, because people use them for different purposes. On Twitter, it was once said that using a hashtag was shouting out your topic so that, in a crowded room, people could know that you, over in this corner, were talking about that topic. On FB though, there is no point attracting the world's attention; you have only your friends, and don't generally use it to get more. A second use of hashtags is to represent your out-of-the-side-of-your-mouth attitudes, as in #whyshouldIcare or #fml; these would be more common on FB, since you are talking to your friends, and obviously not using them to attract a wider community. But a third use comes from Instagram, or at least is better represented on Instagram, which I don't use heavily, so it took me a while to get onto this. On Instagram you put your main subject under the photo, and you do try to attract random visitors, so you can put up to thirty hashtags under a photo. And, you separate them from the message itself; that is important. Why? I don't know.

Ice bucket challenge - It's surprising how many people knew about it, but didn't participate. One got the impression that everyone did it, since it was all over the place on FB. But not everyone did it. And, a surprising number of people thought it was "pointless" or "ridiculous". It brought up a point about how a dramatic event (throwing ice on one's head) can make a strong impression, way beyond the fact that it's an isolated experience.

Backlash in general - A lot of people are upset by social media's takeover of our social experience. One person said to me, "Facebook is the devil." Others said things like "I use it only to message people who I can't reach any other way," or some such comment. People know that they are limiting their own use of the media, but see it overall as a time-sink anyway, and so don't mind knowing that there are a lot of clever things they can do, but just don't do.  Most are like me - amazed at the range of possibilities, but only beginning to scratch at the surface of actually using them.

People don't always report exactly what happens - Sometimes you can measure it, as in, are women more likely than men to post pictures? But you can't trap a man into saying that women are different from men. They seem to be well conditioned to deny differences between men and women unless they are quite obvious, and even then, don't say it unless you have to. The computer can measure such differences, and measure whether things happen the same way people say they do. People are a little off the mark, I think.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

war on passives

The Passive War; "The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger" by "Neurobonkers"...nice handle, eh? Good comments.


grammar checkers

I'm going to start putting things here, instead of the previous site, which was The main site for this presentation is here.

Wright, N. (2013, Dec.). Does grammar checkers work? Style Writer.

Though this is a commercial site (pushing Style Writer itself), it's interesting because the author believes that just trying to "correct" grammar is not only futile but also is the wrong approach. He's very critical of not only Word but also the similar ones, because they have very little to make them better than Word. It's the wrong approach, he says.

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep. A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check.

Good bibliography of 'scholarly work'. Actually there's a dearth of scholarly work; I'm still looking.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Toronto 2015

I've accepted an invitation to present an Electronic Village Classic at the TESOL 2015 Convention in Toronto, which brings up a number of other topics. The presentation is called For better or worse: Grammar technology and the language learner and in brief it shows how technology changes the student's process of learning, as well as the process of writing, the final product, etc. I often show free grammar-check programs and show what they do to the writer. Ironically teachers often stop by hoping to just get computers to fix the problems; it's as if nobody really wanted to deal with grammar in the first place. The site for the presentation is here though obviously it will need to be updated.

So here are a couple of other issues related to Toronto. First, are my good friends the Webheads going to be there? I hope so. Toronto is one of my favorite cities. The Webheads are my favorite people. This would be wonderful.

Second, do you need a passport to get into Canada nowadays?

Third, what about the SIUC reunion? I feel like I'm sitting on a lot of information, and I don't know what to do with it. Last year, I couldn't organize a reunion, because I didn't go to Portland; I'm not sure if they even had one. I have all these e-mail addresses in my inbox, and information from SIU alum...I need to forward it to someone. Nobody was interested in keeping track of people when I took it over, but I said, SIUC, your international alumni are your most valuable resource. Even now, what I have is a set of e-mail addresses bottled up in an e-mail box that has become impossible to maneuver, due to the fact that SIUC put it all on Outlook Express, and I can't seem to view the entire mailbox. There are hundreds in there, but they are deep on the inside, constantly covered up by more recent correspondence. Time to clean out the box, Tom!

But it's also time to dust off this presentation. I was pleased to be invited, pleased to accept; I hope it can happen. Oh Canada!

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5 Years of Semantics

My son's new poetry book...
I'm really proud of him!
Available on on the picture!


Saturday, October 18, 2014

conversations with Siri

My 9-year-old son started a conversation with Siri this morning, so I listened in. First he argued with her and told her that he was not Jennifer, his mother, but Corey. Siri didn't believe him. But it didn't matter. Eventually he asked her if she was his friend, and she said, I'm not only your friend, I'm your bff. At this point I decided to listen more carefully. He asked her over for dinner, and she said, I already know where you live, but I don't eat much. He said, no problem, since I can't cook anyway.

Really, he was looking for someone to tell him it was ok to cheat. He asked her if it was ok to cheat. She said that one time she had cheated on a metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the kid next to her. This I believe went over his head; he's only nine. So he asked her again if it was ok for him to cheat. She clearly has no moral compass, but it didn't matter; she said she couldn't answer that.

When I told my older son, he reported that some kid had asked her where the best place to hide a body was, and she'd said, "in the Terms and Conditions." This could actually be a story off the internet, but nevertheless it shows that people have become creative in the questions they ask Siri, and sometimes Siri is quite well-prepared.  It's made me curious about the kinds of questions anyone could ask her and what kind of responses might occur as a result. Clearly she's not prepared to notice that the voice talking at her is that of a nine-year-old, or a boy, unlike the voice she had heard earlier. She may not yet be programmed to set up different accounts for different speakers, thus using stored information from each to tailor her responses based on what she already knows.

I think it's conceivable that someone could get quite used to asking Siri a whole range of questions; whereas I don't mind asking her how to get to the Starbucks, I'm not used to asking her a whole range of other things. My son of course is clearly prepared to ask her all kinds of things. My point is that depending on how much time one has, and what one needs, Siri could be queried in all kinds of matters; the possibilities are infinite. I'm sure the people at Apple could tell us some of this. A little research might do wonders here!

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Friday, October 17, 2014

documenting the war on passives

To make a long story short, I am teaching a class in dissertation writing for international students. They bring me projects representing years of work, and they need help with the language required by their disciplines to get a dissertation accepted and passed. Sometimes their advisor tells them, "Using words like I, me, we, our, etc. is the mark of an inexperienced writer." One would think this is an injunction to use the passive, but there are actually several ways to deal with this command.

Other departments scorn the passive, or at least tolerate active constructions like "I will show that..." or "We found that..." In fact it could be said that there is a wide variety of dissertations being accepted at this university today, and essentially a wide variety of commands being given to internationals and others writing dissertations, so that you have to tease out of the dissertation writer what is expected, before you can reasonably assume that you are giving him/her good advice. As a dissertation proofreader I find myself knowing several grammatical ways of talking about what happened in a project, but not necessarily knowing which will fly within the department or, at a wider level, which will sound good in the field. The social sciences are the home of the war on passives, which basically overhauled the traditional paradigm and replaced what could be termed as expectation to use the passive with scorn for the passive; international students are in essence caught between. They don't know what Microsoft Word means when it encourages them to avoid passive in favor of active; they also don't know what an advisor means when he/she says to "never use I"...

We asked our students to provide model dissertations, and then we read them carefully. Most were accepted by Texas Tech in the last ten years. Not all had perfect grammar; in fact, a wide variety of grammatical mistakes were tolerated and in some cases, it was clear that grammar wasn't important at all, in comparison to the ideas or the study itself. The dissertation, though, is important; it represents a scholar's arrival in the field, the cornerstone of his/her expertise, authority, and reputation in the field, and it lasts forever as an ongoing record of scholarship and work.

My wife is a full professor in sociology, and maintains that the war on passives dates back to the 90's and has its roots in feminist theory. How can you remove the agent or the one who saw or did the action, when that agent will so clearly color the results? To her it was incredible that a professor who called herself feminist could still tell students to remove I from all writing, since it contradicted an ideology that insisted on taking responsibility and noticing the actor who found, collected, studied the data. Remember that it was tradition, the advice of the elders, to remove I, we, etc., from this kind of writing. Throughout various departments, tradition was maintained even as the content of studies became rigorously more modern, up-to-date, and radical. The professor in question had simply passed on traditional academic advice to writers, not questioning whether this advice might also change along with the adoption of modern ideologies and their integration into academia.

One can avoid I, we, our, my, etc. and still avoid the passive, which one's computer is now reminding us is archaic, undesirable. One does that by animating ideas, studies, and projects. This research concludes...This study found...This data show...etc. It's hard to tell whether modern language has made this kind of construction necessary, right, or even more common. Does anyone else cringe when studies become able to do such things? This kind of construction results, often, when the writer has acquired both the distaste for the passive (encouraged by Word grammar-check) and the traditional injunction against using the personal pronouns. Does this mean the formal academic writing now requires a certain detachment from reality, in the sense that you have to let inanimate actors do the work that they shouldn't do, or take on life that they don't have? I intend to find out.

My wife says another thing, however, that I found interesting. She said, it's not the dissertations that matter, since virtually anything can be accepted by a committee, and much of it is not read very widely outside of that committee. It's the journals that matter, and what they require. It's the journals that you should read, because they are setting the standards, and defining academic language as it is. Training to be a PhD student is essentially training to write and express oneself in a discipline, and if this process is not up to a standard, the newly-minted Doctor, who goes off to be a professor somewhere, may never publish again. My internationals are protected from this sad fate, mainly by being so good in what they do that they get a lot of help in the other areas, until they truly understand how to publish and keep publishing. It's interesting, and it's what keeps diversity in our world.

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