Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scaling the Heights of Language, its Learning, and its Teaching

This is a summary of a talk by Diane Larsen-Freeman at TESL 2015. It was a treat to listen to. Errors and omissions are entirely my own.

This is a beautiful location - and I hear that Canadians are fond of nature. And you'll hear a lot today about econogy and nature.

Complex dynamic systems. The have captured my attention. I've been talking about it for 21 years. I will start there, but the central focus of my remarks will be about fractals.

I'm going to try to make the case than language is a fractal - and if that is true, what does that tell us about language learning and teaching?

Complexity theory - scientists seek patterns and relations within systems. Complex is not the same as complicated - an automobile is complicated, but not complex. In complex systems you have systems made up of components which interact, and give rise to patterns at other levels of complexity. The example of a murmuration is an example of complexity.

I think of language that way. The interactions of people communicating creates patterns.

The perturbation - addition of an element to a system around which organization occurs. Eg. puppies forming a pinwheel around a bowl of milk. 'Emergence' is the arising of these patterns our of a complex system.

Mandelbrot described the inability of traditional geometry to describe natural phenomena - clouds, mountains, coastlines, bark, lightning. (Photos of fractals in nature). The term is from the Latin 'fractus'.

Anuradha Matur and Dilip de Cunha were asked to devise a strategy to build resiliance in the face of rising sea levels in Norfolk, VA. They thought, think of the coastline not as a line but as discontinuous 'fingers of high ground'. They augmented the coast with similarly shaped engineered landforms.

Controlling or imposing from the top down does not work with natural systems.

Fractals are self-similar at every level of scale. If you look at the whole thing and see a certain design, as you look at each smaller piece you see the same (similar) pattern repeating.

These patterns are generated as a result of iteration. Eg. the Koch snowflake. See also the animated fractal mountain. Also, I've been told that the paintings of Jackson Pollack are fractals. Also, rhythm in nature. Christopher Joyce, Feb 21, 2012.

Fractals are modeled with differential equations - the output of one iteration becomes the input of the next. Eg. Mandelbrot set, sample zoom. Algar 2005 p. 20 - structure of patterns from the repeated applications of a single algorithm.

Nature uses fractals - they are a very efficient means of squeezing a lot of material into a small amount of space. Eg. the lungs have an enormous surface area.Eg. the brain is a fractal.


Language is n o different from other natural phenomena in that form follows functions. For example, Zipf's power law - the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. The most frequent word occurs twice as often as the second, which occurs twice as often as the next, and so on. Eg., in the Brown corpus, the words the, if, etc. The other half is composed of the hapax legomena - words that only occur once.

Why is this? Zipf argues for the conservation of speaker effort, which would prefer that there only be one word, contrasted with conservation of listener effort, in which each word has a specific meaning. This is a trade-off. So here is where the fractal effect is clearest. Zipf's law accounts not only for a large corpus as well as for specific writers - the 10 highest-frequency words account for 24 percent of a text (Schroder, 1995).

Zipf's law is not controversial. Fractals follow a power law as they reduce in size by a fixed ratio. See eg. the words of Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick.

Fractals emerge from dynamic processes that are recurrent. In similar fashion, patterns in language emerge from meaningful recurrent interaction among language users.

Language learning:

Humans are senssitive to the frequency of linguistic features they are exposed to which is reflected in their language drvelopment. So structures latent in language usage make language usable.

Eg. Goldberg (2004) L1 - mothers (% of tokens) proportional to children (% of tokens). Eg verb locative. ('go') Verb object locative ('put'). VOO ('give').(MacWhinney 1995). It's not behaviousism - it's not a 100% match - but clearly the mother's use is leading the child's use.

Second language acquisition (or development). Language processing in all domains is sensitive to frequency of usage. But exposure is not enough. Learners need to experience language as a dynamic system, molding and using it to adapt to the current situation.

But language emerges 'upwards' in the sense that innovative language-using patterns emerge from a person using the language interactively. It's a socio-cognitive process. Think of the phenomenon of 'emergence from exemplars' Eg. examples of fuzzy images of Tiananmen Square, Brandenburg Gate, Mt. Fuji, or the great Pagoda. Corinne Vionnet - compiles them from many different photos. The image, the view, etc., is 'socially negotiated' - we are around that spot, but no two people are in the same spot.

We all have our own language resources, they're overlapping, but they're ann unique as well.

Larsen-Freeman  and Cameron (2008) - the cognitive process are inextricably interwoven with their experiences in the sopcial and physical world. The context of language is socially constructed and negotiated on a moment to moment basis.

This counters the tendency to portray learner language as being an incomplete and deficient version of the native speaker language.

But is is also important that this implicit process be accompanied by explicit guidance in noticing and practicing features of the target language, especially where L1 operates differently from L2. But how can we cooperate with the natural processes as defined by nature, just as we don't want to build a wall against the rising tides?

If we think about fractal patterns, we're going to think about iterations. So how about designing activities where language-using patterns as defined by context of use, in keeping with learners' goals, are iteracted - not repeated, not the same thing, but similar.

Eg. as a model - 36 views of Mt. Fuji - under the wave off Kanagawa. Sanjurokkei.

Complex systems are built up through iterations. They encounter and use the patterns repeatedly. But not repetition. navigating the tension between convention and iteration. Eg. a text. read. Then do a cloze analysis. Remove a few words.

And teach adaptation. What is learned in one context needs to be used in another. Take what they know and (not 'transfer') transform it. How can we teach adaptation? Take their present system and mold it to a new context. Maybe Earl Stevick's idea of technemes. Change the conditions slightly for completing a task - eg. change the time allowed, etc. Same task, use the 4-3-2 technique. (Tell a story in 4 minutes, in 3  minutes, in 2 minutes - forces them to be more fluent, they extend their usage of lexical items, etc).

Also - bilinguals' languages are nit separate and complete, but create a repertoire emerging out of local practices. Use bilibgualism as a resource. We are, after all, teachers of learners, not only teachers of language. Eg: allow a student to read a text in their own language first, or provide many opportunities for low-stakes writing in any language they wish. Eg June 2015 - Juan Pelipe Herrera - mixture of english and spanish.

Also, create multilingual spaces (Helot, 2014), where students are not silences because they cannot use their L1.

And finally, assess earners' progress in a self-referential way, not against some idealized target, but looking at what the learner is doing over time.

It's not about conformity to uniformity. Through iteration and adaptation learners find the balance, and heelp all of us along the way.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Why I'm Voting NDP

I am voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election and I think you should too. In this post I'd like to offer some reasons why.

Why I support the NDP?  

Because the NDP stands for something, and it mostly stands for the things I stand for. The NDP, when it's at its best, offers a blend of support for personal freedom and empowerment alongside social support and public infrastructure.

The niqab issue is a case in point. The NDP stands for the right of women to choose to wear the niqab if they wish when swearing their Canadian citizenship oath. The Conservatives have declared their opposition, and are in court arguing women must be forced to bare their faces when swearing the oath. The issue is apparently costing the NDP support in Quebec.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair knew the position was unpopular and took it anyways. Quebeckers should take note of his willingness to take a principled stance in order to support the rights and personal freedoms of a minority. Mulcair has already taken stances in support of Quebec that were unpopular in the rest of Canada. He won't sell out a minority just to pander to a population's baser instincts, not even yours.

The NDP is supports personal freedom in other areas. Again taking a stand that was unpopular at the time, Tom Mulcair opposed the Conservatives' Bill C-51, which greatly extended the powers of surveillance and enforcement of Canada secret services. The NDP voted against the bill, while the Liberals and Conservatives voted in favour.

It is important to understand the sweeping nature of Bill C-51. It allows the government to monitor all aspects of a person's life and share this information with a wide range of security agencies, including those in the United States, revealing personal income tax details, credit histories, travel and vacation plans,  and more. The government can monitor and act against 'terrorist propaganda', which is anything that disrupts the normal functioning of the state - effectively lumping in environmental activists and labour unions with al Qaeda and ISIL. The bill removes most requirements for CSIS to obtain warrants and grants it "'disruptive' powers, meaning it would allow the spy agency to do things above and beyond mere observation."

Of the three major parties, only the NDP was willing to stand up and oppose this legislation when it was politically unpopular to do so.

The NDP is well-known for its stance on personal empowerment. Again, this isn't always popular; as my own brother pointed out, the NDP's support for students caters to a demographic that doesn't really vote. Maybe not. But when Rachel Notley took over in Alberta, students and universities there noted her immediate action to reverse cuts to the education system and to freeze tuition fees. This is because education is important to society as a whole, even if students don't vote.

Personal empowerment also means a living wage. True, people living on the minimum wage are also not very likely to vote (or they may be blocked from voting by one of the new voter registration laws) but the NDP has nonetheless advocated a federal minimum wage increase to $15/hour. This directly affects a hundred thousand people, and puts pressure on the provincial governments to increase their own minimum wage.

The Liberals have criticized the minimum wage promise, arguing that it only supports 135,000 people. This is true. That's all the NDP can change directly; provincial governments must do the rest. But 135,000 people is still a lot of people, and it's way better than zero, which is how many people the Liberals would help. 

And personal empowerment extends to basic respect for people. The NDP will protect pensions and roll back the retirement age to its original setting (it was extended from 65 to 67 under the Conservatives).

 It will restore benefits to veterans. It will restore the money looted from Employment Insurance, and pass on the benefits of the EI surplus back to the people who paid into it, freezing EI rates and restoring eligibility for EI benefits to people cut under the Harper government.

The NDP is also noted for its support for social programs. Though there are many, there are three that I would highlight: first, its longstanding support for public health care, with support for a national pharmacare plan. Second, it will restore funding to the CBC, which has been starved for decades. And third, it will restore funding to the network of environmental and scientific organizations that have been denuded by the Tories.

The NDP position on the environment is of significant importance. Canada's environmental agencies were slashed to the bone by the Harper government, and independent agencies called "terrorists" and subject to harassment. This will change under an NDP government, with a return to stringent emission standards and support for renewable energy.

This matters to me. And I see the impact of an NDP government every time I drive to Sackville. On the Nova Scotia side or the border, under an NDP government, dozens of windmills have taken root. On the New Brunswick side, in the same windy area, neither the Conservative nor Liberal governments have built even one windmill. It's one thing to express support for alternative energy. It's quite another to actually do something about it.

I could actually go on for some while describing the positive measures the NDP will undertake, but you get the idea.

Why I Do Not Support the Liberals

In a word, I don't trust them. The Liberals have a long history of adopting politically expedient positions during an election campaign, and then reneging on their promises once elected

For example, just days after being elected in New Brunswick, the Liberal Party reneged on two key planks in its election platform, including daycare subsidies and child care tax credits. It also announced plans to tax seniors' assets despite a campaign pledge not to tax seniors assets (it has since rescinded the tax).

This is the norm for the Liberal Party. It's an approach that dates back as far back as Pierre Trudeau's stance against wage and price controls in the 1970s. "Zap, you're frozen," said Trudeau, mockingly. Once in power, however, he very quickly instituted wage and price controls.

More recently, after Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney introduced the hated Goods and Services Tax (GST), Liberal Jean Chretien campaigned saying he would eliminate the tax if elected. Of course, he did no such thing, and we have the tax to this day.

This time around, we have Justin Trudeau suggesting the party will introduce a national child care program. They attack the NDP plan.  We know that if it's at all possible, he NDP will do it. The Liberals? Well, they've made this promise before, and never followed through. Why should we think this time is any different?

It's the same story for pharmacare. Canadians have heard this promise many times before, especially from Liberals, in successive campaigns dating back to the 1990s. And although Liberals have been in power for most of that time, they've never implemented such a plan.

Historically, the Liberals talk a good game on pharmacare, but when push comes to shove, they side with the pharmaceutical companies. That's why the extended patent [protections granted to the companies by the Mulroney conservatives were never rescinded by the Liberals, despite their vocal criticism of them while they were in opposition.
Why should we trust Justin Trudeau?

For example, he says he would legalize marijuana. Fine - I support that. But I don't trust the person who voted to impose mandatory sentences for marijuana possession to actually legalize it.

And Trudeau is announcing that he will fundd his spending promises with a series of deficits. I can understand this, and I imagine most people would respect his honesty. But back in July, when the word 'deficit' was risky politically, Trudueau was announcing that he supported a balanced budget. So after the October election, which version of Trudeau would we see making budget decisions?

If history is any indication, the Liberals will promise to support education, health care, the CBC, and all the rest of it, and dramatically decrease funding to all of these programs. We see this provincially. We see it federally.

Why should we believe him when he says he will "amend" Bill C-51? 

The Liberals sound like change, and oh! I would be so happy to see it. But the Liberal record is very clear on this point. No change. More of the same. And all the regressive measures implemented by the Conservatives over the last eight years left in place.

You can see this in action if you look in the right places. For example, in The Norther Miner, we see the Liberals attacking "the New Democratic Party’s job-killing corporate tax hike" and saying "A Liberal government will maintain the current corporate tax rates." But the Liberals know full well that there is no evidence whatsoever that lower corporate tax rates result in more jobs.

The Liberals are counting on disaffected Conservatives to remember this, and to keep the status quo by voting Liberal in this election. People seeking change should take note that they are in alliance with Conservatives opposing change should they vote Liberal. 

Why I Do Not Support the Conservatives

It turns out that when the Conservatives said they did not have a "hidden agenda" for Canada, they in fact had a hidden agenda for Canada. And over the last eight years they've destroyed much of what Canada stands for and much of what made it such a great place to live and call home.

There are so many reasons to oppose Harper it's hard to know where to start.

He's not a particularly good financial manager, having run a series of deficits during his tenure, despite not spending money on various programs that he had promised to spend (indeed, he has made the fake spending announcement a new art).

And he is an incompetent manager. This becomes especially clear in the botched military procurements, from the multi-billion dollar F-35 account, which is essentially a series of lies from beginning to end, to the botched replacement of Canada's naval forces.

He shows contempt for Parliament, for elections, for the courts, and for the people of Canada in general. His new 'fair elections act' seeks to disenfranchise voters, while his operatives have actually been found guilty of election fraud in previous elections. His current candidates won't respond to media enquiries or appear in candidates' forums. Harper himself refused to debate the other leaders in a national forum.

He is anti-data. As the Post notes, he "defunded medical and scientific research; the muzzling of government scientists; a bizarre, almost universally decried debasement of Canada’s census."

He ran on a campaign to reform the Senate and eliminate corruption, but his slew of Senate appointments have set a new standard for political corruption in Canada. And he continues to defend a position of innocence in the whole matter that defies belief and insults Canadians.

He continues to run a war in Syria that makes no sense whatsoever, believing somehow that Canada's bombing raids will somehow stop ISIL and bring peace to the Middle East. His response to the refugee crisis is not the traditionally Canadian open arms - indeed, he has basically blocked any Syrians from entering Canada at all - and instead has called on more war to solve what he says are the 'root causes'.

But this anti-refugee stance reflects a deep dislike and distrust of people who are not (as he says) "old stock" Canadians. We know what he means. It's the same distrust of brown people that causes him to impose visa requirements on people traveling to Canada from places like Brazil and Mexico. It's what led him to destroy CIDA and turn it into a branch of Business Development.

Harper's government is essentially designed to transfer wealth into multi-national corporations and to stay in power through the politics of race and division, and where necessary, media and voter manipulation.

It is a sad state of affairs that we have such a government in this country, and I sincerely hope the Liberals and NDP can agree on a system of proportional representation so that it never happens again (I'm sure the NDP will do this, but as for the Liberals, well, see above).

Why I Will Not Support the Greens

I love the Greens, I really do. But they're too small and too easily co-opted.

I don't mind small. I've participated in small campaigns in the past.

But the co-option is serious and never too far from the surface. It was most apparent with Elizabeth May was making deals with Liberal Stephane Dion.

I don't think the party is large enough and has a wide enough base of support to ensure that its candidates are not really operatives from another party seeking to undermine the progressive vote. Proportional representation will help address this, as it will ensure that the Greens obtain a fair representation in Parliament and a proper degree of funding support. Until then, I think people who are voting Green are often actually hurting their own cause.

A Note on the Balanced Budget

Frankly, I don't care whether the budget is $10 billion over or under. It's a rounding error on a spreadsheet that totals almost $300 billion. So a lot of the discussion about Trudeau's deficit or Mulcair's balanced budget is political posturing.

But I will say this:

When Harper said he balanced the budget, he lied. We're of course used to this from the Conservatives. And it is sad that he had to raid the premiums paid by Canadian workers into EI to sustain this lie.

More to the point, the record on fiscal responsibility in Canada is clear. The New Democratic Party is far more likely to be fiscally responsible, based on the evidence of federal and provincial governments over the years. The Liberals are better than the Conservatives (which isn't hard, frankly) but not as good as the NDP.

I think it is unfortunate that Mulcair has to say he will balance the budget in order to counter a deluge of misleading and downright false reporting about the so-called "tax and spend" NDP.

In the end, if you are looking for the government that will produce the best fiscal results - if the economy is your thing, if profits are what get you going, if take-home pay matters to you - then the NDP is head and shoulders your party of choice.

Right now, after decades of Liberal and Conservative governments, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This doesn't change no matter which of them is in power. The only time this ever changes is when the NDP are able to exert their influence.

These days Mulcair is attacking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's not nearly as headline-grabbing as Trudeau's attacks on Harper. But it matters a lot more to your wallet. The deal is being kept secret, and for very good reason:

"'[C]ompanies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings -- federal, state or local -- before tribunals....' And they can collect not just for lost property or seized assets; they can collect if laws or regulations interfere with these giant companies' ability to collect what they claim are 'expected future profits.'"

Think about that for a second.

What's the Liberal position on the deal? As usual we don't know - but as this article notes, it's the sort of deal they'd support. It's the sort of deal they've supported in the past.

Think about whether you want corporations to control regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings in Canada. Think hard.

And that - all in all - is why I'm voting NDP.