Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

Wolfe on Darwin and Chomsky

I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.

I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.

Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.

Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.

Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists.  An example:

Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.

High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.

Teachers: Now a Working Class Profession

magister“From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side” is now about 20 years old. A little shopworn, but still a…how shall I put it….goal, of some teachers and how they adapt to technology. It is the gist of an Atlantic article by Michael Godsey, a K-12 teacher witnessing the “progress” right before his eyes. Another (and earlier!) way to look at it is John Higgins’ differentiation of teacher as Magister, the German cloak-clad lecturer, and the pedagogue, a poor wise man following around the son of a rich client to explain things to him. Find this in articles from 1983 and 1984, but also in his book from 1988.

pedagogueI have been in meetings all day, discussing the curriculum for next year. One area of contention is control of the part-time teachers (adjunct staff). I felt a palpable want, almost a need, to put restraints on behavior to standardize content among students and classes. And I think that is just because we can. Some adjunct staff even prefer to come in, teach the text, and leave. Labor rules here in Japan now promote this system of itinerant labor by capping any part-time contract at 5 years, requiring the university to make them full time, or let them go. So now we have churn.

But the attitude toward teachers (no, not adjunct staff), even though most are highly qualified to deliver a quality course, even when asked to provide their own materials. And yet…that desire to make sure they are doing not just anything they want is still there.

Which brings me to an article at one of my favorite websites, Hybrid Pedagogy. John Rees asks How long will your class remain yours? Here is the first paragraph.

The late labor historian David Montgomery wrote famously about workers’ control in America during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “At times the story involved little more than silent and opaque resistance to the demands and innovations of employers,” he suggested in 1979. “At other times, workers in skilled crafts adopted and fought to enforce collective work rules through which they regulated human relations on the job and wrestled with the chronic menace of unemployment.” When I first read those words, I was in graduate school. I never thought they’d actually apply to me. Now, I believe that the working class in academia at all levels of employment are beginning to move from the first set of times that Montgomery described to the second.

He goes on to paint a very dark picture, but does leave the doorway open a crack with the following: “However, the key takeaway here should be that every professor should adopt only those tools that best fit their style of teaching (perhaps including parts of the LMS if they meet a particular need).”

The problem is, that most teachers today don’t know how to use many tech tools for teaching and thus will be at the mercy of those who do, the programmers and instructional designers. So if you don’t start putting some online tools in your toolbox, and learn how to use them in a class, or even outside a class, online, you will have to learn tools assigned to you.

I had my last graduate school class of the academic year (we start in April, end in February), and my student was worried after we went through the Atlantic article (link above). She was worried that she would be out of a job. I told her first, not in Japan. The horizon of change you can see in the US, but here, not even a hint. She is still trying to get a projector and laptop for her high school classroom, all she has now is a blackboard. Second, language learning is like learning a sport, or a musical instrument. Really difficult to put online. So we are safe, as long as we learn how to adapt the tech to us, before the admins try to make us adapt to the tech.

Tired of Mr, Mrs, Ms? Why not Mx?

moto-cross-214937_640No, not motocross, which is what we used when I was a teen on a bike.

This is a salutation, a title. The only time I use this in English any more is when I sign up to present at a conference. Some organizations insist I pick a title. But now on to the crux of the matter.

Why not use Mx for everything? I didn’t realize that sex-based titles have only been around since the mid-1800’s. Go figure. Before that they were mostly about class and status. Read more about this over at Language: A Feminist Guide.


Disconnecting Europe

modem-145529_640Today showed me again why I both hate and love Spain, with a little Ireland thrown in. At the end of a vacation visiting friends in Barcelona, and family in Ireland, I returned to Barcelona for one night at a hotel near the airport to rest and prep for the return to Tokyo. I had ordered and used a portable wifi service in Ireland, and this is the story of my attempts to return the device.

Travel Wifi sent the device to my hotel in Barcelona, after I had canceled that order and reset it to my hotel in Dublin, just before I picked up the lads, after my week in Barcelona visiting friends. They advertised that it was as easy as pie, get the device by FedEx, return it the same way.

So I tell them of their mistake, and they say OK, just bring it to Ireland. I do, and use it all week. It is indispensable as Google Maps guide, replacing the Garmin, as well as allowing all of us to communicate from anyplace. Invaluable as it was, the hardest part was returning the damn thing.

In the FedEx envelope, instruction say I am supposed to set a pick-up for the device at my last hotel. Problem is, Central Hotel to the Airport, or driving anywhere in downtown Dublin is a nightmare without Google Maps. So I keep the device to guide us to the airport. No FedEx office at the airport. I have 6 hours, and find an office near the airport, but it is really difficult to get to. I try to buy stamps and an envelope, but am stymied by the envelope. No advice on regular mailing. I still have 6 days on my contract, so I wait for Barcelona.

The flight is delayed so I arrive after business hours. When I check in, nobody knows anything about FedEx at the hotel, so I go online. They ask me to drop it off at a center, or schedule a pickup. The FedEx website requires an account number for the pickup, and none is on the label. Travel Wifi is cryptic in their messages, and the only instructions look like they have been copied and pasted from the website. I figure I have a few hours after checking out at noon, and before my 10pm departure. A Drop-off is listed on the website about 2 km from the airport. The idea is to drop it off. This is the story.

After arriving at the airport, I try to drop off my suitcase and check in at Qatar Airlines. No can do. So I go to the Consigna, Left Luggage, where I can leave my luggage to get to the FedEx. No schlepping. 10 euros.

I discover that the left luggage company deals with FedEd, and the guy tells me if I leave a 10 euro deposit, they will make sure it gets to the FedEx people. But then the other guy calls Lisa The Boss, who says it is too much of a hassle, and that it is not possible. So I check the suitcase and set off for FedEx. Taxi has a minimum 20 euro fee from the airport. The bus that goes to the other terminal passes by FedEx in the cargo park, but does not stop. The driver, though is really helpful and points me to a local bus. Another 2.15 euros gets me on a bus with another extremely helpful driver. He drops be between stops near the FedEx. I can taste success.

The FedEx has lots of trucks hanging around, and not much action. I arrive just before 2pm lunch. The door has a buzzer. Once, twice, thrice. It says if there is no response, call a number. With what? I write down the number after a half-hour hopeful wait, and wander over to the DHL and another shipping company.They tell me today is a holiday (duh, September 11 is Independence Day for Catalunya), and thus the lack of action. You really need a phone to get things done in Spain. I ask to borrow one from 3 workers at the next place over, and they all hem and haw. One says she can’t do that for the competition. I leave in disgust. FedEx takes holidays in Spain. Typical. And everyone is dog eat. Typical.

So instead of spending another 2.15 and with time on my hands, I hoof it back to the airport, about 2km. Why not. Plan B is to get stamps and an envelope, available in the Tabacalera, but the lady assures me the slot is too small to accept my wifi device.

So after spending about 6 hours spread over 2 airports, I realize that I should have just left the device at the hotel in Barcelona and gotten THEM to schedule the pickup. Instead, they will get it from Tokyo. The soaring and crashing that came from trying to return it both in Dublin and Barcelona were lessons in thinking and planning. At least my family got to the airport. Time to go check in. And no time to worry about it in Qatar.

Burma Bound

MyanmarSchool3A friend of the family has wrangled me into volunteering as a teacher trainer for a week next January in Myanmar. The group is small, and works through a travel agent and has connections to the Education Network, founded by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party founded by Aung San Suu Kyi.

At first, I was a bit apprehensive. I had to raise funding to get there, and stay there, and also find someone else to match that. I was extremely fortunate to ask Frank Berberich, longtime friend, who has recently retired. He immediately signed on, saying he had been looking for something exactly like this.

We are in the process of raising funds now, and getting visas. It looks like we will be training about 100 high school teachers in the Yangon (Rangoon) area. These teachers are part of a network of schools that teach the poorest and most disadvantaged children in Myanmar.

MyanmarSchool2So here I am, an expert in using computers to teach adults languages, and I am going to try to train teachers on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of polite Japanese school girls as students, we will have harried teachers, trying to add to their arsenal of teaching tools, so as to open up Myanmar to the world.

As we approach deadlines and prepare for the training, Frank and I are getting more and more excited. We are going along with 6 others on the trip, and will meet them in Yangon shortly after the new year. I will keep you updated on events as they happen.

Audio Books and Driving

drivingJim Dean, my dad’s colleague and long-since-retired English teacher at Larkin high school near Chicago has a wonderful laugh and a razor sharp wit. His appreciation of English is also remarkable. When he sent me this link to an account of driving across country while listening to an audio book version of Moby Dick, it made me smile. I love audio books and reading as well, and find they are very different experiences. Especially with something like Moby Dick. The money quote from the New York Times account:

I was always glad at day’s end too, when we parked and turned off “Moby-Dick.” Not that the book ended then. Usually, in the evening, I would begin reading the book where we had left off listening. I have never been so struck by the silence of the printed word. I have never grasped so clearly how inward words have to go in our minds before they come alive. I was the one leaning forward, hearkening to Ishmael, keenly aware of the whiteness of the page, just as I had been every time I’d read “Moby-Dick” before.

But I also smiled because just last summer, after more than ten years without a real road trip, I escorted my daughter along the left coast, shopping for colleges. Instead for flying from Dad’s retirement home near Denver, I drove to LA to meet her. I threw in an old CD audio book about how the Irish Saved Civilization, Dad loved it. It made for great listening (anything about Ireland needs to be both rich in language and delivery), speaking of green verdant fields as I passed Moab, fearing the Goths as I reached the Grand Canyon. Maybe I will try an audio version of Joyce if I drive around Hawaii. Incongruent enough? Maybe Maugham.

But I keep wondering. Now, who’s Ishmael?

***1 AM Update (too much coffee). Over at my favorite blog, the Dish, Andrew Sullivan points us to research that says even if we are reading silently, we are hearing the words. Love those Internet Coincidences.

Madoka wins Speech Contest with Open Education


Madoka, a student in our department at Showa Women’s University, won a week-long trip to Boston in the  Hitomi Cup Speech Contest yesterday. In “Wonder brings a lifelong love of learning” she advocated for open education ideas she learned at the exploratorium and as a volunteer at the children’s museum when she was studying at our campus in Boston. It was gratifying to see her win. She was so excited.

When I talked to her on the judging break before she won, she said she was also inspired by the workshop style class I taught last semester. In Culture Today we brought our laptops to class and worked in small groups most of the time, with a weekly “menu” of activities to choose from. Freedom and exploration were purposely part of the course, which I pointed out was a bridge to self-learning, as that would be the last course they would take in English before graduation.I am so happy that Madoka gets it. She understands about learning, how it is all about discovery, and choice, and work and asking questions. This is why I am a teacher.

I am donating to this wonderful project

Pronunciation Evaluation
Project to develop branching readers with pronunciation practice








Let me count the ways this project is good; good for the world, good for language learners, and good for me. First let me explain what it is. (Or you can go directly to their KickStarter page.)

Did you ever try one of those “Choose your own adventure” books? No? You read a page or two, then you have a choice. Depending on your choice, you jump to a different page. Read that page, another choice. Another jump. I learned how to use hypertext while developing an online version of a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). This was all before the World Wide Web. Now, people like Marcos Benavides are using CYOA for readers for language learners.

This project mixes Choose Your Own Adventure plots with Speech Recognition, to improve pronunciation. Most pronunciation software fails because it is not intrinsically linked to neither a purpose nor an important outcome. Linking the story and plot to your ability to pronounce should provide both. This project looks really, really interesting.

It is good for the world. This project is Open Source, it will be offered to the world for free when it is finished. Anyone can use it without paying for the software. People will even be able to work on it to improve the tool. I will guess that people will be able to write books for the project. It also means that is will be developed using suggestions from users.

It is good for language learners because it is based on stories, the mental unit that works best with memory. It mixes oral production (pronunciation) with reading in a way that is both natural and good challenging to language learners.

There are also a lot of ways that this project is good for me. I have been interested in both CYOA and Speech Recognition, and its application to language learning, main topics of my research in the early 90’s. I learned about it from a journalist from Colorado. One of the promoters is from Barcelona Spain (I used to live there). The developers are from Singapore and India.  A truly international affair. It is also a bit of a geeky endeavor. So much fun just to be a part of it. I just pledged $100.

Japan a market so mature it is dying

A good friend in the business has been long telling me that Japan is a mature market for language learning books, materials and software. The shrinking commercial areas at language conferences attest to this. Now, another indication I came across this morning. Mindsnacks is a new software for language games, with apps for iPads and iPhones. If you will notice below, we have a nice app for learning English as a Second Language (ESL). The interfaces for learning have lots of different interfaces. If you speak Spanish, Korean or Chinese, and many other languages, you have instructions in your language to learn English. The notable exception? Japanese.

Koreans and Chinese can use Mindsnacks easily

Showa’s Seven Seeds

Showa Women’s University has a new set of goals for general pedagogy called The Seven Seeds. These are the first goals here in my 20 years which I can really endorse wholeheartedly. Let me list them. I may talk about them in more detail later on. (Japanese in parentheses). I’ve added some notes to each to show how we do each seed in my classes.

The Seven Seeds in Ryan’s Classes (ゆめをじつげんする七つの力: ライアンの授業)

1. Live a Global Life (グロバルに生きる力)
We study using the Internet, and make contacts with people outside of Japan to give you a global viewpoint.

2. Use a Foreign Language (外国語を使う力)
English, of course.

3. Use IT Effectively (ITを使えこなす力)
We use IT tools in almost every class. That is why you should bring your laptop to every class.

4. Communicate (コミュニケーションをとる力)
To learn a language you have to use a language. You have to communicate with it in real situations that are important to you. Follow Ryan’s SMAT system:

Speak English: You can’t learn if you are quiet. It’s uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier.
Make Mistakes: If you are perfect, you are not learning anything.
Ask Questions: This means you have to be an active learner. Always thinking.
Take Notes: This helps by combining listening with reading, speaking with writing.

5. Be a Critical Thinker and Problem Solver (問題を発見し目標を設定する力)
Don’t believe everything you read. If it is to good to believe, it probably is. Solving Problems is the best way to learn. We have many task-based activities in class.

6. Be Active, keep one step ahead (一歩踏み出して行動する力)
Always keep busy. Fill up those little 3-4 minute gaps with small learning activities. Manage your own learning. Classroom time management because we have so many activities.

7. Be Yourself: Understand your priorities (自分を大切にする力)
Understand what you want to do. Understand what you CAN do. Set some goals. Long term goals and short-term goals. Make a list and check it off. We do a needs analysis for each class in the first session.


Translation Party
Translate back and forth between English and Japanese until it reaches "equilibrium". See how far that is from the original.

The site over at translation party is designed to show how machine translation still has a way to go. It shows how, when you translate into from either Japanese or English into the other language, and back again, there are still differences. It continues until there are no differences, and calls that “equilibrium”. The final version it reaches is sometimes very different from the original. You could play games by trying to find sentences that are the most different, or sentences that require the most steps (translations) to reach equilibrium. A good time-waster for translators or language students.

New Text: Whodunit!

Adam Gray and Marcos Benavides have collaborated on a textbook of mysteries for language learning called Whodunit.

Whodunit? Mysteries for langauge laerning

Published by Abax, this is one of the first creative Commons textbooks available. You can download it and pay what you think is the best price (shades of RadioHead or Pearl Jam).  After reading through the very interesting mysteries, I decided I would use it in 3 of my classes. I am most curious as to how it works in an average class in japan (at ShowaELC) and how it is different from my exceptional students and University of Tokyo. Will keep you updated, but this looks like a great text out of the box, easy to use and thorough. The paper edition comes with additional audio to round out the experience. I am going to have my students use both versions (paper and pdf), so they can get the entire experience. I will be adding supplementary materials to my Moodle on this topic as well, with 2-minute and 5-minute mysteries, and a tutorial on how to write a mystery.

Google Translate Update

Google Translate has added new features making it a lot easier to use. For those of us in Japan, the best one is “romanization” which allows you to get the pronunciation through roman letters of the kanji in question. Read more about it at Mashable. Here is a video that shows the new features.

Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for writing fiction

Kurt Vonnegut is in my top 3 writers. Here are 8 reasons why.

From the entry in Wikipedia.

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

    Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O’Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.

    Banned Books Week

    Last week was banned books week. All over the world, books are continually banned for their content. At this Interactive map of banned books, you can find out which books were challenged at school and in libraries all over the US and Canada. It would be great to do a version of this for Japan.

    Banned Books Interactive
    Banned Books Interactive