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It's seeming more and more these days as if spelling is obsolete.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.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Is a phrase the natural unit of language?

If we look at our most basic communication needs, a phrase is the natural unit. When we need to just get by in a foreign language, we don't try to understand structure or grammar, we just have a book of phrases - a phrase book.

  • "two beers please"
  • "pour aller a la gare s'il vous plait"
  • "my hovercraft is full of eels"

A phrase is the simplest verbal structure to convey a full message. A young child may use individual words in a semi formed way, but he/she is using a phrase. Just a very simple, ungrammatical one that becomes more formal as learning takes place.

  • "bikkit"
  • "bikkit plis"
  • "could I have a biscuit please?"
A connectionist model gives a really good account of this. Connectionist models are good at abstracting what's common between different stimuli. Presented with many repeats of the phrases:

  • "two beers please"
  • "two biscuits please"
  • "two pies please"
  • "three beers please"
  • "four beers please"

a connectionist network is probably going to be able to abstract the 'magnitude - noun - otherthing' phrase structure from the commonalities.

I'd love to spend some time working on that - I'm pretty sure that a fairly simple network would be able to generate novel utterances from repeated phrase presentation. Maybe a bidirectional model, with a semantic module linked to a language module. Sadly work gets in the way. Perhaps some kindly soul at Google would like to give me a job researching natural language interpretation by neural nets ;-)

Friday, 3 July 2015

You can't teach an old dog new tricks

An old cliche, and one that could only be used by someone who's never had a border collie.

Like many hoary old cliches, this one has little or no basis in truth. There is as far as I can find in a quick lit review little or no evidence to suggest that old dogs (or indeed people) can't learn just as readily as those younger. It's a common assumption though. I often hear people say they're too old to learn something new, or they can't learn a new language because 'it's too late to start'. It's an easy cop out for people I think, an excuse not to do something they think will be difficult or onerous.

Even psychological journals trot it out. This article for example, claims to describe the reason, without ever providing any evidence that it's true.

Many theories of child development postulate complex developmental 'stages' which are arrived at chronologically and in sequence, where learning and thinking happens in qualitatively different ways once the stage is attained. The evidence for this is patchy at best, and tends to be as well or better explained by a connectionist model rather than a modular model.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers of adult learners suggests their adult students learn much more readily and rapidly than children. This makes sense, especially if you look at things from a connectionist point of view. Adults have a much greater store of knowledge and skills to integrate new information and skills with. Better connected information will be retained much more easily (you can see this in studies of brain damage and memory). Cross domain learning, and a greater ability to generalise and reflect seem likely to make it much easier for adults to learn.

It was long thought that there is a 'critical period' during which children are able to learn language, then some postulated organic change takes place (believed to be around puberty) after which it becomes very much more difficult. The evidence doesn't support the theory at all. It does support the theory that greater knowledge aids learning.

Practical applications
You're never too old to learn.

Starting point

I started blogging a few years back, mainly as a way of recording notes, thoughts about running, ideas about day to day life and so on. It's not really intended for an audience - not a regular one anyway. The search engines may pick up odds and sods which may interest a few people. My main stream of rubbish here contains material about all sorts of subjects: mostly running and prehistory, but also more general exercise stuff, beekeeping, fixed gear cycling, and all sorts of other gubbins. It's all very undisciplined and messy.

My academic background, such as it is, was psychology of language, and I retain an interest and some academic habits. I'm currently in the process of learning to speak French, using methods informed by the focus of my MSc into language acquisition. This blog will contain only things related to language acquisition (whether that's actual language learning skills, or the underlying psychology of how we learn).

I'm not a full time academic, and I don't have time to do formal research. If anyone finds anything in these pages worthy of research please do pick it up and run with it; part of my reason for blogging it is so that things I think may be insightful aren't lost. If you want to give me a credit for spawning an idea I'd be grateful: some posterity is better than none :-)