Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cunningly Stealing School

I apologize for the negativity lately. I don't actually feel as bad as the detritus from my subconscious seems to think I do. I do feel a little frustrated with aviation. I was good at stuff before. I was the one people counted on to know the answers. I remember when people were glad to have me on their team. I knew stuff and that was considered an advantage, but now what I know and what I am no longer seems to be an advantage. Having had just about enough of Netflix, I set out to find some way to feel as if I still had it.

There's a public university near me and their course calendar is on the web. I go online and look for classes that look interesting. I'm going to sneak into classes and brazenly learn things without paying. I don't think they'll care. They might even like it. I'll probably be paying closer attention than some of the students who have paid to be there, and the university is ripe for infiltration. I pick classes with no labs, just lectures, and class sizes over thirty, but not ones with full sections, so I can blend in, but still get a seat. I plan my course schedule. Some of them one have a prerequisite, but you know what, if I don't know something I'll read a book on it. I could read books on all of it, but it's more fun to be an infiltrator. I start with linguistics, write down a bunch of classes and times and plan my schedule.

It's an hour's bike ride to the university, so if nothing else, I'm getting a bit of exercise. I take a couple of pens and highlighters and a half-used notebook that has a history all of its own: leafing through it, I see it was my diary during the time I was quartered in a condemned building due to a forest fire. It contains an authorization number for flight into a NOTAMed forest fire area, a draft of a letter of resignation, the Greyhound bus times, notes for an interview I had with Jazz, and a grocery shopping list. Looks like I was planning on drowning my sorrows in Fettuccine Alfredo. Now it will be my school notebook.

I arrive at the school. It's kind of exciting to be part of this mass of people all coming together. It reminds me of airplanes converging on an airport, all different sizes and speeds following their traffic to join for landing as assigned. I find the building where my first class takes place, and lock my bike to a rack. I was going to leave my bike shoes in the pannier on the bicycle, but I notice that no one else has left panniers on their bike, and that there are a number of partial bicycles chained to the racks. I lock the helmet to the bike but take the shoes and pannier into class. It's a giant lecture hall in a building named after a resource extraction company. How's that for a generic Canadian campus building? Inside the lecture hall I take a seat near the back to see if I'm in any way obviously not a student. I have had my hair cut more recently than most, but the stretchy pants one wears for biking fit right into campus fashion. I should have fancy faux fur or patterned rubber boots if I'm really to be one of them. I guess I'm older than they are, but I don't feel older than they look. There are about equal males and females, lots of Asians. I notice a few people have devices kind of like a cross between a garage door opener and a television remote control. I suspect that the modern university campus uses some kind of electronic interaction instead of putting up your hand.

The professor comes in. He looks just like I'd expect the professor for an introductory linguistics course to look. Caucasian, thirty-something, curly brown hair, little rimless glasses. I have his name written down on my "schedule" so I write it in my notebook. The right arm of my chair hinges up to become a writing surface. Some students have laptops, but lots are using Hilroy notebooks, just like mine. The professor asks us to take out our clickers for a quiz. I called it.

I obviously don't have a clicker, so I just sit there and look ignorant. I was going to do the quiz in my notebook, but then he told us to put our notebooks away. Oh, duh, it's a quiz. There are two 'practice questions' on the quiz. The first is Some people speak English with an accent and some don't. True or False? That's obvious and easy. Everyone has an accent. Surprisingly to me, over half the class has chosen True for that one. He says that the correct answer will be addressed later. The next practice question is How often have you observed students around you cheating on weekly quizzes? with answer choices ranging from Always to Never. He displays the spread of answer choices selected. Most students report having observed cheating to some extent.

The professor then harangues us all on the importance of academic integrity, pointing out that he can analyze answers to identify students who are sharing answers, and that cheating can lead to expulsion, which for an international student will mean loss of their Canadian residence permits. The worst threat he has is that you won't be allowed to live in Canada anymore. I look a little guilty through all this, because I don't even have a clicker. I don't know if professors in huge classrooms pay enough attention to notice one student who doesn't belong. There is then a fairly quick quiz. I don't remember the questions, but I didn't know all the answers or have any way of recording mine.

Next we have a guest lecturer from the sociology department. She is discusses research on accommodation, how we change our speech or even our speech perception depending on who we are with. This isn't as simple as trying to speak 'more proper' when we're with higher social status people, or trying to copy a local accent so that people will understand what you're asking. By default people will try to speak more like the person they are talking to, but if they don't like the group that person is affiliated with, they try to speak less like them, without necessarily realizing it. They had an experiment in an English speaking area where the way a particular sound is pronounced is changing so that two words sounded different when most older people said them, but many young people said the two words the same way. They had various people listen to recordings of the words being said while looking at photos of the 'speakers.' The listeners tended to say the two words were the same when the photo was of a younger person, but identify them as different when the photo was of an older person. The trick of course was that the pictures were arbitrary. The correlation was to the picture not to the age of the speakers, all of whom pronounced the two words distinctly to someone whose dialect maintained the distinction. You can participate in an experiment on perception at this link.

My next class was a second year course on language acquisition. The students are young. They still don't look much younger than I perceive myself, but they act younger. One is delighted to have landed a summer job tangentially related to her studies. While waiting for the class to start, the two ahead of me are discussing what kind of accommodations they can get for 300 euros a month for a study abroad term. The instructor is female, professionally yet casually dressed. I bet she's a mom. She has brownish hair just above her shoulders and waves her hands a fair amount in a forward patting motion at shoulder level, and she keeps adjusting her eyeglasses from the sides. A smell of doughnuts comes from the corridor.

This class is on statistical learning theories: people attempting to explain how children extract the information they need to start speaking a language out of all the sentences and words that are said to them and around them. Sure, they can identify individual words by association with objects, and memorize phrases like "want milk," but parrots and chimpanzees can do that, and parrots and chimpanzees never go on to construct wholly original subordinate clauses the way humans do. How do humans acquire grammar? We have to somehow learn about categories of words and relationships between the categories, without ever consciously knowing the categories. I had a friend in high school who was a fluent native speaker of English, but could not identify a noun or a verb in a simple sentence. His brain could, because he spoke original sentences with all the articles and adjectives in the right places, but he'd never learned to identify parts of speech. People do this, even quite dimwitted people, generalize the rules that govern their language and speak correctly.

One theory is that babies get a feel for how many times they hear things in a certain order, and identify relationships between components of speech by "dips in the transitional probabilities." To test this theory, and humans' ability to discern patterns from nonsense they exposed several adult volunteers to simulated sentences from a made up language, grouping the "words" randomly for the control group and according to phrase rules in the test group. The phrases they heard were arranged so that each transition occurred the same number of times in the data, so they couldn't be using the statistical method. The participants in the non-control group then listened to "correct" and "incorrect" phrases from the nonsense language and were able to identify the "correct" ones as sounding better. We looked at more experiments in that vein, such as this one. Sorry, I don't have a citation for the first one. It's a little tricky coming into a second year class that has been in progress for two months and pretending to know what is going on.

Thirty-eight minutes into the class, the professor proves my theory about her maternity by producing a video of her kid to prove a point about prosody and turn taking in language acquisition. This twins video makes the same point better, I think. These kids appear to have learned how to have a conversation before they actually possess the language with which to have one.

There was one more class I was going to take, an anatomy class, but I seem to have the room number wrong, because it wasn't there.


John said...

If you are interested in language acquisition you might want to check out some books by Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate are written for non-specialists and, to my mind, are a good introduction to how we acquire and use language.

You might also want to check out iTunes University. I've been listening to the lectures from Stanford on iPad programming and find that I've learned a lot. They are taped in actual classrooms but you don't have to go there to listen. Also, you can repeat them over and over until you get the hard parts. The only downside is that you don't get to ask questions, but you probably aren't asking any questions anyway.

cockney-steve said...

Hmmm you were probably "just another wacky student trying to assert their individuality" with the green hair, then.!

A great way to use your "spare" time and a stimulating social and intellectual environment.

grant said...

I volunteer at the World Parrot Refuge and we hear some of the parrots frequently doing this pretend conversation routine with people. Some actually invent new words when needed to fit new situations, and they use many words in a specific context. (I don't know if any of them have ever snuck into Linguistic classes ;-)

One philosopher/theologian I've read, makes an interesting arguement that the existence of words and language is evidence of a higher sentience within/surrounding our human minds.
Francis Shaeffer

Rhonda said...

Heehee they're telling jokes to each other!

Wish I'd thought to visit my local university and steal some classes while I was unemployed. I did wander out there and get my alumni library card though. (Alumni library card + library proxy + google scholar = instant free access to just about every pay site there is for academic papers! I have lost way too many hours in that combination.) (Why did you just call me a geek?)

Sarah said...

I applaud the effort in getting "back to school" and away from the computer. Every fall, I am a little wistful about the promise and excitement of a new school year. ( It's been long enough away I've forgotten the bad parts about being a full time student. )

Did you see the article about the origin of modern languages? It claims that through analysis of phoneme diversity that south Africa was the place, maybe 100,000 years ago, that modern human languages diverged from. This doesn't mean in 1M BC the only speech was grunting - just that modern languages started there. I wonder what Neanderthal speech sounded like...

Aviatrix said...

That's stunning, Sarah. Not a surprising conclusion, seeing as all of our ancestors trace back to Africa in the first place, it stands to reason that that's where we figured out speech. It will be interesting to see whether the theory stands up to scrutiny. Losing phonemes as you wander across the plains does sound an awful lot like a Dave Barry joke.

Rhonda said...

“We’re uneasy about mathematical modeling that we don’t understand juxtaposed to philological modeling that we do understand,” Brian D. Joseph, a linguist at Ohio State University, said about the Indo-European tree. But he thinks that linguists may be more willing to accept Dr. Atkinson’s new article because it does not conflict with any established area of linguistic scholarship.

That sort of quote leaves the guy sounding like not much of a scientist. Willing to accept something because it doesn't conflict with established scholarship? Uneasy about a model they don't understand?

I'd say that should be a trigger to learn the model instead of dismissing it, and evaluate claims that conflict to see if the current model is accurate.

Sarah said...

Rhonda: I agree - that guy's someone asked to comment and at least he admits he doesn't understand the math. Sheese. Scientists afraid of math? What's the world come to?

Aviatrix: The real paper is behind a paywall, unfortunately. I hate it when they do that... Here's a PDF of a precursor paper. I guess it is sort of an obvious idea, but still cool. The best theories seem obvious after they're stated.

Aviatrix said...

Linguistics is an incredibly fractured discipline ranging from very hardcore statistical methods to "there's no wrong answer" artsy stuff. In one class a professor cited a formula using logarithms in a statistical method and when I asked her to clarify if it was a log base ten or a natural log she had no idea.

Also because linguistics is looking at how people speak, and everyone can speak, everyone thinks they know something about. There is INCREDIBLE history of crackpotism, in the field. There have been some great discoveries in the field that have been ignored because everyone was just so tired of disproving crackpots that they didn't look at the work.

Maybe I'll blog about an example later.

Rhonda said...

Got a copy of the paper from Science. I re-read the article and found a link to it which I had missed the first time. Let me know if you want to read it.

Aviatrix said...

Language Log has just done a piece on the phoneme inventory paper, showing some of the problems and, to my delight, citing the same Dave Barry quotation.

Sarah said...

Rhonda: Thanks for the paper offer, but I think I've gleaned all I can from the topic in summary.

Aviatrix: Oh, that Dave Barry quote? I wondered if you meant something specific, as your link just went to a Dave Barry book page.

Interesting review you link - a critical approach is good as I'm suspicious of facts presented without the "why it's so" included. Why should phoneme diversity decay seems the most interesting question if Atkinson is right.

Still, I'm a sucker for big ideas, the more far fetched and illuminating the better. I only wish I could understand the physics papers I skim at enough to tell the cool ideas from crackpot theories.