Nonverbals in football

The kiss

In the US right now there is a lot of buzz about American football, after the playoff games this past weekend determining who plays in the Superbowl, coming up soon. As is always the case in football, the games on Sunday were not just athletic contests but spectacles, in which lots was happening beyond sports, including interesting nonverbal communication. In the game between Kansas City and Baltimore, much of the attention was focused on one particular fan, Taylor Swift, in the audience to cheer for boyfriend Travis Kelce, a player for Kansas City. One of the memorable nonverbals was their kiss on the field at the end of the game.

The taunting

Most of the nonverbals in football games involve not kisses, but dances or other celebrations when touchdowns are scored, which has become common practice in professional football. In the Kansas City game, a turning point revolved around a different kind of nonverbal, namely taunting on the part of a Baltimore player, Zay Flowers, after a tackle. He was called for a penalty, which stopped his team’s momentum. Later in the game, Flowers was about to cross the goal line and score, when the very player he had taunted knocked the ball out of his arms, preventing a touchdown. Seemed like karma.

The pinched fingers

That incident brought to mind a story from the New York Times recently on that topic of football and nonverbals. It deals with a gesture made by backup quarterback for the New York Giants, Tommy DeVito, an Italian American. In the words of Mark Rotella, the article’s author, DeVito, after throwing for a touchdown, “raised a right hand and pinched his finger and thumb together in an Italian gesture that means, roughly, ‘Whaddya want?’”. The player subsequently used the gesture again several times and later was picked up by fans, as well as being used mockingly by opponents after sacking the quarterback.

The author, himself an Italian-American, very much identified with DeVito’s gesture and discussed in the article how important hand gestures are to Italians (and to Italian-Americans). Stereotypes tend to have an element of truth to them, which according to Rotella is the case here, as of all ethnic groups in the world, Italians have the most widespread reputation for using body language to communicate.

Language change

Jean Patrick Niambé, Ivorian rapper, Arlette Bashizi for The New York Times

In workshops I gave this fall in Vietnam on the use of AI in language learning, one of the topics we discussed was the change in English language use brought about through the AI frenzy of 2023. I used as an example a Doonesbury cartoon that highlighted the shift from the career benefits of being a “creative” to the now more lucrative role of becoming a “promptive,” i.e., doing prompt engineering. Traditional careers as lawyers and artists are presented as going away (replaced respectively by ChatGPT and Midjourney), leading to the need to find a “side hustle.” “AI” itself was named the most notable word of 2023 by Collins dictionary. Lots of other AI terms have entered this year into everyday language in English including “machine learning” and “large language model.” “Prompt” is now inevitably tied to AI use.

Language change happens in myriad ways, one being through technological and societal change, another through demographic shifts. That is illustrated in a recent article in the New York Times on changes to French through new uses of the language in the growing number of French speakers in West and central Africa:

More than 60 percent of those who speak French daily now live in Africa, and 80 percent of children studying in French are in Africa. There are as many French speakers in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in Paris. Through social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube, they are literally spreading the word, reshaping the French language from African countries, like Ivory Coast, that were once colonized by France.

The article chronicles how young people in Africa have adapted French creatively in entertainment and the arts. One rapper comments, “We’ve tried to rap in pure French, but nobody was listening to us,” so language used in rapping is adjusted to the social realities of local life. An example of an African neologism having gained wide use is the verb “enjailler” to mean “having fun,” a word originally used in the Côte d’Ivoire in the context of jumping off and on buses in Abidjan. Traditional words have been given new meanings:

In Abidjan this year, people began to call a boyfriend “mon pain” — French for “my bread.” Improvisations soon proliferated: “pain choco” is a cute boyfriend. A sugary bread, a sweet one. A bread just out of the oven is a hot partner.

Interestingly, this development comes at a time when the influence of France in Africa has declined. Some countries have evicted French ambassadors and troops and French has lost its official status in several countries (Mali, Burkina Faso). This demonstrates that language change has a dynamic of its own, often unpredictable and not controllable by political policies or government dictates.

The Beatles, AI, and authenticity

I’m in Vietnam currently, giving workshops on using AI tools in teaching English. Yesterday, we looked at what ChatGPT, Bard, and Bing might suggest as “best practices in using AI in language learning and teaching”. One of the suggestions was using AI chats as “authentic” language practice. That has set me to wonder what that word means in the context of AI text generation. That topic has been raised this month with the release of a new Beatles song, a musical group that disbanded over 50 years ago, with only 2 of the 4 members still living. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the issues related to that release:

Does it really make sense to use a song originally written by [John] Lennon alone, with no known intention of ever bringing it to his former bandmates, as the basis for a “Beatles” song? Is Lennon’s vocal, plucked and scrubbed by artificial intelligence and taking on a faintly unnatural air, something he would have embraced or been repulsed by? “Is this something we shouldn’t do?” McCartney asks in a voice-over, but neither he nor anyone else ever articulates exactly what the problem might be. “We’ve all played on it,” McCartney says. “So it is a genuine Beatle recording.” On one hand, who is more qualified than McCartney to issue this edict of authenticity? On the other: Why did he feel the need?

The author makes the point that this is quite different from what we all have been worrying about with AI, namely brand new “fakes”. In this case it is an example of using tech advances to, in the author’s opinion, make money from recycling old material:

The worry is that, for the companies that shape so much of our cultural life, A.I. will function first and foremost as a way to keep pushing out recycled goods rather than investing in innovations and experiments from people who don’t yet have a well-known back catalog to capitalize on. I hope I am wrong. Maybe “Now and Then” is just a blip, a one-off — less a harbinger of things to come than the marking of a limit. But I suspect that, in this late project, the always-innovative Beatles are once again ahead of their time.

The question of authenticity has one that is at the core of the communicative approach to language learning, with the idea that learners should not be working with made-up, simplified language materials, but be provided with real-world materials that native speakers would themselves might be accessing. For the materials to be comprehensible, learners are supplied with “scaffolding” (annotations, notes, glossaries, etc.). Online materials have been a boon in that respect, in contrast to most materials in textbooks. Now, AI is making the question of authenticity and attribution much trickier. AI generated materials are not products of native speakers, so should we treat them, as we do manufactured texts as lacking in authenticity? Certainly, the cultural perspective is missing, which is one of the principal benefits of using “authentic” materials. Stay tuned, as AI and attitudes towards its output are evolving rapidly.

A Confederate hero finally gone

Robert E.Lee’s head about to be melted down

This week the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, (just down the highway from me in Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy) was melted down, to be later transformed into a new statue of some kind, likely representing ideas and beliefs very different from those Lee’s statue represented. The statue was built during the Jim Crow era and was designed to champion the “lost cause,” the claim that the  cause of  the Confederate States in the Civil War was just, heroic, and not about maintaining slavery in the South (which it was). An article in the New York Times puts the Confederate monuments (many of which were here in Richmond until recent times) into context:

Confederate monuments bear what the anthropological theorist Michael Taussig would call a public secret: something that is privately known but collectively denied. It does no good to simply reveal the secret — in this case, to tell people that most of the Confederate monuments were erected not at the end of the Civil War, to honor those who fought, but at the height of Jim Crow, to entrench a system of racial hierarchy. That’s already part of their appeal. Dr. Taussig has argued that public secrets don’t lose their power unless they are transformed in a manner that does justice to the scale of the secret. He compares the process to desecration. How can you expect people to stop believing in their gods without providing some other way of making sense of this world and our future?

There has been a lot of discussion about the Confederate statues since 2017, when the Alt-right marches happened in Charlottesville (in large part to protest the planned removal of the Lee statue) and even more since 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. Some have argued the statues should be kept as a historical record, perhaps with more in-place context provided (information on the origins and intended meaning of the statues). The NY Times article argues that the fate of the Lee statue was appropriate, given that no possible recontextualization or relocation (to a museum) would please everyone and that the original statues were erected with great fanfare:

That’s why the idea to melt Lee down, as violent as it might initially seem, struck me as so apt. Confederate monuments went up with rich, emotional ceremonies that created historical memory and solidified group identity. The way we remove them should be just as emotional, striking and memorable. Instead of quietly tucking statues away, we can use monuments one final time to bind ourselves together into new communities.

The city of Charlottesville has awarded the remains of the Lee statue to The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which leads Swords Into Plowshares, a project that will turn bronze ingots made from the molten Lee into a new piece of public artwork to be displayed in Charlottesville.

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Hip hop worldwide and social change

Afghan rapper and activist Sonita Alizadeh (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

This year, 50 years of hip-hop or rap music is being celebrated. While recently country music has been in the news (particularly Try that in a small town and Rich men north of Richmond – see my blog post) due to controversial positions on social and political issues, hip hop has since the beginning integrated into its lyrics themes of social inequality and discrimination against African Americans. “Gansta rap” of the 1990’s dealt largely with violence and drug use, while also being accused of promoting misogyny and gun use.

Although identified with the US and inner-city Black communities, hip hop has in its 50 years spread across the world, used often as a tool for social change. A recent piece in the public radio show, Here and now, discussed a number of examples, as shown below. It would be easy to find examples from other cultures. The story points out that “the genre has been the voice of various generations demanding social change and even revolution: Rappers in Tibet are using hip-hop to preserve the traditional language. And in Tunisia, hip-hop even helped launch the Arab Spring.”

While the musical style of hip hop remains anchored in its North American roots, the language and culture of rappers adapts to the local conditions. This is imperative if the music is intended to carry a social message and effect societal change.

E

l général, “the voice of Tunisia”


‪Dekyi Tsering‬ ལམ Road “yang sal དབྱངས་གསལ། ”


Sonita Alizadeh “Daughters For Sale”

“Rich men north of Richmond” and Dylan’s “Only a pawn”

Oliver Anthony in 2023

The Republican debate this week of presidential candidates (minus Trump) began in an unusual way, with an exchange over a song, “Rich men north of Richmond,” by Oliver Anthony. The country-music-style song has hit the top of the Billboard charts, despite the singer being unknown. It’s an angry workingman’s anthem complaining about the “rich men” north of Richmond (i.e. politicians in Washington, D.C.) over low pay (overtime hours for bullshit pay), lack of respect (cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down), and control over people’s lives (they all just wanna have total control / wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do). There are also complaints familiar from right wing US politics such as welfare cheats (taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds) and over-taxation (your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end). Included as well are conspiracy theories such as the QAnon pedophilia story (I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere). Since then, the singer has insisted that his views have been misinterpreted (despite the song lyrics) and complained over the use of the song in the debate.

“Rich men north of Richmond” is not a call to action, but a cry of frustration:

Lord, it’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is

The popularity of the song taps into the sense of grievance felt by many in the US that the mainstream economic, social, and political systems in the US are against them; a perspective that Donald Trump rode to the presidency in 2016.

Bob Dylan in 1963

Interestingly, this is the 60th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Music was a big part of that event, with folk singers Joan Baez leading the crowd in “We shall overcome” and Bob Dylan singing protest songs such as “Only a pawn in their game”. The latter song was about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. The target of the song is racism, portrayed as leading not only to discrimination but to the existence of violent groups such as the Ku Klux Khan. Dylan portrays Medgar Evers’ assassin as a “pawn”, a poor white man manipulated by the “game” played by white supremacists:

But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

As in Oliver Anthony’s song, politicians too are to blame:

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train

The persona in Oliver Anthony’s song is part of the aggrieved population (people like me and people like you); the emphasis is on victimhood – we are being trodden down by the elites. Dylan’s perspective is less personal, from the outside, reporting on injustice, calling for civic engagement. The most widely sung protest song of the 1960’s was “We shall overcome”, which invites the singers to celebrate solidarity with all groups and to believe in a future better, more just world. That reflects Dr. King’s message from the March on Washington, a vision of a society free of racial prejudice: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The March on Washington was instrumental in leading just months later to new civil rights legislation. The sentiment expressed in “Rich men north of Richmond” may or may not be harbinger of things to come but it certainly has resonated widely in the US. It remains to be seen whether that might lead to an aggrieved former president finding enough support to reclaim the White House.

 

Barbie’s origin story: Lilli, the German sex kitten doll

Barbie and Bild-Lilli

The Barbie movie comes out this week and has been heavily hyped in the media (lots of pink!). Barbie has been a controversial figure, representing a stereotypical male-gaze version of women (blond, thin waist, oversized breasts). Reacting to criticism from feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the toy company marketing the doll, Mattel, tried to counter the Barbie image with the release of black and Hispanic dolls. I commented on “Treetop Barbie” in 2019, which portrays the doll as a forest canopy researcher. That was better received than the 2014 book, Barbie: I can be a computer engineer, in which Barbie is shown having the idea for a video game, but has to have her male friends actually do the coding. Apparently, Greta Gerwig’s movie will feature many different versions of Barbie in various professions.

It may be that it has been difficult for Mattel to change the image of Barbie due to its origin, as a heavily sexualized doll, Lilli, who first appeared in a comic in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung in 1952 and was then released as a doll in 1955. In the comic strip Lilli, a secretary, appeared scantily clad and portrayed in provocative poses.

Known as “Bild-Lilli” in Germany, the doll was particularly popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s with men. According to a recent article in Business Insider, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as suggestive keepsakes” (citing the Robin Gerber biography of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler). Handler had seen the Lilli doll on a trip to Europe and on her return to the US convinced Mattel to create Barbie. The striking similarities between the two dolls led to multiple lawsuits between Mattel and the German company producing Lilli, Greiner & Hausser. BTW, Lilli too spawned a movie, Lilli – ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt (Lilli, a Girl from the Big City) released in 1958.

In an interesting contrast, this week is also the start of another high-profile event featuring women, the World Cup; in this case highlighting athletic prowess rather than appearance

Is this English: “Get down from the car!”?

For anyone familiar with the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Florida, it will come as no surprise that in the Miami area (and elsewhere in the state), everyday language use is characterized by a mix of English and Spanish. “Spanglish” is a term used to describe the influence of English into spoken Spanish. Now a linguist at Florida International University (Phillip Carter) has published findings that indicate a new version of English is emerging in the Miami area which is heavily influenced by Spanish. An article on the research in Scientific American provides some examples:

“We got down from the car and went inside.”
“I made the line to pay for groceries.”
“He made a party to celebrate his son’s birthday.”

For most speakers of North American Spanish, those sentences sound strange. In fact, as Carter points out, these are “literal lexical calques,” i.e., direct, word-for-word translations.

“Get down from the car” instead of “get out of the car” is based on the Spanish phrase “bajar del carro,” which translates, for speakers outside of Miami, as “get out of the car.” But “bajar” means “to get down,” so it makes sense that many Miamians think of “exiting” a car in terms of “getting down” and not “getting out.” Locals often say “married with,” as in “Alex got married with José,” based on the Spanish “casarse con” – literally translated as “married with.” They’ll also say “make a party,” a literal translation of the Spanish “hacer una fiesta.”

Carter provides additional examples that are based on phonetic transfers: “’Thanks God,’ a type of loan translation from ‘gracias a Dios,’ is common in Miami. In this case, speakers analogize the ‘s’ sound at the end of “gracias” and apply it to the English form.

A YouTube video provides further examples from Carter’s research:

A multicultural sash: opening the floodgates?

The Mexican-American graduation sash

At a high school graduation in Colorado, a student of Mexican-American heritage wanted to wear a sash to celebrate her bicultural identity. The school’s administration refused her permission with the justification that “allowing that regalia would ‘open too many doors.’” The student, Naomi Peña Villasano, sued the school but a federal judge last Friday upheld the decision barring her from wearing the sash. According to an article in the New York Times, at the graduation on Saturday, Ms. Villasano flouted the ruling and wore the sash anyway, apparently without incident. The article points out that Ms. Villasano’s case comes amid disputes elsewhere about what is protected free speech at commencement ceremonies. In Oklahoma on Thursday, the State Legislature overrode Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of a bill allowing students to wear Native American regalia at high school and college graduations.

In fact, schools in the US have recently become flashpoints for disputes that reflect the stark polarization in the political climate in the country as a whole. In Virginia, that was seen recently in new standards for teaching US history, with a first version of the standards downplaying the mistreatment of Native Americans, who in fact were described as the first “immigrants” to America. In many states, history curricula have been changed to align with Republican views opposing teaching the less savory sides of US history, such as the effects of slavery on the situation of African Americans today. Discussing sexual orientation in schools has also been a target, especially any introduction of topics related to LGBTQ+. That has led to book bans in many localities, including in the county next to mine in Virginia, Hanover County. There a local organization recently gave the school board a list of around 100 books it wanted banned. According to a news report from a local TV station, the group who submitted the proposed ban-list highlighted reasons ranging from content like “alternate gender ideologies” and “controversial social and racial commentaries,” to “alternate sexualities” and “self-harm.” A parent in the report commented, “We have seen this before. The Nazis have tried to burn books and erased the contents of those books.”

Indeed, the trend is very worrisome, as removing books from circulation stifles the ability of children to learn from the experiences of fictional characters (or of historical figures) that might mirror or illuminate their own lives and help them with the development of their personal identities. On a more positive note, I heard today that the English Department at my university (VCU) is seeing an uptick in the number of declared English majors entering the institution. The reason, according to the Department Chair: young people’s opposition to book banning.

“You can’t see me” gesture and racism in sports

Caitlin Clark using "You can't see me" gestureThe recent Women’s NCAA basketball tournament captured the attention of the US sports watching public, something unusual for women’s sports. Games were exciting and featured players like Caitlin Clark from the University of Iowa, whose play was described in the New York Times as “transcendent” and “electrifying”. She is also a player who makes rich use of nonverbal communication on the course, raising her hand up to her ear to rouse the crowd or holding out 3 fingers on each raised hand to signal 3-pointers, her go-to shot. But she also has used gestures to “trash talk”, as in repeatedly using the “You can’t see me” celebratory gesture, popularized by wrestler John Cena.

The use of that gesture by Clark did not generate much in the public space until last week’s championship game, won by Louisiana State University (LSU) over Iowa. In the closing minutes, LSU’s Angel Reese using the gesturestar player, Angel Reese, herself used the gesture in front of Clark. She also held up her hand to Clark, pointing to her ring finger, meaning that she, not Clark, was going to be receiving the championship ring. After the game, Reese, who is African-American, was widely criticized for using the gestures. Reese subsequently defended herself, stating that Clark, who is White, had not been accused of disrespect for using the “You can’t see me” gesture. She also pointed out that Clark, in Iowa’s game against the University of South Carolina, had used a “wave-off” gesture to mock South Carolina guard Raven Johnson, while Johnson was on the 3-point line and Clark was at the foul line, indicating that Johnson didn’t need to be guarded because she wasn’t capable of making the 3-pointer (although later in the game she scored three 3-pointers).

It’s hard to see the difference in reactions to Clark and Reese as anything other than racism, holding a Black player to a higher standard than a White player. Clark herself afterwards stated that she was not bothered by Reese’s gestures and defended the right of women to engage in trash talk, as has long been customary in men’s sports.

Today is Easter on the Western Christian calendar, which this year coincides with the periods of other major religious observances, Passover and Ramadan. It should be a time of peace, reconciliation, and renewal. But conflict is rife today, from the ongoing war in Ukraine to Black Tennessee lawmakers being expelled yesterday from the state legislature (over protesting a school shooting). Violent conflict is occurring in the holy city of Jerusalem where clashes have taken place in the last few days at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located close to historical and holy sites in Judaism and Christianity, notably that of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Conflict is perhaps inevitable in sports events, where it emerges naturally from competition, but wouldn’t it be great if that were its only manifestation in human affairs? And if it took only the form of nonverbal mockery?

Working longer? No thanks!

Commuters in South Korea

This post on work life is a follow-up to the comments on “quiet quitting”. Expectations for how long people should work (hours per week) and how long they should keep working (retirement age) vary substantially from culture to culture. In the US, the 40-hour work week has been legally mandated since 1940. The retirement age varies depending on how old one is; for those born in 1960 or later the age is 67, although it is possible to retire earlier with reduced benefits. Not much has changed in terms of the work timetable in the US for quite some time, although of course the pandemic changed where many people worked. Periodically, there is interest in moving to a four-day work week (with the same pay for 32 hours/week). Recently, for example, there has been some buzz about the recent success in Great Britain of switching to that system in a large variety of companies.

However, elsewhere there are proposals to make significant changes to work life. One that has been in the news recently is the suggestion in South Korea to move to a 69 hour (!) work week (from the current 52, which includes overtime hours). South Korea has long had an expectation that workers put in substantially more work hours through overtime or participating in after-hours work-related social activities. That has been the case as well in other South Asian countries such as Japan. The proposal in South Korea from the country’s president has been met with resistance, especially from younger works who have little interest in conforming to a “live to work” culture.

Meanwhile, in France, the French President has also made a proposal affecting work life, namely that the French will need to work till age 64, rather than the current retirement age of 62. That proposal, now officially promulgated (without a vote in the legislature) has, as in South Korea, led to wide-spread protests. The French, by the way, have a 35 hour work week, a far cry from what’s been proposed for South Korea.

Of course, the actual “on the clock” work time may not be a true reflection of the time devoted to work or at least to be available for work-related tasks. That too varies by culture. In many jobs in the US, for example, it’s routinely expected that employees be reachable electronically after hours. Many people in the US check their messages in the evening and on weekends. That’s quite different from the situation in most European countries, where there is still a separation between work life and home life. The Germans have a proverb: “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps”. That literally translates as work is work and schnaps is schnaps, the meaning being that when I’m at work I focus on work, but when the work day is over, I’m off the clock and ready to enjoy life (i.e. drink Schnaps, or maybe beer). I know from working with colleagues in Europe not to expect them to answer emails over the weekend, and particularly not when they are on vacation. Maybe that’s a “work to live” outlook that the workabholic US and South Korean cultures could learn from.

Caste discrimination banned in Seattle

This past week the City Council of Seattle voted to ban discrimination based on caste. This references the hierarchical social division in South Asia which places some castes, such as Brahmins higher than lower-ranked castes, particularly Dalits (formerly called “Untouchables”). As Seattle is not located in Asia, but in the US state of Washington, this action might appear surprising. There are, however, a large number of South Asians in Seattle, many drawn to the city to work for tech companies such as Microsoft, which are located there. In India, discrimination based on caste still exists despite being officially banned. The ordinance from the City Council is designed not to prevent discrimination against Indians or South Asians in general (that’s already illegal) but targets discrimination within the immigrant community. There have been several legal cases in recent years from Dalits who allege unfair treatment in employment. The public radio program The World did an illuminating series on caste in America.

Many in the US are likely to be unaware of caste distinctions and probably would not be able to tell what caste someone belongs to. How do Indians themselves tell? An Interview recently on the World with Yashica Dutt, the author of “Coming out as a Dalit” pointed to the different ways that Indians can determine what caste a person belongs to. The first is the person’s name, which can reveal information such as the region of India your family is from, your native language, and your religion – all information that points to caste identity. An online Indian name decoder provides such data based on family names. If the name is not revelatory, according to Dutt, the person might be asked where they are from and whether they are a vegetarian (Brahmins are). Additionally, someone’s clothes may be an indicator, especially if they are wearing the “sacred thread” (an indication that one has passed through a Hindu rite of passage). Another interesting tell for South Asian professionals she mentioned is to find out what a person’s rank was in engineering or medical college in India.

For foreigners the caste system may be invisible but for South Asians it is quite real and can have real consequences on how one is treated by others. In that way it is a bit reminiscent of colorism in societies where there tends to be mixed populations of dark and light-skinned people. That includes Brazil, South Africa, the United States, where often darker-skin people are discriminated against.

ChatGPT and the human-machine relationship

There has been an eruption of interest recently in generative AI, due to the public release of ChatGPT from OpenAI, a tool which, given a brief prompt, can generate in seconds texts of all kinds that are coherent, substantive, and eerily human-like. The availability of such a tool has led educators, especially in fields relying on essay writing, to wring their hands over students simply turning in assignments written by ChatGPT. Some have embraced GPTZero, a tool designed to determine whether a text is written by an AI system (in my testing, it was hit and miss in its accuracy). Some school systems have banned the use of ChatGPT.

I believe that is the wrong approach; I believe we need instead to help students use AI tools appropriately, adjust writing assignments accordingly, and lead students to understand the limits of what such tools can do (there are many). ChatGPT will soon be joined by similar tools and their abilities are sure to grow exponentially. That means they will see wide use in all domains of human activity. In their real lives after graduation, students will be expected to use such tools; let’s prepare them for that future. I argued last year for that position in a column in Language Learning & Technology (“Partnering with AI”).

In a forthcoming LLT column (“Expanded spaces for language learning,” available in February), I look at another aspect of the presence of such tools in our lives, namely what it means in terms of the human-machine relationship and in understanding the nature (and limits) of human agency. A spatial orientation to human speech, which emphasizes the primacy of context (physical, virtual, emotional, etc.) has gained currency in applied linguistics in recent years. Rather than viewing language as something set apart from spatio-temporal contexts (as was the case in structuralism or Chomskian linguistics), scholars such as Pennycook, Bloomaert, and Canagarajah show how the spatial context is central to meaning-making. This perspective is bolstered by theories in psychology and neuroscience that cognition (and therefore speech) is not exclusive to the brain, but rather is embodied, embedded, enacted, or extended (4E cognition theory). That places greater meaning-making emphasis on physicality (gestures, body language) as well as on the environment and potential semiotic objects in it (such as AI tools!). I argue that an approach helpful in understanding the dynamics at play is sociomaterialism (also labeled “new materialism”). This is an approach used widely in the social sciences and more recently, in studies in applied linguistics. It offers a different perspective on the relationship of humans to the material world. Reflecting theories in the biological sciences, sociomaterialism posits a more complex and intertwined relationship between an organism and its surroundings, for us bipeds that translates into a distributed agency shared by humans and non-humans (including machines).

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

A spatial orientation to language use and language learning illuminates the complex intertwining of people and artifacts physically present with those digitally available. The wide use of videoconferencing in education, for example, complicates concepts of local and remote as well as online versus offline. Neat divisions are not tenable. Mobile devices as well represent the intersection of the local and the remote, of the personal and the social; they are equipped to support localized use, while making available all the resources of a global network. From a sociomaterial viewpoint, the phone and user form an entanglement of shared agency; smartphones supply “extensions of human cognition, senses, and memory” (Moreno & Traxler, 2016, p. 78). The sensors, proximity alerts, and camera feeds function as stimuli, extending cognition while acting as an intermediary between ourselves and the environment. For many users, smartphones have become part of their Umwelt, an indispensable “digital appendage” (Godwin-Jones, 2017, p. 4) with which they reach out to and interact with the outside world.

A sociomaterial perspective and 4E cognition theory problematize distinctions of mind versus body, as they also qualify the nature of human agency. The increasing role that AI plays in our lives (and in education) adds a further dimension to the complex human-material dynamic. AI systems built on large language models produce language that mimics closely human-created texts in style and content. A radical development in writing-related technologies is the AI-enabled incorporation of auto-completion of phrases into text editors and online writing venues, as well as suggestions for alternative wording. Auto-completion features in tools such as Google Docs or Grammarly raise questions of originality and credit. That is all the more the case with tools such as ChatGPT which are capable of generating texts on virtually any topic and in a variety of languages. O’Gieblyn in God, human, animal, machine: Technology, metaphor, and the search for meaning (2021) argues that due to the powerful advances in language technologies, we need new definitions of intelligence and consciousness, an argument bolstered by 4E cognition theory. In consideration of the language capabilities of AI tools today, particularly the text generation capabilities of services such as ChatGPT, we also need new understandings of authenticity and authorship.

O’Gieblyn points out that AI is able to replicate many functional processes of human cognition such as pattern recognition and predicting. That derives from the fact that language generation in such systems is based on statistical analysis of syntactic structures in immense collections of human-generated texts. That probabilistic approach to chaining together phrases, sentences, and paragraphs is capable of producing mostly cohesive and logically consistent texts. Yet these systems can also betray a surprising lack of knowledge about how objects and humans relate to one another. This results in statements that are occasionally incoherent from a social perspective. This is due to the fact that AI systems have no first-hand knowledge of real life. Unlike human brains, AI has no referential or relating experiences to draw on. Since the bots have no real understanding of human social relationships, they assume universal cultural contexts apply to all situations, not making appropriate distinctions based on context. This can lead to unfortunate and unacceptable language production including the use of pejorative or racist language.

The deep machine learning processes behind LLM-based chatbots do not allow for fine tuning or tweaking the algorithms. Today we have better insight into human neural networks through neuroimaging then we do into the black box of artificial neural networks used in AI. That fact should make us cautious in using AI-based language technologies in an unreflective manner. At the same time, advanced AI tools offer considerable potential benefits for language learning, and their informed, judicious use—alongside additional semantic resources that are contextually appropriate—seems to lie ahead for both learners and teachers.

Last statue down

Statue of A.P. Hill being removed

This month the last remaining statue of a Confederate War hero, A.P. Hill, was removed in Richmond, Virginia. That concludes a movement that started with the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, with the series of statues on Monument Avenue being taken down one by one. The last statue on that street, of Robert E. Lee, was removed last year. The statues, erected during the Jim Crow South, celebrated the “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery. The A.P. Hill statue took longer to remove because he was buried under the monument and Hill’s descendants filed a lawsuit against its removal. According to Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, “Over two years ago, Richmond was home to more confederate statues than any city in the United States. Collectively, we have closed that chapter. We now continue the work of being a more inclusive and welcoming place where all belong.”

The hope expressed by Stoney that Richmond (and the US as a whole), had turned a chapter on racism with the reaction to the death of Geoge Floyd has not been fully realized. It was perhaps naïve to think that long established views embedded in willful ignorance and prejudiced worldviews could be changed by clear evidence of the institutional mistreatment of African-Americans, most obviously by the police. But perhaps the removal of statues celebrating slavery and white privilege can help move the needle somewhat. At the least, in Richmond, African-Americans from 2023 on no longer need live among monuments that celebrate their history of enslavement.

Creative symbols of protest

Protesters holding up the Friedman equation

If it is not possible for citizens to verbalize their views on issues of concern, it may be possible for them to use nonverbal means of expression. That is a necessity for protesters in countries run by authoritarian regimes. Some interesting ways of protesting are emerging from China in recent weeks. That includes protesters waving blank sheets of paper, while others make use of mathematical formulas to make their statements. According to a recent piece in the Guardian, the blank white paper represents censorship, and may also “be read as a reference to the deaths last week of ten people in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which was blamed on lockdown restrictions that protestors believe prevented the residents from escaping in time. In China white is a colour used at funerals.” A startling video was posted online of a woman holding a blank piece of paper, with a gag over her mouth and her arms chained. The formula that is being used for protesting is the Friedman equation, which governs the expansion of the universe. There are two symbolic meanings here as well. The first is that the pronunciation of Friedman is similar to “free的man” (free man), a cry for personal freedom. The second is the idea of “opening up” which relates to the meaning of the formula, symbolically referring to the need for the Chinese government to free cities from COVID lockdowns.

The public protests are very unusual in China, where even peaceful demonstrations are quickly broken up. It’s also remarkable that the protests are being held in many cities across China. As one might expect, the universities in China have seen numerous protests. As a result, many of them have been closed down and students sent back home. While the most recent protests have been sparked by the fire in Xinjiang, they have gone beyond calling for Covid lookdowns to be eased, with calls for not just freedom of expression, especially online, but even for the ouster of leader Xi Jinping. In China, those are dangerous opinions to voice.