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language learning in the digital age

Babbel: Perspectives speakers series kicks off with stimulating debate on Gender and Language

Posted on February 19, 2018 by

Zach works on Babbel’s Communications team, where he facilitates the exchange of knowledge and insights between his colleagues and experts in various academic disciplines, including linguistics and economics. Among these initiatives is Babbel: Perspectives, a new lecture series in which invited guest speakers and Babbel employees take on challenging and controversial topics. Zach hosted the first edition of Babbel: Perspectives on January 24, 2018; the focus was Gender and Language. The event put Kate McCurdy,  a computational linguistics engineer at Babbel, in dialogue with economists Eva Markowsky and Luise Görges.

Babbel is a learning company. As language learning experts, our goal is to inspire millions of people to start having conversations in a new language. This focus on conversation, on dialogue, is not just central to Babbel’s pedagogical method or commercial ambitions: it’s also a model for how we as employees contribute to building the kind of company we are proud to work for.
In recent months, a raft of initiatives and projects addressing issues like diversity, gender and identity in the workplace have been brewing at Babbel. All of these are rooted in dialogue, debate and a spirit of collaboration across disciplines. These include, but are definitely not limited to, Babbelonians volunteering to translate of the European Resistance Archive (ERA), our efforts to cultivate more diversity in our engineering team,  and the Stranger Talks lecture series. The Stranger Talks, in particular, are a unique venue for Babbelonians to discuss how difference and diversity transform how we work and improve both our company’s culture and increase our brand’s relevance to people from all walks of life. Crucially, these projects have come together organically, through the intuition and hard work of many people. I believe the effects are already palpable.
It is in this context that Babbel: Perspectives offers a chance for us to bring this spirit of dialogue and inquiry into controversial topics out into the open. The lecture series will invite speakers who offer unique points of view on issues facing us as members of the Babbel community and the wider community. We will also be opening each event up to selected members of the public. Our primary goal is simple, but very much in line with our aim as a business: to spark productive and maybe even heated conversations. We’re eager to see how these reverberate inside and outside of Babbel.
Here’s a recap of our first edition.
Gender and Language
Babbel: Perspectives vol. 1 featured Eva Markowsky and Luise Görges, economists at Universität Hamburg presenting their research along with Kate McCurdy, a Senior Computational Linguistics Engineer at Babbel. In two presentations and a subsequent panel discussion, they posed some very tricky questions regarding the subtle interaction between gender and language, and how invisible biases pervade our society.
As economists, Eva and Luise are broadly interested in understanding why western societies still haven’t reached gender equality. In some of their research, they’re using the science of economics and its versatile methodological toolkit to investigate how language contributes by affecting cognition and therefore behavior. One surprising potential channel is the grammatical system of one’s native language
Eva and Luise, along with their supervisor, professor Miriam Beblo, are using econometric methods in a highly innovative way to interrogate whether our native language constitutes a form of “priming,” and how that might affect women’s behavior in the labor market. They offered their thought-provoking analysis and insights to the general public for the first time during Babbel: Perspectives.

Kate McCurdy sounded the alarm regarding the potential for AI and machine learning algorithms to replicate human biases when it comes to gender. Recent research has established that English language word embeddings, a popular Natural Language Processing technology used in machine learning applications, adopt the biases of human culture. For example, gender stereotypes in which men are more closely associated than women with powerful careers, reproduced with regularity.
The contribution Kate and her Babbel colleague Orguz have made to this field of research is their discovery that these gender biases also appear for word embeddings from other languages (e.g., German, Spanish and Dutch). Furthermore, these biases can interact with grammatical gender when grammatical gender maps onto human gender. This can lead to confusing and contradictory outcomes, reinforcing gender stereotypes in widely used downstream applications like popular translation apps. Kate’s presentation explored both the implications of and possible correctives to these built-in tendencies.

The highlight of the night for me was the panel discussion, during which all three presenters took questions from the audience. They began by debating some of the understandings about language’s role in cognition which underpin Eva and Luise’s research, and moved on to consider potential repercussions of gendered language (and gendered languages).

The next installment of Babbel: Perspectives will take place on May 3. Watch this space for more.