Monday, September 22, 2014

Beyond CALL - delicious language learning

CALL stands for "Computer-assisted language learning". The "computer" in "computer-assisted", though, should be considered more of an acknowledgement of the history of CALL than as a statement that limits CALL to clunky machines standing on desks: CALL has long included mobile devices of all types and shapes. With the "internet of things", the realm of CALL is continuously expanding. Why should we only learn with things that have a screen, when everything in our environment can be used to foster language learning? The future is now, after all!
An example: "a word a day" email services and Twitter accounts have long been popular among language learners. Whenever you check your email in the morning, or glance at your Twitter timeline, there is something for you to learn.
But aren't there better ways to serve up some delicious learning?
I believe that computer-assisted, food-based learning is the answer. We need toasters that create some tasty vocab drills! And why hasn't anybody used chocolate 3D printers for educational purposes yet?
The future of language learning will be delicious!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Academic Writing - or: Die, paper, die!

Academic writing is a practice that requires a lot of delayed gratification. Depending on your writing speed, the number of projects you are working on in parallel and the turnaround times of the journals you submit to, what you are writing right now may be published in a year.
Fortunately, there are ways to engineer some short-term satisfaction into the writing process, most of which probably boil down into some form of "x words = y cookies". Now, I won't say anything negative about cookies - but sometimes a piece of crumbly goodness may just not be enough. Sometimes, it's not our sweet tooth that requires satisfaction, but our sense of adventure! We don't want chocolate chips then, we want glory!
Well, there's a solution for this, too: at HabitRPG, you can turn a paragraph written into a dragon egg found, or into some powerful sword blows dealt against a dangerous enemy. You don't just proofread you paper, no, you earn precious mana points that you can use to cast a spell that saves your life from too-many incomplete to dos...
Does this sound a bit silly? Of course! But I don't mind how silly it sounds, as long as it gets me to write. After all, I need to earn some pink cotton candy to feed my baby dragon!
If you need more adventure in your life, try it - there are a couple of guilds focusing on writing and on different stages in the academic career, as well as a Academic Writing Challenge.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What's in a name?

While there's a lot of argument about what the first ever blog was, there is more agreement about who first called a blog by its name: Jorn Barger in 1997 coined the term "WebLog", while Peter Merholz shortened this to "blog". Rosenberg argues that the popularity of the term then had a lot to do with the growing popularity of Blogger (created in 1999, and still around today). In 2009, Miller & Shepard could refer to "The weblog, or 'blog' as almost everyone has come to call it" (Miller & Shepard2009, 262).

For me, what I'm doing here is blogging. On my blog. I'd never get the idea to call this a weblog. Yet, in the literature on blogging, I often find the term "weblog", sometimes as part of a comment on its etymology, but sometimes as actual label:

A quick search on Google Scholar finds the following: 
"The weblog handbook: Practical advice on creating and maintaining your blog" (2002)
"Audience, structure and authority in the weblog community" (2004)
"Erkundungen von Weblog-Nutzungen. Anmerkungen zum Stand der Forschung" (2005)
"Weblog success: Exploring the role of technology" (2006)
"Motivations and self-presentation strategies on Korean-based" Cyworld" weblog format personal homepages" (2007)
"Lehren als Wissensarbeit? Personliches Wissensmanagement mit Weblogs" (2008)
"Ansichten zur kommentarkultur in Weblogs" (2010)
"Weblogs im Unternehmen" (2011)
"Using Weblog in Learning English and Encouraging Adaptation among International Students in Perlis" (2012)
"Kommunikationsformenadressen oder: Prozeduren des Situationsvollzugs am Beispiel von Weblogs" (2013)


As I found this suprising, I undertook a piece of bad research. My methodically unsound just-google-it approach to language change left me with the impression that since 2010 or so, the number of articles in English using "weblog" went down dramatically, while more and more German titles continued to pop up in my searches.

If you compare overall numbers of hits in Google scholar, these aren't so different for English and German, though. For English, Google Scholar finds:
weblog 51.800
blog 3.640.000

and for German:
weblog: 5.880
blog 37.200
(Let's ignore that in English "blog" [v] and "blog" [n] are spelled identically, while German neatly differentiates between "bloggen" [v] and "Blog" [n].)
This does not support my impression. So, let's leave the academic register and look at EVERYTHING. Well, everything that pops up in the Google n-gram search:

Google n-gram English (no distinction re: word class)


Google n-gram German


In the English language, "blog" seems to have had a headstart. In German, it took till around 2002 for "Blog" to  overtake "Weblog" as the most frequently used term in German books, but the popularity of "Weblog" is - proportionally - still much higher in German publications than in English ones.

So, what is your usage here: To blog or to weblog? Bloggst Du schon, oder webloggst Du noch?

Miller, Carolyn R.; Shepard, Dawn (2009): Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere. In: Janet Giltrow und Dieter Stein (Hg.): Genres in the internet: issues in the theory of genre. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, S. 263–290.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"I spy" in the lecture hall: Of attention and involvement

Imagine you are attending a lecture. The content is new to you, and there will be a test afterwards. While listening to the lecture, you take notes. But you also message your friends, check Facebook, and look up the evening's TV program. Will these extra activities support or hinder your learning?

OK, OK, I am kidding. Even I do not consider this to be a question that invites a lot of doubt. Doing three things at the same time will, with a high likelihood, lead to you doing some of them with a lower quality. That is, of course, assuming these three things are unrelated, i.e. you do not discuss lecture content with your friend via IM while looking up relevant data on Facebook.

What about the other students in the class, though? If you do watch the best YouTube clips during the lecture, does this hinder other students' learning?
Yes, say Fana, Weston & Cepeda (2013). They conducted an experiment where students listened to a lecture and took notes with pen and paper, while some of them were seated behind other students taking notes with pen and paper, and other behind students having fun on their laptops: “The confederates’ instruction sheet explained that they were confederates, and they were required to use their laptops to flip between browsing the Internet (e.g., email, Facebook) and pretending to take notes on the lecture content as the lecture was presented. In fact, they were told they were not required to pay attention to the lecture.” (Fana, Weston & Cepeda 2013, 18)

While the quality of notes was the same wherever you were seated, those who sat behind 'multitaskers' had lower results in the post-lecture comprehension test. Actually, they did worse than those students in an earlier experiment who had been asked to listen to the lecture, take notes on their laptop, and work through a list of popular online side activities (aka dumb browsing)! So, watching somebody not paying attention to the lecture was worse than not paying attention to the lecture!

“Multitaskers appear to have been able to time their multitasking activities in a manner that reduced distraction to some degree. Those in view of multitasking appear to have been lured into watching other students’ laptop screens even during inopportune moments of the lecture, thus creating worse learning for those in view of a multitasker compared to the actual person who was multitasking.” (Fana, Westen & Cepeda 2013, 30)

Fana, Westen & Cepeda interpret this as a cognitive phenomenon:

“Confederates’ laptop screens may have distracted participants from directing their full attention to the lecture. Participants were still able to take notes on the lecture; however, a lack of complete attentional focus may have compromised the elaboration and processing of the information being written, thereby lowering successful retrieval attempts during the comprehension test.” (Fana, Westen & Cepeda 2013, 29)

I would like to add a second layer of interpretation to this data: A social perspective.

Together with Annabell Preußler, I have published on conflicts concerning Twitter usage in settingswhere Twitter was a “subordinate involvement”. Goffman uses this term to describe things that a person “is allowed to sustain only to the degree, and during the time, that his attention is patently not required by the involvement that dominates him. Subordinate involvements are sustained in a muted, modulated, and intermittent fashion, expressing in their style a continuous regard and deference for the official, dominating activity at hand.” (Goffman 1963, 44)

Seeing others use Facebook and IM can bring up questions about the purpose of the lecture and its social norms, specifically those concerning subordinate involvements. Others' fiddling around online can be seen as a norm violation, as “people doing something wrong”, i.e. annoying. For some students, it can cause a “why can they have fun while I can't” feeling. Watching others searching for the best lolcatz pics while you yourself are stuck with cloud formations – this isn't fair, right? If they get away with extensive subordinate involvements, why can‘t I?

I do not deny that attention plays a role here – assuming that it does makes a lot of sense, as everybody will know who‘s tried to work in a noisy train compartment, or read while somebody is watching TV. In the context of lectures, though, another aspect comes into play: Is this only about seeing people‘s screen actions ("Hey! Colorfull lights! Something moves! More colorful lights!"), or is it about feeling that they ought not to be surfing right now, or about me wanting to do something else as well? In other words, if I KNEW the other students were not paying attention but I would not be able to see their screens, would this still impact my learning? And what if I could see their screens, but knew that this was an official part of the lecture? Would this make any difference?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Academic writing: Begin at the beginning.

I have posted a lot of blog posts aboutacademic writing. Yet, I have written very little about academic writing myself – I mostly limit myself to ranting about what others have written on that topic.

Today, I‘ll deviate from this tradition, and share one of my academic writing tricks: 

I begin at the beginning.

No, not at the introduction. I begin before the introduction. The first thing I write is usually the abstract.

Ah well, not just any old abstract: "This paper discusses the role of blah using blah." I write the REAL abstract. The honest abstract. The this-is-what-I-want-to-achieve-with-this-paper abstract.

On other words: I start with what I call the "inspirational abstract". It comprises my vision of what this paper will be about, in 500 words or less. It talks about a problem I want to solve, about conflicting positions I want to understand, or about this super-sexy data set I have discovered. It does so in unpolished words, with lots of hyperbole, unacceptable vagueness, and more weasle words than any Wikipedian would allow. Sometimes, even a bit of silliness finds its way into it!

An inspirational abstract is not a construction guideline, it‘s more like a vision, describing what may develop from that seed I have planted in my brain and in my Content Analysis Software or Videography Package or Statistical Environment. Writing it takes minutes at most,and is deeply satisfying. And the best thing: I won‘t have to deal with an empty page once I have an inspirational abstract down - any potential fear of the blank page is effectively avoided.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Stand back! I‘m going to try Science Slamming!

I love my little ivory tower. Really, I do. If I could, I wouldn‘t leave it, ever. The only problem is: It‘s really difficult to get a lot of spectators fitted into it. So sometimes, when I‘m overcome with the need to engage in outreach or popular science, I venture outside.

The SO36 is not an ivory tower. It is neither ivory, nor a tower, rather a long, long, long black-painted corridor with a stage at its end. Advantage: You can fit plenty of spectators into it. So, this is where I went on May 5th.

It wasn‘t my first science slam, but the first 'professional' one (aka not just part of a conference‘s evening‘s entertainment). And it was quite an experience.

For one, the experience of a lot of work. I had assumed I could base my talk on my old 'conference backroom' science slam draft. Well.... After an intensive coaching session, I went back to the drawing board. I gave up my favorite section – a rather technical demonstration that explained Thurstone scaling – and added lots and lots of background info on sociolects in general and AAVE specifically. My first draft focused on attitude measurement. My final version focused on language attitudes.

Secondly, the experience of a highly professional organizing team. I already mentioned the coaching session, but I didn‘t mention the nice dinner beforehand orthe large stock of caffeinated beverages provided ;) Folks distributed little attitude questionnaires for me, and actually photographed and integrated them into my slide during a short break before my talk. I didn‘t have to worry about anything, except looking for the best questionnaire examples to illustrate my point.

Thirdly, this was my first presentation before such a large crowd. I was surprised how quickly I got used to a microphone (though I might have been reminded once or twice to raise it a tad higher). I realized that there is a kind of maximum level of nervousness that does not increase if you add a few hundred extra people. And I learned that professional stage lightning sucks if you want to keep in touch with your audience.

Now, I didn‘t win. Which was probably because I cannot play the ukulele. If I try my hand at a science slam again, I should include some music, too. No problem, I learned to play the recorder as a child. I'm sure I'll find some way to explain computer-assisted language learning via "Twinkle twinkle little star"...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Presenting in your second language?

Do you like the kind of linguistic advice available in newspaper columns or self-help books? As a linguist – and a descriptivist, if this even needs pointing out – I have strong opinions on language advice. I kinda like it – in the same way I like religious pamphlets and advertising for alternative medicine: As a mental exercise and object for ranting about. This is not because this kind of linguistic advice is always wrong, of course. I just like it best when it is wrong – bad advice is much more entertaining.
So, let‘s rant about some advice on "Presenting in Your Second Language" that I found in the most recent Toastmaster magazine. The advice given here actually isn‘t that bad – but it is very limited regarding the cases to which it applies. 

The article begins with a general statement:
"More and more, speakers around the world deliver talks in their second or even third language."
What is a second language? Terminology here is a bit.. a bit confusing. Some people use "second language" to describe a language used within a community acquired by a child who has already acquired a native language. If you speak Turkish at home with your family, and then start learning German when you enter a German kindergarten, Turkish would be your first language or native language and German your second language. Other people use "second language" as a synonym for any language formally studied. In that context, a monolingual German student studying English at school speaks English as second language. I am certain that there are probably a few other definitions floating around. Terminology in SLA (second language acquisition) varies happily between different schools of thought.

The confusion that reigns in terminology also reigns in the article. I could identify different types of "second language" contexts discussed:
Language X is a second language in the sense of foreign language.
Language X is a second language in the sense of community language.
combined with
Language X is a second language to both speaker and audience.
Language X is a second language to the speaker, not to the audience.
Language X is a second language to the audience, not to the speaker.

Does any advice apply to all these scenarios? I don‘t think so. "Pay attention to sounds" focuses on non-native-like speakers, while "Think short" looks at non-native-like hearers.

Another dimension, of course, is the dimension of language competence. "Second language" describes how you acquired/learned a language, not how well you speak it. "Think short" may not be the ideal suggestion when talking to C2-level language users.

One more relevant dimension is the context of speaking. One piece of advice given in the article is "Keep it simple": use "plain English", "simplify" your language. The opposite of simple sometimes isn‘t complex but specialized. When you give an academic or technical presentation, plain English is not necessarilyeasier for speaker or audience. Specialized, technical language, often full of internationalisms, can actually be 'simpler' for very specific audiences.

In itself, the advice isn‘t that bad, it just gets bad when you apply it to all "second language" contexts. So: If you give advice on "Presenting in your Second Language" make clear who you are giving advice to, focusing on dimensions as speakers vs. listeners, competence level and the overall context of the speech.If you do that, I probably won't like your article, though - too little to rant about.

Life, Language and E-Verything

So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.