Posts that are languages-ish

ASLCore: affordance theory, or “thing-inform”

Okay. In my last post, I danced around happily exclaiming about how cool the ASLCore project is for engineering and computing (and all the other fields it covers — philosophy, art, biology, literature, physics, etc.). In that post, I used the stress/strain curve (and its related group of concepts and their respective signs in ASL and words in English) to explain a bit of our process.

In this post, I want to discuss one of my favorite parts of working on ASLCore, which is that it leads to great conversations about what these words are, what these terms mean. These conversations happen both within the ASLCore team and outside it.

For instance, Mitch Cieminski (hearing, non-signing friend and colleague) and I were talking this week about affordance theory in the context of some of their work. During our conversation, I showed Mitch our new sign for “affordance.” (Crucial note: our intent is not to be prescriptive or say that our sign is the “correct”one — it is to offer it to the ASL community as an option, and let people choose whether and how to take it up and play with it, because this is how language works: organically, communally.)

Now, unlike some other technical terms, there’s no universalized set meaning for what, precisely, “affordances” are in English (or any other language, as far as I’m aware). If you’re new to the concept, check out the Wikipedia page, and you’ll rapidly find that the jury is still out on precisely what it means for something to “afford” something else; are we using Gibson’s definition? Norman’s? Someone else’s? (Can any of these definitions really be viewed as formal definitions?) The design fields have been debating this for a while, and I don’t think we’ll resolve that debate of anytime soon. One reason I am really proud of our signs for “affordance” and “afford” is that they feel (to me) as if they capture the shared essence of the concept represented in that discourse… without attempting to come down on one side or another of the definition debate.

The sign for “afford” (which is a verb) comes from an ASL sign that is often translated into English as “to inform.” It is directional, which means that it can be signed in ways that indicate who is informing whom. If I signed it starting from me and towards you, it can be translated “I am informing you.” If I signed it towards myself, that might be translated as “inform me,” or “let me know.” You can use it in many ways, but it’s typically set up as going between two beings/persons – person X is informing person Y.

Our sign for “afford” takes that same sign’s motion and handshape — but instead has it come from a thing (here, represented by an invisible object held in the signer’s other hand).  It’s what the object tells us. It’s what the object lets us know — about itself, about how we might use it, and so forth. For an object to afford something is for it to be informing us via how it exists as an object (as opposed to, say, having separate documentation telling us how we ought to use it).

The noun form — what an object affords — is an “affordance.” The sign adds the possessive marker (how we would indicate concepts like yours, mine, ours, etc.), which assigns the affordances as belonging to the object, and also changes it from verb to noun. Again, roughly speaking — the concept is that of the things that the object tells us about itself. (“See that object? See how it tells us things about itself? Those things it tells us — they are affordances.”)

Mitch caught on immediately as to how we could play with the concept of “affordances” via playing with the sign. Would it, Mitch asked, be signed differently if I talked about what an object affords me, as opposed to what an object affords someone else? Yes, I answered; I’d just change the directionality — the object informs me, or informs you, or informs them, and you can tell which one I mean by which direction I make the sign in. We both grinned, because this is how affordances work — an object’s affordances are relative to whoever might be using it. (An infant car seat affords sitting for my friends’ tiny children — but it does not afford such for me as a full-grown adult who wouldn’t fit.)

Thing-inform; what it is that the thing informs us of. Affordance.

Flash back to the ASLCore team discussion several weeks earlier, where I was attempting to explain the (very abstract, philosophical, and ponderously worded) formal definitions I had found to the translation team, using objects around the room as examples. A chair affords sitting. The loop on my water bottle affords my picking it up and dangling it on my finger; as does the handle on this mug, but this smooth-sided glass does not have this affordance. This door handle affords pushing, and also opening the door — but in a different way than that doorknob, or this plate on a swinging door.

We went through several translation options. Was an affordance something that was “possible” to do with a thing? No — it would be possible, albeit awkward and painful, for me to sit on my water bottle, but I would not say my water bottle afforded sitting in the way that, say, a chair does. Did “to afford” mean “to permit” or “to allow”? (This had been my previous closest sign for the concept.) No, that didn’t feel quite right; we needed something stronger. Was it what was “all right” to do with the thing? No, this wasn’t so much about social acceptability; weapons clearly afford harming people, but it’s often explicitly not ”all right” to use them to do so in most situations. 

(We also punned bilingually. Until we settled on the current sign, we occasionally used the phonetic equivalent of “Afford-Dance” as a placeholder — the signs that you’d use to mean “afford” as in “afford the cost,” and “dance” as in “dance to the music.” The room was full of winks and grimaces, snark and linguistic play.)

Was an affordance like a feature? asked the translation team. Did something need to be a product in order to afford things, did it need to be a final product, or could a design or prototype or an object that was not designed by humans also have affordances? (Yes; a chair affords sitting, but so does a fallen tree stump in the woods.) How was the notion of affordance related to our earlier discussion of the functions of a product? (Later, we would discuss how a software function in the context of computer programming was both related to and distinct from this notion of the functions of a product.)

The team pushed my understanding of the topic, of the term, of it usage, of its interconnections. I’ve written papers using affordance theory, and I had never thought so hard about what it means for an object to afford something, or what an affordance was, or was not — I could no longer take the term for granted. Creating language is hard, folks! Creating language is hard, and it’s one of the most wonderful kinds of hard I’ve ever experienced.

Anyway. We went off on this for a while, and then at some point, someone signed so, it’s what the thing tells you about itself? and I swiveled around, electric: that, THAT! Yes! It’s what the thing tells you about — how you can use it, what it’s for… 

And so they tweaked it, and then – thing-inform. Afford, the verb form. And then the noun form… what it is that the thing informs you of – affordance(s).

We had a sign. I was so happy that I think I actually jumped for joy. I definitely fist-pumped, and a bunch of (hearing) friends who knew affordance theory got all-caps, multiple-exclamation-points text messages during the next break that WE HAD A SIGN FOR AFFFORDANCE!!!! because I was… uh… maybe just a little bit excited. (There’s a reason why my name sign comes from the image of a puppy’s tail enthusiastically wagging.)

So that’s the story of “affordance” and “afford,” as best as I can tell it. I want to write this out for so, so many other signs as well — most of them have a story like this, and a meaning packed in, that is hard for non-signers to understand. I want to share with my non-signing friends some of the complexity and richness of what we are doing, in this world of engineering and computing ASL — because I hope you’ll start to see how Deafness and Deaf culture and signed languages in engineering might be something marvelous to learn from, not something to pity or treat as a mere “accommodation” or “support” to help people “catch up” (which implies that they are “behind” to start with, which is not the way it has to be).

I want you to see this with the sense of play and joy and wonder and intensity we brought to it; I want you to see why it is beautiful — so you will want to see and use this language, too.

ASLCore: stress/strain curve zoom levels

This is partly a follow-up on my post on why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL (short version: lack of technical vocabulary). This month, I’ve had the great pleasure and honor of working with one of the teams tackling that problem – ASLCore. I get to spend three weeks this summer working on engineering and computing vocabulary as one of their content experts; so far I’ve been there for two weeks, with a third week coming later in July. As of this writing, the first few signs have started to appear on the website — most are not there yet (we have several hundred), but Kai, our wonderful film/web guru, is working nonstop to continuously edit and add the new ones.

It’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. My role is to teach engineering and computing (the latter with my friend Ian Smith) to a team of amazing ASL masters — Deaf linguists, actors, translators, and poets — and watch them turn my fumbling non-native signs into vivid, clear, visual renderings of technical ideas. We created both signs and expansion videos of how and in what circumstances to use which sign for what concept — for instance, for signal processing, the sign for “frequency” in the time domain is different for the sign for “frequency” in the frequency domain.

Signs also need to link and flow together in ways that make them usable for visually discussing technical topics. Among other things, this means that two signs that will frequently appear together must be easy and smooth to sign together, both physically (hand shapes should be similar/efficient to transition between) and in the ways we use them to visually represent related concepts. A good example of this would be how we revised the sign we’d been using for “stress” (as in stress-strain curve) when we realized that it depicted the concept at the level you would see with the naked eye, but that all the other signs describing points on the stress-strain curve depicted what happened on the molecular level. We didn’t want to switch to the naked-eye magnification (zoom-in) level for one sign only, but have molecular-level signs for everything else; it would be confusing, similar to the effect of counting “one, two, tres, four” (counting in English and switching to Spanish only for the number “three”). Instead, we revised the sign for “stress” to fit the magnification level of the other signs in that conceptual cluster.

We also came up with naked-eye zoom-level signs for most (but not all) of the same concepts, so signers would have the option of depicting (for example) elastic deformation either at the molecular level or the level we would typically see with our own eyes in the lab or out in the world, with an object bending or stretching past the point where it ceases to spring back to its original form. (Since the molecular-level sign set was complete, but the naked-eye level sign set couldn’t be completed because of how human hands can and can’t move, the molecular-level set became the default conceptual signs, and the naked-eye set became supplementary/explanatory.)

“Stress” is also a good example of a sign that seems to have an English-ASL equivalent already, but which we wanted a technical sign for. There is a sign that’s often used as a translation for the English word “stress,” but that one word in English doesn’t always refer to the same concept — the word “stress” in English often means an emotional state, as in “to be stressed out” or “to be under a lot of pressure.” Engineering stress on a material refers to a totally different thing; the material is not psychologically freaked out by the forces applied to it, as far as I’m aware… or at least that’s not generally what we mean by that phrase in engineering. (I won’t go down the new materialist / posthumanist rabbit holes for this particular discussion.)

The ASL sign that’s often used for the English word “stress” portrays a force pushing down on a surface, so it’s a good conceptual fit for the physics concept of pressure, as in force-over-unit-area. In engineering — primarily in mechanical/materials engineering — we do talk about stress (on a material/object) with the same units as we use to discuss pressure, so our team did discuss just using the one existing sign to mean both concepts. But we ended up deciding we wanted to distinguish them, because we use the two English words (stress vs. pressure) in a different context within engineering, for different purposes — it’s the stress/strain curve, not the pressure/strain curve (the latter phrase is not allowed as a synonym for the former in English).

The translation team asked what the difference was. I had to think about it for a bit, but then explained that we often talk about pressure as being applied to an object, whereas stress in this context is more about the material that the object is made of, and we discuss much of that at the molecular level… so maybe the sign should also be portraying things at the molecular level, and then…

Anyway, you can see how we might have gotten there — and that’s just one example of the kinds of conversations we’d have throughout this process. It is fun.

The idea is that bringing together Deaf expertise in an academic field with Deaf expertise in (American) signed language will lead to — finally — linguistically, culturally, and conceptually accurate ways to express some of these ideas. We also have interpreter consultants who help us see how those signs might be used in spoken-instruction classroom situations, as well as a behind-the-scenes team doing the heavy lifting of logistics, filming, editing, annotating, and keeping the entire team happily stuffed with coffee, cheesecake, and granola bars. I can’t thank them enough for letting me be part of this.

I got a chance to try some of the new signs out with friends at the annual American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference. And… and… they work. I signed an explanation of version control to a group that included non-technical ASL interpreters (who didn’t know what version control was) and technical friends (who knew what version control was, but don’t know ASL). The interpreters translated the everyday signs, and then when we got to one of the new (technical) signs, my friend Todd Fernandez blurted out — and in some cases, explained – precisely the right word to fill in the gaps. Typically, for that level of technical precision when I am signing, I have to fingerspell endlessly (and my fingerspelling is terrible) and otherwise keep on pointing to or borrowing from English. But that night, I didn’t. And it felt amazing.

I want to unpack more of these signs for my non-signing, English-reading friends so you can see a little bit of why I’m so excited by this process. More on this in my next post, where I’ll work on unpacking just a single word.

APA style and qualitative research methods resources in ASL

My friend Anna Murphy recently sent me St. Catherine University’s library resources on APA style — and they have ASL versions! Actual ASL with nice translations, not ”we signed the English word for word” versions. I think these are a nice high school or early-college intro for ASL users, maybe good for a first-year college seminar course. (I’ll ask Corrine Occhino about using them for ours, since this is a lovely set of matched bilingual resources.)

Joan Naturale also pointed me to an ASL companion to an introductory qualitative research methods textbook (Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology (REEP): Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods). ”ASL Companion,” in this case, means there are well-done chapter summaries in ASL with the blessing of the original author (Dr. Donna Mertens). This is a nice textbook, in its 4th edition from Sage, not some hastily cobbled together thing for the sake of having something signed. Good scholarship in good ASL is, sadly, scarce stuff.

This stuff is important; not only does it make these materials more accessible to those who are native users of ASL, it gives us a glimpse towards what scholarship in ASL might look like. And yes, there have been Deaf (and hearing!) researchers working on “academic ASL” for a while (and what that means is still up for debate). I’m new to the conversation and feeling my way into a world that people far smarter and wiser (and familiar with ASL and Deaf culture!) have created before me, with the hopes of contributing to it as well.

My question is: what would it look like to do this in engineering, computing, and in engineering/computing education? I’ve seen scholarship in ASL, but only for clearly ASL/Deafness related fields… signed linguistics, Deaf education, Deaf history and rights, and so on. I’ve seen stuff about ASL in other fields, but it was written in English. What does it look like to do engineering and computing work in ASL and/or in a culturally Deaf manner? What would culturally Deaf engineering look like?

And I’m pretty sure that look is a key operative word here, but it’s also going to sound like something — Deafness doesn’t mean the absence of auditory information! — and it’s also going to be a host of other things, because Deafness isn’t just about visuals; consider the DeafBlind community, consider all the tactile/kinesthetic richness of the world, consider — but I digress.

But what will Deaf Engineering (and Computing) be like? I don’t know. I’m aware that I’m continuing to write these blog posts in English, and I’m okay with that right now, so long as my actual published/presented outcomes on this front come out bilingually. In part I’m writing in English because this is my scribble pad and I’m a native English writer, and it’s what my thoughts come out most fluidly in (if I thought best in Spanish, I’d be writing in Spanish). But these kinds of resources are not just examples and resources for my future students; they’re building blocks for me of what might be, what things might look like. And I can also tell from watching them that they took tremendous amounts of work to create, so…

..examples. I leave them here as exercises for the reader.

Thoughts on my family’s language

A recent Facebook thread had me thinking about my relationship with the languages spoken by my family. Almost all my relatives speak English to some degree, orthopedist with the native/fluent proportion increasing with later generations, tadalafil as immigrant generations tend to go. But we have others, story including the regional Chinese-Filipino dialect I would identify as “my family’s language.”

My family’s language, but not mine. Probably never mine. In some ways, I have a heritage language I may never speak. I still can’t successfully lipread my family’s language, and can only speak a few childish words of it — brush your teeth, time to eat, go to bed. English had far more resources to learn with: libraries full of books I could read, drills on vocabulary and grammar so I had patterns I could guess at, speech therapists trained for the phonemes of that tongue. And so that was my language.

I’m used to being surrounded by that dialect when I’m home sometimes, and even more so when we’re in the Philippines. What I’m used to is not being able to understand it. That’s… just my experience with it. It’s ours, but it’s mine in a different way than it is theirs.

But if you asked what my family’s language is, I would still point to our dialect. And I want to see it preserved, and I want my own children (who are likely to be hearing) to someday learn it from my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and cousins, even if I myself may never speak it. Many parents want to give their kids something they didn’t have themselves, and this is one of mine.

Black print on thick white paper, serif font.

Originally written a few weeks ago when I was sick. Posting now, cystitis because… well, view you’ll see my next post in a bit.

English is not my native language. Text is. When I think, viagra sale there’s a silent voice in my head that doesn’t pronounce the “th” and “s” sounds I can’t hear — but those letters pop out crisply in a mental picture, black print embossing character-by-character on thick white paper, serif font.

I usually forget my mind is working overtime to process speech until I’m sick and the massive machinery starts breaking down in ways I can see. It slips and struggles; my ability to listen and converse becomes a frantic clawing, grasping at a cliff I’m slipping from — and then I plummet and thrash alone in freefall, disconnected. My freezing fingers and sore wrists want to type, because writing is my talking; twice yesterday, I caught my hands reaching for ASL because communicating in a language I barely know (to people who don’t know it at all) felt easier than speaking.

Books taught me language, were my shields, were what I could always trust to be there and hold my hand. Ideas and thinkers worth the effort to understand, flat solid pages that wouldn’t accidentally turn away or place their hands over their mouths while speaking. Much has been made of geek kids finding solace from their solitude in books (or now, the internet). It was even more so, I think, for me.

English is not my native language; written English is. So it was with great triumph and joy that I discovered — recently, this spring — that I am at the point with German where I can understand bilingual tapes. The kind that say an English phrase followed by the German translation. I do not understand the English phrase when I hear it — but then I hear the German, and the complete English sentence pops, in print, into my head, immediately followed by the German one (occasionally with fuzzy words that pop into focus a second later when I’ve puzzled through some grammatical point). The first time this happened, I was startled. Then I started laughing. Then my sense of wonder exploded all through the minivan I was driving and I thought oh, hello, big wide world, I’m a Mel! I will see you and hear you and talk with and connect to you and and and…

It’s hard. But the hard is what makes it good.

When my brain tells me that I’m a language-learning failure, then… apparently I treat it like an engineering project.

Thinking out loud.

I have fear-paralysis and need to keep gently resteering and resteering myself out of it. It’s not more books that’ll help; it’s not my reading that’s in need of working on. It’s my fear of not being able to communicate, store of sounding stupid when I do. It’s the same fear that language-learners everywhere have, thumb but I excuse myself with “but I can’t hear!” — since when has that been an excuse? It’s not something to ignore — I can’t just suck it up and deal by trying “the normal route” harder — but rather something to hack cleverly around.

I recognize that I’ll sometimes use overanalysis as an avoidance mechanism to actually jumping in. I’ll “learn about” in order to avoid “doing.” So instead of going “hm, website like this phonology might help me with my German,” I should dive into trying to do something very, very simple in spoken German using ideas like “ooh, phonology!” as scaffolding to help me along. Otherwise I’m just wasting four weeks on fear.

But I shouldn’t beat myself up over this, even if what I perceive as my failures in the language-learning department bring me to the verge of frustrated tears even just thinking about it now, let alone when I try to speak. The voices in my head sound something like this: “well, they were right after all, the people who said your hearing loss would make language-learning too hard; you’re not good or brave or smart enough to overcome this, so lie down and give up.” Those voices say that sort of stuff about a lot of things, and I’ve become good at ignoring them, proving them wrong — but this… I keep smashing, determined, into brick walls. And I find myself beginning to believe them. And I don’t want that. I don’t.

So, quietly. Small. Slowly. Take one small step every day, Mel. One small step in doing, not talking-about. (This blog post is talking-about.) And lift the restriction of transparency on yourself; when it helps, use it — when it doesn’t, don’t. I don’t need to tell people what I’m doing for language-learning now, when it makes me afraid to step into the open; I can always tell them later, and it’s okay. It’s okay to have some of your projects not be open; you of all people know what the tradeoffs are to that, what you gain and what you miss and what it costs. It’s okay to decide that tradeoff is best left untouched, and that decision can always be changed.

Engineering brain: ENGAGE.

What have I learned from 6 (7?) nights over 3 weeks with Jen? Let’s see. Aside from some grammar and vocab (which I’m picking up really, really slowly), I’ve learned a lot about my failure modes in listening and conversing. I hit those failure modes very quickly (translation: I listen and nod, but don’t talk — or respond in English because I’m too proud to reply in broken German). Here are the hearing-related ones (as far as I can tell).

(Not a failure mode) I can produce the “sch,” ach-Laut (/x/) and ich-Laut (/ç/) sounds correctly and consistently! I… I couldn’t do that before, and this knowledge is hard-won because these sounds are both inaudible and non-lipreadable to me. Now, I don’t know yet when to pronounce those sounds — can’t always look at printed words and go “aha, mouth goes like this” — but that’s something specific I can work on. And going in the other direction, having someone talk to me: these sounds aren’t lipreadable, and I don’t have enough exposure to the language to be able to predict the right words in a sentence from context — this seems like something I can’t tackle right now but might be able to later.

I know much more specifically what other sounds are hard for me and why – what feedback others get that I lack.

  • ‘R’, because it’s un-lipreadable. I think I can hear it, but I can’t consistently produce it.
  • All the vowels with umlauts and their variations without umlauts (there are six: a, o, and u). I can lipread them, but the differences are subtle for ‘o’ and ‘u,’ and a-umlaut reads like the English ‘eh’ to me, and… basically, it’s unfamiliar visual input that I really, really need to drill.
  • p/f/pf/v/t are indistinguishable in German. For that matter, they (or their closest equivalents) are indistinguishable in English, so I’m going to work on this in speech therapy first before I try to jump it to a different language.

I see the gap between my reading and listening abilities more clearly. I’ll hear simple words I know full well from reading, but won’t get them – then when I’m told the English meaning, the word (and sometimes the full sentence) will snap into clear focus in my head. When I think about German, I see typed letters appearing in my head, because that’s what I’ve been exposed to. There are a few types of gaps:

  • Failing to recognize word boundaries, especially for short words that frequently appear together in a phrase. For instance, I think of “wie viel” (“how much”)  as two printed words, so hearing it as a single two-syllable word gets me searching in the wrong part of my vocabulary database. (This is not a good example. I’ve also seen it written “wieviel” with no spaces. But it’s almost 1am and I’m blanking on a better example.) I’m not sure what the solution to this is; learn commonly-blurred-together word groupings as one auditory unit that breaks into multiple words?
  • Mapping heard syllables to the wrong letter clusters. If I forget “v” sounds like an English “f,” my brain searches for German words beginning with the letter “f,” which… naturally does not find the right word. Solution: mini spelling bees.

The failure mode of both these bugs rely on one underlying assumption — which isn’t bad in and of itself, but would disable both these bugs if it were eliminated. That assumption is that “text” is my mental storage format for German – that is, I fundamentally think of the language as a written one (because I have primarily encountered it as such), so anything I hear gets translated into imaginary printed text in my head and then into English, and when I want to say something myself I type it out on imaginary paper in my head and then pronounce it out loud. (This is really what I do – a monospaced serif font will appear, black-on-white, centered in the upper part of my mental visualization space.) Maybe I need to learn how to not do that for a little while.

Okay. This helps me make a list of miniprojects I can tackle.

Be able to look at printed words and recognize when they have “sch,” “ach,” and “ich” sounds in them, and then say those words (or at least those sounds in those words) correctly. This is me spending time with the phonology book I borrowed from Jen, I think.

Be able to listen to a word in German and ask (in German, and understand and act upon the answers) to the following questions:

  • is there an ach-Laut in that word, an ich-Laut, a… <list other sounds I can’t perceive here>?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What sound does this part make?
  • Can you repeat that word/phrase/syllable again?
  • Am I pronouncing it right?
  • What do I need to do differently?
  • What does it sound like to you?
  • I can’t hear the <whatever> sound.
  • Let me see if I can lipread the <whatever> sound.

This is doable. I’ll ask for help translating these sentences, learn them, and then use them during a session of learning new vocabulary words.

Be able to ask questions about German phonology in German. Ok. I need some vocabulary for this: first, parts of the vocal tract, which I have in a book and should make flashcards for until I can go back and forth between the English word, the German word, a diagram (I should be able to draw this diagram) of the vocal tract, and feeling/pointing/using my own anatomy:

  • lips
  • teeth
  • alveolar (ridge)
  • palate
  • velum
  • uvula
  • velic
  • nasal cavity
  • oral cavity
  • pharynx
  • tongue
  • apex
  • blade of the tongue
  • front of the tongue
  • root of the tongue
  • epiglottis
  • trachea
  • esophagus
  • larynx
  • vocal chords
  • glottis

Then words about speech sounds. Flashcards. I need flashcards.

  • mode of articulation
  • point of articulation
  • stop/plosive
  • fricative
  • affricate
  • obstruent
  • consonant
  • resonant
  • nasal
  • trill
  • lateral
  • glide
  • vowel

And then words and sentences so I can say…

  • should my lips be more or less rounded/wide/apart?
  • should my jaw be more open/closed?
  • is the tongue touching/above/behind/below/in-front-of the teeth/lips/alveolar ridge/etc?
  • do I need more constriction/aspiration? Where?
  • where is your tongue/teeth/whatever?
  • what are your lips/tongue/teeth/etc doing when you say the <whatever> sound?
  • can you say just the <whatever> sound/word/syllable/part/sentence again?

If I wanted to tackle this, I’d make flashcards. Many flashcards. And then practice with Jen using these things, talking about difficult words and sounds.

Be able to tell the 6 umlaut/non-umlaut vowels apart through a combination of listening and lipreading. In other words, if someone sits in front of me and says one of the six vowels in isolation, I should be able to identify which vowel it is. More difficult: say one of the six vowels in a word. I think I should be able to do that too.

Spelling practice, which we’ve done a bit of before (bonus: I started learning the alphabet). This is for building my sound-to-text mapping skills – it’s simple. Hear a word, try to spell it; if I get it wrong, get it spelled out to me letter-by-letter ’till I get it right. I could try doing this a little by myself if I can find the right audio input — I could maybe use a book-on-tape, but might need something broken down into the word-by-word level.

I could think of more things to do, but let me not spec out too much, because then I feel like getting through the list is an obligation rather than an adventure. Let me put this out here, without obligation to do any of it, and then see where my fancy leads me between now and Thursday.

And wow. I’m feeling better now. Inspired, even. Engineering brain, you win. I am so glad I have you.

Adventures in learning German: Why I love grammar but not finding word boundaries

My ability to understand German has spiked dramatically since the last time I posted about language-learning. I’m still nowhere near good (or even minimally functional), hospital but some indicators:

Kaffeestunde. When I walked into Kaffeestunde (German coffee hour) in the German department on Monday, physician I was able to understand Jennifer talking about her new car without straining at all. My own attempts to talk back were more difficult because I had to grasp for vocabulary, stomatology and I needed to ask for explanations of some unfamiliar words, but it felt like there was a structure there that words fell into and that I could see and fix the bits I didn’t understand, instead of having everything be one confused morass.

Books. I can now read my Petterson und Findus book slowly on my own without a dictionary and get the gist of what’s going on at a rate of about 3 minutes per page. Again, I’m missing too much vocabulary to understand everything, but still; in the past I wouldn’t be able to grasp the plot at all until Sebastian read and translated it for me.

As a benchmark for Americans: this book is perhaps written around the level of the Little House on the Prairie series, but is much shorter. I remember Little House being pleasantly easy to read, so this means I now read German at slightly below the level I read English at when I was… 5. Which is comforting, because if I look at my (English) writing at that age, it’s somewhere around the level my German writing is now (albeit with more sophisticated topics now that I’m in my twenties).

What’s happened in the meantime? Well, I spent 5 days in Germany; on one of those days Sebastian took me to the largest bookstore in Hannover and I got a grammar workbook (PONS Power-Sprachtraining Deutsch als Fremdsprache) which I set to with a will. This occasionally meant a little bit of ridiculousness. One night in Valencia I fell asleep in the middle of conjugating the 6 modal verbs. (Sebastian was working from a nearby desk at the time and listening in great amusement; the next morning, what I pieced together was that I’d been lying in bed reciting conjugations, progressively getting slower and quieter and sleepier-sounding until I went from distinct words to occasional mumbles to silence.) Once classes started I was getting up before 6am in order to work chapters before school. But I finished yesterday, 10 days after we first got the book. Triumph!

As a side note: Valencia was beautiful, and the drive between Barcelona and Valencia was soaked with sun and hills and vineyards, ocean vistas, orange groves… I highly, highly recommend it.

Anyhow. Grammar! It makes things make sense! Cases and tenses and genders, prepositions and pronouns, grammatical terms I’d heard about in middle school but dismissed because I didn’t need them to understand English… it helped me articulate the patterns I’d been seeing in the language, and uncovered some I hadn’t noticed at all. Insanely motivating. After each chapter, I’d read something unfamiliar in German and notice that it made more sense. Which makes sense. Since I can’t hear, my language perception functions with highly predictive patterns that rely on my knowledge of how sentences can be structured — and grammar is, essentially, the rules for how to structure sentences in a given language.

I will say, however, that I needed all that past experience of trying to read German in order to go through the grammar book as quickly and as gleefully as I just did. The joy was in how learning a bit of grammar illuminated so much material that I’d previously read and not completely understood; without experiences in the past to illuminate, there would have been no spark, no motivation. In fact, I did try going through a German grammar book maybe a year ago before I’d really started trying to study German, and I got maybe 3 pages in before concluding it was boring crap; there was no context for the rules to cling to.

This way, however, I could read the section on softeners (words you use with imperatives in order to soften a command – the difference between a stern “EAT!” and a polite “Could you please eat a bit?”) and flash back to a picture of a frog Sebastian had sent me years ago to cheer me up when I was down.

I had previously held a vague understanding that the frog was trying to convey some sort of happy cheering-up message, but when I hit the grammar chapter I jumped up and went holy crap it’s the second person informal imperative form of lachen with two softeners I understand it now! (Literally. I ran over to Sebastian all excited and told him that more or less verbatim. His bemused reaction: “That’s very nice, dear.”)

Word boundaries have been… I won’t say “less successful,” but rather that as I’ve progressed, the precise nature of my difficulties surrounding individual word discrimination have become more clear (and loom larger than I anticipated). Here’s why.

Words are discrete units. That previous sentence consisted of four chunks; I know where the boundaries are between them (thank you, space bar!) and so I know that I can look at the chunk “are” separately from the chunk “discrete” and I’ll be okay. (As opposed to looking at, say, the chunk “iscrete” or the chunk “te uni,” which would be way less helpful).

In contrast, audio is a continuous stream. For me, it’s a continuous lossy stream. And native speakers (of any language) seem to blend their language into more of a continuous stream than non-native speakers – so a simple sentence like “Wir werden Kaffee trinken” (We will drink coffee) goes through my broken cochlea (which can’t hear consonants, etc) and hits my brain as something like “Vererdenatheethkphbltken.” And I go “uh, how many words was that?”

In contrast, if someone is speaking slowly — or if I’m talking with another non-native speaker, who also parcels out sentences word by word — that breaks up a bit neater: “Ver erden athee thkphbltken.” Now I know there are four words. “Ver” might be “Wer” or “Wir,” but it didn’t sound like a question, so it’s probably “Wir,” which means that “erden” is a verb, and knowing how verbs are conjugated after “wir” along with a rough guess of common possibilities might lead me to “Wir werden,” and then I see that they were pointing to the pot of coffee and go “oh, oh, Kaffee trinken,” and so on.

Figuring out how and where to put in word dividers in realtime conversation is something I haven’t quite figured out how to drill for yet. The best I can come up with is watching subtitled videos (audio in German, subtitles also in German) and learning how to correlate text with sound. Ideas would be very welcome.

Speaking a language I can’t hear: useful tools and strategies so far

I seem to be starting to figure this out. We’ve known for a long time that my hearing loss makes “normal” (i.e. sit in a classroom with 25 other people, buy teacher lectures) language classes mostly useless as a primary learning strategy, decease but I’m beginning to figure out what things work for me self-study wise. Rambly braindump notes follow; I may someday write this up in a better form.

The short version: since I understand spoken English via a Markov model, troche the trick to being able to understand spoken something-else is priming my Markov model – acquiring sentence structures and vocabulary words in a medium that works for me (text) and a “translation key” of how that looks and sounds like when spoken, because otherwise I end up with great reading/writing abilities and an utter inability to recognize spoken words, even if they’re exactly the same as the ones I’ve written down.

I think of language-learning in three parts: written language, spoken language, and the ability to go bidirectionally between the two. I want spoken language – that’s the final goal, conversation – but I suck at it, but I’m also really good at written language – so how do I capitalize on that and transfer some of that strength into my weak area?

Here are the resources I’ve found useful so far. This is not a final set of “thou shalt buy these!” recommendations – some can probably be made on your own for cheaper! However, this stuff  has caused me to learn something about my language-learning strategies and I’ve found them useful.

Basic phrasebook: Survival memorization of a couple vital things like where’s the bathroom?  Which is completely not to be discounted; when I need to ask where the toilets are, I don’t care whether I understand the grammar of the phrase or not, I just want to pee.

Pimsleur, Earworms: Helps with memorizing the contents of a basic phrasebook. I must know the words before I hear them on the tape; the tape is simply for drill – more on this later.

Basic grammar book: Also duh. Used as a reference rather than a study text – I generally touch the grammar book when I’m at the point of pain – what the hell is up with such-and-such a conjugation? - so the rules have context to grab onto when I learn them, and the book stays a happy “this causes moments of clarity and revelation!” item instead of “stupid thing I need to slog through.”

Michel Thomas: Gets me through the basics of a grammar book with much less pain than simply reading the grammar book. I need to pre-prime my Markov model by reading the transcript before or during the first round of listening. Again, more on this later.

German reading book: This is a slim little book for scholars who want to be able to read in German (Goethe and Faust and opera lyrics and so forth) but don’t give a fig about speaking it – this may be available in other common “scholarly” languages as well, but I haven’t checked. (Spanish? French? Search for books or classes labeled “for reading knowledge” or knock on doors at your local university and ask.) It’s like a grammar book, except written in a way you actually want to read – and it includes reading exercises and that sort of thing. It is much less comprehensive than an actual grammar book, and incorporates high-frequency vocabulary lists once in a while.

Books translated into German that I’ve read in English: Exercising my ability to guess in German. This is important – it’s how I learned English as a wee tot. If you know the story, then you know the meaning of the words in the book, and what you’re trying to figure out is how the meaning that you know already was expressed in German. I pick up an eclectic set of vocabulary this way; for instance, Der Kleine Prinz taught me the words for drunkard and thorns. I may soon start looking at translated versions of technical essays and books I’ve already read in English, or on topics I already know (thanks to Catherine Devlin for the suggestion). Note I said translated into. Especially if they’re nonfiction, books translated into your target language tend to have simple sentence structures and no unexpected cultural idiosyncrasies and references to trip you up; for the importance of this, imagine what it would be like for some poor unwitting English learner trying to read T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Or anything by James Joyce. It’s hard enough to figure out the grammar and vocabulary, so put as few barriers between you and the meaning of the text as possible.

Books in German that I haven’t read in English: A test of how well I’ve learned to guess – basically an advanced version of the previous resource. I’m currently limiting myself to books that also have English versions so that I can check my comprehension afterwards, because my brain needs feelings of closure (“yes, I’m sure I understood that!”) to feel satiated and reading stuff in English and going HAH! YES! gives me that closure and a big boost of encouragement. Without it, I get a growing pile of uncertainty that slowly eats my confidence away. Therefore: English versions too, please. For now.

Vis-Ed Flashcards: Drilling my ability to guess the meanings of more offbeat/complex vocabulary and sentence structures with minimal context. They’re like mini-books; you can pick them up and put them down and do them in bite-sized pieces. Sure, books give you the whole story structure in your head to help you figure things out… but you also have to load all that into RAM before it’s useful, which (at least for me) takes up the entirety of the few seconds I had to practice a flashcard anyway. I’ll note that I skipped straight to level II for Vis-Ed flashcards (discovered a lonely box, heavily discounted, in the back corner of my campus bookstore) so I’m not sure what the first set’s like.

Rosetta Stone: A bit of basic vocabulary memorization, but this was (surprisingly!) most useful at the start of my attempts to learn German, because I wasn’t speaking - I was too shy. I mean, hell, I was dating a native speaker and I couldn’t bring myself to try speaking German to him – it was just this mental block of oh noes I shall get it wrong frozen-in-terror-ness. But a computer? I can talk to a computer! I can repeat words into the speech recognition portion of a computer. I can do that while in the same room as my (very patient) boyfriend (who would barricade his ears with a WWII TV series so the gunfire and explosions drowned out my attempts to pronounce the number 12). And then I could ask him for help when I got stuck on a sound, because it was the damn computer’s fault. And that meant I was saying German words in front of him (not really to him, per se – but in front of him) and gradually I realized that wasn’t so different from trying to speak German to people and why didn’t I just do that too… so in effect, Rosetta Stone acted as a (very expensive) mediating artifact that tricked me into talking with people.

Kaffeestunde: The weekly German coffee hour at Purdue. Most universities with foreign language programs have some sort of language lunch table or club or something of the sort; there are also meetup groups or language partners or just plain talking with a friend who speaks the language. This is conversation practice, which is the point of everything else – after all, you learn a language (usually) so you can communicate with people. So… communicate! (I was so proud the first day I managed to tell some other grad students about my trip to a bookstore in Portland – I didn’t know a lot of the words in their responses and questions, but I could guess most of them, ask about the others, and understand the definitions they gave… without once resorting to English. There is hope for me yet!)

You’ll notice some of these are audiovisual or audio resources (Pimsleur, Earworms, Michel Thomas, Rosetta Stone). That’s where the “bidirectional transfer” part comes in. Basically, I know I want to understand audio, so I use these resources as goals – these are all-audio courses that you “don’t need a book” to use (if you’re hearing), so can I get to that point? What do I need to do to be able to use these as audio drills as intended?

The simplest way to do this is to either read the transcript before listening to the tape – or (more time-consuming but also more effective) listen to the tape while reading the transcript the first time. I suspect the reason the latter works better is that I’m naturally a speed-reader; I don’t often subvocalize while reading texts (which is one of the first things a good speedreading program will try to train you out of – you’re limited by how fast the invisible voice in your head can talk) so I get the words when I read transcripts, but I don’t link them to audio; the word-as-written and word-as-spoken remain separated by a large gap in my head. And given that I don’t want to lose my speed-reading ability or to inadvertently train myself to subvocalize all foreign-language words, I’ll take the extra time to listen through the first round – after all, I’d like to speedread in German someday.

The awesome thing is that once I’ve gone through an audio resource, I have a good enough memory and enough residual hearing to be able to understand it without transcripts on subsequent uses. It’s probably more memory than hearing; after listening to the first Michel Thomas CD twice, I could write out a reasonably accurate transcript from memory. But in any case, it becomes sort of like reading a book in German that you’ve already read (however long ago) in English; you know the plot, you’re just waiting to find out how they express the meaning you already know in the language you’re trying to learn.

Learning how to learn a new type of thing is awesome. I’m already thinking “whoa, how much easier is French going to be after this?” (Or Spanish, or Italian, or any other European language… I think Asian ones are in a slightly different class, but I have some strategies for those already.) Go go gadget metacognition!

Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.

A few friends and I have a reading group that meets every other week to try out cool topics and random stuff. Our current miniproject is learning Spanish (everyone else has at least some Spanish language background; I’m the only one starting from scratch), ailment with the intent of coming back together to analyze what sorts of resources and techniques worked well for us, allergy and what sorts of strategies different people used. The intent is not to learn Spanish particularly well; two weeks isn’t enough for that, herbal but it is long enough to get a window into how you learn it.

We are supposed to try to do something towards language-learning every day. Today is Day 3. I have been extremely unsuccessful, mostly because something interesting has come up: it seems that my brain lumps languages into a couple categories.

  1. English
  2. Fookien (my family’s Chinese dialect)
  3. ASL
  4. Everything else

It’s pretty obvious why – English is my native tongue, and I learned rudimentary Fookien from birth to toddlerhood (when my parents decided they should stop speaking everything but English to me so that I would “learn English properly”). I still hear Fookien frequently today when I’m with family, so I’m used to sorting between English – which I’m used to hearing and understanding – and Fookien, which I’m used to hearing and not understanding. Not a problem there.

I learned ASL in middle childhood, and it’s physical rather than verbal, and thus easily separable. But the rest – Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, German, Spanish – they get tagged with OH HEY LOOK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Meaning I produce exchanges like this when attempting to talk to myself while walking down the street (for practice):

“Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.” (Which is “Good day” in Spanish, followed by “How are you?” in Tagalog and a reply of “Very good, thanks” in German.)

This was not intentional; it came out almost without me realizing it, and then I went “wait WHAT?” and slapped my forehead. I was actually trying to speak Spanish the entire time. But some words come more easily to me in some languages than others, so I think my brain goes “oh, you’re trying to speak Some Other Language!” and out comes the first word in something-that-isn’t-English-or-Fookien it finds.

This has happened before – I baffled my Mandarin teacher by occasionally reading the Japanese pronunciations of the characters in the text I was reciting, and now I do the opposite (I’ll look at Japanese text and hear the occasional character in Mandarin). Sometimes, at Kaffeestunde (German Coffee Hour) at Purdue, I need to bite my tongue to keep from inserting a Japanese word into a German sentence — because I know the word in Japanese, but not in German.

I’m absolutely nowhere near fluent in any of these other languages. At best, I’m beginning-to-intermediate in ASL, somewhere around mid-second-semester college-level in German, and able to converse brokenly with my relatives in Mandarin. But I’m far better at all of them than in Spanish, so when I try to say something in Spanish, it’s way easier to say it in something else that isn’t English, so I do.

Not sure how to get past this problem yet; I think that working on processing Spanish input for a while (say, this week) rather than producing output might help — listening and reading first, not speaking and writing. So… we’ll see if that helps. In the meantime, this is terribly amusing.

Meine Erste Deutsch Blogpost

I apologize in advance to any actual German speakers who may stumble across this post; I have not gotten my writing checked by anyone who knows the language properly. In fact, apoplectic I wrote it on an airplane without a grammar book using the dictionary on my cell phone to help me figure out how to translate weird but crucial words like “Free/Libre and Open Source Software Communities” – the everyday vocabulary is my own. This means that things like “proper spelling” and “appropriate word choice” are absent. (Yes, store I know that “typen” is not a direct translation of “dialect, one health ” but I don’t know the word for “dialect,” ok?)

This is basically the best German I can produce (mostly) unaided right now. It is probably terrible, but… release early, release often! I’ll provide an English translation at the end for what I think I’m saying so that non-German speakers can nod in sympathy and German speakers can shake their heads in despair at the atrocity I have committed to their language. FAIL FASTER, LEARN FASTER!

Hallo – ich heisse Mel. Ich bin Studentin und Ingenieur, und ich wohne in Indiana (in dem USA), aber ich komme aus der Internet. Meine Grosseltern kommen aus China, und sie sprechen zwei typen Chinesische (Mandarin und Fookien, unser Familie Chinesische typen) und Philippinisch und ein bisschen Englisch. Meine Eltern kommen aus Philippines und sie zwei typen Chinesische und Filippinisch und Englisch sprechen. Ich in dem USA geboren, heirfuer ich sprache… Englisch. Ich bin Amerikaner! (Dieses Stereotyp ist nicht so guet.)

Ich studiere Open Source Gemeinden: wer arbeiten, was machen sie, weshalb hilfen sie, wasfuer ein Wissen sie gelernt. (Open Source Gemeinden heisst auch FLOSS/FOSS/OSS Gemeinden – das bedeutet “Free/Libre (befreite?) und Open Source (erkennbar Code? Ich weiss nicht, was Wort ist richtig hier) Software, daher ich will sagen “FOSS.”) Gibt es viele FOSS-Volk in Deutschland, aber ich verstande nicht, was sie sagen. Sie verstanden Englisch, aber wir (Amerikannern?) sprechen kein Deutsch, daher sie wissen, was wir machen und wir wissen nicht, was machen sie. Ich moechte nach Berlin fliege (gibt es eine wichtig Hackerspace in Berlin) und sehe, was sie machen. Das ist eine Anlass, warum ich Deutsch lerne.

Aber ich habe ein kleines Problem. Ich bin auch schwerhoerig, darum viele Deutsch Klasse ist schwer… “Hoeren Sie und wiederholen Sie” ist nicht ohne Frustration, wenn sie hoeren nicht! Ich kann nicht wiederhole, was ich kann nicht hoere… ich muss lese. Ich hierfuer die Buecher kaufe, und jetzt ich habe ein Blog fuer schreibe. Ich weiss nicht, was ich schreibe… ich habe viele Fehler! Dennoch, das ist der Weg fuer Wissen.

Ich habe eine Fragen fuer Sie, mein Dozentenstellung. (Ist das Wort richtig, “Dozentenstellung”? Mein Handy hat ein kleines Worterbuch und er sagt “Dozentenstellung.”) Ich suche etwas fur lese. (Mein Grammatik ist heute vermutlich falsch.) In dem USA wir haben etwas heisst “Simple English” fuer Erwachsene, das ein bisschen Englisch verstanden. Haben Deutschland etwas fuer Erwachsene, das ein bisschen Deutsch verstanden… “Einfach Deutsch”? Oder Buecher fuer Kinder… ich lese heute “Der Kleine Prinz,” was sollte nach ich lese?

And now in a language I actually know!

Hello, I’m Mel. I’m a student and an engineer, and I live in Indiana (in the USA), but I come from the Internet. My grandparents come from China, and they speak two dialects of Chinese (Mandarin and Fookien, our family’s Chinese dialect) and Tagalog and a little English. My parents come from the Philippines and they speak two dialects of Chinese and Tagalog and English. I was born in the USA, therefore I speak… English. I’m an American! (This stereotype is not so great.)

I study open source communities: who works, what they do, why they help, what sort of knowledge they learn. (Open Source Communities are also called FLOSS/FOSS/OSS Communities – that means “Free/Libre (free?) and Open Source (transparent Code? I don’t know what word is correct here) Software, so I will say “FOSS.”) There are many FOSS people in Germany, but I can’t understand what they say. They understand English, but we (Americans?) don’t speak German, so they know about what we’re doing and we don’t know what they’re dong. I want to fly to Berlin (there’s an important hackerspace in Berlin) and see what they’re doing. That’s one reason why I’m learning German.

But I have a little problem. I’m also deaf, so most German classes are hard… “Listen and repeat back!” is not without frustration when you can’t hear! I can’t repeat what I can’t hear… I need to read. Therefore, I’m buying books, and now I have a blog for writing in. I don’t know what I’m writing… I have lots of mistakes! However, that is the way to knowledge.

I have a question for you, my readers. (Is that word correct, “Readers”? My cellphone has a little dictionary, and it says “Readers.”) I’m looking for something to read. (My grammar is probably incorrect today.) In the USA we have something called “Simple English” for adults that understand a little bit of English. Does Germany have something for adults who understand a little bit of German… “Simple German”? Or books for kids… today I’m reading “The Little Prince,” what should I read next?