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Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Tower of Babel

I've been told that English is one of the toughest languages in the world to learn.

I disagree.

I believe it to be the toughest language in the world to teach.

And I do have first-hand experience doing so.  I still have nervous ticks from the experience and the doctors say that in time, my sleep patterns will return to normal and the nightmares should subside.  I didn't even get paid for my efforts...

I tried to teach my first wife to speak English.




People living in Europe have the upper hand on us linguistically...at least for the most part.  I don't think I've met many people under the age of 40 that didn't speak their native language AND English.  Even in our global tech community it is obvious.  My friend Sander is a perfect example.  He hails from the Netherlands and his English is perfect. 


So I decide that Gaby needed to learn proper English if she was to live in the US.  It started out easy enough.  We went over some basic "rules" of English and then began some practical exercises.

"OK honey...this is simple.  We are working with 4 letter words, every word has a vowel as the second letter and a silent "e" at the end.  When you see words like this, you will know that the vowel carries a "long" sound.  Like the letter "a" will sound like you are saying the letter "a"...not "ah".  Here are some examples."


Home.


Bone.


Came.


Safe.

Easy enough, right?  I went to work the next day confident in the knowledge that we could move along to our next lesson that evening.

Uh...no...it didn't work out that way.

The glances were less than warm when I came in the door.  She didn't say a word...she just placed a piece of paper in front of me as I took off my boots.  It had one single word on it.

Gone.

Why, she wanted to know, did this word not follow the rule I laid out for her?  How could she know, she asked sceptically, that this word would not follow the rule?  It was the exact model shown in the others but it seemed to be a rebellious little word.  What was her visual clue that this word was not the same... a word that didn't follow the rules.

If she had followed the "rule" and been asked to read something in public containing the word "gone", she would have made a fool of herself.  Why was this?

I couldn't answer her...but then again, she wasn't done.

Oh, and "done".  Thank my stars she didn't snap to that one.

She was persistent in her questioning:

How is it we come to spell the "K" sound with a "ck" at the end in some words but just a single "k" will suffice in others.  AND why was the letter "c" allowed to fill in for the letter "k" when it was obviously a "k" sound at the end.

Any Eric's in the audience that want to field that one?

If not, it's ok...don't panic.

Those were just a couple of incidents that helped make the decision to send her to a professional English as a Second Language course.  Teaching someone your language is not a task for the weak-willed or uncommitted.

But in remembering this, it brings to mind what new Linux users may be going through...and more to the point, what we probably need to remember in teaching them.

Sure, we speak the language...it's second nature for us. We think nothing of a file system with identifiers such as .etc and .var.  Sudo apt-get and sudo gedit /etc/apt/sources.list rolls off our fingertips as if we were navigating  the simplest of tasks.  Some find the /.init/.d folder and subsequent commands second nature.

But to the New User, it's as if we are digital geniuses, blazing a trail through black screens and cryptic symbols running in endless strings.  We are speaking a language they cannot understand.  Hitting the tab key to complete a command string is voodoo to them...most of them anyway.

"Why can't I just click something and do the same thing"

Well, you can in the majority of cases...I've plenty of examples where our users haven't ever used the command line.  But then again it's all in what you want to do.

Do you want to write the next Shakespeare sonnet or ask directions to the nearest train station?  I mean, it's all in your need and intent.  I would guess the majority of casual computer users could afford to let the command line remain a mystery.

I am thinking that it all comes down to two things.  The patience of the teacher and the willingness to learn of the student

...Well duh helios...state the obvious much?

But...if you are going to assume the roll of teacher, you will need to make sure both parties are committed to doing this...otherwise, both will end up frustrated.

In thinking about it, if given the choice, I would much rather teach someone to use Linux than teach them English.  Holy cow, who decided the current American/English language was ready to come out of beta?

I think there are important modern-day lessons to be taken from the story of the Tower of Babel.

Or is it Babbel

or bable

All-Wrighty Then


18 comments:

kozmcrae said...

When we speak or write, every word is an archive of history. Look up the word 'get' in the Oxford Dictionary just to get an idea.

I don't remember learning my (English) language. I certainly remember trying to learn Spanish for two semesters in High School. I know how to say 'hi' but that's because I watch Dora with my grandson. I learned more German from watching old WWII movies (Japanese, not so much).

Here are some complaints I see over and over on the message boards. Linux is too hard. It's unintuitive. Why can't they do it like Windows? Why can't I just double click on the EXE file?

They all have the same answer: Linux is not Windows. English is not German. Your second language will be much harder to learn than your first.

If Microsoft was as good at coding software as they are at marketing, security problems would be completely unheard of. In the "language" of Microsoft, you will spend time and money to secure your computer so it will be compromised only 2 or 3 times a year. You will pay people to fix your computer or have a friend do it. You will buy a computer every three years or so at a major franchise like Best Buy and be at their mercy for "optimization" and other unnecessary charges. All of those Microsoft "words" are accepted without a second thought by the general population. In fact, they are uncomfortable without them. It's their first language.

Oh dear, have I been rambling? You always bring out the rambler in me Ken. Thanks for letting me throw some ink on your page.

Anonymous said...

Ken,

Languages are not logical. Never.

It is good that way. Children learn languages without "effort". Actually, it is extremely difficult to PREVENT a child from learning a language spoken around it. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to teach a child the logic of mathematics.

There is a good many literature on teaching second languages. They do not dwell on the logic of language. However, it is listen and read, practice, listen and read. More is better.

(Btw, no language is tougher to learn than another. It is mostly a result of the differences between your mother tongue and the new language. Writing systems, however, seem to have been designed specifically to prevent learning)

A child will also learn a computer, any OS, with ease. However, it is the adult that has difficulty to change.

Winter

Amenditman said...

When I was a child I learned everything and anything I was exposed to. Even when I wasn't supposed to.

As I have gotten older, and abused my body in the process, I find that learning requires great effort and concentration.

I have to totally agree with Ken about making sure that both parties are fully engaged in the teaching/learning process.

I currently introduce my friends/customers to Linux and Free Software using Linux Mint. It is dumb easy. Even so, some folks just want it to work the way their legacy OS worked. They are very frustrated and frustrating.

@Ken "I am thinking that it all comes down to two things. The patience of the teacher and the willingness to learn of the student."

Not as obvious as you might think, as I regularly bash my head against a brick wall of unwillingness.

Bless All you who choose to teach as a profession. You must have truly super-human patience to stay at it.

Blessings
Bob

The Mad Hatter said...

kozmcrae,

If Microsoft was as good at coding software as they are at marketing, security problems would be completely unheard of.

Talk to anyone who knows marketing, and they'll tell you how incompetent Microsoft is at marketing. The only reason Microsoft is able to maintain market share is that they have bundling deals with the major OEMS. Otherwise, they'd be dead in the water.

Ken,

As to Linux being hard, it's no harder than Windows. I do unpaid support for family, and all of them are totally lost in Windows. The only advantage it has to them, is they know a bit about it. A very tiny bit.

akenfan said...

Sigh. Were you desperate for something to blog about? There is nothing hard about the CLI. What is faster, navigating nested menus to click on an icon to launch an application, or type the application name in terminal, quick-launch in the panel, or alt+f2? Not hard to remember, either, except that Gnome and now KDE4 in their infinite descent into dumbness hide application names. Yeah, way to help users.

There are other really really hard commands too, like date and killall [app name]. Many commands are mnemonics, like ls (list) and mkdir (make directory). Quit with the CLI fearmongering already; every user has different likes and preferences, and you do them no favors with this "eeek command line scary!!!" silliness.

Anonymous said...

@akenfan:

I really love the CLI. Even on a Mac I will immediately turn to Bash for anything interesting.

The forced tree-based menu structure of the GUI is indeed *not* the way a computer works. To release the real power of a computer you will have to go down into the textual conversation mode.

Read: "In the Beginning was
the Command Line" by Neal Stephenson.
http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

But even after using it for more than a decade (or two?) I still do not know all of the 1200 odd commands of bash. And with 'find' or 'xargs', I still have to search the manuals on how to use their options.

With superior power comes, alas, also superior complexity.

Winter

Brian Barker said...

I agree the your Tower of Babel comment.

However, in today's World. the language problem is still relevant and I believe that the World, now, needs a common, non-national, neutral language!

Why not teach such a language, in all countries, in all schools, worldwide?

The contest between English and Esperanto seems to be a David & Goliath situation. But don't forget who won in the end

Your readers may be interested in http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

akenfan said...

@ winter, I thought my point was pretty clear, but I'm not the best communicator, so I'll try again. I object to the silly scare tactics that treat the CLI like an attack dog. Silliness. Never ever assume that a new user won't be capable of learning something, because that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So what if you, a creaky old Linux veteran don't know all 1200 BASH commands? What does that have to do with anything? Do you know all the options in every graphical program? No, you don't, so maybe you better not try anything at all, eh? I show Linux noobs CLI shortcuts all the time. Some like them, some don't. No biggie. Don't assume, and don't perpetrate CLI fear.

Chelle Minkin said...

"I object to the silly scare tactics that treat the CLI like an attack dog."

"Quit with the CLI fearmongering already...."

Ummm, I've read this posting a few times now and I am not seeing any "attack dogs" or "fear mongering" going on. What I do see is Ken stating that for the new user, the command line isn't really necessary in Linux today. I might even see a shaded reference to something he's brought up before about the "Linux Image" in the marketplace. There can be a strong argument made that there is room for improvement.

Sure he says that new or uninitiated users might consider what we do as "voodoo" but that's far from "fear mongering". In my experience in teaching older people Linux, I also find his voodoo statement to be true. He never said it couldn't be taught.

Perhaps you would quote the part of his blog that fear mongers?

Chelle

Jose_X said...

Brian Barker, thanks for the link, but now you need to rewrite your comment in Esperanto.

Also, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88YPPl6jJEQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjZmOubMW7M

Gavin said...

"Many commands are mnemonics, like ls (list) and mkdir (make directory)."
- akenfan

For a new user, these mnemonics make absolutely no sense. Neither does "dir" on a Windows machine. Commands are largely disassociated from actions that people do in every day life, both in GUI's and in the real world. In a GUI, for instance, one does not "make a directory" but rather "create a folder". Likewise, in the real world, the common analogy is to "file" something. Taking this further, it should be noted that in the English language as recently as 200 years ago, the word "list" was used as a verb only in the context of the tilting of a ship at sea. "List" as a noun has meant, for the last several hundred years, a physical medium upon which a series of related names or items are written. This word was then recently given a new verb context that means "to read or notate something from a list or record", which implies that both a list (noun) needs to be present as well as something on that list that should be read. Thus the command "ls", which can operate alone, is unintuitive in the sense that a new user has neither any idea what sort of list the computer is intending to read nor any idea what sort of information is being read from that list. Further confusion often sets in when a new user discovers that the "ls" command is masquerading as "list" despite the fact that typing "list" does not do what "ls" does and in fact there is no separate "list" command - in which case, why not simply use "list" and be done with it? Or why not make it "sf" for "show files"? Or "ds" for "do something"? Or, for even more fun in explaining the CLI, teach the "ls" command & mnemonic to a new user who speaks Spanish! Or French. Or German. Or Swahili. Take your pick; Linux is everywhere in every language, right? These commands barely make limited sense in English, much less other languages. An example:

Me: "Now type ls to see what files and folders you have in that directory."
New user: "ls? What does ls mean?"
Me: "ls means list."
New user: "List? List what?"
Me: "List files and folders."
New user: (types in "ls", hits Enter)
New user: "Nothing happened. It just sits there."
Me: "It dropped you down to the next prompt. That folder is empty so there is nothing to list."
New user: "Then why did it say nothing? It should say "empty"!"
Me: "Well, sometimes it is not really empty. Sometimes it just has some hidden files and folders."
New user: "The computer hides things from itself? Then how am I supposed to find them??"

... etc...

Gavin said...

I am not saying that the CLI is too difficult to learn (although for some people it really is) but I am saying that it is not easy and it does not make sense. The commands are not logical in their spelling or length ("useradd" is longer than "passwd" which is longer than "ls") and in many cases were picked simply based on the name of the project (such as "smbpasswd" which can be used to change the password of a user in the Samba password database - obviously!). Numerous inconsistencies abound. "chown" changes the owner, but "passwd" changes a password - so why is it not "chpasswd"? Oh, because "passwd" can do more than merely change a password? Then why are there not separate commands along the lines of "useradd" and "usermod"? And why is it "passwd" and not "password"? Would the extra two letters have killed the system? And if so, then why is "ls" not "list"? There are obviously enough letters to support that one! And "rm" stands for remove, despite the fact that this is much less intuitive than delete or erase, which are common terms even for computers! And why is it that "rm" gives an error when attempting to delete a folder that still has contents? It does not even prompt you for a 'y' or 'n'! Yet "touch" has no problem creating a file called "*", and "rm" has no problem deleting all your files when you try to delete the "*" file!

We could go on and on...

My point is that the CLI is an amalgamation of progressive additions that are designed to be logical within the confines of human understanding and computer capability while also not daring to touch the content of previous iterations for fear of breaking compatibility. Thus this system assumes that all previous content is the best possible and does not need review, except for the fact that humans designed all previous content subject to the limitations of computer systems at that time. Each addition to the system is only possibly best at the time it was created, and nothing is ever reviewed. Logically, this system specifically cannot be wholly logical or relevant to current computer systems at any given time other than possibly its point of origin. Hence the CLI is subject to the same limitations as an evolving spoken language but without the advantage of review that evolving spoken languages enjoy. Therefore, the evolution of the CLI is necessarily inferior to language in logic and relevance.

In other words, computers make less sense than people!

It is not difficult to see why, given that computer systems are based on pure logic, people are not, and computer systems were designed by people to be used by people. This equation is a logical loss! Every push forward involves a "less than" of logic and sense, precluding the possibility of ever achieving unity, let alone a better system. And since review and evolution are largely taken away from the equation, computer systems will lose to languages over time. And I think we can all agree that time has indeed come to pass for computer systems.

So if it is true that learning a second language is more difficult than learning a first language, and if computer systems are logically inferior to languages, and if one does not learn the CLI as a first means of communication, it can be assumed that learning the CLI is more difficult than learning a second language. In which case, Ken's blog post is entirely accurate.

Do you agree?

Bruce R said...

Ken,
I am no language professional but, along the road, I have picked up an idea or two about languages and language learning.

God was gracious enough to give me a knack for learning languages easily; more importantly, he gave me excellent teachers when I started at age 12. Over the following 15 years, I gained considerable reading and/or conversational competence in over a dozen more. (The exact number depends on how strictly one defines competence. Sadly, in the ensuing 32 years. I have lost most of them :-( .) I also spent 23 years married to a linguist turned ESL teacher.

It has been my observation and experience that English is an easy language to get by in but fiendishly difficult for someone to begin after the age of puberty and to learn to speak to native fluency. This is the direct result of English's history and hybrid nature: other West Germanic languages are not as impenetrable but neither did they have the social influence of Norman French.

The single most important lesson in language learning for me came only at the very end of the process, when I was 27 years old. It was an obscure phonetics teacher in Cairo who drilled into us that one would be stuck forever with a hideous accent if all we tried to do was to approximate the new language's sounds to our familiar sound patterns. It was important to set aside the sound structure of one's native language --- and how those sounds are made. Instead, one needed to listen with a cleaned-out mind to the new language's sounds. Children do this unconsciously; teenagers and adults are more conscious of the issue and 99.99% do not make the effort.

I hope this is isn't too off-topic. I ended up in a totally different profession, but language has remained a subject dear to my heart.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know... English had too much literature too soon. And it is a bastard child of German with a bit of Celtic (ca. 450 CE) via Danish (ca. 800 CE) with a lot of material pilfered from French (ca. 1000 CE). And US English also collected some vocabulary, for example for decidedly non-European landscape features found in the New World, from Native American languages, too.

English has always been a language mugging other languages for what they were worth, extending its vocabulary. And early literature, Shakespeare and the King James bible come to mind, codified orthography unintentionally. The way words were pronounced continued to change, but they were still written in the traditional fashion. That's why the orthography differs so greatly from the pronunciation. Furthermore, English (at least as spoken in Great Britain) knows a lot of different dialects but just one standard orthography.

It's little use to obsess about rules of orthography. Writing is just a model, the GUI of the language. What's important is the spoken language, the CLI of the language.

English is my second language, has been so for 28 years. German is my native, and currently I am learning Russian. I teach the former two occasionally. And the one thing I can say from my experience both as a teacher and as a learner is that rules only take you so far. Languages aren't mathematics.

Robin said...

If you want to know... English had too much literature too soon. And it is a bastard child of German with a bit of Celtic (ca. 450 CE) via Danish (ca. 800 CE) with a lot of material pilfered from French (ca. 1000 CE). And US English also collected some vocabulary, for example for decidedly non-European landscape features found in the New World, from Native American languages, too.

English has always been a language mugging other languages for what they were worth, extending its vocabulary. And early literature, Shakespeare and the King James bible come to mind, codified orthography unintentionally. The way words were pronounced continued to change, but they were still written in the traditional fashion. That's why the orthography differs so greatly from the pronunciation. Furthermore, English (at least as spoken in Great Britain) knows a lot of different dialects but just one standard orthography.

It's littel use to obsess about rules of orthography. Writing is just a model, the GUI of the language. What's important is the spoken language, the CLI of the language.

English is my second language, has been so for 28 years. German is my native, and currently I am learning Russian. I teach the former two occasionally. And the one thing I can say from my experience both as a teacher and as a learner is that rules only take you so far. Languages aren't mathematics.

stomfi said...

For those that learned English way back in the first half of the last century, they also learned Latin, Greek, French and German. These are all purer languages than English, which is a mixture of these and a few words from others. Knowing this makes the English language easier to learn, as the rules of the other languages can be applied.

For those that learned UNIX before there were glass CRT terminals, the data exchange rate on a teletypewriter was about 60 bits per second which is why list is spelled ls, copy cp, etc. Who wanted to slow the conversation down with redundant vowels. Knowing this makes the shell tools easier to understand and therefore remember.

Now we have SMS speak, which does similar thing. And so it goes.

Anonymous said...

The introduction reminded me of a poem we had to read, while learning the English language.

http://www.mipmip.org/tidbits/pronunciation.shtml

This poem contains lots and lots of strange English peculiarities.

Bernard Swiss said...

Starting with just plurals:

The English Lesson

We'll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot...would a pair be beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set is teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth?
If the singular is this, and the plural is these,
Why shouldn't the plural of kiss be kese?
Then one may be that, and three be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim.
So our English, I think you will agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

I take it you already know
of tough, and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, through, slough and though.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead!
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language: Why, man alive,
I'd learned to talk when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn't learned it at fifty-five.

[An alternative version quotes the final couplet as:
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I'll not learn how 'til the day I die.]