Saturday, 13 January 2018

Concerning fiction, heroes and manifest destiny.

I'm reading this at the moment, and enjoying it more than I have a fantasy novel for decades. I won't say much about it, it would be too easy to spoil the plot (it's also available in English translation), but the treatment of the traditional 'warrior hero' is interesting.

I've always felt novels centred around a 'warrior hero' are something of a vice. They invite you to identify with an impossibly athletic, strong, resilient character who is almost invariably intelligent with it. For geeky folk like me who were on the receiving end of a certain amount of physical bullying in childhood, identifying with a warrior character who can best his opponents with ease is emotional cocaine: compelling yes, but probably deeply unhealthy. I think we'd be happier feeding our fantasy lives with roles we can live up to, and people we could hope to be.

Then there are the other heroes. The heroes by birth, those with manifest destiny on their side. They cannot lose, just by existing they best their opponent. It's an old old story - one of the oldest in fact. Whether you call the messiah Gilgamesh, Jesus or Harry Potter, he (and it's always 'he') was intended by destiny to win the day.

To me, that's an even more poisonous notion than inviting the physically weak to identify with a warrior hero. Destiny makes the hero and there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait for King Arthur to come and save you, like some kind of wet damsel at the top of a tower. It's a call to passivity, a denial of the potential of the individual, and completely at odds with reality.

I remember being deeply disappointed by David Eddings' Belgariad when it turns out Belgarion is actually the scion of ancient kings and destined for his role (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it was published thirty-odd years ago). It's something I hated about the Harry Potter books. I dislike the Harry Potter books intensely. I have nothing but the utmost respect for J K Rowling: she is a generous and kindly woman, an acerbic wit, an extraordinary role model, and the Harry Potter books are one of the most cleverly constructed commercial successes of all time. But they are artificial in their brilliance, carefully contrived to include every successful idea ever used in childrens fiction. They're cynical, brilliant, and irritate/bore me in equal measure. But I digress...

For me, the most loathesome of all heroic fiction is that of E E 'Doc' Smith. Heroes eugenically bred over the course of millenia, impossible uber-mensches and their unfeasibly attractive love interests. The 'Lensman' series is bad enough, but in 'Lord Tedric' and 'Subspace Explorers' the whole theme becomes positively fascist.

And there we have the real problem with manifest destiny in heroic fiction. It tells us that some are destined to lead, and the rest of us are destined to follow. "Know your place peasant, and get ready to give your life for those who are better than you". Words have power, ideas yet more. Every time an author picks up a heroic storyline, they run the risk of strengthening ideas that we'd be better off forgetting.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Synaptic plasticity and language learning

After a long period of not studying, I've recently started getting back up to speed with neuroscience. One of the things I've been looking at is the evidence (or lack of it) for a difference between adults and childrens ability to learn.

As I've previously noted, it's a widely held stereotype that children can learn easily, but adults find it much more difficult. I've never found good compelling evidence to support this view when searching for exactly that topic. Trawling through more general neuroscience reading I found a strand of research that has sought to address exactly this area.

This paper by Knowland and Thomas gives an interesting and useful perspective on adult learning. This earlier paper by Thomas provides a good overview of brain plasticity although the differences between adult & child learning are not made very clear - the Knowland and Thomas paper does a good job of clarifying that.

The basic summary is

  • synaptic pruning does reduce some learning capabilities during and after childhood, but these are structurally basic abilities like auditory discrimination of phonemes (there is possibly an interaction here with music & instrument learning. Anecdotal evidence from instrument teachers suggests that the ability may be retained/regained in later life for instrumentalists. The 'Perfect pitch' ability is also relevant in this context)
  • adults learn in a more attentive & focused way. That doesn't necessarily mean structured, but attention is required rather than entirely passive absorption.

From a language learning & neuroscience of adult learning point of view, the publication output of Birkbeck College has turned out to be an absolute gold mine. I'm going to be reading their papers for months.


'Developmental Cognitive Psychology' - Mark H Johnson.

Monday, 9 May 2016

My Language Learning Manifesto

Looking back on previous posts, I realise that I've never really set out my approach to learning languages.

When I was studying for my MSc (in psychological research methods), I was fascinated by how irregular natural language is. Grammar based models of language didn't seem to me to give an elegant, sufficient-and-no-more-so account of how the brain handles language.

Plaut & Shallice's 1993 paper gives an excellent connectionist account of irregular noun learning, and how it may relate to forms of dyslexia. As part of my studies I recreated their model (with the kind help of Prof. Plaut and my long suffering project supervisor Dr M LeVoi) using different source data, derived directly from English word lists rather than synthetically created. The difference is functionally rather trivial, but I thought it made it more obvious that the effect was valid. More than anything else it gave me chance to get very deeply engrossed in their findings and the surrounding literature.

I've yet to retrieve (or rewrite) my original 'basic introduction to connectionist modelling' text, but I'll link that to this post when I do. In the meantime, here's an article by Prof. Plaut that explains it.

Back to language learning.

Anecdotally, people often claim that the best way of learning a language is by 'immersion'. If you're surrounded by it constantly, you pick it up very rapidly. Realistically, that's how children learn their milk language - we don't teach 2 year olds formal grammar, they just learn it gradually. Connectionist models give a really good account of that. I've written about how phrases lend themselves to that process here.

So far then:

  • The models suggest that immersion/repeated presentation of linguistic units will lead to 'spontaneously' learning grammar.
  • Learning grammar rules by rote and trying to apply them is tedious and demotivating.
  • Attempting to translate every utterance from your native language into a foreign language with perfect grammar on the fly is going to be far too slow for meaningful conversation.
  • Most of us speak informally with shortcuts, slang and incorrect grammar in our native languages.

This led me to think that the best way is just to be exposed to as much language as possible. Effectively, as many presentations of as wide a set of sample data as possible. So my approach to learning French is:

  • Read as many books as possible
  • Watch French TV
  • Listen to French pop music
  • Read the news in French (especially specialist news, to build up the technical vocabulary. I subscribe to various archery, beekeeping & computing websites)
  • Read cartoons in French. I've learned some really quite startling phrases from Phiip. (Warning, frequently NSFW language)
  • We also have formal lessons, but they point out how words I've already encountered fit together, rather than being an exercise in 'memorising rules'.

This seems to me a more natural way of learning, conforming more to how our brains actually work.


Monday, 7 March 2016

Some information about subtitling

In my last post, I noted that 'Les Revenants' on DVD in French comes without any subtitles. It seems that subtitles are a more complex topic than they first appear.

For example, if you watch 'Engrenages' on French DVD with subtitles, towards the end of the titles there appears (in the subtitles) the information that the subtitles are by 'Lezard'. It looks like subtitles are in this case farmed out to another company, separate to other parts of production/publication.

A couple of weeks back I was enquiring whether netflix offers French subtitles if you watch French programs on an British netflix account. The answer is 'no', and the reason is interesting - the subtitles for 'Engrenages' are not licenced for use outside France. There's that 'different companies' thing in action.

Before I had occasion to use non-English subtitles, I just assumed that DVDs came with all the subtitles/languages that the program is available in. It seems not, there's a lot of variation from country to country. If you want to watch something with subtitles in a language other than that of your country of residence, you're probably going to have to get the disc imported (especially since netflix now forbid VPN connections).

One other thing - we watched 'Adele Blanc Sec' at the weekend. If you buy a British edition of a French film, with English subtitles, you can't switch them off. Subtitles on foreign language films are not switchable using the DVD subtitle facility, they're built into the picture.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Using TV as a learning medium

A simple explanation of the approach we're taking to learning is as follows:

take a unit of language (word, phrase, 'utterance') and present it over and over. Little variations in the presentations won't matter, what you end up with is a mental representation of a 'prototype' of that presentation.

(One of these days I'll dig out the laymans introduction to connectionist approaches I wrote for my MSc, which will explain this better.)

The key to this is, as I've said before, repeated presentation. The more language you can be exposed to the better you will learn. As part of that, we've taken to watching French TV programmes. Handily, French TV is going through a bit of an export drive at the moment, and lots of good, engaging stuff is appearing.

To start with, we watched 'Engrenages' in French, but with English subtitles. I found that I wasn't really attending the spoken language, because my mind was engaged with the written subtitles. This tallies with the findings of 'split attention' tasks - if your speech centres are engaged with reading, they can't simultaneously process verbal input.

Next, we switched to French audio, French subtitles. That's much better - my French is good enough now to follow the subtitles (and my partner's has been for a long time - I've been at this for about 3 years, she's been learning on and off for more like ten). Some of the time I hear the spoken words, some of the time I just read. It's good for speed of reading as well as listening.

Last week, I ordered series 4 of 'Engrenages' and series 1 of 'Les Revenants'. I've been ordering from, because if you get the UK editions, they only come with English subtitles.

Friday, I slotted series 1 of 'Les Revenants' into the dvd player and hit 'play'.

"now, how do you get this disc to play subtitles? Can't find it anywhere"

Looks at the box: "sous-titres: sans".

Merde. The next step is now forced on us. We're managing ok, but it's challenging.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Johnson, Bouma shape & Common usage

It's seeming more and more these days as if spelling is obsolete. While there is a value in correct spelling (evidence suggests fluent readers probably read more quickly by being able to identify the Bouma shape of a word at a glance) for the majority of people who read phonetically, homophones & spelling are relatively unimportant, as long as their meaning is clear.

Regularised spelling has only been with us since the 18th Century. Before that time, spelling was phonetic, and a matter of opinion. Even then regularised spelling took some time to gain traction - some texts of Jane Austen preserve the original (irregular) spellings showing that even sixty years after Johnson's Dictionary spelling could be whimsical. So, in 4000 years of writing, we've had perhaps 200 years when spelling was regularised.

For the overwhelming majority of people then, it doesn't matter if Johnson's legacy continues.

For me as a lover of the written word, I'm glad to have lived at a time when regularised spelling allowed me to read much quicker than I otherwise could have, and I'll bemoan the loss of clarity and ease of communication that phonetic spelling and the acceptance of common usage brings.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Style of prose

I've just finished reading 'La Mystère de la Chambre Jaune' by Gaston Leroux, and I noticed something rather interesting. I could tell from the flavour of the prose, before I reached any obvious signs such as description of transport etc, that it was written in the late 19th C. It was the first book of that era that I'd read in French, but of course I've read much from that period in English. What I'm not sure of is: what features of the prose carry across so well that knowing 19th C style in English makes it possible to identify 19th C style in French.

It seemed to me the similarities were in clause structure, and slightly florid descriptions. Complex sentences with multiple clauses in non-obvious order, and phrases with two or more adjectives to describe the same object seem, off the top of my head, to be characteristic in both languages.