If you look over Hillary Clinton's left shoulder, you'll see two guys in red t-shirts (my hubby and me). An exhilarating day watching two of the most impressive political figures in our country today.
I started using the language-learning app Duolingo about a year ago, and wrote extensively about its strengths and weaknesses on this blog last July. Initially I was using it to brush up on a few languages I'd learned previously, like French and Spanish, but since August 2015 I have also been using it to learn a new language I'd never studied before, Swedish. I'm currently about two-thirds of the way through the Swedish course, and wanted to add to my previous thoughts about the efficacy of the app or lack thereof. Here are my take-aways, nine months in.
2) It doesn't take the place of face-to-face conversation.
About a month ago, I was feeling pretty confident about my Swedish abilities. I could read random stuff online and figure most of it out, and I could also understand the spoken sentences produced by the app. So I invited a friend of mine who speaks Swedish to lunch. It went something like this:
HIM: Hur går det?
(He'd simply asked me "how's it going". The app hadn't taught me that.)
So, although I can talk about strawberries (jordgubbar) and turtles (sköldpaddor), I realized I was missing the stuff that you probably learn right away when you actually talk to someone: niceties of conversation. I would recommend adding a face-to-face conversation component to your online study, to help you fill in the gaps that the app will inevitably leave.
3) Difficult sounds.
Swedish has this weird sound which is represented in its orthography with the digraph "sj". In the Duolingo app, it sounds closest to me like an English /f/, so I thought that the word for seven (sju) sounded like "foo". Turns out, it's technically a voiceless postalveolar-velar fricative (IPA nerds: /ɧ/), which means that there are two places of articulation, one with the back of your tongue approaching but not quite touching the top of the back of your mouth (the velum), and one just behind the ridge behind your teeth (the alveolar ridge). The resulting sound doesn't exist in English, sounds kind of like an /h/ mixed with an /s/, and is damn near impossible to learn with an app. Long story short, you may need further help than the app can give you to figure out how to pronounce sounds that don't exist in your language or that are particularly difficult to articulate.
Take-home message: Can you learn a foreign language using Duolingo? I think the answer is still yes, provided that you do two things: 1) keep practicing your weak skills, increasing the proportion of review the farther you get into the course, and 2) find a friend to actually practice conversation with who can also help guide you on pronunciation.
Most of the time academia is a lonely business, but every once in a while the larger world takes notice. This past weekend Autism Speaks published a nice, long post summarizing the work I've done since I began researching deaf children with autism eight years ago. Feels great to be recognized and to see the progress that's been made over the past few years!
UPDATE 2/27/16: Education Week covered our session at AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), which also featured Peter Hauser, David Quinto-Pozos, and Jenny Singleton.
As a language lover and polyglot, I've long yearned for an easy and accessible way to teach myself new languages. Growing up in the 80's, I used to take out cassette tapes of French lessons out from the public library and listen to them on my Walkman. And that was about it. My dinky local school offered French and Spanish classes, nothing else. This was before the internet, so there was no easy access to newspapers, magazines, videos, TV, or movies in other languages. Of course, these days everyone has ample access to endless amounts of online content in other languages. But it's still difficult to learn a language from square one without some kind of explicit instruction.
Rosetta Stone has been around for a number of years, and I've tried it out briefly, but never wanted to spend the money ($179 just for level one!) without knowing if it would be worthwhile. But Duolingo, the app for iPhone and Android, is free. I recently started using it and have been impressed with it for a number of reasons. As a linguist and unrepentant polyglot, here's my take on its strengths and weaknesses.
Babies are really, really good at learning languages, and they don't do it the way high school students do (i.e. with lots of focus on learning rules, and especially how to read and write). Duolingo does away with this tired old paradigm and treats us more or less like babies who can read, forcing our brains to learn grammatical rules without them being explained to us. So, for example, in my Swedish course I know that to say "a dog" you say "en hund" but to say "an egg" you say "ett ägg". There was no mention of grammatical gender, least of all "masculine" and "feminine" nouns, which tend to just make everyone very confused about how inanimate objects can have sex (they don't). The explicit explanation of underlying grammatical rules is what we in the linguistics biz call metalinguistic knowledge, which is nice to have if you're a linguist, but fairly useless if you're trying to learn to speak. Your smart brain is hard-wired to learn language, and is pretty good at remembering that for some nouns, the word for "a/an" is "en" and for others it's "ett". It's the way we're built (though it does require a lot of repetition; see below). And if you do want an explicit explanation, there are ways to get to it, but it's not front and center as with most language courses.
Lots of exposure to native pronunciation.
Native speakers build Duolingo, and you get a lot of exposure to their pronunciation, which is a lot better than your high school French teacher's probably was (speaking from experience here, no offense Mrs. Lacey). There's just no beating a native speaker, even if we might never be able to mimic exactly how they sound.
It fits right in with your phone-addicted lifestyle.
I admit it: I am addicted to my iPhone (and I semi-hate myself for it). But Duolingo fits in nicely with the modern lifestyle: it's on your phone, which you are on constantly anyway, and doesn't require you to go to a class or take out a book or go out of your way. It's right there in your pocket, and you can do a unit in just a few minutes while waiting for the train. They've even programmed it with some game-like incentives (lose hearts if you make a mistake! earn "lingots" if you pass a unit!) to tap into your unhealthy Candy Crush addiction. The great thing about this is that it's easy to do a little every day, which is key to learning a new language -- you have to reinforce what you've learned or you will forget it very quickly. By making a smartphone-based platform, the designers of Duolingo have made it easier than ever to help motivated learners achieve their goals.
The teaching methods can be subverted with other strategies.
Duolingo essentially relies on just a few core methods for teaching you a language skill (say, a set of vocabulary words like colors or numbers, or a grammatical concept like the past tense):
The problem here is that only number 6 requires the learner to actually retrieve something from memory and generate it in order to answer the item correctly. For numbers one through five, the learner can rely on all kinds of other strategies to answer correctly. For example, for number four (translation of a foreign sentence into English, with the English words provided), there is often only one possible English sentence that can be made of the words provided. So, you don't have to actually know anything in the foreign language at all -- you can just use your deductive reasoning to piece together the English sentence. This is just not possible when you are faced with the terrifying blankness of translation without prompts, as in #6. It forces you to dig deep into your memory and see what has stuck. Now, I understand that most of these strategies are not really about testing; they are about teaching. But I worry that learners can too easily beat the system by relying on other learning strategies that have little to do with language.
All in all, I am super jazzed about this app. It's been great for practicing the languages that I already know, and has been pretty decent for starting to learn ones that I didn't. Though I really wish I had a real live Swedish teacher to explain to me WHY the 'sk' combination in Swedish is sometimes pronounced like an 'f'. But I guess I could just Google it. Brave new world, I love you.
Here's some more, courtesy of Google Images:
Amazing, no? And inside the exhibit the fashions were even more gorgeous and astounding. We appreciated everything about how the exhibit was laid out, and felt that we understood so much about what Gernreich was trying to do. He was committed to liberation -- particularly sexual liberation -- through fashion. He played with female sexuality and with androgyny. He created clothes that were both sexual and sexless. He appeared to be both a provocateur and, we imagined, a libertine. We had fun speculating about the relationship between Gernreich and his muse Peggy Moffitt, and the photographer William Claxton, though (as far as we could tell) the exhibit had little to say of substance about the particulars of their configuration(s).
When we got home, we wanted to know more about Gernreich, so we googled him. We were both pretty surprised to find out that not only was Gernreich gay, but he was involved with Harry Hay, the founder of the early gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society. Via Wikipedia:
Say what? How had we missed this important information? In an exhibit dedicated to a fashion designer obviously committed to sexual liberation, how had we missed the fact that he was, in fact, gay? And even more important from the historical perspective, involved with the most important gay liberation organization of his time?
Well, I wanted to understand if this had been intentionally left out of the exhibit, so I tweeted at the Cincinnati Art Museum:
And, lucky for me, I got an answer from the curator herself (Cynthia Amneus) within just a few hours:
I wasn't around in the 1950's, but from what I gather, it wasn't so easy to be an out gay person back then. Gay people couldn't work for the US government or teach in the public schools, and the risk of losing one's friends, family, and career by openly admitting to homosexuality was very real.
[Aside: As to whether or not an artist's sexuality defines their work, I suppose it all depends. I would guess that sexuality is a defining characteristic for some artists, and not for others. To take just one (glib) example, was Picasso's love of women not a "defining" characteristic of his work? It figures strongly throughout his oeuvre and viewers' knowledge of Picasso's (hetero)sexuality will help them to contextualize and understand his work.]
Anyway, I replied:
To which Amneus replied by assigning me some reading, The Rudi Gernreich Book by Peggy Moffitt, to learn about "Rudi's own thoughts about sexuality and its irrelevance."
So I found the book at the Boston Public Library and took it out. From the Introductory essay by Marylou Luther, "Looking Back at a Futurist":
"In July 1950, while watching a rehearsal at [Lester] Horton's studio, Gernreich met Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, a 1950s forerunner of today's gay movement. From 1950 to 1952, Gernreich and Hay were lovers and Gernreich became one of Mattachine's seven founding members... He and the other founders resigned from the society in 1953 after an ideological schism. In accordance with the Mattachine oath of secrecy, Hay never revealed Gernreich's membership in the society until after the designer's death in 1985...
"That the man who tore up so many closets with his revolutionary clothes never came out of the closet during this lifetime says a lot about Gernreich and his times. In those years homosexuality was illegal and Gernreich himself had been entrapped before joining the Mattachines. Oreste Pucciani, Gernreich's life partner for thirty-one years, recalls, "Rudi told me he was stunned when a guilty verdict was returned. He had insisted on pleading innocent and demanded a jury trial. He told me that he looked in the face of every jury member, and one woman, who had seemed sympathetic earlier and whose support Rudi thought he could count on, turned to the wall to avoid his eyes." [emphasis mine]
WOW. Gernreich had been entrapped and convicted by a jury of his peers for homosexual acts. No wonder he never came out. I can only imagine the shame and fear he felt after this incident. (Oh, and by the way, he had a partner of 31 years! Who knew?)
Back to the essay in Moffitt's book:
"Peggy Moffitt, the designer's model/muse, says she and Gernreich "talked about sexuality a lot. His clothes were about sexuality. He told me about having belonged to the Mattachine Society, but not in a this-is-a-big-secret kind of way. He often told me that he felt a person's sexuality was understood and there was no way to hide it. I've known many gay men who seemed compelled to underscore their homosexuality, as in 'I'll-order-the-roast-beef-but-of-course-I'm-gay.' Rudi was not that sort of person. I don't think it ever occurred to him to come out of the closet because his sexuality was self-evident. He wouldn't have called a press conference to discuss his sexuality any more than he would have called one to discuss his brown eyes." [emphasis mine]
I can see how curator Cynthia Amneus could read this quote and decide that it was right and proper to omit the fact of Gernreich's sexuality (no longer a secret) from the exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. But I disagree with the decision, and I believe that this interpretation is a misreading of Moffitt, and of Gernreich.
The fact is that omission is commission. The failure to overtly state Gernreich's sexuality in the exhibit is, in fact, to (intentionally or unintentionally) mislead viewers, because sexuality is always assumed and automatically ascribed. Since most people are heterosexual, that is our default assumption, unless stated otherwise. Amneus' interpretation of Moffitt's quote is anachronistic and ahistorical; it must be taken in context. For a man like Gernreich at his time, to declare that sexuality didn't matter was in fact to claim something like the following: although I may be sexually deviant, I am not a monster to be abhorred and ostracized. Nowadays, thankfully, the situation is far different. Today, we can make a far more sincere claim to the idea that "sexuality doesn't matter" because gay and straight people are treated much more equally in the eyes of the law (though not everywhere yet, including in Ohio) as well as in society more broadly. Information about one's sexuality can still be an important component in understanding a person's experience. It just need not be the only, or defining, one.
Gernreich's sexuality is also important in order to fully understand the exhibit: he played with women's bodies in ways that would read differently if he were a heterosexual man. Take the provocative monokini (1964):
Does it not change the effect and the perceived intention of the designer to understand that he was a gay man? Does it not aid the viewer's understanding to realize that his gaze upon the female body was not one of desire? This knowledge helps to contextualize the designer's choices and leads the viewer to suspect a very different motivation than if he were straight.
It's hard not to think that there are other cultural forces at work here. In 1990, another Cincinnati art museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, was brought to trial on obscenity charges for exhibiting the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe -- the first time in American history that criminal charges were brought against a museum for obscenity because of a public exhibit. (The museum was found not guilty.) I wonder to what extent the memory of this trial still burns, consciously or not, in the minds of those charged with creating new exhibitions for the public.
But the times, they are a-changing: though gay marriage is still illegal in Ohio, the marriage equality case heard just a few weeks ago by the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges), originated in Cincy. A recent NY Times cover story highlighted this case, and the shift that Cincinnati is making from a traditionally Catholic, conservative city to a modern, more progressive metropolis. I'm sure that there are some growing pains there. Perhaps some of the more monied folk in town still have more (ahem) traditional values.
Despite an otherwise thrilling exhibit, Amneus and the Cincinnati Art Museum have done their public a disservice by omitting this crucial piece of information, which holds the key to understanding Gernreich's work, his commitment to sexual liberation, and his relationship to Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton. Blithely ignoring it is not to follow in Gernreich's spirit, but rather to recloset him and to keep his identity a shameful secret -- the opposite of the bright, bold, exclamatory and joyous notes so clearly revealed by this exhibit.
I'll end with one more quote from the essay in Moffitt's book:
"Pucciani explains Gernreich's reluctance to "out": "To 'out' yourself is one thing. To be dragged out is something else. Rudi never came out officially. He never felt the need. Until I retired from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1979, I lived by the principle of never make a point of it and never deny it. Intelligent people knew by the way I lived... When I asked Rudi why he had never come out, he said with that lilt in his voice he always got when he was joking: "It's very simple. It's bad for business."
I wonder if, in their decision to withhold this basic information about Gernreich from the exhibition, Amneus and the Cincinnati Art Museum didn't make a similar calculation.
Samsung has a new app, called Look at Me, which is purported to help children with autism make eye contact with others. It has released a video (partially in Korean with English subtitles) showing how the app works and with testimonials by experts as to its efficacy:
Great, right? Totally, at least in theory. I think that smartphones and tablets have tremendous potential for helping kids work on problem areas, and I welcome this advance. I also applaud Samsung's donation of 200 Galaxy tablets to Autism Speaks Canada with this app loaded onto it so that kids with autism can try it out. My only issue is in its main efficacy claim, that "60% of the children tested showed improvement in making eye contact." If you watch the video closely, you'll see in tiny type "*Results are based on parents' survey" (emphasis mine). UH-OH! This is not a scientific measure, so we don't actually know if the intervention is effective. Why? Parents may interpret "improvement" differently. Plus, we don't know if there is a placebo effect at work -- parents are invested in the child's improvement, and are more likely to say that they see improvement because they've put in the time every day over eight weeks using the program. I'd want to see some better-defined objective measures for improvement before I'd believe that this app works for its intended purpose. (Which, incidentally, I hope it does.)
The other problem -- so typical of the way that autism is talked about that we barely even notice -- is that 'success' is also framed in terms of the mother's feelings. Before using the app, the mom says "I feel like I'm a complete stranger to him", and we infer that this is due, at least in part, to her son's lack of eye contact. At the end of the video, the mom says "These days, I feel like he's changed for the better... I feel that he looks at me as a mother." Now, I do not mean to discount the mother's feelings in any way. But what's missing from this account is how the child feels. People with autism have told me that eye contact can feel painful, and that they are able to attend to a conversation and engage in it while looking down or away. In other words, eye contact isn't the same thing as social engagement, though that is how neurotypicals often interpret it. I think we need to keep our figurative eyes on the real goal here -- social engagement -- while being aware of the fact that we may have different feelings about and interpretations of behaviors associated with such engagement. So, yes, it's important that the mom 'feels' that her child looks at her as a mother due to increased eye contact, as this will likely increase her own bids for engagement. But it's also possible that the child has always seen her as a mother and loved her as one, whether or not he is able to make eye contact with her. (h/t Filip Lewandowski)
There was an extraordinary gathering of scholars at Stony Brook University earlier this week. Top researchers in the fields of sign linguistics, autism research, disability studies, anthropology, and education all met to discuss a possible "paradigm shift" in autism research, using the history of sign language research and its profound positive impact on the Deaf community as a model. I left the meeting feeling inspired, energized, even transformed. Here are a few brief take-aways now that I've had a couple of days to digest the experience:
1) The inclusion of people with autism in autism research is essential.
It's taken for granted that Deaf people have greater insight and intuition into their own language than non-native signers and hearing people, yet it hadn't occurred to me (DUH) that the same could be true of people with autism. During the meeting, the contributions of participants with autism led me to dramatic new insights that I would never have arrived at on my own.
2) A strengths-based model can be more elegant than a deficit model.
There's plenty to criticize about a deficit model of autism just based on the notion of stigma. However, even holding that aside for the moment, what most impressed me was the realization that, for my data at least, a strengths-based model of autism had greater explanatory power than a deficit model. This leads me to think that a reframing of autistic language from a strengths-based perspective could be more scientifically correct in the long run.
3) The language we choose to use to describe autism is important, and some changes are in order.
We use words like "deficit", "impairment", "failure", "absence", "delay", "risk", etc. all the time without hesitation. These words carry a lot of stigma, judgment, and could also just be plain old inaccurate. For example, one of the participants with autism (the extraordinary Ibby Grace) pointed out that the phrase "children at risk for autism" (in reference to younger siblings of autistic children) was not only stigmatizing but also imprecise. Why not just say "children with an older autistic sibling"? Why not, indeed?
I had so many a-ha moments at the conference that now seem obvious in retrospect. Sometimes, truly, it is most difficult to see what is right in front of our noses.
I'm happy to announce that I'll be participating in a very interesting and important conference in a few weeks:
In addition to bringing together top-notch sign language, gesture, and autism researchers like Carol Padden, Jana Iverson, Mark Aronoff, and Richard Meier, this conference will incorporate and involve community members on the autism spectrum. Looks like it will be a lot of fun, and hopefully will lead to bold new ways of thinking about autism!
For more information, visit the conference website.
Food for thought:
"Autism is the last frontier of anthropology, in that anthropology is historically grounded in the notion that 'others' have their own social logics (Bourdieu, 1990a; Evans-Pritchand, 1937; Good, 1994; Lévy-Bruhl, 1926; Lévi-Strauss, 1963; Sahlins, 1976). Yet, how can we begin to understand the social logics of persons with autism from an emic perspective if a disruption in 'social logic' is positioned precisely at the heart of this condition, as it has been conceptualized from the etic perspective? This, of course, is an imposing analytic endeavor towards which our present article makes only a modest contribution.
A study of autism, however, also holds promise for enhancing theories of society and culture, in that both the struggles and the successes of those diagnosed with autism make evidence what is most essential to participation in human society. Social competencies displayed by persons with autism spectrum disorders have implications for delineating foundational properties of sociability. Conversely, social challenges faced by persons with autism spectrum disorders highlight what likely are more demanding requisites of immersion in social spaces." (p. 172)
from "Autism and the social world: an anthropological perspective." By Elinor Ochs, Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, Karen Gainer Sirota, and Olga Solomon (2004). Discourse Studies 6, pp. 147-183.
The Internet delights in uplifting stories of disaster averted, or an inspiring tale of misfortune with a silver lining. This is especially true when we talk about developmental disorders: we want to find the good, the surprising, the hidden genius locked within the non-verbal child. So I read about little five-year-old non-verbal child with autism Iris Grace Halmshaw with interest. Her website (evidently the product of her parents) breathlessly reads:
"Paintings by Iris Grace , a 5 year old with an extraordinary talent to express herself through painting. She is Autistic and is only just starting to talk but is able to paint in a style far beyond her years. We wanted to share her art to raise awareness of her condition and inspire other families in similar situations to ours. Autism is currently affecting around 100,000 children in the UK and these numbers are rising. In the summer of 2013 Iris’s story was published Globally in 207 different countries and over 2.3 million people visited her site with now over 120 thousand following her adventures on Facebook. She has sold paintings to private art collectors here in the UK and all over the world, in Europe, America, South America and Asia. All profits from the sales of her art go towards more art materials and her on going private therapists – Occupational therapy, speech therapy, Yoga, Music therapy and her future."
Now, I'm familiar with the extraordinary talents of people with autism. One need only see the mind-blowing drawings of cityscapes by Stephen Wiltshire, a forty-year-old British artist with autism, to know that these talents are real, even if we do not yet understand how they are possible. But I must admit I am skeptical of little Iris. Or rather, I am skeptical of the claims being made about some of the art that is purported to be produced by her. The paintings are indeed lovely -- moody yet structured, technical and lyrical -- but I'm afraid that the videos shown on the website do not that this very young child possesses the motor skills, let alone the artistic genius, that would be needed to produce them -- or at least some of them. All we see in the videos is a child gripping a paintbrush with a fist and shaking droplets of paint onto a canvass, Pollock-style. We do not witness the exquisitely controlled brushstrokes that would be needed to produce some of the paintings exhibited online. That, plus the exorbitant sums of money these paintings are now fetching -- $6,000 or so each -- make me raise an eyebrow. Yes, therapy is expensive. Yes, it's for a good cause. No doubt that Iris loves to paint, and may even have amazing talent. But until I see a video of Iris holding a paintbrush and drawing the lines we see in the paintings, I'm afraid this one may be just too good to be true.