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Interview with Internet Linguist, Colin Gorrie

By Celine | 2021-01-06

Hello and Welcome to the first edition of the Hyperlink Course Creator Interview Series! Here, we sit down with one of our course creators and deep dive into their fields of study, the subject matters of their courses, their philosophy on education, and and so much more!

Today we chat with linguist Colin Gorrie, who facilitates both Language Construction Workshop and Meta-Skills for Learning Languages. We chat about the happy coincidence that the best way to learn new languages is also the most enjoyable way, the present and the future of PhDs who love to teach, and get into some fun language tangents along the way!

Meta-Skills for Learning Languages has a cohort starting January 16th. It meets every Saturday so if you like what you hear, get more by enrolling in that! You can also follow Colin on his twitter (@colingorrie) or his digital garden (colingorrie.com)

Listen to our conversation, or read the full transcript below!


Note: Text in bold-italics is spoken by Celine. Text in roman/normal is spoken by Colin.

The Origin Story

Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Sure. Yeah. So as you said, I'm Colin Gorrie. I teach linguistics online and basically I started out in the world of academia doing linguistics. Then after graduating, I went to work in tech. I have this linguistics component and is online component and I'm finding a way now to combine the two and get some sort of happy medium with linguistics.

You got your PhD in linguistics, right?

That's right. Yeah.

How was that experience? Why did you end up going into PhD?

So my origin story as a linguist —I think every linguist has an origin story. For me, it was a set of encyclopedia Britannica. This is all the ones you use to get door to door sales in the fifties and sixties. It was, I think, my dad’s. And when I looked —I was a little kid and I opened it up, pulled it down— it was a big, huge book, open it up to the first page and it had the letter "A" and so I just thought, well, “this is an interesting book”. I didn't know it was encyclopedia. I didn't know that you weren't really supposed to go cover to cover with it, but I started and I saw that the letter "A" had a whole history.

It was originally based on the picture of a Ram with horns, and then they flipped it around and that became the "A". And I thought, “whoa, that's kind of interesting". I thought, “it’s just "A", it's just a letter”. I thought maybe all the letters have histories. And so I went through the entire thing and wrote them all down on this... I made a little —I don't know how old, but I must have been maybe six or something— this little chart of the evolution of the alphabet. And then I started following these links. What are these other languages that they're talking about? For Pho... Phoenit... Oh! Phoenicia. Okay. And so I just started looking at more and more and gotten really interested in the history of it all.

And then I would blabber on about this stuff endlessly to anyone who would listen —that at least hasn't changed. One of my English teachers gave me a book that's she thought I'd be interested in. It was the history of the English language. And then from that, it was just a snowball that I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else with my life.

**It really is just a huge field, written and spoken, are just both infinitely large fields. I've recently started reading this book called Shady Characters which is entirely about pilcrows and hash or pound symbols, and other weird, not exactly letters, symbols. That's so interesting.**

Like the ampersand and that kind of thing.

On Language Learning

Exactly. Exactly. Yes. And like the history of where they come from, it really is fascinating.

I've recently come to realize that asking you, because you're a linguist, how many languages you speak is I guess like asking me, a designer, how well I draw.

Okay. Prepare yourself for a little monologue. It's true. Not all linguists like learning languages. Some have a different approach. There are many who only speak one language, although I don't know if it's for lack of interest, it might just be for lack of time. But I don't fall into that category.

I came to linguistics through a love of languages and learning as many of them as I could. So I'm a serial language learner and I've studied probably formally or informally two dozen. If we go from West to East, I've spent time Irish, the Sanskrit to Korean, lots. It's not to say that all of them have stuck with me to the same degree.

But the problem that becomes hard for a linguist to answer is what does it mean to know a language? And like any simple question, the more you look at it, the harder it becomes to answer and the more you realize it's a lot more complicated.

Is it native speaker-like status? Is it fluency? Is it a couple of words? How and where do we draw the line? If you can read really well, but your production, your speech and your writing, is not something you're comfortable with, does that count? It ends up the way you measure it will change the answer very dramatically. But I know that's not a satisfying answer.

At this point the languages that I speak the best are Spanish —which I use for a few of my weekly activities, so I get along pretty well in Spanish- Mandarin —kind of halting, but conversational— and French, which I can read and, and understand listening to, but I I'm a little rusty my spoken French. Anyway, now you see how dangerous it is to ask a linguist, how many languages they speak.

What keeps drawing you back to learning more and more languages?

It's the fascinating thing about a language is that it, as you said, it's so huge. Every language has an infinity in it in a sense because every language is capable of expressing any meaning that you can come up with. And the fact that language is both in a sense finite in that there is a set of rules that goes into creating all the possible sentences of the language, but that set of sentences is infinite. That is just an endlessly fascinating thing to work with.

And another beautiful thing about languages that you can engage in so many different ways with them. Obviously language is something that we use every day in any number of ways. But you can engage with the written form. You can engage with the spoken form. You can engage with the history. You can get your literature. There's all sorts of stuff you can do. You really can never be bored if you like learning languages because there are maybe 6,000 plus or minus depending on how you count. In each one of those is its own little infinite system.

There's never any shortage of mysteries. Linguistics is even a fairly young field by the standards of other sciences. So there's still a lot we don't understand. And it's really interesting that you can start to study linguistics, and within a few years you're able to understand what's at the very frontier of knowledge in the field. All of these things make it a tremendously appealing thing to study.

That makes me think of a time I saw tweet from you a while back about, I think you were comparing old English to contemporary English versus old Spanish to contemporary Spanish. And I think your observation was that the contemporary and old Spanish are much closer to each other than the English.

So the, the early modern Spanish of, say, Cervantis is much closer to contemporary Spanish than Shakespeare is to contemporary English. And I thought that's a bit of a curious observation because they wrote at about the same time. And they have a similar kind of status within the canon of each language, the gold standard, the greatest writer.

We got into a discussion with some people with why that might be. Shakespeare wrote a lot in verse, whereas Cervantis, like the /Quixote/, wrote in prose. And most of what we write these days as prose, not verse. That could be part of it. Another aspect is that the Spanish language has an Academy whose explicit goal is to keep Spanish or Cervantis readable by Spanish speakers. They want to keep change within certain boundaries. They act as a sort of conservative force in the Spanish speaking world. And so that might be part of it. But it's a bit of a mystery.

Sorry, this is a little bit on a tangent but conservatories within languages. I didn't know that that existed. Is Spanish unique in having that?

The real famous case for this is French. The Académie Française is there to keep French the way it was basically.

And the Spanish equivalent also exists for the same reason. It was made on imitation of the French model. It's not the norm most of the time. In order for this to happen, you have to have a very specific set of circumstances. One, you have to have a government that is sponsoring —not enforcing necessarily, although sometimes yes— but enshrining this into the education system, into the official communications of governments.

And in a language like English, we don't have this. We have what's called a pluricentric language. So you have different standards in different countries that are not written down in a code anywhere. They just sort of emerge from usage, from practice. It's a different model. And of course, then there's the huge number of languages which don't have written forms, which don't have state sponsorship. And of course they don't have this kind of thing at all.

Right. Interesting. If we take French and Spanish as a case study, is it a controversial thing to do? Do you stunt, or conserve said another way, the natural development of language?

It's extremely controversial. Yeah. I would say that the mainstream opinion in linguistics is that it's not something to emulate because linguists tend to be of the opinion that the change of language itself is kind of a natural phenomenon. That if we interfere with it, there may be something a little untoward about it.

It's hard because we get into this as linguists, we'd like to be descriptive, and we'd like to look at the situation as it is rather than as we wish it might be. But then when we're faced with a situation where there's a body saying, "this is how it should be". If we say that body shouldn't exist, we're also kind of weighing into this. So I'm wary about ascribing any strong views on this, but I think individual linguists you'll find a lot of people who very much oppose these kinds of language academies.

It's also notable that these language academies tend not to have linguists on the board.

Gasp! Scandal!

So make of that, what you will.

Do you find that when you're learning languages, you naturally come into this history because I'm sure you have an interest in these kinds of things.

My way of looking at things is often historical. That may just be a quirk of mine. But when I look at something for me, the most interesting question to ask about it is "how did it get the way it is?" And so that's why I come up against these things pretty quickly. My Spanish project this year is to read the /Quixote/ in Spanish. It's very ambitious. I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it, but I want to know what this most influential book in the history of the language is. So I can come to a better understanding of what the language is as a whole.

In the Mainstream

I like this holistic language learning approach that you're taking. If we look at the current landscape for learning languages post-school, it's something like applications probably, and maybe some formal classes. And then during school it's probably whatever four languages your high school taught.

How does the mainstream way of learning languages fit into your holistic philosophy? What do they achieve?

Yeah. So when we look at the mainstream of language learning, it's stuff like, as you say, apps, like Duolingo, some formal classes, people take adult education or interest classes, things like that. And then online tutoring services, whether they're private or whether it's done through a company. These are the biggest three things I see post formal education.

And then within formal education, there's the ubiquitous Spanish class in high school, beginning of French class in high school. And as you say, you're not spoiled for choice. When it comes to these things, you can choose probably at most one. And, depending on where you are, if you're in North America, it's going to be French, Spanish, maybe German, maybe Mandarin. I don't know. My high school had Japanese as well, but that was kind of a rarity.

So if we look at this landscape and we ask ourselves "is this a good state of affairs?" I think we're forced to say that in general, it's not. Because you don't see a lot of people satisfied with their progress. Whatever their goal may be. You don't see a lot of, “I went to school and studied Spanish for four years and now I speak Spanish fluently and I do whatever I want”. It's not the norm. We can joke about it cause it doesn't really happen. And that's not to say that there aren't cases where it does, where the stars aligned. But the thing about formal classes is they can work but they can also be really bad.

Just from my own personal experience, I live in Ontario. I grew up here. And we all take five years of mandatory French classes. And if you go to the average city in Ontario, and you're trying to speak French with someone, you're not going to have a great deal of luck. Because we come out of this five-year experience —and this five years as children, which is really a great time to be learning languages! And people can't speak, they don't feel comfortable. They don't feel confident. They might recite a few songs that they learned or they can read cereal boxes, but the norm is not coming out of that program with a good command of French.

And I think that's really strange because if you took five years of piano lessons and at the end, you were still struggling to play chopsticks, we'd ask questions. What's going on here? This is clearly not the way to do it. But with language learning and language teaching, we tend to have these low expectations.

Since you are in Ontario, your neighbor Montreal is famously bilingual. I don't know if you know anyone from Montreal, but do you think that the language learning structure there is fundamentally different or there's something else that's making it possible for everyone to be bilingual?

Yeah, that's a good question. I'm not exactly sure what the education system is like in Quebec, but my guess would be that this is specific to Montreal. It is a very bilingual city and that both French and English —as well as other languages, but for the sake of what we 're talking about here— French and English are both used in daily life.

So you're going to get much more exposure. And that is kind of coming into what I want to introduce people to this idea of exposure and how getting the input from your environment is the crucial thing.

New Approaches

Let's dig into that a little bit more. If it's not just this classroom setting and lesson based approach than what is a more effective way to learn languages?

There are two things we have to optimize for when we're learning languages. One is the amount of time that we're exposed to material in the language that we can understand or just about understand. This is called in the “literature comprehensible input”. And this is the one thing that we have to optimize for.

And the second thing we have to optimize for is our enjoyment in actually taking this material in. Because you can have a very effective medicine, but if you don't take it, it's not going to help you. You can have a graded reader that's perfectly at the level that you need to understand. A graded reader for those who haven't encountered it, is a book with controlled vocabulary that advances bit by bit as you go up the levels. So you could have these readers —and they exist for a lot of languages— but if you're not interested in the material in them, you're probably going to read one, do it for an hour, say "oh yeah. I made progress" and then put it away and you never do it. And I say this because this is my story. I am as guilty of this as anyone else because it's not a flaw in the learner. It's a flaw in the method.

And in a lot of cases, it's in a flaw that we can avoid because there is, for many languages, material that we are interested in. I mean, everyone has different interests. Some people really enjoy watching TV dramas. Some people are into music. Some people are into reading about history. There's probably something out there. I mean, it will depend on the language, but if you're studying a language that has a lot of media coming out of it, then there's probably something out there that you are interested in. And maybe it's a little bit above your level. You can't just start out and read hardcore philosophy. If that's your interest, if you know, that's your interest, but there's probably something out there that's better that you'll actually stick to it because it's something that you already do. You have a habit in it already. So if you like watching TV before you go to bed, why not do it in your second language? And then you're getting that input.

Those two things are the advice I give. To optimize for those two things and the rest you can tweak as you go. But without those two things, it's not likely to be as good of an experience.

I like that a lot. It deals with a lot of personal student trauma that I felt. But it rings true to my own experience as well. I speak three languages. One of them is English and the second one is Korean because my parents speak Korean. And then the third one is one that I actually learned for no good reason other than I learned it. And that language is Japanese.

I learned it in high school mostly because, and I'm giving away a bit of a nerd side to me that I'm not sure is good for the internet, but I really liked Japanese media at the time, animes and movies, and dramas that they produced. And so I learned a lot of Japanese by just reading subtitles and hearing the spoken word over the subtitle.

I did take Japanese classes and until now I decided that it was because I took Japanese classes that I could at least understand what the subtitles and the words were saying to me. Is that not true?

It's probably true that it did help. And this is one of the controversies in the field.

There is a kind of hardcore opinion that only input matters and explicit teaching does not at all. And it's even harmful in some people's opinion. But it's an area of controversy. I'm not comfortable saying yes, it has nothing, formal instruction is useless, it's harmful. We don't know at this point whether it's useless, harmful, beneficial. But given that we have limited time in our lives and we maybe want to learn lots of languages or have all sorts of other priorities it's good to focus on the things where it's not up in the air whether it's helpful. Rather where it's quite certain that it's helpful. And the input is one thing where it's quite certain that it's not only helpful, but absolutely necessary. Whether it alone can teach you a language, that's unclear. But you definitely need it.

Now, interesting, you should mention Japanese because, your story is not the only story like that for Japanese. And it's really interesting because a lot of people fear Japanese because it's a famously different language from English. Like the idea that the sentence comes in the exact opposite order, basically as English does. “I store to go” instead of “I go to the store”, but because there's so much media out there that people have a natural interest. You see a lot of success stories with Japanese, especially online. You can find people who learned Japanese from, say, the US. They may have visited Japan on vacation, but they've never lived there. And they get their Japanese is at a point where they can fool people online in these kinds of gimmicky videos where they go on to these chat rooms and pretend to be Japanese. Or Mandarin as well.

You see this working because people have such a strong interest in the input that they're they're consuming so that they don't have to make a little planner to say, "oh, I'm going to consume Japanese tonight". They just want to do it. And they're doing it anyway. So why not? It's just the perfect thing that their interest sharpens all of their efforts in learning the language and makes it so much easier.

That is fascinating. An interesting thing that I'm now remembering about my formal education in Japanese versus my informal one is that there are these conjugations inJapanese at the end of the sentence that have no formal rules.

It's a very specific type of conjugation and I’m forgetting what it does. But it doesn't have any formal rules. There are several variants of it and then you can put one at the end of, I want to say it's the verb. But there aren't any formal rules about which one goes where. It's just kind of a learned thing.

And a lot of my classmates had a really difficult time with that because there's nothing to like systematize. It's just memorize the word and the right conjugation for it. But it made a lot of sense to me. I didn't have to memorize anything cause I just kind of innately knew what the conjugation word was. Even though I hadn't heard the word before.

Interesting. Now maybe this could be due to— did you grow up speaking Korean?

I did.

So Korean and Japanese, the grammatical structures are very, very similar. And to the point where you may have been predisposed to notice that kind of, I'm not exactly sure what this piece that goes on the end of the verb, but this conjugation or ending. If it's one of the sort of things that people have trouble with about Japanese, it's probably the same kind of thing that people have trouble with about Korean. With a background in Korean, you may have been especially able to notice it.

But this comes to a larger point about noticing. And there's some debate in the literature, but it's thought that being able to notice that certain constructions or certain phenomena are happening in a language can help you to learn them.

Now that's not being taught them formally, necessarily. It's not sitting down with a chart and saying, this does this, this in this context, it's this in this context. It's more like being taught about how the language works in a kind of meta way. This is my approach when I don't want to teach people the grammar of whatever language they're studying, mostly because I don't know how, but also, because I don't think it would be that effective. But I can help them to see what sorts of things to look for. And sometimes that key that unlocks this very confusing pattern that you've seen in 300 sentences. You don't know what the common denominator is. And if someone says, "Oh, it's because they're trying to highlight new information", maybe that can sometimes unlock it.

And I've found that's happened in my own language learning practice. You could do it without that, but it would take you longer. And why not just prime your mind to receive that information. So there is some evidence that this kind of noticing does help.

But if linguistics is a young field, second language acquisition is a much younger field. And so a lot is still up in the air and open for questions.

Do you feel like you pick up these languages faster because you are a linguist?

Sometimes it does help, especially when I'm dealing with related languages. Because, say, if we're looking at romance languages, you learn French, you learn Latin. When you learn Spanish, you start to be able to triangulate and say, well, if it's this French, and if it's this and Latin, then it's probably going to be this in Spanish. And those principles are based on historical linguistics. And it works 85% of the time. And that's pretty good, better than guessing.

So that does help. But when we go to farther, you know, more distant languages, then it can help with the noticing. But I think the biggest thing that's helped me is just having spent time with so many different languages and seeing such a wide variety of things you get to start to see what is in common and what kind of strategies there are.

Some people find certain techniques work for certain languages and not for others. So there’s a lot of this kind of practical wisdom —I don't know if you want to call it that. But once you've done it, you start to get used to doing it and you get better at it.

And some of that I think does come from my linguistic background, but some of it just is from a language learning background.

And it sounds like to me, that it really does need to be kind of a lifestyle change.

And this is where as you can imagine, learning multiple languages at a time becomes challenging. Because if you're doing this lifestyle change, you want to incorporate, say, Spanish into your life and live part of your life in Spanish, then you also want to do it in Mandarin. And you also want to do it in Thai, and you also want to do it in Russian. There's only so many hours in the day. There are only so many things you can do.

And so that's why I always tried to be very clear about what my goal is for each language. To get the really, really good high levels of proficiency in all four of the skills —speaking, listening, reading, and writing— you're going to need to have this lifestyle change if you want to do it relatively quickly. But if what you want to do is participate or maybe just learn to read, maybe there are other things you can do. You don't have to go all the way.

It's a living part. I think living part of your life in a language is very underrated. And I'll give an example. I take singing lessons every week. But I take them in Spanish —and that's something that I wanted to do. I found a singing teacher that speaks Spanish, and now I don't have an hour of Spanish practice and an hour of singing lessons. They're the same hour and that's very helpful.

It must also bring you in contact with other methods of speaking Spanish that aren't necessarily conversational.

You get to see different registers of the language —and registers are language as used in different kinds of situations. There's the classroom,tThe way language is spoken in the classroom from a teacher to the student, the way it's spoken among friends, the way it's written in scientific articles. All of these are different forms of the language that, if you want to get to extremely high levels of native-like quality in the language, being able to master these different registers and sound like you're at the bar when you're at the bar and sound like you're giving a talk when you're giving a talk. That becomes essential at these very high levels.

We've gone through all these different methods for learning that are definitely non-conventional, but probably more effective. Why do you think that they aren't the convention?

Yeah. Yeah. Why aren't they? I have some thoughts about this. I think that one thing is that any kind of scientific research takes time to come from the journals, to the textbooks, to the Ted talks, to the New York times bestsellers. I don't think we've had that happen yet for second language acquisition. There are some YouTube channels that promulgate these kinds of ideas and they do a real service. But we haven't had that moment where this revolution in how we understand language learning —to put it in kind of grandiose terms— has really become part of the public mind. So I think that is just a matter of time and taking advantage of the opportunities that come about.

Another issue is that it's hard to build a business around the things that are effective. Because if what's really effective is getting input, then the apps are YouTube, Chrome, Kindle. They're not special language learning apps necessarily and those apps are free or extremely cheap. So there isn't a great incentive to push this. I'm not trying to be conspiratorial about it, but it just doesn't happen to be done because there isn't a strong incentive to have a bunch of people get together and come up with a really great product that does it because it already exists.

That's true. Yeah. The formal education K-12 setting, and I suppose even within higher education in which you're learning a second language, the methods are not profit driven, but they're still not really input driven either. They're more around graded textbooks or...

So it depends on where you are and what language you're learning. There has been some newer methodologies brought into the education systems of different places. And actually one language that's really doing a lot of interesting work in this is Latin, which used to have this stereotype as a very hidebound, traditional, rote way of learning things.

But the Latin instruction that is going on these days, probably because there's a lot more competition for students, a lot of people have reinvented it. And they are leaning very heavily on input based methods. You can see people speaking in whole YouTube channels where people do 10 hour live streams in Latin, because these methods do work. It's really special. I think that is an area —and unfortunately my Latin is not up to scratch to be able to do anything like that— but if I had a year of just time, I would probably go down that kind of road because how amazing it is to be able to speak a language that has formed the written medium of life in a continent for over a millennium. There's so much that you could read, and having that spoken ability translates into being able to read it, sometimes indirectly. It's amazing.

So [unconventional learning education] does exist, but it's uneven and it's probably not the average. Although it's been a while since I've been in the average primary school classroom, so who knows what's going on now. Hopefully it has started to improve and some of this has started to trickle down.

I think it's something that diligent learners rediscover on their own by trial and error. But trial and error is a long process. And if we can shorten that a little bit —there's only so much time we have, and if we want to learn as many languages as we can, it behooves us to spend the time wisely.

That's true. I've never learned a dead language —I suppose, Latin isn't really a dead language anymore— but with an input based process, I don't know if accurate is really like a good measure here...

Because we can only read the things that have been written and the things that have been written or not necessarily the things that are said. In that way is Latin evolving?

Kind of, yeah. You're absolutely right that the kind of Latin that we see is one register of Latin, or maybe a few registers of Latin, but they're all written registers. There's some thought that the way Latin was spoken, when it was a spoken language, was not like the Latin as it was written by say Cicero. That, say, Cicero or Caesar were writing in a very particular style of Latin that did not really reflect everyday spoken [Latin], and that everyday spoken Latin was actually a lot more similar to Italian and Spanish and Portuguese, like the descendants of that same language. But I believe that that's still a matter of some controversy.

So when people are doing these input based methods there are two issues. One is that written input also counts as input. So it's possible for people to use input based methods and then never speak it. It's not the communicative method, which is kind of related to the input based methods.

But I wouldn't be able to say with too much confidence if there have been changes in Latin, as it's used as a spoken language. Now I, my hunch would be that there has, there have been changes, but I don't know what they would be. Fascinating question though.

Higher Ed Teaching

We're coming up on time here. I just wanted to ask a more —well we've been having a meta conversation, but even more meta! You mentioned that you had gone through a PhD, and various issues that are endemic to PhDs. What do you see as a brighter future for learning linguistics?

I really like this model of being able to open it up to as many people as possible and also open up the ability for as many linguists as possible to teach, because I think there's a great hunger for rigorous accurate well-informed information on the part of the public in general. And there's a great desire that's untapped for linguists or even people in other disciplines to teach. Because a lot of us went into these fields because we have a passion for our subjects. We have a passion for teaching. We want to spread the good word of linguistics or whatever the field is.

And somehow the system we have right now, doesn't allow these two things to connect. Because we have people who have PhDs, who have graduated, and there's no job market there. The bottom has fallen out of the job market. That's no way for them to have a comfortable, not even comfortable, a non anxiety ridden lifestyle, because people are constantly having to apply for jobs every year, move from city to city. Everything's precarious. It's not a good situation for those would-be teachers because that's what a lot of them, us, me too, want to do.

And at the same time, a lot of the information is just stuck in these classes. And people have been doing great work, putting information online, say on YouTube. There's now a crash course linguistics that's been done, there are some podcasts. But if you want to go beyond the basics, it sort of drops off. So you learn the intro material, you get comfortable with that, and then it's nothing. And then you can read papers and there's a huge gap here. And I think it could be filled if we had the right model for it.

And I think that this indie education movement that we are both, in our way, parts of has some great potential to be that connecting bit that is structured to make the supply and demand meet up and help each other.

To teach these kinds of like basic courses, it's not really necessary for you to be like a super expert on language. It's probably helps, but you don't have to be. Whereas in this higher education field, we're sure that everybody who is teaching in linguistics spent a long time thinking about, writing about, reading about the field.

Yeah. I think it's valuable for the student to know that their teacher has a connection to what's going on in the field now and isn't just reciting the same intro textbook content. And that it has some connection to the real issues that are debated today. I think that's very valuable. Because often the way that it's presented in a textbook assumes a set of backgrounds or interest, which may not be what your students have.

For instance, I often end up teaching people who have computer science backgrounds and linguistics and computer science have several interesting points of contact that are not virtually ever mentioned in introductory textbooks. And you don't really necessarily get to learn about those until you go into more depth. I didn't learn about them until graduate school. So I think it's valuable to have that broader base so that you can adapt your lessons to fit the students and to teach them more effectively. I think I've forgotten the second part of your question.

The second part of my question is around trust and building trust, because learning is such a vulnerable activity in and of itself.

Yes. I think that it's reasonable for the student to want to know what their teacher knows. But the information problem is as a student, you're not really qualified to judge the teacher's knowledge because it's by definition something you don't know.

So this whole question of credentials among its other functions, which I'll put to the side, it was a way of outsourcing this question of credibility and reputation. Because you knew that the system of universities, whatever else it did, had this rigorous peer review process. It didn't grant degrees to just anyone, blah, blah, blah. You have to go through a long harrowing marathon of understanding a topic very deeply. So that was part of the puzzle. But there's also this question "did it really do that job?".

People who have gotten through that ringer and are still not good at teaching. Maybe it's just not a priority for them. Maybe it's not something they're interested in. So it's not sufficient to tell you that the person will be able to teach you effectively. And it's not even necessary because there are also people who are, say, coming from an applied background who have been practicing something for decades depending on the thing [who want to teach]. There's a mismatch. If the PhD is neither sufficient, nor necessary, what is it?

And the best I can come up with is that it's a signal that should raise your expectations. But then you have to look at where does this person fit into a larger community of learning? Have they gone off and started elaborate theories about how all languages originate from Swiss German that no one else interacts with because they don't really make sense. Those letters after the name doesn't tell you the whole story, but it gets you part of the way for these fields, in which that there is the tradition of apprenticeship and teaching through the graduate school system.

The relationship between research and teaching. So the PhD in general —I’m not sure what the PhD is like for linguistics— my father was a PhD in sciences and in my peripheral experience of what his PhD wasn't very much about teaching.

It was very much about research and paper writing and then maybe he taught, but it wasn't a big part of his PhD experience. Perhaps it's different in linguistics, but there is a [strange] relationship between research and teaching within the higher education program.

I would say linguistics is not significantly different from that setup. That's not to say that there aren't linguists that are very passionate about teaching, but the overall incentive structure doesn't really encourage you to spend a lot of time developing your teaching skills.

There's this idea of the university as having the two missions which they were to advance. The frontiers of knowledge on the one hand, and to also educate the public on the other hand. These two missions have not turned out equally well, I would say. We have a very dominant side to research and a much less developed side for teaching.

And of course now things are changing because of, of this remote learning stuff. And, I think, it's a really great moment to reassess what we're doing in higher education. To the extent that I'm still in it, even though I'm outside of it to a certain extent, I still see this higher education as being something that can exist outside of universities and can have more of a public focus without constantly staying at the introductory level.

Yeah. Well, this was great. This was an amazing hour-ish of chatting. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot.

It flew by for me.

Meta-Skills in Language Learning

To the peanut gallery. Colin is running a course on hyperlink that starts in about a week, right?

A little bit more than a week at this point on the 16th of January.

Do you want to give us the elevator pitch for it?

So course is called Meta Skills for Language Learning, and it deals with a lot of the things that we've been talking about today. Basically it's giving you a toolkit to be a better learner of languages over the course of your lifetime.

We talk a lot about the science behind second language acquisition. We talk a little bit about the kinds of linguistic theory that can give you that key to unlock some of the difficult things in the languages that you're learning. It's really a place where we can plan out our language learning journey throughout the next year and try and come up with a better way to do it, and become reflective practitioners of language learning.

It's a four week course. We meet on Saturdays and it's from 12 to two Eastern time. So I hope I can see some of you there.

I will definitely post links everywhere where this video, transcript, whatever so be sure to check that out. And thank you again, Colin for coming and chatting.

Oh, thank you Celine.