Monday, 21 November 2016

Movie Review: Arrival

I took a trip to my local picture house recently to view one of the talkies. I've not reviewed a movie before but as this one touches on linguistics I felt like it wouldn't be too out of place on this blog. 

There will be **spoilers** below. 



You have been warned. 





Arrival is a sci-fi flick in which Aliens come to Earth and humans try to communicate with them. The hero is a linguist. Predictably this has linguists very excited. Ben Zimmer, for instance has written that the film "does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work" and Rob Drummond made a similar point on 'Kermode and Mayo's Film Review'. David Adger noted that "The linguistics was very good". 

I can understand the excitement at having a linguistics prof as a hero and I have to agree that it was a well made film. However, the contrarian in me wasn't able to look past some of the linguistics and just enjoy the film. In fact, the whole central premise of the plot falls to pieces because it just isn't backed up by what we know about languages.  Yes, I'm being a kill joy. Yes it's just a movie. But here's a list of the three things that bothered me in the film. The first two peeves are relatively minor, the last one was a clanger. 

The parts that rankled were the following (apologies if I've mis-remembered any parts). 

*peeve 1: linguist means linguist means linguist. 
Our hero was introduced as a linguist. If you're not sure, in academia that means 'someone who studies languages'. It doesn't mean 'someone who speaks a lot of languages'. Those people are usually called polyglots. Our hero is a linguist and a polyglot, speaking Mandarin, Farsi, Sanskrit and is shown giving a lecture on "romance languages". 

OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn't that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she's just insanely talented and that's how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:
Coon unsuccessfully lobbied the filmmakers to change a line describing Louise, arguing that it misrepresents what linguists do: “You’re at the top of everyone’s list,” Forest Whitaker’s Army colonel says to Louise, “when it comes to translations.”
So well done and bad luck to Jessica Coon. By the by, The Guardian, rather densely asks why Chomsky wasn't a consultant on the film:
Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex
Putting aside the fact that Chomsky's work has, in fact been funded by "America’s military-intelligence complex" and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of 'deep structure' would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of. 

*peeve 2: The white board scene 
Our linguist hero is trying to convince the army that her method is the right way to go about things. She writes on a white board:
What is your purpose on Earth? 
She attempts to explain that in order to ask the aliens questions, she first needs to make sure they know what a question is. She goes on to make other points concerning things like vocabulary. This is all fine and quite sensible but there are a few clangers here. first she says (paraphrase) 'we need to make sure they understand the difference between you singular and (crosses out the 'r' in 'your') you plural.' In English there is no difference between singular and plural you (I -we, s/he -them, you -you). 

She then says 'we need to make sure they understand 'why questions'. Now I've heard of 'wh' questions, but 'why questions'...? The sentence on the white board seemed to be lacking an essential item in what could be defined as a 'why question'...that is, a 'why'. Perhaps the script originally had the question as 'why are you here?' who knows. 

Next, (and this is really nit picky), if we're talking to aliens, do we really need the words 'on Earth'? I mean, are these aliens going to get confused by 'what is your purpose' and think we might be asking what their plans for Sunday afternoon are? 

*peeve 3: Eskimo's and their many many words for snow. 
All of the other issues I could have happily put aside. However, when the words Saphir-Whorf were mentioned I tensed up. It's hard to imagine something annoying me more than learning styles...but here it is. With this in mind, why have I never written about it before? It's such an attractive and widely believed idea, that I really felt I needed quite a powerful response to it...and I'm really quite lazy. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an excellent book on the topic called 'the Language Hoax' and even he was reluctant to criticise the movie: 

If you're not familiar with Saphir-Whorf I'll present a very reductionist overview here. Basically it can be divided into two version. The first (which is the most attractive to click bait headlines) postulates that the language we speak allows us to think certain thoughts. It's also known as linguistic determinism. The second is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. This is known as linguistic relativism

There's a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it's very hard to resist.  

Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for 'he' and 'she' in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true. 

The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for 'snow'. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic 'The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax'. This even led to the creation of the term 'snowclone' which describes "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists" such as "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.". 

The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old 'snow'. It's an attractive theory and the original Saphir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Saphir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being 'primitive' these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:
“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society... The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Saphir

 It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true. 

The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world. 

How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It's hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like 'we bring a tool' there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. 'We bring a tool' is a lot different from 'a tool brings us' or 'Bring us a tool'. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance 'I' is the subject in English but the same word is 'me' when it's the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish. 

Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don't tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in? 

To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of 'time' disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn't speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn't. Best not to think too much about this. 

In short the language can't do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn't lead to mind altering powers. But really....who cares? It's a good film go and watch it! 








Wednesday, 28 September 2016

boooooo! hurrah!



Penn and Teller's show 'Bullshit' was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in 'pesticides, baby food and the water supply'.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and 'chemical' is for many people a 'boo' word. 

'Boo' words, and their opposite 'Hurrah' words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that "ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes". I'm not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear 'Chemical' we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:
the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood - include 'learner-centred', 'meaning based', 'holistic', 'discourse', 'discovery', 'process', 'interaction', 'negotiation' and 'strategy'. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to 'bad' pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include 'teacher-dominated', 'form-based', 'discrete', 'sentence-level', 'transmission model', 'product', memorization', 'repetition', and 'drill'. (2009:167). 
I would probably add 'testing' and 'textbooks' to this list. These words are often placed in 'boo' or 'hurrah' boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it's not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct 'Web of Substance' blog wryly notes:
I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as "authentic", "innovative", "Child-centred" and "21st Centruy" so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 
We often take our views 'off-the-peg', after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the 'tribe' they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!

Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won't they? Perhaps. But I'm uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can't speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they're so 'teacher centric'. Thassumption in this statement is that 'teacher centric' (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, 'are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?' 

Secondly, we've seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique 'intelligence' they will flourish. It's certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that "a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value." A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds "composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses." (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing "there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts." (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don't fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it's 'authoritarian' and 'traditional' while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a 'a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials' and say claiming that you only eat 'organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?'

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian 'newspeak' where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, "approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’" are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it's a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it's important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we're talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn't help them, -even hindered them, I'm likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I'll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it's the way you were taught to teach, or because it's how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is 'I just know' or 'common sense' and the answer to the latter 'nothing' then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.  






Friday, 1 July 2016

The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of 'parts of speech', the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say 'Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.' and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent 'Toms' for 'he' and you'd be all set.

The only really controversial aspect of pronoun usage was which one to use to replace singular nouns For instance, in the following sentences what is the missing word standing in for 'someone?
Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say "I figuratively died!" in case they get confused, argue that as 'someone' is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. 'she', 'he' and 'it' were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for 'he' as "the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine." ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ''someone left his phone in the classroom.'

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that 'he, him and his' could be used 'to cover both male and female in general statements.' 


In modern times 'singular they' has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept 'Someone left their phone in the classroom'. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:
A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.
And so with even style guides accepting 'singular they' it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror...

the current pronouns of English

The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and 'gender nonconforming' people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that 'for all intents and purposes, I'm a woman.' Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she

Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of 'misgendering' -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children's father still, or is she now their mother?

This confusion though is nothing when compared to 'non-binary' or 'gender nonconforming' individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are 'two spirit', 'agender', and 'bigender'. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns 'singular they'. This may sound similar to the 'singular they' mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This 'they' is used to directly replace 'she' or 'he' in all sentences.

For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written 'has decided that the pronouns they would like...' and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot. 


Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as 'Munroe' (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):
Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.
There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below
It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe - 'Jack' being short for "Jack of all trades", their nickname.
So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:
As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a "tomboy" until the age of 16...
That this doesn't really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:
Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them "Kit," instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with...
Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn't so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.
Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist...
Can't see the issue? That's because you're used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain

Verbs match pronouns. We say 'I am' not (usually) 'I is' or 'I are'. We say 'he is' we don't (usually) say 'you is', 'they is' and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson's preferred pronouns are 'they' which takes the verb 'are' (they are friends). When we use someone's name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say 'John is tired' the reason I use 'is' and not 'are' is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal 'she' or 'he' but 'they' the sentence should read:
 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist...
 This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):
Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings 
Munroe were unable to arrange work 
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns 

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to 'improper gender pronoun use' after her colleagues refused to call her 'they' (they 'they'?). New York City human right's commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as 'Ze' or 'Hir' is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:
Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.
For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed agree with. 

In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open. 







*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron's blog here.