Finished my first quarter of grad school!

December 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

3 classes closer to finishing my course work for Computational Linguistics!  Several people have asked me about the courses I am taking and what the hell it is, so I’ve added a little blog post over at my student blog including links to my final project where I studied and recorded a language I don’t know (Kirundi, spoken in Burundi).

Go check it out…


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Graduate School has begun

September 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

It’s true.  I am going back to school.  Headed out tomorrow to Seattle for a week to begin my work in the CLMA program at the University of Washington.

I’ve started up a page of what I’m working on and learning.

If you are interested, you can check it out here :

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Helping refugees in Salt Lake City

April 4, 2009 at 6:57 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )


Think about this for a moment. Out of every 200 people living in Salt Lake City, at least one of them is a refugee who has fled their country due to danger or persecution.

There have recently been some very illuminating and perhaps shocking article written in the Salt Lake Tribune lately about the plight of refugees who arrive in the United States after fleeing conflict in their homelands.  These people come with the greatest of hopes of the American Dream but often end up abandoned by their advocates and hopelessly alienated.

I have had some opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people from Burundi, Burma, and Iraq lately whose past and current situations leave me heartbroken.  We’ll get to that a bit later, but let’s talk a bit about the current plight of refugees in the United States, and particularly Salt Lake City.

First, let’s give a bit of history on what kinds of financial difficulty these refugees deal with while also trying to deal with a completely different language and a culture which is very “Salt Lake”.

In an October 2008 article in the Salt Lake Tribune ( “Today’s refugees face harsher adjustment as program funding, flexibility lag” ), Lavinia Limon president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants highlights how funding for refugees has been insufficient to truly succeed (or maybe survive?) here :

“We are simply not serving people the way we were,” Limon says. “Years ago, each refugee got $500 at the outset for rent, food, clothes and utilities, in addition to other noncash aid. Adjusted for inflation, the amount would be $3,500 today. Instead, each refugee today gets $425. “This is pathetic,” Limon says.

Often after a short period of being “resettled”, refugee families lose contact and support from the groups that brought them here.  Another October 2008 article from the Trib ( “After initial refugee assistance ends, Utah schools have to pick up the pieces” ) explains how after the initial support has drifted or been detached, the Utah school system is left to pick up the slack :

Many refugees find themselves lost after the six months of assistance they receive end. They often don’t know where to turn and must rely on a well-meaning but uncoordinated web of volunteers and organizations to help them survive. Schools, which are among the few constants in a refugee family’s life, pick up the pieces.
They look after students’ hygiene, make sure their families have enough
food and ensure they have socks and underwear.
“There’s no way schools could say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you,’ ” said Alisa Amani, a refugee liaison for the Salt Lake City School District.
Julie Spencer, a Rose Park Elementary School teacher, sometimes takes her third-grade students to the bathroom because they had never had flushing toilets and are afraid of them. Rose Park Principal Rae Louie let a sixth-grader use a shower at the school last year so peers would stop making fun of her body odor. Granite refugee specialist Carrie Pender takes refugee families to the doctor, dentist and grocery store. She arranges immunizations and school registrations for children living at the South Parc Apartment Complex, which is near where she lives.
Her home no longer has a doorbell. It broke from so many refugee children pressing it.

Somali refugee Fatuma Aden, washes the face of her daughter, Nasteho Issak, 4, in the familys kitchen sink. The family says it has benefited from long-term case management through a program at the International Rescue Committee.

Somali refugee Fatuma Aden, washes the face of her daughter, Nasteho Issak, 4, in the family's kitchen sink. The family says it has benefited from long-term case management through a program at the International Rescue Committee.

Next, in an article from March 2009 ( “Federal funding boost will help Utah refugees” ), we get some better news for refugees  :

Thanks to federal dollars, Utah’s resettlement organizations were able to hire a large number of new staff, who will guide and supervise refugees during their first two years in America. The goal is to foster independence and ensure families aren’t overlooked.

“A big part of it is being able to develop a relationship with the family,” she said.

Starting March 1, IRC began to keep all its new cases for two years. CCS will continue to transfer its cases to the Asian Association after six months, but the additional staff will allow the association to give the new refugees increased attention during the following year and a half. The goal is for agencies’ caseload to drop to about 20 per case manager.

Before the move, stories abounded of refugees who hadn’t seen their caseworkers for a long time and didn’t know how to get help, explained Gerald Brown, the director of Utah’s new refugee services office. With long-term case management, that is expected to stop.

This is great news to give these refugee families more long term support.  Can you imagine being dropped into a foreign culture to adapt to a new language, a different culture and potentially a new set of foreign norms and technologies you are expected to know and be comfortable with like flushing toilets and electricity?

One of the next tools the refugees will need along with this longer term support is to gain skills in English.  This is not provided by the IRC and is usually provided be secondary organizations like the ESL Center in Salt Lake City.

I have been volunteering teaching English with the ESL Center for the past 6+ weeks and my experience has been unbelievably rewarding and exciting.  It is a real treat meeting each week with my students who are so eager (and hungry) to devour every bit of English I can teach to them.  It is definitely a challenge, but one I am personally gaining a lot from.  Each week I try to create more effective lesson plans and employ better learning techniques to help the smiling faces in my group.

Recently we have grown and have added 5 new women from Iraq and it has become difficult to maintain a productive class for all 11 people in the room.

Here comes the part where I tell you how you can get involved.  We are in serious need of more people to help teach English.  First thing most people ask me is “Don’t you have to speak their language?”.  You do not.  I speak not a word of Kirundi, Kareng or Arabic.  Immersion is the best way to teach a language.  In the beginning you need to know how to speak basically without introducing confusing vocabulary, but it’s so much fun.

If you would be interested, please contact the ESL Center.  They do great training and they will help you become a great teacher to help these people in serious need :

English Skills Learning Center
(801) 328-5608

Please give them a call and get involved.  If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to fire them my way.

I will definitely be sharing more of my experiences as we continue our lessons and I enjoy seeing and hearing my students progress.  I can’t tell you how excited they were last week as we did a hands on lesson about “give” and “take”.

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Foundations of Language

April 3, 2009 at 3:40 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )


This was a fascinating view of language and a proposed structure of how it works in our minds.  For decades a large chunk of linguistics has been centered around syntax\grammar.

As a student of Noam Chomsky during his time at MIT, Jackendoff is very familiar with the syntax-centric viewpoints which have dominated the field since Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures in 1957.  What Jackendoff has to offer is a 3 part parallel system of language which does house language but also offers suggestions for how our three main subsystems of language interact : phonology (speech and hearing), syntax (grammar) and semantics (meaning).

The interesting thing about this system is that our language is not just a big black box of “language”.  We don’t simply have a “grammar box” in our heads but rather subsystems which are very modular.  It is at this point that as a programmer, I find that Jackendoff’s explanation of our modular components of language to fit nicely under the paradigm of Object Oriented Programming.  After reading this, I was struck by the mapping of our language structures into this framework and found that other people felt the same way as well.


A diagram of our linguistic architecure from p.199 (image from Google Book Search)

Each module does not have complete access to the others, but instead they have an “interface component” which passes information back and forth between them in parallel.

This is the most flexible and most likely architectural diagram of our language that I have been exposed to so far and certainly a welcome change from the “grammar box” view which seems to be exhausted at this point without a valid explanation and home for meaning (semantics).

This is definitely a technical volume that I would not recommend to nonlinguists.  As a mere armchair linguist myself, I had a difficult time but still enjoyed the fresh notions Jackendoff presents here.

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Chinese and English brains

January 30, 2009 at 1:44 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , )


This stuff is not in my brain.

For years, philosophers and linguists such as Benjamin Whorf and Walter Benjamin have discussed whether the minds of readers of speakers and readers could be influenced by the language that they speak.  I have wondered this quite a bit myself as each language uses features that cause the mind to orient itself or manifest itself in different ways.  I recently finished the great book Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.  During her exploration of how the mind learns to read, she references research which uses modern brain imaging technology to answer the question of whether or not the mind of a Chinese speaker (logographic) could be different from that of an English speaker (alphabet).

Unlike other writing systems (such as alphabets), Sumerian and Chinese show considerable involvement of the right hemisphere area, known to contribute to the many spatial analysis requirements in logographic symbols and also to more global types of processing.  The numerous, visually demanding logographic characters characters require much of the visual areas, as well as the important occiptal-temporal region called area 37, which is involved in object recognition and which Dehaene hypothesizes is the major seat of “neuronal recycling” in literacy.

Although all reading makes use of some portions of the frontal and temporal lobs for planning and for analyzing sounds and meanings in words, logographic systems appear to activate very distinctive parts of the frontal and temporal areas, particularly regions involved in motoric memory skills.  The cognitive neuro-scientists Li-Hai Tan and Charles Perfetti and their research group at the University of Pittsburgh make the important point that these motoric memory areas are far more activated in reading Chinese than in reading other languages, because that is how Chinese symbols are learned by young readers — by writing, over and over.


I am pretty sure that my pre-motor regions do not activate when I read English, but it's hard to tell from the inside.

So at least for the case of reading, we now know that there are different brain regions working when we compare a Chinese reader to say, an English reader.  Does this make one brain better than another?  No, it does not.  It simply means that they are different with different means of processing.  They differ in how they learn to be efficient (nearly automatic) in reading.

Also interesting are studies about Japanese whose two different writing systems result in a kind of ‘hybrid’ brain.  Recent brain imagine studies have actually shown that the results is like a merging of the Chinese and English brain :

Japanese readers offer a particularly interesting example because each reader’s brain must learn two very different writing systems : one of these is a very efficient syllabary (kana) used for foreign words, names of cities, names of persons, and newer words in Japanese; and the second is an older Chinese-influenced logographic script (kanji).  When reading kanji, the Japanese readers use pathways similar to those of Chinese;  when reading kana, they use pathways much more similar to alphabet readers.  In other words, not only are different pathways utilized by readers of Chinese and English, but different routes can be used within the same brain for reading different types of scripts.

The idea of these different routes becomes much more intriguing when Wolf moves on to talk about dyslexia.  As a mother of a dyslexic son and a researcher of reading research, Wolf is uniquely suited to this topic and shows how complex dyslexia is.  It is not simple, and dyslexia does not “map” itself onto other speakers of languages the way other conditions might.  Since the brain in a way configures itself to read the target language, its networks can be very different.

One quote I cannot stop thinking about is from Steven Pinker who says “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”  Over time, we have learned to “re-arrange” our brains given existing hardware so that we can communicate on paper or wax tablets.  As part of her conclusion, Wolf explains how these different “arrangements” may actual result in amazing human beings capable of doing great things that great readers could not accomplish :

Dyslexia is our best, most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read.  I look at dyslexia as a daily evolutionary reminder that very different organizations of the brain are possible.  Some organizations may not work well for reading, yet are critical for the creation of buildings and art and the recognition of patterns — whether on the ancient battlefields or in biopsy slides.  Some of these variations of the brain’s organization may lend themselves to the requirements of modes of communication just on the horizon.

So think to yourself, how is your brain different from your neighbors?  From your cousin’s?  From an old man writing Chinese characters on parchment?  While none of these are greater than the other, the possibilities open up for some interesting discussion….

A Warhol piece I thought of during the reading

A few other interesting links on the subject :

Mandarin uses more of the brain

How the brain learns depends on the language :

Images taken from this presentation on dyslexia from the University of Hong Kong :

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