Babbel’s VP of Product Design Scott Weiss is an industry leader in user experience. From learning machine code as a teen to writing the world’s first textbook on mobile user experience, Scott was at the forefront of product design years before the term was coined. Since joining Babbel two years ago, Scott leads two cross-functional teams of designers and engineers. As a mentor and champion of Babbel’s flat hierarchy, Scott’s accomplishments are best evidenced by the time and care he devotes to his quickly expanding teams.
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…
Lena (pictured with her colleagues Ben and Sophie) works in Babbel’s Didactics team, creating and optimizing our language courses. She and her colleagues, who are linguists, teachers, instructional designers and, of course, language enthusiasts, handcraft learning content and tools that help our users meet their individual learning goals. In a series of three articles, she’ll write about some of the pedagogical considerations Babbel’s language experts must keep in mind when creating content for millions of learners. First off, it’s all about diversity!
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.
Exciting news at Babbel: Geoff Stead recently joined as Executive Vice-President of Didactics. He now leads the diverse team of language experts responsible for creating and optimizing Babbel’s lesson content.
Geoff has a well-established reputation for using mobile and other emerging technologies to improve learning, communication and collaboration. In previous roles in both the UK and the USA, he led teams developing innovative digital learning products.
Recognized as an expert in the field, he is often invited to give keynote speeches on emerging educational technology trends. Geoff took some time to answer my questions about his deep experience in the industry and the philosophy that has guided his career so far.
Megan Toon, originally from the UK, works in Babbel’s Public Relations team. In time for International Women’s Day on March 8th, Megan takes us deeper into the perspectives and backgrounds of Babbel’s employees from across the company, in order to reveal the diverse ways women working at Babbel engage with gender, language and technology in the startup industry.
Samuel is the fresh-faced Editor and British-English ‘Besserwisser’ (know-it-all) on Babbel’s Didactics Team. In 20 years of continent hopping he has picked up an unhealthy smattering of French, German, Portuguese, Finnish, Czech, Croatian, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Scottish, Kiwi and American English (lol). Here he writes about his latest project, which combines metaphor, idiom and colloquial language with (crackpot) British humour. The first of Babbel’s gripping new English narrative courses keeps learners on the edge of their seats while they discover how to converse like an English-language native. Tune in to the situational comedy series “Fowlmouth Farm” – an immersive course for advanced learners, taught almost entirely in English.
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.
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…)