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Posts Tagged ‘language

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This week’s episode on artificial intelligence (AI) was a continuation of last week’s topic, natural language processing (NLP). The episode focused on an example of AI mimicking how a person might use words.

To do this, it introduced the concept of tokenisation — the process of breaking sentences up into words, spaces, punctuation, etc. This was just the first insight on how AI “understands” words and sentences.

The rest was complicated, e.g., words are reduced to numbers and associated with one another via vectors and matrices. The bottomline seemed to be that AI compared its predicted word use with actual word use from a large data set of written or spoken word from a person.

The episode left me with this thought: I appreciate how AI negotiates “meaning” statistically in an attempt to stimulate how we do so contextually and semantically.

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This episode focused on natural language processing (NLP) by AI.

Examples of relatively simple NLP might include spam email filtering, discerning if a search for “apple” refers to a grocery item or a phone, and understanding voice inputs for way-finding. According to the narrator, this type of AI performs natural language understanding.

A higher level of NLP is natural language generation. Examples include language translation (perhaps more accurately, transliteration), document summarisation, and chat bots.

The problem with words is that their meaning is largely contextual. Describing an experience as “Great!” can be positive (said in an upbeat tone) or negative (said in a sarcastic manner). So how does AI learn to distinguish word use?

AI needs distributional semantics, i.e., seeing which words appear and often they appear with other words in sentences. To do this, it needs to convert language to the more universal language of mathematics, e.g., count vectors — the number of times a word appears with other common words in the same article. The problem with count vectors is the amount of effort and data it would require.

This is where unsupervised learning, the topic of the previous episode, comes in. Using an encoder-decoder model, various partial sentences might be fed to encoders for decoders to complete. The video provided two examples of a simple and a complex sentence for encoding and decoding.

By using a recurrent neural network, we might understand the inner workings of Gmail’s predictive text, e.g., how it helps us compose replies by suggesting words and sentences. Unlike images, such words cannot be assigned value. Instead, it uses mechanisms in unsupervised learning to decide the proximity or value of the next word.

The series has built up in complexity while probably only scratching the surface over the last seven episodes. But it has provided me with invaluable insights into AI.

It is no big secret that the level of service in Singapore leaves much to be desired. It is acceptable in areas like cafes, but sub-standard elsewhere.

I take a poke at one aspect of customer service and find a link to schooling. Consider some overused and unquestioned phrases in email replies.

Please be informed that…
I asked customer service about an establishment’s parking arrangements. Their reply was: “Please be informed that we have 2 options for car parking service as below”.

Leave the phrase out and just state what the information is. This could have shortened and be grammatically corrected to “We have two parking options…”.

Telling someone “to be informed that…” sounds passive-aggressive. You sound like you are pissed off that I asked you something and you are reluctant to answer.

Please be informed that the way you write implies a tone whether you intended it or not. Tone up your writing by being simple and direct.

Revert back
“Revert” is to return to an original state. This is a 180 degree turn or a reversal. “Back” is another 180 degree turn. When combined, the two make a 360 degree pirouette and nothing changes.

Asking one or more people to “revert back to me” is physically impossible. You are you and I am me. I cannot return to an original state that is you and then resume my original development from you to me.

I know that there is a different understanding and acceptance of this phrase. But this is lazy thinking and awkward phrasing.

Just use one of these simple phrases: “Please get back to me by…” or “Please reply by…”. Both are also more specific thanks to a date and/or time.

I say we revert to a time when we communicated simply and clearly instead of trying to sound formal or authoritative. Let us go back to the future.

Gentle reminder
How are reminders gentle? Are you whispering in my ear? If so, that is creepy.

If you did not prefix “reminder” with “gentle”, is the assumption that reminders are rough, jarring, or otherwise unpleasant?

Gentle reminders are sometimes accompanied by a cousin phrase “kindly take note”. Is there a way to take note cruelly? The only person you might use “kindly take note” on is the Hulk because HULK SMASH.

Reminders are not gentle and notes are not kind. Smash this practice hard and mercilessly with “please remember to…”.

Link to schooling
Where do people who write such email learn to use such phrases? Surely not in school because this is writing for and in the workplace. I shudder to think that office administrators attended training where they learnt how to use such choice phrases.

The use of such phrases generally flies under the radar. No one really gets upset, turns into the Hulk, and smashes computers and servers to smithereens.

But small things add up. The little things matter because they combine and become part of a larger problem like poor communication or bad customer service.

Worse still, ignoring these seemingly minor things indicates a mindset among those that teach that standards are allowed to slip.

Standards can change, but they should not slip. If you do not know the difference, then you might have a bigger problem than minding your language.

I can almost hear a collective groan from some English teachers when a new word of the year (WOTY) is unveiled. Depending on where and when you look, the WOTY might be emoticon, YOLO, bae, vape, or selfie.

It is not just the young who are reinventing language. In Singapore, I have noticed service aunties and uncles at fast food joints creating one-word questions like: Member? Upsize? Chilli?

Some time ago, I stood behind a Caucasian patron, who on ordering his meal, was asked, “Member?” He responded, “I beg your pardon!”

The auntie meant, “Are you a member of this restaurant?” and “Could you please show me your membership card?” Member was a severe truncation of all that.

However, our word-smithing efficiency was not received the same way. “Member” is another word for “private parts” in other parts of the world. It would be a very unusual eatery to require that you present your genitalia when you order food.

Now “upsize” and “chilli” refer to whether you would like a larger side order and drink (and if so, what size) and what condiment packets (and how many) you prefer.

You have to be a local enough to learn such word-smithing. But do you have to accept or even use it? Some segments seem to think so.

I wish I had taken a photo of the sign along an expressway upgrading works that declared it was being “upsized”. That stretch of road now has more lanes. Those lanes eventually narrow to the same limited number of lanes elsewhere because the rest of the road system cannot accommodate it.

Outside local use, member, upsize, and chilli are not universally understood. This is fine if you choose to communicate only your own household. It is not if you wish to make the world your oyster.

Beyond language use and evolution, the lazy use and adoption of language is indicative of mindset. On one hand, it asks the question, “Are you willing and able to change?” On the other, it begs the question “Are you critical enough to prevent good values from slipping?”

We have all received email or snail mail notifications claiming to contain “gentle reminders“. They might also request that you “revert back” to someone, possibly as a response to the gentle reminder.

I do not take kindly to messages telling me to “kindly” do something. Just say please.

Then there’s “cum”. Its ambiguous use makes for much sniggering. For example:

Hat tips to @hsiao_yun and @genrwong for contributing some of the ideas and links.

What all these awkward phrases share is that no one actually taught an office administrator or poster maker to write like that. Someone started using the phrases, the words seemed official or high-sounding, and uncritical readers became uncritical users.

They did not need to be taught such phrases. They caught them like a cold. Sneeze, snort, pass it on.

I have reflected on things are that more caught than taught. I am referring to how people learn by observing, mirroring, and picking up behaviours of others.

One need only marvel or be surprised at what kids say or do. How often have you heard or said, “I did not teach them that! Who or where did they learn that from?”

If you are a teacher, the answer is: They learnt it from you. There was no curriculum, lesson plan, objectives or outcomes, practice, assessment, etc. But the kids learnt it anyway. And these unintended lessons stick like superglue.

Video source

The video above is a good example of what I am referring to. But this sort of learning is not reserved for kids.

The lessons here are:

  1. Recognise that learning does not just happen in the classroom. More often than not, it starts, continues, and ends outside of it.
  2. We should be mindful of not just what we say, but also how we model desired outcomes.
  3. It is important to be reflective and critical. If something bugs you, do not brush it off. It might be your common sense screaming to be heard.

Let us imagine that you are an adult learner who wants to keep learning, but are not looking for academic qualifications. What do you do?

If you go with most agencies, they will likely offer you courses or modules. These might lead up to something or they might be self-contained. But they are still not designed with you in mind because there are desired outcomes, learning objectives, and curricula determined by someone else.

What are you looking for does not quite exist in the schooling and vendor realms. Instead what you need is designed with two main principles: Just-in-time (JIT) and just-for-me (JFE).

What you need is experiences. An extended vacation might do the trick if you travel light and learn on the run. If you stay in a place where the residents do not speak your native tongue, then you might pick up a new language.

But that is not the bi- or multilingualism I am thinking most people need to experience.

I see the wisdom of thought leaders who suggest that kids be comfortable in one or more programming language. That is something a school or vendor can help provide. A very motivated individual can also learn this on his or her own thanks to the multitude of books and online resources on programming.

Without this language, most individuals can problem-seek. But armed with the ability to program well, individuals have one more tool with which to problem-solve.

The older adult learner is unlikely to want or need programming language skills. So what experiences might they invest in?

I suggest being fluent in the daily language of operating systems. The dominant ones are Windows and Mac OS on larger screens, and Android and iOS on smaller screens. We might throw Chrome OS on both screens for good measure.

Being conversant in more than one operating system language can help older learners problem-seek and problem-solve on any major computing platform.

If you need to book that vacation, can you do the research, take notes, seek advice, book a cheap flight, and get the ideal Airbnb place on desktop and mobile devices? Do you know the merits or demerits on each platform?

Now imagine having to offer your services or wishing to stay relevant to clients who are likely on different platforms. You might create an online presence on one platform, but does it look the way you want it to on another? You can only know for sure if you are comfortable, or better still, fluent in all major OS languages.

This is why I have no qualms about investing in various devices with different operating systems. They create learning opportunities just-for-me and just-in-time.

When articles run on techie sites or blogs about devices running a particular operating system, there will invariably be a comment war where one side slimes the other. This is as pointless as arguing whether one language is better than another.

The more you learn, the more you realize how they are more the same than different. Then the fights seem small-minded and petty.

I read this MindShift article on the problems with BYOD for immigrant students. Not only did the students have relatively low access to their own technology, their inability to communicate in a common language was a major barrier.

But the author made a statement that made me pause for thought: They don’t have the academic language yet to show any critical thinking because that’s where they’re at in their language development.

I can relate as a person who struggled with a second language. I could not express my thoughts or ideas. But that did not mean that I did not have thoughts or ideas.

My experience with older learners has been different from the article’s author. I have conducted week-long workshops with learners from Korea and Bhutan.

The Bhutanese had a better command of English, but they would return to their native tongue every now and then in group discussions. The Koreans struggled with English and I interacted with them through an interpreter. But when they had work to do, they would rely on Google Translate to transliterate what they wrote in Korean to English.

In both cases, I found that my learners were both creative and critical. They did not let their lack of ability in English hold them back. They resorted to educational technology tools like translators, YouTube videos, mindmaps, and photo editors to express themselves.

It would have been ideal if all of us had a similar level of proficiency with English, but the circumstances dealt us with a mixed deck of cards. That did not stop us from devising our own rules for the communication game. That will not stop other learners from doing the same if we simply get out of their way and let them show us how creative and critical they can be.

Kids can suffer because of decisions that adults make.

The New Paper reported how an Indian girl studied Mandarin in kindergarten but had to take Tamil in Primary 1 simply because her father was Tamil [archive of full article].

Some might blame the parents, an Indian father and a Balinese mother, for encouraging their daughter to pick up Mandarin even though she might have trouble speaking it at home.

The father reasoned that this move would help her in Singapore’s context. You can see how this might help her in a more global context too. Furthermore, the report indicated that the girl was interested in Mandarin.

Thankfully, there is a way out. The parents have to apply for the change in second language.

I cannot blame the system for being inflexble now. But I can be critical of the reason for dissuading the parents. The article reported that:

the school has advised Ms Agustina [the mother] that “without good support in the language at home, it might be difficult for the child to do well in the subject”.

Ah, so doing well in the subject was the focus. What Singaporean parent would not want that? We might as well quench the fire for learning something purely out of interest and make it a rat race from the beginning. Why effectively educate someone when you can efficiently school them?

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