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Oral typos and autocorrect by the unconscious: Another Duolingo note

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One thing has become clear as I get my sea legs in Esperanto: the person listening — the auditor — contributes as much to oral exchanges as the speaker. Far from being a passive recipient of the speaker’s words, the auditor (once s/he is familiar with the language) unconsciously corrects the spoken equivalent of typos just as the reader does with written text — a process so unconscious that it becomes difficult to spot some typos, since the adaptive unconscious autocorrects such errors and thus renders them invisible to the conscious mind — see a famous example at the right. (And that is why copy editors get — or should get — the big bucks: they can still see what’s really there, not just what should be there.)

Just as we unconsciously correct and read right over typos because we know the language well enough to know what should be there, so also once we learn a spoken language we don’t notice so much the inaccurate word choices (“de” when “el” is meant) or mispronunciations (“kay” instead of “kai” (rhymes with “sigh”)). Our ears carry the sound, our brain corrects the meaning. We may wince at a mispronunciation (“toomeric” instead of “turmeric”), but we know immediately what is meant.

A person who does not know a language well, on reading the word “resaerch,” try to figure out what it means, searching dictionaries for the word in a vain attempt to find the definition, while a person who knows the language — and the context of the sentence — will read “research,” not even noticing the error.

I’ve observed as I listen to Esperanto dictation on Dulingo the same sort of thing. Initially I was hypersensitive to the slightest mispronunciation, which stymied my effort to understand the meaning. As the neural net of my brain has become more trained, I don’t notice those mispronunciations so much, since I now “hear” the sounds that make sense. In effect, I adjust what I hear to match the most likely meaning.

It’s similar to training an AI to recognize cat pictures. At first the AI cannot tell the difference between a cat picture and a dog picture (or a cow picture, for that matter): a fur-covered four-legged animal with eyes, ears, a nose, and a tail: all much of a muchness. But with training — “No, not that one. Yes, that’s one. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. ….” — the AI soon is able to pick out cat pictures quite well.

Or an example from my own childhood: I still recall my mother in the grocery store asking me to get a head of lettuce (iceberg lettuce, all that we knew), and I came back with a head of cabbage. She laughed and showed me the difference, but I just couldn’t see it: they were both globes of green leaves, so how on earth could you tell them apart?

But experience — and neural net training — works and now I can pretty much distinguish cabbage from lettuce 9 out of 10 times, or even better.

What’s interesting is that my adaptive unconscious is learning Esperanto fast enough (daily practice of 2-3 hours now) that I can remember how some spoken sentences were unintelligible — and even had outright oral typos — now seem perfectly clear: because I now impose my own knowledge and understanding on what I hear and adjust to sounds to match what they should be.

Update: I overlooked the elephant in the room: the big contribution from the listener (as s/he learns the language) is the contribution of meaning, which is bigger and more important than the autocorrection of oral typos. There is no meaning in what hits the ear: that is just a bunch chopped up oral noises. For example, listen carefully to someone speaking, say, Basque and see what meaning you get from it. If you don’t know Basque, then you get from it no meaning at all. If you do know Basque, you get a lot of meaning, but the sounds alone do not contain the meaning — if the meaning were in the sounds, a Basque-ignorant person would get the meaning one hearing the sounds. A person who knows Basque and a person who does not both hear exactly the same sounds. One gets meaning, one does not. The difference is not in the sounds but in the listeners. The meaning is not in the sounds, but in the minds, that of the speaker and that of the listener.

Update again: And of the course the same is true of writing. The reader’s knowledge is a key factor in the writing being meaningful and not simply black marks.

이 구절은 명확한 의미를 지니지 만 독자가 표시의 중요성에 대한 지식을 제공하는 경우에만 가능합니다.

That has meaning, but not simply in itself. The reader must provide some of the meaning.



Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 10:14 pm

More about Duolingo, learning, and Esperanto

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I’m going steadily ahead with the Duolingo Esperanto course and I’m amazed by how much I know after (as you see) just six weeks. It seems true that in two months study of Esperanto one can achieve liftoff, as it were. Great quarantine activity, and I thought this post in the discussion section was interesting.

The more I use it, the more I discover (or figure out) about its methods. One basic thing is that you are not simply told you gave an incorrect response (should that ever happen), you are also told the correct response and then the question is repeated later in the lessons so you can give the correct response (and, if necessary, repeated again and again, until you give the correct response).

This strikes me as a basic pedagogical tactic that:

  1. provides a sense of reward (dopamine hit) when you do finally get it right (and hear the “right answer” chime instead of the “wrong answer” buzzer), and
  2. is the approach used in any performance education: the musician must willy-nilly replay the passage until it is played correctly, the actor must rehearse the lines until they are delivered correctly, the tennis player must practice the stroke until it is made correctly — in performance, simply marking something as wrong is insufficient (and largely irrelevant), since the action must be repeated until it is not only right but almost habitual (and language speaking, listening, reading, writing are performance), and
  3. matches exactly the approach used in AI to train a neural network, and of course in learning how to do something one is exactly training the original neural network, the brain.

Duolingo uses other mechanisms to promote learning, such as encouraging daily practice by giving a prominent “streak” award for an unbroken series of daily lessons. Some Duolingo students have streaks of 5 years or more.

I wish I had dived into this earlier. There are several languages of which I would like to have a smattering. Well, it’s never too late.

Consider trying one for your quarantine activity.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2020 at 7:16 am

Training the adaptive unconscious

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I’ve mentioned before how learning a language (along with other kinds of learning) is very like how in AI one trains a neural network — because, of course, the brain is a neural network. And it seems clear that the part of the brain/mind being trained is the adaptive unconscious. Of course one must consciously learn the rules and the vocabulary and how to understand the spoken phrases one hears. But the idea is that it soon will not require conscious thought since the adaptive unconscious will take over the job, having through much repetition learned the patterns.

I was thinking this morning, as I found spoken sentences easier to understand and the choice of words to use in (say) telling time just came to me without my really having to think about it or even consciously understanding why I chose those particular words.It reminded me of when I began learning the Forth programming language. I had all sorts of mysterious crashes and malfunctions that gradually stopped happening without my ever understanding why most of them occurred. I think it was that through the experience of writing and debugging Forth I was training (through reptition) my adaptive unconscious and that as it absorbed the patterns/rules it simply directed me to choices that avoided the errors.

And part of that is teaching through mastery: you rpeeat an exercise in Duolingo until you get it right. If you get it wrong, the program shows you the correct answer and marks the error you made, but later in that session you will be presented the same exercise. If you get it right, great. If you get it wrong, you are again presented with it — repeatedly, until you get it right. That’s how you learn.

And it’s also how you work. When I made errors in programming, I had to keep at it until all the errors were fixed and the program ran properly. Repeating exercises until they are mastered is really the way to learn.

Update: Of course, performance skills — playing a musical instrument, for example, or acting a part in a play — are routinely taught with the practice of mastery: you work on the piece until you can do it right. In math, on the other hand, your exercises are marked wrong and you do not get to repeat the exercise until you get it right (and thus learn).

Written by LeisureGuy

27 May 2020 at 1:22 pm

Not in Spanish

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I am interested in becoming bilingual, something I’ve not yet accomplished but am interested in. [Full disclosure: The Wife is totally bilingual: English and French with a Parisian accent.] My study of Esperanto is specifically aimed at inducing bilingualism, and I truly believe it will happen. Duolingo will do it. I currently have a 37-day streak and probably in the neighborhood of 40-50 hours — really, just one long work week, but stretch across 37 days with a little over an hour each day. I supplement Duolingo with Anki to ensure I acquire vocabulary efficiently, but I am surprised by how much I already have gained. And I’m not even in level 3 yet. If you are monolingual and want to experience bilingualism, I highly recommend Esperanto as a relatively easy solution. See the Esperanto section on the “Useful Posts” page for more info.

Michael Hoffman writes in the London Review of Books:

This​ is the first and only book on bilingualism I have read, but before coming to that there are two other things worthy of mention.* The first is the author’s biographical note. Albert Costa, a research professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona who specialised in neurocognition and language processing, died in 2018, at the age of 48. The second is the single modest line on the copyright page, where no one looks, crediting the translation to John W. Schwieter. Schwieter also appears in the brief list of Further Reading, as the editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Bilingual Processing (2015). He is, as some of us would say, vom Fach.

The Bilingual Brain is the product of equal parts personality and intellectual curiosity; it reads like a book of lectures (it isn’t), complete with attention-grabbing tics and posers, provocative understatements and iron logic, curious factoids and handsomely signalled changes of direction. The ‘popular’ and the ‘science’ parts of ‘popular science’ achieve a kind of maximum separation. Costa speaks to the reader in a way that he and we are equally helpless to resist – unmannered, natural, charismatic. He is obviously in love with his subject, taking it everywhere with him, seeing it wherever he goes. ‘Most of the people I know are bilingual’ is his delightful shrug. He sounds at times like an amateur, drawing materials from the breakfast table, and at others like the gifted neurologist or psycholinguist he was, advancing provisional conclusions, to be overturned by the research of others or himself. There were moments when I didn’t understand him, moments when I wasn’t interested in what he was telling me, moments when I wished he had gone further, but I suspect that the fault was all on my side. I felt like someone unexpectedly in receipt of a partial brain scan he is probably holding upside down.

Costa’s treatment is both hard (too hard for me) and oddly soft. He has no interest in saying what bilingualism is (‘I prefer to avoid giving prescriptive definitions’) and, besides identifying technical features (‘tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese or Vietnamese’), none in delineating the specific character of this or that language, its historic or sociopolitical formation, its advantages and drawbacks, its current market rating. He doesn’t really distinguish between the individually-formed bilingual, handmade by circumstance, and those who belong to groups historically or geopolitically tending to bilingualism – Catalans, for example, like Costa himself, or Belgians. Sometimes ‘bilingual’ for him seems to mean little more than someone with a very good grasp of a second language. Perhaps, in the broadest sense, he is simply exclaiming at the wonder of human speech (‘We are all talking heads,’ he begins) and, en passant, praising the social-scientific method, the fantastically resourceful experiments that have been undertaken on the human animal.

Costa is interested in both qualitative and quantitative results, though the latter type tends to dominate his analysis. Numbering trumps mere description. (Something that can’t be made into a plural is of less use and less worth, packs less punch.) The main idea is to extrapolate and sweep and generalise, not to specify. The Bilingual Brain has Conrad – almost the only literary writer – in the index, but not Beckett or Nabokov or Brodsky. It dives into the brain, not into words. Ideally, I think, Costa would number the bilingual’s languages #1 and #2, for maximal theoretical applicability, not name them, as he gamely does, with his Korean French speakers, his Catalan Mexicans, his Zulu and Hindi English.

Hard cases make bad law, but perhaps they make good science. The opposite ends of life feature more prominently in The Bilingual Brain than the muddled middle. There is much play in the book with ‘bilingual babies’ and the almost brutally ingenious experiments aimed at gaining and evaluating their attention. Newborns ‘show a preference for words spoken by their mother compared to those uttered by a stranger’. Two-day-old babies take in more oxygen to their brains when listening to a recording of their mothers reading a story played forwards rather than backwards. Four-month-old bilingual babies can distinguish (already!) their two languages; on hearing them, they take longer to respond than monolingual babies, possibly, Costa conjectures, because ‘evaluating which of the two languages is the one being heard … would take additional time’. Costa’s second focus is on strokes or brain injuries as they affect bilingual individuals: what happens to their languages, do they both disappear, and from the same places in the brain? Is one damaged while the other remains unimpaired and is there an observed order? It’s an uncertain, contested area, with one scientist defining five distinct types of linguistic recovery, though it seems to be accepted that ‘there are quite a few people who after brain damage have more problems processing nouns than verbs.’

The brain parts of Costa’s conclusions largely

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 May 2020 at 8:21 pm

Some useful Duolingo tactics

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I have gradually discovered some tactics that make Duolingo more effective.

Write what you hear exercises

I listen to the prompt several times before entering my answer. If my answer has an error, I look at the correct answer (which Duolingo provides) and listen to the prompt over and over, following the printed answer, until I can hear clearly what is said. Then when the prompt is given again, later in the lesson, I have no problem understanding it. (Duolingo uses a mastery approach, so it will return to any items you answered incorrectly until you are able to answer them correctly.)

Translate a sentence exercises

The sentence is both displayed and  recited. I make it a practice to not look at the printed sentence but try to understand it simply by listening. I will click the blue loudspeaker button to hear the phrase or sentence repeatedly until I am sure what it is — and only then I look at the phrase to check. If I got it wrong, I listen to it more, reading it while I listen, until I can hear clearly what is said. Only then do I enter the translation. This approach provides more ear training.

Mark the correct meaning exercises

These exercises offer a sentence in English and have you click on the correct translation of three offered. I do not look at the offered options until I have translated the sentence in my head. I then look for the sentence that matches the translation I have done. Again, this provides more practice in working with the language.

See also this post.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2020 at 4:18 pm

‘Saluton!’: the surprise return of Esperanto

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Josh Salisbury writes in the Guardian in December 2017:

In the village of Barlaston, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, a strange language can be heard. It’s not the friendly Potteries dialect, but something that sounds a little like the lovechild of French and German. A Tudor house here is home to the Esperanto Association of Britain (EAB), which encourages people to learn the constructed language.

Esperanto summer schools were first established in Stoke in 1960, and were funded by the council for more than 50 years. The concept of an easy-to-learn, universal second tongue was energetically promoted, drawing prominent speakers to the area. And the city still bears traces of its Esperanto history. In Smallthorne, in the north-east of the city, drinkers can stop off on Esperanto Way to get a pint at the Green Star – the symbol of the Esperantist movement. A row of terraced houses a short walk away are located on Zamenhof Grove, named after the inventor of Esperanto, LL Zamenhof.

The language isn’t a relic; in fact, while exact figures are difficult to pin down, there has been a resurgence in people taking it up. The Esperanto Association has increased the number of beginners’ courses it offers four-fold to keep up with demand, says Viv O’Dunne, the charity’s operations and events director.

The “inner idea” of Esperanto, Zamenhof once said, was to promote world peace. A Jewish-Polish doctor born in 1859 in Białystok, now in Poland, Zamenhof grew up under Russian occupation. Violence between different groups was common – Białystok which was a melting pot of Protestant Germans, Catholic Poles, Orthodox Russians and Jews. While still a child, Zamenhof hit upon the idea that a constructed second language that was easy to learn and understand would allow people to talk as peers, rather than fight. In 1887, after tinkering away for more than 10 years, Zamenhof published his ideas in a pamphlet. By 1905, the fundamental rules of Esperanto had been established by a conference of speakers in France, and Esperantist groups began popping up across the world.

Tim Owen, education director for the EAB, gives me a crash course in what makes it straight-forward. “Probably the main factor is that you can acquire a huge vocabulary without knowing so many words,” he says.

All words ending -o are nouns, an -a ending is for an adjective, while -e denotes an adverb. He shows me that, for instance, “vidi” – meaning to see – can become “vido” for vision, “vida” for visual and “vide” for visually, concepts that require different words in English. If you need to find an opposite, you can add the “mal” prefix: “pura” is clean, “malpura” is dirty. These building blocks can help speakers learn new words very quickly. “It’s like working with a magic multiplier,” says Owen. The spellings are phonetic, there are no grammatical genders, verbs are strictly regular, and the vocabulary is a blend of European languages familiar to many. It’s child’s play to learn compared with my years of torturous high-school language lessons.

But isn’t a universal constructed language just a hobby for idealistic eccentrics? O’Dunne laughs, and concedes the stereotype might have a grain of truth: “We’ve still got those!” But, he says, there’s been a marked change in the demographic of attendees recently. “Over the last two or three years, there’s been much more interest from younger people who want to use it to travel and correspond … it just feels like it’s been rejuvenated,” she says.

At the charity’s headquarters at Esperanto House, there are rows of old academic tomes on the linguistics of constructed languages, but it’s the colourful translations of bestsellers and bright current affairs magazines that catch the eye. “[Esperanto is] a little bit geeky, but geeky is cool now, right?” says one recent convert.

Nineteen-year-old Sammy Kennedy, an aspiring photographer who works in retail in Manchester, is one of the young Esperantists helping the language shake off its niche image. He has attended events run by the EAB and has noticed more and more people taking an interest. Esperanto groups where he lives were defunct for ages, he tells me. “Now, there’s a new Manchester Esperanto group that meets up monthly,” he says.

Esperanto has become steadily more accessible largely thanks to the language-learning app Duolingo. The Esperanto course recently reached a million learners worldwide, more than are currently learning Hungarian or Czech on the site. There’s a dizzying array of other online options to help would-be learners, too. A few taps on the Amikumu (or “do the friendly thing”) app shows users local Esperantists to chat with, while numerous Facebook groups help beginners with vocab and grammar. Esperanto may have been the brainchild of a Polish doctor in the 19th century, but it has adapted for the 21st.

Simone Davis, a civil servant, began learning Esperanto online to distract her from painful chronic health conditions. She found that even at her most tired or ill, she could manage a lesson on her tablet. “One lesson easily becomes two or three and before I knew it I was hooked,” she says. In just over a year, she learned more Esperanto than she has French, despite taking French classes for five years.

It’s the values underpinning the language, as well as its ease, that drew in Davis. Esperanto is “a symbol of intentional goodwill towards others”, she says. Esperantists place a heavy value on the language being “neutral”, not belonging to one country. Many tell me they were inspired to pick up the books in response to what they see as rising isolationism in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. Learning the language isn’t just a hobby, but a commitment to making connections across borders on a level playing field.

I initially write this off as simply a nice sentiment, but there’s plenty of practise behind the principle. O’Dunne shows me the Pasporta Servo, a pocket-sized directory of Esperantists all around the world. They offer fellow speakers a place to stay in their home country, often completely free of charge. For language enthusiasts under 25, the charity NoJef will pay for travel and accommodation for attendance at Esperanto-themed events.

The Pasporta Servo led 26-year-old James McMurray, a data engineer from Crawley, to make learning Esperanto his New Year’s resolution several years ago. He had first became familiar with the language while leafing through his grandfather’s books – he had become an Esperantist while stationed in India during the second world war. “I remember growing up and seeing his books in Esperanto, without being able to understand it, and his correspondence with people all over the world who may not speak English and be able to communicate,” McMurray says. He has since attended Esperantist music events in France, and met up with fellow learners in Prague and Malaga. His first serious relationship started through a shared interest in Esperanto. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

On a personal note, after completing 12 lessons in the course, I have recently focused solely on the Duolingo course. As of this morning, I’ve done at least one lesson (and always in fact several lessons) a day for 36 days:

For what I learned about how to use Duolingo effectively, see this post.

This morning I also revised my two posts (this one and this one) on using Anki to reflect more discoveries on using it, and in particular to note the Duolingo shared decks and this quite valuable shared deck:

61,907 Esperanto dictionary entries in order of usage frequency in the Esperanto Wikipedia (dumped 2016-10-02). Dictionary entries come from Paul Denisowski’s Esperanto Dictionary Project (ESPDIC). To learn in order of frequency, you should set the options group for the deck in the “New Cards” section to have “Show new cards in order added” selected. Then the first few words to appear should be “la, de, en, kaj, esti”.

I submit that in this socially isolated, lockdown time, learning a language using Duolingo and Anki is a pleasant and useful way to pass some hours. And if you don’t know any foreign language, learning Esperanto first has been shown to greatly facilitate the learning of later languages.

I will say that after just over a month’s study I’m surprised by how much Esperanto I know. — or: Mi diros, ke post nur unu-monata studado mi estas suprizata per kiom da Esperanto mi scias. That I just wrote off the top of my head, using just what I’ve learned to date.


Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2020 at 3:18 pm

Useful checklist for critical thinking

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2020 at 9:46 am

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