Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tools of the trade, part 1: Do not forget the dairy

Each phase of the scholarly life has its challenges. For me, one of the big differences between the doctorate and the postdoctoral phase is that as a postdoc, I engage in a larger number of projects concurrently. Which means, in turn, that the postdoc phase is the perfect phase to develop good task-management habits.
Personally, I'm a "Getting Things Done" practitioner, and the tool I use to actually DO get things done is the aptly named "Remember The Milk". Remember The Milk has a website you can access from anything that's got a browser, plus apps if you prefer those. And of course website and apps can synch (once a day if you use the free version, constantly if you pay a yearly fee - I do the latter). If I'm feeling lazy, I just throw new to dos into the "inbox" (called "Collection" in Getting Things Done lingo), then later I can add all metadata they need ("Processing") - the "folder" of work context (my office? a telephone? internet access needed? while shopping?), a time estimate, an importance rating (Which is contrary to Getting Things Done methodology, but... well.... I do it anyway. I use Covey's Four Quadrants.), a due date if there is an actual deadline. I use tags to allocate each item to a project ("Now that I'm working on this paper anyway, are there any more to dos associated with the paper I can do in the same go?") and/or with a person ("Now that I'm in a meating with this person anyway, were there any questions left I needed to ask?").
So, when I'm stuck somewhere with a computer, but without internet access, I can tell in an instant what tasks I can do that take less than 20 minutes overall. Or when I come into the office on a Monday morning and know a very busy week is ahead, I can tell with a click and a glance all to dos that have a deadline that week and that are marked as "urgent and important" or "not urgent but important".
This may sound rather complex, but the clean interface of Remember The Milk and the many little tricks (e.g. you can email to dos to your account, and there are a lot of shortcuts for entering metadata) make it easier than it sounds. Plus, it beats "just remembering it" and "covering my desk with post-its" any day ;)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

My little linguistics

TV shows are not all the same. Not for linguists, at least. Take Star Trek, for example. For a linguist, Star Trek is paradise. First off, plenty of languages (HislaH, thlngan Hol Dajatlh!), linguists as main characters, and boldly splitted infinitives that come in handy for any introductory linguistics lecture. My favorite, though, are the episodes that feature a plot about language. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra? Viruses that cause aphasia? How NOT to behave when talking to a person who's brought a (or a couple of) sign language interpreter(s)?. Grammar Precision nazis? Star Trek's got the lot!

So, being a Trekker linguist is really easy. But a Brony linguist? *sigh* Yes, we have dialectal variation (Apple family, anybody?), and we have very specific discourse styles (Hello Zecora!), but there is very little in the way of episodes that really focus on language. The best example, I guess, is Luna Eclipsed, where Nightmare Moon Princess Luna struggles with adapting to language change, and received speech therapy to reduce her TRADITIONAL ROYAL CANTERLOT VOICE.

Well, can somebody please make a nerdy TV show with ponies about linguistics? It's OK if it also contains aliens. It can be alien ponies. I'm flexible! But it needs about 20% more linguistics!

Friday, March 4, 2016

'Good languages' and 'bad languages' in multilingual CALL?

Last month, our long-planned "Multilingual CALL" conference took place. One of the themes that came up again and again is that of the different evaluation of specific languages even within multilingual CALL (computer-assisted language learning) design. In the context of the MElang-E project, I have studied the responses of teacher training students to the integration of additional languages into an English-focus but multilingual language learning game - both as a support in learning English, and as an opportunity to experience and to use these languages in their own right. Overall, the enthusiasm for additional languages is not that pronounced, traditionally taught foreign languages like Spanish and French being the most popular, languages spoken frequently in Germany as native languags such as German and Turkish being notably less popular, and "other" languages such as Catalan or Urdu or Luxembourgish being accepted only by a tiny group of students. Having non-native non-player characters in the game also meets a strong dose of scepticism.


With this as my backdrop, I noticed how differently 'encroaching' other languages were perceived within the other projects presented at the MCALL conference. Let's, for example, take the telecollaboration project presented by Euline Cutrim Schmid (University of Education Schwäbisch Gmünd). In the set-up she described, elementary school kids in Germany and France used synchronous communication through interactive whiteboards to interact. While the 'on stage' interactions took place in English as a lingua franca, the kids of course noticed that the kids in France and their teacher were speaking another language: French. They loved the experience of using English to communicate with kids who didn't speak German - and at the same time developed curiosity about other languages. The French component had not been 'designed' into the project, which had a focus on English as a lingua franca, but it enriched the learning experience of the kids.

Compare this to the project Sílvia Melo-Pfeifer (University of Hamburg) presented. She described a project in which multiple Romance languages were brought together for an intercomprehension-based chat exchange. You could speak/type Spanish, French, Catalan, Portuguese or any other Romance language and be fully within the "linguistic contract". You could bring in tidbits of Arabic and Chinese and be appreciated for your linguistic skill or language enthusiasm. You could even sneak in a sentence of English to fix a non-comprehension issue, and still be acting more or less acceptably - as long as you did not make using English a habit, and used it on a strictly emergency-only basis. But use German and linguistic wrath would pour down on you.

My last example is the work of Manuela Pohl from the University of Potsdam, who developed intercomprehension-based materials to 'smuggle' Lower Sorbian into the Russian language classroom in Germany. She used linguistic material present in the environment of her learners as objects of intercomprehension-based analysis, allowing learners to develop knowledge about and interest in a local minority language.

Four projects, four different ways to deal with 'more than one language' in CALL.


These presentations - and informal discussions with people studying the learning of less frequently taught (minority) languages - got me thinking on how far the work I do on English can be transferred to other contexts. My focus in research is on the teaching and learning of English, and I realize that this strongly colors my perspective on multilingual CALL. English is, to a certain degree, the "winner" of the linguistic marketplace. I never need to justify English, I only need to justify the 'crazy idea' of including an occasional Luxembourgish sentence, or of allowing students to solve a challenge in a game either in English or in French. How would my work look like if my focus was on French, or on Lower Sorbian? I don't have an answer yet, but I'm glad I have the question!
Edit 03/08/2016: Updated link

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Language learning with Neko Atsume

Everything is better with cats. Even language learning.
See, I really enjoy learning Japanese. When I have all three volumes of Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" in front of me, I can already envision frolicking around Tokyo, using my precious kanjis: "decameron" (kanji 67), or  "address" (kanji 1417). But, sometimes, actually feeling like making some progress - and not only by moving from kanji 67 to kanji 68 - helps.
Cats, as everybody knows, own the internet. They incorporate epic win. Cats produce lols. Cats = success. So, obviously, cats are also good for language learning.
Case in point: Neko Atsume, the "Kitty collector" game for smartphones. I will not summarize the game play itself - if a game has its own wikipeda page, this is hardly necessary - but I'll give a few examples of how Neko Atsume is good for my Japanese.

Evidence, no 1: Oh the katakana
Katakana sucks. It does. You've just mastered hiragana, and then - a new syllabary. Again. One that happens to be only used for non-Chinese loan words. It is actually pretty frequently used - but only for the odd word here and odd word there. Neko Atsume has a lot of simple words in katakana, presented in combination with a fitting image, so that there is a chance for you to successfully decode these words even if you happen to be at the katakana stage of learning Japanese (i.e. near-total beginner). Success!


Evidence, no 2: Oh, the kanji
I actually like kanji. I do. Usually, the only thing I understand in a Japanese sentence is a few of the kanji and the odd verb ending. But the moment I put down my Japanese elementary school reader and approach anything written for speakers of Japanese older than 7 I'm lost. Neko Atsume provides me with adult (well, as adult as kitty collector games are) content where I don't despair looking at a wall of unknown kanji! Yay!

Evidence, no 3: Oh, my identity as a language learner
It is possible to navigate Neko Atsume completely without any Japanese language skills. Or English skills. As evidence by my 7-year-old-niece being a Neko Atsume pro even though there is no German edition and she has only around a year of English lessons under her belt. She can introduce herself in English - and play Neko Atsume (English Edition). I can introduce myself in Japanese - and play Neko Atsume (Japanese Edition), and feel like a super competent user of Japanese at the same time! Also, every time I compare kitty pictures with another Neko Atsume user, I'm bound to be asked about my super-cool Japanese skillz. By feeding my kitties, and putting cool toys out for them, and taking pictures of them I strengthen my self-identity of learner and user of Japanese. For the win!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Birthday research project: Yet another data point

Last year, as well as five years ago, I made a quick list of the media through which I receive birthday greetings. This year, I got yet another data point.


Let's see:


In 2015:
Twitter - 0
e-mail - 2
physical co-presence - 1 [My birthday was on Saturday, and I haven't been to the office since, which certainly skews statistics.]
telephone - 0
Xing private messages - 1
Skype - 0
Facebook private messages - 8
SMS - 1 (+ 1 spam mesage)
text messaging (not SMS) - 0
snail mail - 2


In 2014:
Twitter - 0
e-mail - 1
physical co-presence - 1
telephone - 0
Xing private messages - 1
Skype - 0
Facebook private messages - 10
SMS - 1 (+ 1 spam mesage)
text messaging (not SMS) - 1
snail mail - 1


In 2010:
Twitter - 6
e-mail - 2 (spam e-mails congratulating me were not counted)
physical co-presence - 1
telephone - 1
Xing private messages - 1 (spam PMs were non counted)
Skype - 1



Quick summary:
My observation from last year, that online services that share "birthday reminders" with people (Facebook, Xing) increase the number of birthday congratulations sent through them, still holds. While I have many more followers on Twitter than friends on Facebook, Facebook publishes my birthday and Twitter does not, so that I end up with birthday greetings on Facebook, and none on Twitter.
Mail - both snail mail and e-mail - seem to be a family domain, while the other media are less limited to one 'social group' only.
Beyond that, not that much change. Let's see how the birthday greeting ecology looks like in a year :)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yummy research - or: Multilingual CALL

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the realm of desserts that combining two yummy things creates something even yummier. This is why cookie dough ice cream exists. Or chocolate covered pretzels.
We have something quite similar in research. Sometimes it is the intersection between two topics that makes our spider sense resarch interest tingle - even more than each of them individually. Personally, I am fascinated by all things computer-assisted-language learning. But when I look at CALL, I do not want to limit myself to the exceptional case of monolingual students engaging in monolingual practices - or pretend-monolingual practices in the currently studied target language. Yet, when I present my work, I usually have to focus either on the multilingualism aspect, or on the CALL aspect, as there is little overlap between the research communities interested in each of these topics.
This is why I'm so happy that as part of my work on MElang-E, I am able to co-organize a conference on just this topic:  Multilingual CALL: Multilingual Language Learning with Digital Media in Primary and Secondary Classrooms. It will take place in Frankfurt, Germany, on February 17-18, 2016. The call for contribution is currently open (and will be open till November 16th). I am very much looking forward to many chocolate covered pretzels presentations that breach these two topics.

Edit 03/08/2016: Updated link

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Who is the peer in peer feedback 2.0?

Peer feedback - may it be in language learning contexts or in any other setting where individuals practice writing skills - is popular, and not only because one could frame it as a means to relief the teacher from the burden of correcting texts (replacing this, instead, with the responsibility to support learners in giving and using feedback, of course). A lot of the research looks at what the person whose text has been feedbacked-on can gain from peer correction and feedback, but few teachers would use peer feedback if they didn't believe that the process of editing another person's text supports learning just as much as receiving that feedback yourself.
When you move this into the web2.0 sphere, though, things can change. In a classroom context, whether the classroom is offline or online, a peer is an equal, an specifically not a teacher. Peers may be able to see problems with your texts that you couldn't see, but they are not infallible (which, incidentally, seems to reduce the acceptance of peer feedback quite a lot, as MOOC organizers can attest). In one study (Pham and Usaha 2015) the instructional design went so far to have peer corrections corrected by the teacher before they were passed on to fellow learners.
When you look at one of the many web2.0 language learning communities, the peers are usually native speakers of the language you are learning. Yes, they do not have the formal position of a teacher, but often take up or are pushed into a kind of "native speaker as teacher" role. A native speaker who provides feedback on your target language text is in many ways as much of an authority, at least in matters of content, as a teacher is. Providing you with feedback does not help them improve their own writing in that language, but is more a courtesy, a way to reciprocate the help they received with their target language.

 I wonder how this impacts the uptake of peer feedback. Pham and Usaha interviewed learners about instances in which they used, and did not use, peer feedback to change their text. Indeed, students regularly refused to follow peer recommendations, for a wide range of reason, from the peer being considered wrong, to the learner not knowing how to make the suggested change. In a web2.0 community, it is easy to consider your 'native speaker buddy' infallible. Does this increase uptake? [I'm still number crunching, but, so far, the numbers of suggestions taken up are MUCH, MUCH lower than what Pham and Usaha found.] How do learners react when they receive feedback from multiple native speakers, and the feedback is contradictory? [I have, so far, found one example in my data set where this happened, and the learner expresses surprise and confusion about this fact.] How much of the work done on peer feedback applies to language learning communities?

Life, Language and E-Verything

So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.