LCC8

Last weekend, I attended the eighth Language Creation Conference, in Cambridge, UK. Although I’d interacted with a handful of other conlangers at other events before, this was the first time I’d physically attended an LCC (as well as the first time I had been in the United Kingdom).

The conference was, in its totality, awesome, and I hope to come to the next one if I can make it. Among other things, I got the chance to speak some Klingon, hang out with people I had up till that point only met through the internet (and learn what they look like!), and generally participate in fun discussions about language and other subjects. This community is full of interesting people, and that only becomes more clear when you get a whole bunch of them together in the same space for a period of time.

I gave a short talk on grammaticalizing consonant gradation in the manner of the Uralic languages (slides available at https://kechpaja.conlang.org/lcc/8/consonant_gradation_lcc8.pdf), and in the process also discovered that my use of the name “Examplish” for the sketchlang in my examples was novel enough that most people found it funny — I suspect I may need to flesh the language out a bit more just for the fun of it. This (the talk) led to a couple of mind-broadening discussions, as ideally something like that should, so I like to at least imagine that it was a success.

Although I’m not sure of the exact date when I started conlanging, based on my ballpark estimate of that date and the date of the conference, I have decided to declare LCC8 the point at which I have been conlanging for more than half of my life. Although I briefly mentioned this fact at the beginning of my talk, I figured it was worth a few words here as well, in case some folks see this who didn’t watch the LCC8 presentations (which were livestreamed and recorded, so there’s still a chance if you missed the conference but still want to see it!). I’m bad at coming up with personal ways of marking special occasions, so I figured the LCC would serve as a good stand-in for the celebration I feel like I should be having.

Finally, although there were (as always) a handful of technical and organizational things that could probably have been handled better, there were no problems that truly had an adverse effect on the experience. Anglia Ruskin University is quite well situated in Cambridge, with the train station and a number of cool things to see within easy walking distance.

I hope to see everyone at LCC9!

Down with Emoji

To cut right to the chase: emoji were a bad idea, and the sooner they go away, the better.

I can totally see the appeal of emoji. There’s only so much that plain prose — especially plain prose typed on a tiny cell phone screen — can convey, and it’s nice to be able to easily send a picture now and then. But why not do just that? Is an emoji heart really that different from a stock image meant for a Valentine’s Day card?

And while it’s true that whole pictures take up more space than four-byte Unicode characters, it’s not like we don’t have ways around that. Simple images can be compressed significantly, especially if they were designed with instant messaging in mind — and people already send plenty of images as it is, so a few more bytes here and there likely wouldn’t break anyone’s bank.

All of this, though, pales in comparison to the one huge disadvantage that emoji have: every darn platform implements them differently. What shows up as a gun on one device is a water pistol on another (yes, that’s a real example), or a face with one expression may have a slightly different one elsewhere, etc. And that’s not even getting into the huge issues raised by having a single, global standard for what “qualifies” for emoji status, leading to situations where, say, people end up using images of vegetables to communicate about traditionally sexualized body parts.

At this point, unfortunately, emoji are here to stay, and there’s probably very little we can do about them in the immediate future. But in the long term, I’d recommend that the creators of new communication platforms think long and hard about whether they want to make it easy to send emoji, or whether it might be a better idea to just give users a library of simple stock images to send for the same purposes.

Upgrading to Dedicated Domain Name

A note for anyone who sees this: I recently upgraded this site to use the address https://chasingmonotony.com, which is currently in the process of being transferred to WordPress. The original address should continue to work, but it would be worthwhile to update any bookmarks or saved links to the new domain name.

Don’t, however, actually do this until after May 15th, which is when I expect the change to actually go into effect; at the moment the new domain name doesn’t point anywhere.

Getting Salty About User Experience

So I recently had to pick out a container of Morton’s iodized salt at an American grocery store (the brand doesn’t seem particularly well represented in Europe, although I can’t say that they aren’t there at all). This was all well and good, until I saw the iodized and uniodized salts next to each other.

The iodized salt looks like this:

iodized_salt.jpg

Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt supplies iodide, a necessary nutrient”

Whereas the uniodized salt looks like this:

uniodized_salt

Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt does not supply iodide, a necessary nutrient”

See the problem?

The containers are pretty much identical, except for the line of small text near the bottom of the cannister saying whether the salt is iodized or not. Furthermore, the most significant piece of information — the word “supplies” or the phrase “does not supply” — is embedded in the middle of a fairly long sentence, where it’s hard to see without reading at least the first few words of the label. This is likely the reason why my mother ended up with a cannister of uniodized salt in the first place.

There are a number of very simple changes that Morton could make to their salt labels to make it clearer whether the salt supplies iodide or not. One would be to change the color of the text, or of a border around it (perhaps to green for iodized salt — generally the healthier option — and red for uniodized); another would be to put a check mark next to the label on iodized salt and an X on uniodized salt. A third might be to change the background color of the cannister (or the color of the white end pieces) to something very different for uniodized salt.

Ideally, a combination of the strategies I suggest, plus any others that the marketing and/or branding folks at Morton Salt come up with, would be used, since each strategy comes with its own set of drawbacks (color-coding breaks down for colorblind people, check marks and X’s are still easy to confuse when moving quickly, etc.). I would probably go with something like the following (I unfortunately lack the photo-editing skills to attach the label mock-ups to a picture of a Morton salt cannister):

proposed

Image description: green text with checkmark and border, saying “contains iodide, a vital nutrient”, followed by red text with letter X and border, saying “lacks iodide, a vital nutrient”

It would probably also be fine to use only the “lacks iodide” version, on the variety sold without iodide, and let the iodized salt be the default.

 

Endnote:

My family still buys Morton salt, and I would still buy Morton salt if I lived in a place where it were sold. This isn’t meant as an indictment of the company, or of their product; only a breakdown of what I feel is a bad UX practice.

Language Learning Tip: Learning is Your Own Job

No matter how good your teacher is, learning a new language is something you will ultimately have to do for yourself. Nobody can simply log into your brain and install new words and grammar, and even if you diligently complete all of the assignments in a language class — even if you get a good grade — it’s still entirely possible to finish without actually improving your ability to speak that language by more than an infinitesimal fraction.

Thus, you ultimately have to be your own teacher. Pay attention to what does and doesn’t work for making new information stick, and which words you contantly have to look up over and over again. Also notice which topics you can already speak relatively fluidly about, versus those where you still have to pause and hunt for terminology or consciously construct sentences, and then concentrate your practice on the areas that you have trouble with. Simply following a teacher’s instructions as to how to practice your language is better than nothing, but more often than not, you will end up wasting a lot of effort on strategies that don’t work for you.

It’s also worth remembering that the grade or other evaluation you receive from a class may not be indicative of your actual ability. This can swing both ways, and you should be on the lookout for both possibilities (either the grade being significantly better than what your ability would warrant, or vice versa). I personally will often get good grades in upper-level language classes while still having very poor listening comprehension (especially when recordings or any sort of noise are involved), since most exams are written and even explicitly oral exams are generally given by careful speakers in idealized sonic conditions.

Even if you have had great experiences with language classes so far, it can never hurt to invest some time in studying the language on your own outside of class. You might discover something that works even better than what you’ve been doing in class, or at the very least simply get ahead.

Hungary (part 3)

I’ve now been here two and a half weeks, and I feel like I’ve started to adjust to my surroundings to a greater extent. Some of this is just increased language ability — using only Hungarian with just about everybody except for my beginning-level suitemates will do that — but I also suspect that I’ve gotten used to some of the more frustrating parts of living here, such as the taste of the water. It probably also helps that, when an extra room opened up in another suite, my roommate decided to move into it, giving me a room to myself for the rest of the program.

Also, if anyone reading this has heard my complaints about some of the infrastructure problems at the Univesity of Pécs last year, I should point out that many of them have been (mostly) solved. My dinner has only been forgotten once so far (which I will accept as a simple mistake), there have always been forks and knives with the food, and the dorm staff in general seem nicer. I wouldn’t say that everything is perfect yet, but they’ve certainly learned from the problems we had last year (and possibly other years before), and are striving to make the summer university an enjoyable and educational experience.

I have a bunch of homework to do tonight, and I really should try and sleep as well (it’s been hard the last few nights due to heat and lack of exercise), but I intend to try and explore the city a bit more tomorrow afternoon. There’s a lot to see here, and while the official excursions are fun, they only cover so much — and I will probably get more out of walking around at my own pace without having to stick with a group.

Language Learning Tip

This will be the beginning of a series, with no definite endpoint, in which I will share things that have helped me learn languages in the past. I can’t promise that everything suggested here will work for everyone — I am a very visual learner, and also a rather strange individual in a number of ways — but hopefully someone will find something useful. At any rate…

One very important part of language learning is making sure you get the material you need to learn — be it vocabulary, morphology, or anything other relevant aspect — in the format that your brain can most easily process, internalize, and recall. For me, this means that I prefer to see new words and expressions written down, since I’m much more likely to remember them that way. If learning the language in a classroom setting, it is extremely helpful if the teacher writes new material down on the board — or just provides it on a handout — so that I can get it in a visual medium without having to be stress out about remembering and trying to write down words that were said once or twice, but that I never actually saw.

In the same vein, I tend to find textbooks and learning materials that expect the student to fill in the definitions for new vocabulary based on classroom discussion rather frustrating. Most of the time, I don’t manage to write down even half of the definitions that were provided, and I end up having to use a dictionary to find them later — why couldn’t the book have just provided a mini-dictionary right there, with the information that I needed to learn the new vocabulary? While there’s definitely something to be said for having to remember and reproduce a new phrase or its definition, there are much better ways of exercising this skill that don’t risk leaving some students in the dark without ever having even seen the material they were supposed to learn (a favorite of mine is simply devoting some classroom time to defining words as a game — but that’s a topic for another post).

If you’re unsure what the most effective way to format new material for your own mind is, it’s worth trying a bunch of different language learning methodologies and keeping track of which ones work and which ones don’t. If, for instance, you’re having trouble recalling vocabulary after staring at each word and picturing the thing is refers to next to it (something that works well for me with words that have relatively concrete meanings), try saying the word and its definition aloud, or making flashcards, or anything else you, your teacher, or your friends can come up with. Eventually, something will work, and then you can switch to that.

In general, if you’re in a class and you feel that some aspect of how the class is being taught is making it harder for you to learn, you should feel free to ask the teacher to try and accommodate you (by, say, writing words on the board). It won’t always be possible, especially if there are a number of students with different learning styles in the same class, but it never hurts to ask. Also, regardless of whether your learning in a classroom setting or solo, make sure that when you’re studying on your own (and you should be doing this even if you’re in a class), you’re putting the material you’re trying to learn into the format that best suits you.