Monday, April 30, 2012

Lessons Worth Sharing - TedEd

Those lovely people at TED have come up with a new idea they call TedEd. Just like the RSAnimate videos by CognitiveMedia (see the Ian McGilchrist post), they want to combine great talks with great pictures on a video, but they know they can't stop there. Each video is accompanied by quick quiz questions, open ended questions and resources.

Watch the Video - The folks at TEDEd explain it very clearly!

Again, though that is not enough. You can also "Flip" the video - which means you can customise the 'package' to suit your class. You can edit the title, the quiz and "think deeper" questions and the resources. And, but, that's not all. You can then "flip" any YouTube video and make it into a TedEd format video lesson.
So here's my flipping attempt - a short video from YouTube on the history of writing with some questions, some resources and a research project. Here's another flipping attempt. This one uses a video about Everett's claims about Pirahã.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Christian Matthiessen @ Register & Context 2012

In this talk from the Register and Context Symposium 2012, Christian Matthiessen offers, among other things, his 'wheel of register' which relates the field mode and tenor of different written and spoken genres. The link to the symposium also offers a wide range of resources and links to other videos.

Part 1 of the talk (Video 1 is an introduction by Annabelle)
Part 2 of the talk
Always a pleasure to hear you talk, Christian, and thanks so much to Annabelle Lukin for organising the symposium and for making the talks available at the time and through the SFL group on Vimeo. Also available from the Vimeo site are videos featuring Ruqaiya Hasan and there's more to come. If you are interested in these and similar videos, Annabelle requests that you  join the group so we can see how much interest there is.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fry's Planet Word on DVD - A Brief Review

As with any 'popularisation' of a subject, academics can easily take a swipe at mass media explanations of their subject. In this review I will try to avoid taking cheap shots (unless the temptation is too great) and attempt to keep an open mind on how well Fry has done in representing the subject of linguistics to the general public as, I believe, this was his intention. I will review each episode and then finish with an overview.

Episode 1 - Babel
...And he's off: in no time at all, we are sent from Stephen Fry's comfy documentary-world study to Kenya to meet the Turkana, back to the London suburbs to meet a typical toddler, Ruby, and off to Leipzig (twice). Before you can say hello in 25 languages, we are already pondering a wide range of linguistic dilemmas. We also catch glimpses of Nim Chimpsky and the famous chattering YouTube twins. To help us out, we visit a range of experts. If I could have anyone in the world to talk about state of the art theories of language development, I would have one person at the top of my wishlist: Michael Tomasello. He adds much-needed balance both to the academic study of language development and the programme itself. Then, very quickly we are back on the slippery search for the language gene, aka FOXP2, and only just understand that this really cannot be the whole answer.
While we do not learn very much about Stephen Fry's brain scans in an fMRI, we do learn that the people he chose from UCL have a very balanced, realistic view of what they are able to achieve with these tools. I suppose if you are going to prepare a documentary on language, you have to include Stephen Pinker, if only because more Joe Publics have read his books than any others on language. Thankfully, Pinker does not get it all his own way. At the end of the episode, we have been given a fairly good overall picture of language development and been introduced to  issues of language versus animal communication, language proliferation, decay and death, and the long, long way we still have to go to even start to understand language. All the time, no matter what you may think of the presenter, Fry clearly enjoys language and relishes the challenge of circumscribing the subject. As an introduction of language study to the completely uninitiated, this is a good start.

Episode 2 - Identity
This episode deals with the typically sociolinguistic topics of accent, language decay and identity.
We start with an investigation of the myriad accents of Yorkshire, guided by a poet from Barnsley, we give Fry a few moments to exhibit his control of accents on an 'accent forecast of the UK' made to resemble a BBC weather forecast, and then we land in Newcastle, where we hear 'chirpy' Geordie call centre operatives and their PR manager. Then we're whisked over to Connemara where we hear some Irish (or Irish Gaelic if you prefer) and find out how the young and older feel about their language which was brought back from the brink of extinction. At this point we do touch on the serious issue of language decay, identity and "linguicide", with a cheap swipe at L'Académie française for being so imperial for so long. We also look at the re-birth of Hebrew, where we at last meet a linguist (only the 2nd in this programme) whose thesis is that Hebrew still retains large parts of Yiddish. (I do not know if Fry is Jewish, but in this episode he goes out of his way to be nice to them in London, New York and Jerusalem.) Finally we compare how Irish, Breton, Basque, Hebrew, Oc and Turkana resist the threat of Globish (that's global English).
One other point of interest in the programme is the debate around how far your culture affects your language, and vice versa, with Stanford Russian linguist Lera Boroditsky discussing how masculine and feminine nouns in gendered languages affect the way that some speakers describe objects that carry different genders in different languages. Fry later admits to supporting the Chomskian line, that all languages are ultimately similar and so, after allowing such a poor misrepresentation, does a double disservice to the so-called Sapir-Whorif hypothesis.
After the Frying start of episode 1, episode 2 is very disappointing. I do not think that this is due to my personal lack of interest in the issue of Identity (which I think covers a multitude of academic sins), but because the head count of experts - famous or otherwise - is much lower in this episode, and Fry's inexhaustible enthusiasm is an insufficient replacement for real facts.

Episode 3 - Uses and Abuses
The primary aim of this episode appears to be to cram in as many words that are normally banned on the BBC as possible. It does quite a good job with copious fucks, plenty of bollocks and a smattering of cunts. In terms of academic head counts, this episode does a much better job than number 2, except Stephen Pinker crops up a number of times spouting off on subjects that he really has no expertise in - a role in which he has become quite an expert!
Although  Fry's approach could easily be dismissed by people working in the fields of sociolinguistics and humor studies (which he refers to as rather humorless), we must never forget that this is a television programme.
An experiment involving the actor Brian Blessed and a large tub of icy water is particularly unscientific, but it makes good television and is slightly related to more serious research. Admittedly this episode does descend into a promo-video for Fry's favourite issues (Judaism, homosexuality, racism etc.), but generally it also makes a point; although Fry & co. smatter their speech with expletives, none of them can bring themselves to say nigger in any form other than "the n-word." So, even for people who can cuss and swear willy-nilly, there are still some taboo words. Stephen K. Amos manages, just, but explains that it still retains an insulting meaning for him due to personal experiences. Hardly scientific. An improvement on episode 2, but still not as accurate or rigorous as episode 1.

Episode 4 - Spreading the Word
Episode 4 is all about writing, and is of a much higher standard than the previous 2 episodes. Although I would not agree with all that we see in this episode, I would say that Fry and his team have done a better job of researching the key issues in writing. We have a wide range of suitable experts from typesetters in Norwich to the inventor of Pinyin in Beijing.
When Fry wants to learn about the origins of writing he finds an expert in cuneiform in the British museum, who shows him how it is done, and even poses in front of THE Rosetta Stone (best not to ask why it's in the British Museum, though!!). He is back in Jerusalem to look at, be told off for touching, and witness digital imaging techniques for restoring the "Dead Sea Scrolls."
He also manages to trace the connection between printing, the Age of Reason and wikipedia - not bad for a TV show! He visits the Bodleian library at Oxford University to examine how they are keeping abreast of the digital age and in Harvard's library meets someone who points out that new media do not need to replace previous formats - that the iPad / Kindle etc. are not likely to replace the book, but both will develop alongside each other just as radio did not replace newspapers and was not replaced by TV.
As with other episodes Fry adds his own pet theories, likes and dislikes but he also places developments such as printing in a social context, providing a good balance of enthusiasm and restraint on a subject that easily leads to hyperbole. I also support his call to support the libraries of the U.K. and the world, no matter what formats are being preserved - buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge through reading are the bedrock of civilizations!

Episode 5 - The Power and The Glory
So in the ultimate episode we learn that the ultimate purpose of language is...
Fry explains why he loves a range of writers, from Joyce to Wodehouse to Orwell, heaping the greatest praise on Shakespeare - he even manages to find a French actor to admit that he would rather play Shakespeare than any of the lesser French playwrights. Fry just could not resist one last jab at the French before the series finishes. Some old friends are back, such as Brian Blessed and the Turkana villagers, as well as some new faces, including David Tenant giving us some of his take on Hamlet.
The episode is just as busy and full of locations, interviews and Fry's opinions as the others, but offers no new information on linguistics or even language studies. For this reason it is the most disappointing episode - at least episode 2 was related to aspects of sociolinguistics and the hot topic of identity. All of the science disappears and we left with the absolute relativism of everyone's opinion is just as good as each other, which is clearly not the case. Just ask a Cambridge Don!

Episodes 1-5 - Planet Word

All in all, Planet Word is very uneven. It manages to combine wit and fact, controversy and error. At times, it is highly perceptive and at others completely misleading. To be fair, this is TV. It is not intended to be lectures 1-5 in a course in linguistics. Evaluating the series from an academic perspective is completely unfair. Whatever Fry offers, it must work well on the screen - hence the frequent scene changes (often for no reason), cuts to the fake study for a talk-to-camera and a heavy dependence on interviews with experts (used in the loosest sense where Stephen Pinker is concerned).
What we need most from this series, perhaps, is for the general public to gain some understanding of language studies or even be inspired to look further into the subject, especially if they are young and are considering what to study at university. I believe Fry has succeeded to some extent in providing a TV series that engages with its audience, entertains and informs. A wide range of linguistic issues, perspectives and facts are offered with a minimum of effort on the part of the viewer - no mean feat. Only the last episode could be considered misleading. Certainly I do not agree with a lot of what he claims throughout the series, but this is his show not mine!
Find yourself a copy of the DVD, or even pick up the book, and see if you could find better ways to make linguistics appeal to more people who have never considered studying language before. It will not improve the programme but it may just help you, if you are a lover of language, to explain your interest to others. Spread the word - Planet Word.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Vygotskian Psychology - A Documentary

This is a link to a documentary about Vygotsky's psychological theories in the Soviet Union according to the people who were there at the time. A lot of the talk is about Vygotsky and Leontev as people and academics, but there is also a fair amount of discussion about their theory of psychology and its relation to Marxism. The film lasts 1 hour 45 minutes and was made by Mark Rozin in 1992.
This is a very rare film, and may lack any sign of pizzaz, but the people interviewed and the ideas discussed are worth the time and concentration.
Acknowledgement:  Thanks to Phil Chappell for posting the link to sys-func

New App - BOOK

In true over-the-top-hype, keep-it-clean, condescending Apple style, this short video introduces you to....
...the BOOK.
And this one re-imagines the IT helpdesk for the new invention of the book, when it was a new invention. Here we see the equivalent of "have you tried turning it on and off again?"

In both cases, we are shown up to be the IT-lap-it-up dogs that we have become. Just because Steve Jobs breathed on it at one time our awe is supposed to be inspired. Get a grip, peoples!!!