Mobile technologies have proven enormously transformative in the developing world, expanding possibilities for freedom and democratic agency. We see it daily, in the news headlines we read each day (often on mobile devices).
Community responses to extreme weather events. Police accountability. Popular mobilization and consciousness-raising.
The movement from margin to center these tools have inspired for so many has deepened the resonance of utopian visions in recent art and literature. For example, imaginations across the world were captured by Black Panther’s Wakanda, in part, because the liberatory potential of technology had been the direct experience of millions.
At the same time, these technologies have given rise to oppressive and deeply authoritarian forces, as well. The tracking of mobility, surveillance, data-harvesting and the corresponding engineering of public trust and political institutions all continue to generate headlines, daily. What’s often forgotten is that the superficial democratic features of mobile technologies obscure the fact they are not public utilities and not publicly accountable. The capital that develops them, and in turn the power behind them, is incredibly concentrated — policing the boundaries of possibility, nodding in the direction of George Orwell’s 1984. Wakanda, tellingly perhaps, recreates this subtle, unspoken tension. A utopian vision nested within a monarchy, the distribution of its technological power visibly uneven.
The third installment of Babbel: Perspectives, our in-house speaker series in Berlin, sought to explore this tension in all its provocative, unsettling richness.
Samuel works in Babbel’s Didactics team, designing and optimizing our English courses to deliver the most effective and engaging learning experience possible. With our most recent Advanced English course, the lessons get learners conversant in everything from gender identity, to gentrification and urbanism, to new workplace models. We sat down with him to talk about why fluency in these themes serves not just learning, but how we show up to the world.
I think, first, we should talk about: Why an English course in English? The logic of that may not be apparent at first glance.
Yeah sure! Language learning is all about talking, right? You see it’s pretty much agreed these days that the more exposure a learner gets to the language they’re learning, the faster and more effectively they’ll learn it. In a classroom setting it’s now normal that a language is taught almost exclusively in that language from the start. And it works. That’s what I learnt as an English teacher… and as someone who successfully scaled the formidable cliff-face of German as an adult with no prior familiarity. And as someone whose work and personal life are now largely conducted in German, I’m the proof in the pudding, so to speak.
But, of course, I always had a friendly teacher on hand to explain things when I didn’t have a clue what was going on. With Babbel Classic at beginner and intermediate level, we introduce new vocabulary and explain things in the learner’s native language to make sure there’s no confusion. For advanced learners this becomes unnecessary, as they should already have a solid enough knowledge of the language they’re learning to cope with simple instructions, guidance, etc. In fact, it’s important at this stage that the learner develops the ability to be able to work things out for themselves, as they would in real life, using the knowledge they already have in a given context to work out the meaning of longer texts, audio recordings, new phrases and sentence structures.
Nicki Hinz works in the Didactics Team here at Babbel, designing our courses and optimizing lessons to bring users the most intuitive and effective learning experience. As part of our in-house presentation series, Strangers, she recently delivered a breakdown of what gender-neutral language offers us, as language-learners and as a community. A deeper dive seemed in order, and she graciously sat down for a chat about it.
I suppose it should be obvious, given we work with language-learning, but what made you want to tackle this topic as part of the Strangers series?
In the Strangers series we want to really consider the different aspects of diversity from all angles, even from angles that might not be as high-profile or obvious at first glance. But as we’re working with lots of different languages every day, it becomes evident that there are problems inherent to some languages when it comes to how we talk about people. German is an excellent example, as we have the suffix -in to denote that a certain profession is female, e.g. der Lehrer (male), die Lehrerin (female). So what about people that do not identify with the traditional binary gender framework? If you’re genderfluid, for example, you might feel left out. You can see phenomena like this in other languages as well: Is a “gunman” necessarily always male? Other languages like French or Portuguese also denote gender in adjective endings, but it’s still a matter of one of two possible genders. The reality we live in looks quite different: we are transgender, genderqueer, intersex, non-binary, genderfluid, female, male…
Joshua works in Babbel’s Communications team, identifying and developing strategic storytelling in various mediums. As part of that work, he co-curates the Babbel: Perspectives lecture series, putting critical scholars on stage with voices inside Babbel. The aim is to invite the Berlin community into discussions that begin from provocative and even unsettling reference points, and put those things in conversation with language-learning, technology, and our lives more broadly.
The second edition, White Space in the Virtual and the Real, featured an American cognitive scientist and an African studies scholar from Berlin, tackling how attention is socialized around whiteness at multiple levels — from visual design, to urban geography. They were joined by Babbel’s VP of Product and UX, Scott Weiss.
Babbel’s Didactics team knows that language-learning is more than drilling vocab and grammar. It’s a swirl of elements, in which motivating factors do battle with challenges and discouragement — many of them having very little to do lessons or exercises. To better understand it all, and better tailor Babbel’s methodology to the details of the learning journey, the folks in Didactics have turned their colleagues into study subjects, putting them through 90-day language challenges. With one in the books, and another underway, we sat three participants down with Ben and Nicki -the challenge architects, who were participants, themselves- to discuss what they learned.
The second instalment of the Strangers Talks series – the Babbel employee initiative exploring issues of difference and diversity – was an exploration of representation and gender in marketing. Looking at imagery from marketing campaigns across different moments in advertizing’s history, Babbel’s Ben Davies unpacked the persistence of stereotypes in all manner of marketing, and the often insidious messages they carry. It was provocative enough to warrant a bit of follow-up discussion, here.
This was, on the surface anyway, a rather specific topic, given your talk was effectively one of the inaugural presentations in the series. And I guess I’m wondering whether you were working less from a place of principle or aspiration, and more from a place of necessity. Did the intersection of gender and marketing seem particularly pressing to you for some reason?
I think for me, this was very much a necessity. Within the movement for gender equality, there is discussion happening constantly about portrayals of women and men in various mediums, be it in television shows or in music, but what struck me as odd was that images from marketing rarely made it into discussions on portrayals of gender. Perhaps this is because we don’t consider marketing anything more than this annoying thing that tries to get us to spend our money, but the fact remains that images from advertising make up a large portion of the imagery we are exposed to everyday. Even on an unconscious level, this will start to have an effect on a person. (more…)
Big innovations in machine-learning have made some unsettling headlines the last year, holding a mirror to our own persistent biases by adopting them. When it comes to gender stereotypes, there’s a double-jeopardy nestled in how machines learn languages. Babbel’s computational linguist, Kate McCurdy, has been looking at how algorithms conflate semantic and grammatical gender, what this could mean for any application of so-called Artificial Intelligence, and how we might think about correcting course.
So, how about we start by just breaking down your project?
So, I’m looking at grammatical gender in word embeddings. Word embeddings are a kind of natural language-processing technology that are used in a lot of things. The core of this is an algorithm that learns the meaning of a word based on words that appear around it. In the past few years, we’ve seen pretty major developments in this area. Lots of research is happening, and big companies like Facebook and Google are using these technologies. A couple of years ago, there was this new algorithm that allowed you to train a model quite quickly and get these representations of word meaning that seemed to be really impressive. So, you could just automatically let it loose on a corpus and it would learn, for example, that “dog” and “cat” and “animal” are all related, or that “apple” and “banana” are related, without anybody explicitly telling it to. This is quite powerful, and it’s being used in a lot of technological applications. But we’ve started to notice that there are some issues with it. (more…)
Toward the end of 2017, a number of Babbel employees launched an ongoing series of internal presentations now known as The Stranger Talks – a sort of salon aimed at highlighting difference and diversity as ways of innovating and transforming how we work. The inaugural talk, given by Lars in our Didactics team, served as an introduction to the project’s central themes. We sat down to chat about it, and reflect on its impact. (more…)