Monday, September 26, 2016

MOOCs, critical mass & lesser-taught languages

I remember one ill fated job interview, during which I was asked how computer-based instruction could reduce costs, while increasing quality and reach. Well, it seems that this job and me, we weren’t a good fit…
E-learning is expensive. Good e-learning is even more expensive. You need good STUFF – texts, videos, exercises. And you either need a large & engaged community of learners (as a few online communities and a handful of supercharged MOOCs muster), or instructors. Ideally, you have both.
If you have neither, e-learning just ends up as a digital clone of a textbook. A good textbook. An interactive textbook. But a textbook nonetheless.
Some educational challenges can be solved by just handing around a pile of textbooks. If you have committed, determined, resilient learners with excellent study habits and top-notch meta-cognitive skills, a pile of textbooks may be all you need – your learners will use this basis as their foundation on which to construct the rest (such as study groups, opportunities for practice, etc.).
Let me ask a mean question (and, keep in mind that I ask this question as  person who regularly takes, and occasionally finishes, MOOCs): Are there any advantages to language learning MOOCs (check, e.g., this list) that go beyond the flexibility of time & location the medium affords? Most language learning MOOCs offer less opportunity to actually communicate in the target language than a mediocre face-to-face course would. Most language learning MOOCs offer little to no differentiation – they tend to be even more one-size-fits-allish than your average face-to-face course. They may be cheap or free to take – but they certainly are not cost-neutral for the creators of MOOCs (though they are profitable for the platforms on which they are hosted). So, why should we create language learning MOOCs?
Critical mass. Let me repeat: Critical mass.
You can take a business English class basically everywhere. Yes, you can make it more affordable for students (by letting universities or other funding organizations pay for them). You can make them accessible for people working rotating shift, people with limited mobility, people who struggle with face-to-face communication, and those living in very rural areas. By putting it online, by increasing flexibility of time and space and reducing the face-to-face component, you can create learning opportunities for some learners who cannot easily access face-to-face courses. That’s nice.
But they really, really rock when you turn your attention away from those languages that dominate the market, and look at the lesser taught languages. 
Advertising for English classes at a Frankfurt rapid transit railway station, May 2016
Today, you basically cannot leave your home without stumbling over an English language class. But how about those languages that have fewer learners, and fewer teachers? Languages like Frisian?

This week, FutureLearn’s new MOOC – Introduction to Frisian – starts. I live in Berlin and Frankfurt. I doubt there are any courses in Frisian in either of the two cities. Nor do they provide communities of Frisian speakers I could easily tap into. With a bit of research, and a willingness to travel, I can certainly find a language school willing to teach me Frisian. But why should I make such an investment if I don’t know if I’d actually like the language?  
For three weeks, there will be a community of Frisian learners, directly at my finger tips. A place where I can experience the language, get a first taste, a kind of sneak preview. Perhaps it will whet my appetite, so that I continue seeking the elusive face-to-face courses in Frisian. Perhaps it will just be a few hours of fooling around with language. But there will be a bunch of other learners around, something that would be very difficult to recreate in any one specific city (outside traditionally Frisian speaking areas). It creates the critical mass needed to HAVE a language class. 
I love this. And while I do not want to disregard the value of the run-of-the-mill Business English MOOCs, I hope that more MOOCs will follow this lead and offer an opportunity to learn languages that may be more difficult to learn outside a very limited geographic area. How about Sorbian? Or Friulian? Heck, even a language like Estonian might be difficult to learn in most of Europe! Your learners are out there! Create a place where they can meet each other, and grab those textbooks, and start learning!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tools of the trade, part 2: Surviving the afternoon-slump zombie apocalypse

We all have secrets. Dirty little secrets. Let me tell you two of my academic writing-related secrets.
Secret No 1: I'm an early riser. Most of my papers are written in the very early morning.
Secret No 2: When you've been at the desk since 5:30 a.m., the afternoon slump can hit you really hard.
So, what does the wise postdoc do, when he/she looks like a living-dead-impersonater at 3 o'clock but has an important meeting at 4 o'clock? Caffeine? Works for the first few weeks of the semester. Running up and down a couple of flights of stairs? Yes, can work - as long as you can still run, and not just shamble up the stairs and moan like the zombie you feel you are. But once caffeine and chasing humans to eat their brains moderate exercise have outlived their usefulness, there is still... yes... office napping.
Now, let's hope nobody from my department will read this, because otherwise, they'll be banging at my door asking to borrow my wonderful collection of midnight grey sleeping aids, namely the Ostrich pillow light (very helpful), and the Ostrich pillow mini (soooo comfortable, but not really helpful when the sun is blazing into your office).
Just to be 100% precise: No, I don't normally sleep in my office - but I try. Closing your eyes for a quarter of an hour and pretending to sleep is better for you than drinking that second liter of coffee. Or than snacking on non-organic grey tissue.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Doing DELF - for the last time EVER!

I'm done with this. I'm done with DELF exams. Forever and ever and ever! Why? Well, after taking the DELF A2, and the DELF B1, I have, this summer, taken and passed DELF B2. I have officially run out of DELFs to do (unless I decide to complete the set and start again with an A1 exam), as the DELF exam covers only the A1 to B2 range.
Since I, after completing the A1 level, had stopped taking French classes and started reading French books as almost my only language practice, I had developed a somewhat unusual range of competencies in French. My receptive vocabulary, for example, was exquisite. My pronunciation skills, on the other hand, most closely resembled mixed martial arts, using non-standard vowels as weapons. In B2, it isn't about "making yourself understood" only. Here, correctness slowly creeps into the grading scheme. Something had to change.
And something changed. The most dramatic step I took was to hire a French teacher for 1:1 tutoring. I had 10 sessions à 90 minutes, and half of these sessions consisted of me smiling and nodding and pretending I understood my teacher. The other half of these sessions consisted of my tutor smiling and nodding and pretending to understand me ;). Quite a pain, but an efficient pain. I went from hardly being able to introduce myself in French to being able to actually talk about something besides the weather - such as my research. Yay for negotiation of meaning!
Second, I risked embarrassing myself. I happily welcomed situations in which I would actually be forced to discuss my research in French (on the small talk level, not as scholarly presentations), and in which I would have to follow extended discourse in French, or otherwise be bored to death. Yay for multilingual research communities!
The third thing I did was to follow every single bearable French-language podcast, and some unbearable ones on top, and to get an Audible account and listen to certain... uhm... stories... about... uhm... glittering vampires en française. Yay for comprehensible (even if reprehensible) input!
It took a couple of changes in my language study habits, but these changes paid off. I passed. I was glad my reading comprehension was strong, as not only the reading part, but also the writing part depended on it (really complex and confusing scenario for the writing task). I was 100% certain that I had fudged my speaking test, as I suddenly forgot the few grammatical forms I had ended up acquiring, but surprisingly, I scored really well on that test component. My listening skills are still a bit sub-par - unless the topic is something I can relate to content-wise - but the results were only pretty bad, not too bad.
So. I'm done. No more DELF.
I wonder what that weird "DALF C1" book that appeared on my bookshelf will do to my life? Hopefully, no more vampire stories!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

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

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

My little linguistics

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

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

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

Friday, March 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Language learning with Neko Atsume

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

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

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

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

Life, Language and E-Verything

So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.