Sunday, May 19, 2024

New language: Haitian Creole!

I've been involved in immigrant advocacy work for nearly two decades, and one of the current needs in the Boston area where I live is short-term housing for migrants who are currently sleeping on the floor at Logan Airport.  Although I decided several weeks ago that I wanted to participate in this program, I won't be able to actually open my home for a few months due to family visits and other concerns.  I've figured out where I'm going to direct my energy while I wait: I'm going to learn Haitian Creole.

Through others who have been hosting migrants, I know that many of the families come from Haiti, and while some of them speak Spanish -- a language I already have -- not all of them do, and one way in which I can prepare to provide as welcoming an environment as possible is to learn enough Haitian Creole to carry on a basic conversation.  I've been on both sides of a language barrier often enough to understand well how even a little bit of connection can help with feelings of fear and isolation, and I've got the time, skills, and resources to be ready to lower that barrier.

So how will I do it?  I'm highly motivated and I want the fastest path to conversational Haitian Creole in two months.  I thought of Duolingo, an extremely popular app among my friends that I've used for Italian and Greek in the past.  But five minutes into the first lesson, I realized that learning the words for water, tea, and mango was not what I wanted or needed.  What I needed was Pimsleur.

I get why Duolingo is popular.  It's free, it's gamified, it's got a cute green owl that bugs you when you don't study and celebrates you when you do.  As I mentioned, I've used it when the stakes are low and I just want to have a bit of fun.  However, I've never believed that it's the most effective self-study method out there.  In my opinion, Duolingo focuses too much on individual vocabulary words and not enough on full sentences, and the sentences are frequently nonsensical or otherwise unlikely to be useful in a real life setting.  It's not my intention to knock anyone for whom Duolingo works -- after all, the best method is the one you're going to use -- but for me right now, and for this purpose, I'm looking for something different.

Pimsleur is another self-study tool I've used for Mandarin and a bit of French, and while I haven't yet found a system that is complete in and of itself, it ranks at the top of my list for effectiveness.  In a half hour lesson I learned various combinations of "I understand"/"I don't understand"/"Do you understand"/"Haitian Creole"/"English" as well as basic words like "yes" and "no," enough to hold a basic conversation on the subject of language ability.

I think a good language learning session is like a good workout; I feel tired but also energized.  Pimsleur requires enough concentration that I wouldn't use it while driving, and it's precisely this level of mental engagement that makes it so effective.  Admittedly, Pimsleur isn't free, although it's come a long way from the days when you had to buy packs of CDs at hundreds of dollars.  A monthly subscription is only $15 a month, and a premium all-language subscription a few dollars more than that.  In my opinion, it's well worth the investment.

The other major drawback of Pimsleur is that it's audio-only, which can be a challenge for visual learners like me.  But the premium subscription (which I have) gives you supplementary material like flashcards and quizzes which let you see the written language, or one can look up phrases on the Internet.

I'll see where I end up in a couple of months.  In the meantime, m konprann kreyòl ayisyen tou piti.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

The woods and me

I've always loved the woods.  While many people prefer the mountains or beach, my sanctuary has always been the forest.  I unfortunately don't get to experience that often since I live in a city, but last week I visited a friend in Vermont and we took a lovely walk among the trees.

It had never occurred to me before, but the woods are in my name!  My last name, Lin (pronounced lín) literally means woods in Mandarin; its character depicts two tree glyphs next to each other:

One of these glyphs by itself, 木 (pronounced ) means wood, as in the materials, whereas three of them, 森 (pronounced sēn and often paired with lín as 森林) means forest.

Perhaps that's why I've always felt so comforted among the trees. 💚

Saturday, March 16, 2024

10 years older, and hopefully wiser

I had a dream a few nights ago about reviving this blog, and when I realized that today would be exactly ten years since my last entry, the timing seemed too perfect to pass up. 

The world has changed immensely in ten years, and so have I. My children, whose language acquisition adventures provided much fodder for this blog, are now in college and arguably more articulate than I am. I've also learned a lot about language and society, from embracing the singular they to trying to rid my vocabulary of ableist metaphors. Reading over my previous entries, I no longer stand by everything I've written, and that's okay. It's a reminder to myself and others that we are dynamic beings capable of growing, learning, and unlearning. 

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is my love for language and languages. I continue to be awed and humbled by the power of language to hurt and exclude, as well as to connect and inspire.  I've worked as a natural language processing engineer for many years now, which affords me the opportunity to explore how technology affects the way we employ language and are influenced by it.  I'm immensely grateful for the resources to be able to indulge this lifelong passion of learning and using languages.

As for my personal language studies, I've finally managed to get my Mandarin up to a level I'm reasonably happy with (in future entries I'll share how I did it) while mostly maintaining my Spanish, German, and Taiwanese.  I still have aspirations of expanding my language abilities in both breadth and depth, but with the equanimity and experience that comes with age, I'm no longer frantic about mastering as many languages as I possibly can, choosing instead to go where my spirit and energy direct me.  I'm looking forward to sharing some of these endeavors as I go.

Hello again, blogosphere, my old friend.  It's good to be back.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

FROZEN's "Let It Go": one stop, many languages!

Since watching the movie Frozen and watching the famous multilingual version of Let It Go" in twenty-five languages, I've been completely obsessed with the song.  Having memorized the English version, I'm now on my way to learning as many of the 40+ other versions Disney has released.

So here it is: a one-stop table to "Let It Go" in all the languages I can find, many with lyrics and translations (and romanizations for those in non-Latin alphabets).

You can also listen to one and a half hours' worth of the song in twenty-three languages back-to-back; I've done this too!

Language Animation Lyrics Romanization Translation Link
Bulgarian x in desc in desc in desc video
Cantonese x x video
Catalan x x n/a video
Croatian x x n/a x video
Czech x x n/a x video
Danish x n/a x video
Dutch x x n/a x video
English (original) x n/a n/a n/a video
Estonian in desc n/a in desc video
Finnish x x n/a x video
Flemish x x n/a x video
French x x n/a x video
German x n/a x video
Greek x x x in desc video
Hebrew x x x x video
Hungarian x x n/a x video
Icelandic x x n/a video
Italian x x n/a x video
Japanese x x x x video
Korean x x x video
Lithuanian n/a video
Malay x x n/a x video
Mandarin (China) x x x x video
Mandarin (Taiwan) x x x video
Norwegian x x n/a x video
Polish x x n/a x video
Portuguese (Brazil) x x n/a x video
Portuguese (EU) x x n/a x video
Russian in desc in desc video
Serbian x x n/a x video
Slovak in desc n/a video
Slovene n/a video
Spanish (EU) x x n/a x video
Spanish (Latin America) x x n/a x video
Swedish x x n/a x video
Thai x x x x video
Turkish n/a video
Ukranian x x video
Vietnamese x n/a video

Thursday, January 23, 2014

On identity and perception

This morning I received an email entitled "Unsolicited, but friendly, suggestion" from a colleague I'll call George.  George is a white man about my age and the research manager on one of the projects I contribute to.  In his email, he wrote, "You've said a couple of times to me that a decision is 'above my pay grade.'  The first time I heard you say that, I initially thought it was very funny, but then I started thinking a bit more, and I'm afraid that it may also convey something you don't intend."  He went on to describe how it could be read as "this isn't my problem," which is not what most managers want to hear, and how if he were my manager, he'd prefer something like, "This is your decision to make, but based on my experience and expertise, I would recommend that we do X."

It's a fair point; in fact, I'd just had a conversation with my husband last week about whether the expression was annoying.  The email sent me into emotional distress for a few hours, because I hate criticism, however gentle or useful.  It also got me thinking more about race, gender, engineering culture, and subconscious expectations.

The funny thing is that I'd normally say something like what George suggested, trying to be helpful without overstepping my bounds.  I only started using the pay grade expression after hearing it from another colleague.  "Vladimir" has a reputation for not playing well with others, and his rudeness has driven me and others to tears in the past.  On one occasion, he referred to an architecture issue as "above my pay grade," and I was delighted at his humor when I'd expected his usual aggressive and unhelpful response.  That's when I started using the phrase myself.

My husband, a former engineer himself, said, "You know, if a guy had said that, I don't think I'd have noticed among the noise that engineers always say."  Here's the deal: engineers are snarky.  We're always trying to be more clever than the next person, and even better if the cleverness is slightly insulting in a good-natured way.  But I imagined a female coworker saying that a decision was above her pay grade, and it did sound passive-aggressive, as if she were trying to make a point about her salary or position.  I imagined a male coworker saying the same thing: no judgment.  In the absence of any other tension, it comes off as a funny, slightly self-deprecating remark.

George likes and respects me; of that I am sure.  I know he was trying to be helpful, and he was.  I'm not going to talk about my pay grade anymore.  But I also wonder whether George would have sent that email if I weren't an Asian woman.  Would he have sent it to Vladimir?  Given that I reacted negatively to the hypothetical female coworker myself, given my husband's admission that gender matters, I think it's a fair question.  Since George isn't my manager, and he and I don't interact often enough that I'd expect him to care much about my career, perhaps he was expressing his own annoyance in the most constructive way he could find.

Marin Alsop, the only female conductor of a major symphony orchestra, has described how she's had to learn to make different gestures than her male counterparts to get the kind of sound she wants:
"The hardest thing for me is always to get a big sound from the orchestra without being very demanding or apologising. As a woman, if you're too aggressive people think, 'She's so overpowering. What's she on us for?'. But if a man does the same gesture, it's regarded as strong and virile. [ . . .] I have worked really hard to make my gestures less threatening."
Richard Sherman's post-game trash talk has branded him a "thug" and much worse. However unsportsmanlike his behavior, it's clear that his race and the image of the angry black man changed the way it was seen.

It's not that every criticism of a racial minority or a woman is racist or sexist in its basis.  It's that perception and expectation are so closely linked that there isn't such a thing as true objectivity.  So the best we can do, the best we can ever do, is be aware of the assumptions we make, question them, and check ourselves when appropriate.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The language of engineers

As a female physicist who's worked in a variety of technical industries over the last thirteen years---semiconductor design and manufacturing, aerospace engineering, educational technology, robotics, and natural language processing---I've thought a lot about the lack of gender and racial diversity in my fields and what causes it.  Much of what I've considered has to do with leadership and communication style: the lack of women in upper management, the appeal of analytical work to those who prefer to express and share only what is absolutely necessary.  There's plenty of overt sexism, and I would imagine racism (though I've experienced less of that), to turn away even the most promising and interested women and minorities.

But I haven't thought that much specifically about the language and terminology of engineering and how it reflects the dominant white male culture.  Mostly, our stuff is pretty dry-sounding---algorithms, probabilities, databases, regression tests, platforms.  Generally, it's stuff that people would consider pretty neutral, though anyone who's done anti-oppression work knows that there is really no such thing as "neutral."  Even the characterization of logical, devoid-of-feeling terms as neutral reflects a cultural norm.

Today, while reviewing some system architecture specs, I came across some words that made me stop short: master/slave systems.  I've seen these terms before, though not recently, and the meaning is obvious even to a non-engineer: it's when one device or process controls another.  For someone far removed from the horrors of slavery, it's "just" a descriptive term.

But what of those for whom slavery isn't some abstract idea from a previous century, but an emotionally devastating reality?  What does it say about a group, an industry, a culture where such ideas can be thrown around so casually?  A Google search revealed this discussion on a forum for blacks in technology which is worth reading.  Regardless of how one feels about the current use of these words, though, it's probably safe to say that they would not have become so common if the demographics of our community were different.

As an undergraduate working in a physics lab, I was completely grossed out when I learned about "male" and "female" connectors.  Even before knowing what I know now about anatomy and gender diversity, I found the terminology crude and juvenile (albeit memorable).  When I shared my discomfort with the (male) graduate student with whom I was working, he crowed gleefully, "But it's so perfect!  See, you just STICK IT IN here, and it's like, you know . . ."  

I don't claim that metaphors like these are the only reason, or even a big reason, that the engineering world remains so overwhelmingly male and white or Asian.  If anything, they're just a symptom.  If we want to get women and minorities interested in STEM fields and retain them, we have to look at every aspect of the current culture---including its language---through a variety of lenses.  We have to look at the kind of environment we create when we assume particular perspectives and dismiss those with different ones as politically correct.  And when enough people are able to say, "Wait a minute, is that really the best name for this?  How's this going to affect someone who isn't like us?" then, and only then, do we get culture change.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Year in review

Well, I suppose I ought to get in one more post before 2012 comes to a close.  It's been an eventful year, in language pursuits and otherwise.  Last spring I had some health challenges causing what I hope is temporary deterioration of my short-term memory.  Mandarin lessons were suspended, and it remains to be seen whether I will be able to interpret again.  Right now I can't remember things long enough to render them in another language; I even have difficulty taking notes at meetings in English.  I'm optimistic, though---I resumed Mandarin just a couple of weeks ago and was pleased by how much I remember and can still take in.

The other, much happier development is that I've finally landed myself in the perfect job.  After being laid off from my position at an educational technology company in May, I worked at a robotics company for two months before realizing that I was going to be miserable at a place so lacking in diversity.  Entering the job search again, finally everything lined up and I'm now a natural language processing research engineer at a major speech recognition software company.  I get to blend my training as a scientist and an engineer with my passion for and knowledge of languages, and I couldn't be happier.  My workplace is the most diverse of any I've ever been in; it's half women and naturally diverse by race and nationality because we need native speakers of so many languages.  I get to play with foreign languages every day, both those I know and those I don't, and I can't believe I'm actually getting paid to have so much fun.

I hope to write more frequently in 2013.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Why learning a language is like losing weight

I've studied over ten languages in my life. Some I've been serious about, others I haven't. Some I've tried to teach myself, others I've learned with the help of others. And, some have stuck really well and others haven't stuck at all. I'm pretty satisfied with my return on investment. Of course I wish I could speak more languages and were better at the ones I do speak, but given the relatively small fraction of time I spend on it, I'm confident I'll reach my goals eventually. My progress is steady and my determination is unwavering.

I wish I could say the same about my weight, or my health in general. After college, with the stress and depression induced by a demanding doctoral program, my weight started climbing for the first time in my life and has continued to rise slowly over the last fifteen years. After the birth of my first child, I joined Weight Watchers and with a lot of effort took off twenty-five pounds, returning to a healthy weight. But I gained it back and I've had it for the last seven years. Of course I'd like to be thinner and healthier, but because it's not a high enough priority, I haven't gone about it very intelligently. And that's the ultimate problem.

I've spoken to dozens of people who tell me they'd like to learn another language, but it's just so hard. Or they learned one in high school or college, but can't speak it anymore. Or they buy self-study CDs or software with grand intentions and hopes, but they don't make enough progress and eventually give up. These lamentations parallel my own struggles with weight loss. I don't have time to cook or exercise. I did lose the weight, but couldn't keep it off. I signed up for a gym membership, but I quit going.

Yes, it's true that some people have a talent for languages, just as some people naturally have a higher metabolism. But we're only kidding ourselves when we point to some genetic capability or incapability as the reason we can or can't achieve our goals. Here are the ways in which I think learning a language is like losing weight, and how everyone can do both.

You know how to do it, really. There are billions of dollars spent every year on products that claim to make weight loss and language learning fast, easy, and painless. But they're all variations on the same theme. To lose weight, diet and exercise. To learn a language, study and practice. There aren't any shortcuts.

Doing it with other people increases your chance of success. I understand why self-study is attractive. It's flexible and you don't have to make embarrassing mistakes in front of others. But just as having an exercise buddy or regular fitness class keeps you on track, having a diet support group helps you celebrate your progress, and hiring a personal trainer lets you use your time most efficiently, language learning works better in community. Even more so than weight loss, because language is so inherently relational. So hire a tutor, take a class, or join a conversation group. You'll get farther and stay interested much longer than with a CD or software program.

Cramming doesn't work. Just like crash dieting doesn't work, you can't rush language learning. It only happens with steady discipline and focus. Intensive study can speed up the process, but the learning will stick better if it's done more slowly over an extended period of time. A former violin teacher once told me that how often I practiced was more important than how long I practiced. I find this to be true; ten minutes every day is more effective than an hour and a half once a week. But an hour and a half once a week is better than three hours twice a week. I commit to seeing my Mandarin tutor weekly even though I'm not always fully prepared, because it compels me to study hard at least one day (the day before my lesson!) every week.

Surround yourself with practitioners; maintaining your accomplishment requires a lifestyle change. Over a decade ago, my husband and I joined a gym together, figuring we'd encourage each other to work out. More often, though, one of us ended up convincing the other to skip the gym in favor of a more sedentary activity. When I first moved to Boston two years ago, I lived for a few months with friends for whom a healthy lifestyle was natural; they even hired a babysitter in the early morning so they could run together. I ate mostly vegetarian meals with them, and without a car, I walked everywhere. The weight melted off effortlessly. When I moved out, my old habits returned along with the weight.

I studied German for six years and Spanish for less than two, but my Spanish is close to fluent whereas my German is just functional. It's partly because Spanish is an easier language for native English speakers, but mostly because I create as many opportunities to practice my Spanish as possible. My work in immigrant justice is doubly fulfilling because it has become an integral part of my life in which I have to use my language skills. I don't have to find "extra" time to practice my Spanish. Likewise, my work commute by public transportation requires me to do a certain amount of walking each day, but I'm hoping to raise my activity level even more by starting to bike to work when the weather warms up.

Mastering a language is hard. So is losing weight. This year, I'm hoping to use some of the techniques and self-knowledge I've applied so well to my language studies to bring myself down to a healthier weight. Which means I'm off to do some Mandarin homework--after I get myself an orange for a snack. Happy New Year!

Friday, September 23, 2011

When a little is enough

Followers of this blog--if any remain!--know that my posting frequency has been dwindling. Since moving back to Boston two years ago, I spend most of my time outside work engaged in anti-racism work and immigrant justice. I still love and use foreign languages, but they don't occupy the foreground of my thoughts very much anymore. Tonight, however, I have a story that brings it all back together.

As part of the Spiritual Care Givers program at Refugee Immigration Ministry, I provide chaplaincy services to immigrants detained at the local jail. We do not provide legal advice or facilitate contact with family; we simply listen to them, letting them know they are not forgotten. The work is important to me because it lets me maintain a connection to the people most affected by policies whose effects can easily seem impersonal and irrelevant. I hope it is also some small comfort to the detainees.

I wasn't sure how much help I'd be tonight. Still recovering from a bad cold earlier this week, exhausted and a little depressed, I made the hour-long trek to the jail to find that only one other person had showed up; our coordinator was stuck in traffic. We were escorted into the unit, the usual announcement was made, but no one came out. For twenty minutes we sat there; I wondered if we'd be talking to anyone tonight. Then, through the window to the hall containing the cells, I saw a young Latino man gesturing to a sixty-something Chinese man, who came out, looked at me, and said apprehensively, "Ni hao."

I asked, "Would you like to talk to us?" but he responded, "No English."

I was prepared to offer ministry in Spanish; I've done it before. Many of the immigrant detainees are Latino, and my Spanish is somewhere between advanced and fluent. My Mandarin, on the other hand, is abysmal. Characterizing my skills as "conversational" is generous. Nonetheless, this man needed to talk, and I was there. I explained apologetically several times that my Chinese was very bad. I had to ask him to speak slowly, and even then I only understood a fraction of what he was saying. I didn't understand the details of how he'd come to be in detention, only that he had been living in New York and that he'd been at the jail for over two months.

I can only imagine what it must be like for him in there: far from family, unable to speak to or understand a soul, herded around day after day through the routines of prison life, not knowing what the future holds. He told me that there had been a few other Chinese detainees earlier, but they were gone. I asked if he'd spoken to a lawyer, and he showed me a business card but told me it was of no use. He asked me whether there were other Chinese-speaking people at the jail; I told him I wasn't employed there. I don't know the Chinese word for volunteer, so I explained that I just came once a month, then said haltingly, "Church. Minister. But I'm not a minister. I just come so people can talk." We talked about our families; he has two sons about my age, and granddaughters the same age as my daughters. I felt his yearning for human connection, his gratitude at being able to speak to someone who could understand, even if only partially. I taught him how to say "Good morning" and "Good night" and encouraged him to practice with the people around him.

When the hour was over and we were instructed to wrap things up, I couldn't remember how to say, "I'm sorry you're in here. Good luck." I don't remember what I said instead to try and convey my feelings, but I think he understood. I clasped his hands, and he said, "Xie xie." I don't know if I'll ever see him again.

This is what it's about for me, this drive to learn and master as many languages as possible. It's about being able to be that bridge, the person who can connect to people, whether it's interpreting at the pet store or helping a tourist at the subway station or talking to an immigrant detainee. I have the motivation to keep pushing myself with my Mandarin studies now, and in time I know I'll achieve the fluency I desire. But tonight, tonight even a little was enough.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Parabolic Jesus

This past weekend, I attended a conference on the future of Unitarian Universalism in which a minister referred to Sallie McFague's Metaphorical Theology. I don't know much about theology myself, so I was paying only partial attention when I heard the phrase "the parabolic Jesus." My ears perked up.

I'm a physicist. I hear the word "parabolic" more often than the average person, and to me it means something in the shape of a parabola, which some may remember from second-year algebra. A parabola is a conic section, the locus of points equidistant from a point and a line, equivalent to an ellipse in which one of the foci is at infinity.

I thought it was far more likely that the word was supposed to refer to "parable," or a Jesus who taught by means of storytelling. But it didn't seem to me that "parabolic" could derive from the word "parable." (Where does the "o" come from?) I spoke to the presenter afterward and she confirmed that she had, indeed, said "parabolic."

It turns out that "parabolic" really is the adjectival form of "parable," and that this definition even appears first in a dictionary. From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of PARABOLIC

1: expressed by or being a parable : allegorical
2: of, having the form of, or relating to a parabola <parabolic curve>

So I guess the mystery is solved.
But while the first definition is clearly the one that applies to the concept of a "parabolic Jesus," the images that immediately entered my mind using the second definition were interesting. A parabolic mirror reflects parallel waves from infinity into a single focal point (this is why satellite dishes, for example, are paraboloids) and so I was thinking of a parabolic Jesus as somehow being able to focus diverse lifestyles and philosophies into a single common goal of justice---not too far off from Unitarian Universalism, sometimes described as the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus. Metaphor, indeed!