Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More data

More data---such as paying attention to the eye colors of the people around when crossing the street---can make you miss the big truck.

Nissim Taleb, Antifragile.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Would you make your child inhale gasoline fumes?

Nobody would dream of sitting children down to expose them to gasoline fumes for two hours in an enclosed space. But people---even schools---think nothing of exposing children to dangerously high volumes of music. Today I attended a school outing as a volunteer child-self-destruction-preventer for my son's school at Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin. Quite apart from the sheer mediocrity of the music and the show itself, which I can live with, I was literally blown away by the volume of the sound the children were inflicted with.

What is going on? Are there even any laws in Germany about how much noise children can be exposed to? I know that there are laws about how much space a child may occupy in a school; what about how much noise a child may endure without damaging their hearing?

The general level of insanity regarding music has steadily been rising since I arrived Germany in 2002. In trains, people play music so loudly through their earphones that I have to carry noise blocking headphones (these are used for gun practice in the US) to be able to work in silence. In gyms people listen to music on headphones (and the gym plays loud music over speakers on top of that!);  it's not possible to exercise in silence any more.

It's hard to care about grown up people; let them deafen themselves if they like. Buy why are children being forced into going deaf early? Surely they should be a given a chance to retain their hearing?

Today was the last time that my son has been dragged to a "show" by the school.  Never again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Elementary school admission saga

So, finally, my son's elementary school admission saga is over. I thought I'd write up a little summary of what happened for the benefit of other clueless parents.

Berlin has many bilingual schools, covering a tremendous range of language pairs (German-X, X some language). These are state-funded, and therefore essentially free. This is great. But: it is not easy to get into these schools. We are talking primary school, 6 year old kids. New Yorkers will laugh at my saying this, but we are not New York, hell, we are not even the United States (thank goodness). The procedure the government has set up for getting people into these schools is quite absurd.

My main grouse is that children have to take an entrance test that is quite complicated. I can see why one needs such a test; it is important to make sure that the kid is indeed bilingual. However, what these tests do is that they are ensuring that only fluent and balanced bilinguals can pass the test (and the child gets percentage points; passing marks are something like 85%). So, someone like my son, who is fluent in English but doesn't always want to talk to strangers, failed one such test because he didn't answer the questions immediately. I asked my son what happened, and he said, he was thinking; I would not be surprised if he noticed an ambiguity in the question and was considering what interpretation to take (he's very pedantic and always wants a precise specification of the question; probably all kids are like this?). This school designated him as a German speaker because he didn't speak English fluently, and because "his father is German". His father *is* German, but he's German in the same sense that medical personnel practice good hygiene.

The test lasts 20 minutes, and they ask you to solve puzzles, count, to name body parts of a teddy bear, and such like things, and you lose points if you code-mix (mix up English and German and produce a kind of hybrid sentence). How about that? Which true bilingual does not code-mix?

The problem with Germany is that it's a monolingual society---they have no idea what a bilingual is. Some dumb-ass bureaucrat sitting in an airless office looked up at the ceiling, pulled his thumb out of his ass, and decided that a bilingual person should be able to speak in only one language. Makes sense; after all, if a person speaks one language, they should be able to speak in that language alone, so if they speak two languages... This reminds me of a bureaucrat I went to four years ago to ask for permission to send my son to a Kindergarten so that he would get more German exposure. She said, no, I could not do that, because everyone knows that children cannot acquire languages before the age of 2. Punkt. I told her I am a professor of linguistics and I would like that in writing so that I could refute that statement, and she gave me permission (I have used this trick before, to ask for a refusal in writing---this scares them).

Our son did about six such tests (three with private schools), he apparently failed several: all the private schools that held interviews refused to take him (maybe my wife and I were too dowdy for them---we also got interviewed, so maybe it was we who failed). He failed in one of the state schools, and passed in the other two, and he is set to start in one of the schools in August.

Another annoying aspect is that you have to deliver your preferences regarding school in an ordered list; this goes to the Berlin government. You get a good chance of getting into your first priority school, but the chances of getting into the second or lower priority school are practically zero. Application rates are never released, so there is no way to judge what the best school is in terms of being the one with the least competition, you just have to guess. This is so unnecessary; all they have to do is show us the previous years' application to admission ratios. So, if you make a bad choice, i.e., a very competitive school, you could be in trouble.

One thing I did manage to find was the school inspection reports for all the schools concerned. It was a useless report in all cases, it didn't give me any useful information about the schools. For example, many of the schools lose points for not practising something called "differentiated learning". So, pretty much all schools get low scores on that front, and pretty much all of them get relatively high scores otherwise. Either the instrument the surveyors used is useless or they don't know how to do the ratings.

So, if you want to know which school is good for you, either you talk to other parents who know the scene (in our case, we know nobody), or you just use your own judgement (that's what we did, but I also talked to an education specialist in Potsdam Uni, and she was the only one who gave me good advice).

We also applied to John F Kennedy. Initially, my wife was very interested in that school, and indeed it's a good school (although weak in science and math I have heard, but a mathematician whose kids go there told me that). But we had a humiliating experience going for a lottery where he didn't get in, and that was a real downer.

Another annoying aspect of this school business was the absence of any confirmatory information. We got a letter from the school after a long wait, early this year, that he was in, and rejection letters from the other state schools. The acceptance letter asked us to fill in an "I accept" form and then send it to them. I went to deliver it personally because of the extreme unreliability of Deutsche Post. Once I delivered it, they said, OK, you're all set, you can go. So, at this point, I am expecting a receipt---what is the proof I have accepted? If they lose that small piece of paper, they could easily assume we haven't accepted. I do admit I am more paranoid than strictly needed; but I have had so many situations where I could not prove this or that that I now always need to have proof. These rare events are not as rare, it seems. Anyway, they said I would not get any receipt and that the initial confirmation letter was proof. But that was only proof that they offered me a position, not that I had accepted it; this subtlety was lost on them. Then I had to wait months before a true confirmation came in, which to my mind is the moment when I can stop worrying about this school admission stuff.

I see that I overreact a bit to all this. I should just chill and let it all hang out. I have done that too; it often doesn't end well!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Growing up trilingual deprecated (in Germany)

I just learnt from an acquaintance who's bringing up her 5 year old boy trilingual (Hindi, English, German) that the speech therapist he goes to has told her that she made a mistake to bring up her son speaking three languages, because "three is too much." These speech therapists are supposed to have gone through rigorous training before they are allowed to go out into the real world to improve, I mean, screw up, people's lives. This is a very practical profession with very real consequences for the real world. How could such uninformed ideas enter this specialist profession?

In the meantime, the mother is thinking of weaning her son off of Hindi, "because it's useless in Germany" (said the German speech therapist).

This reminds me of a recent German reviewer of one of my research projects that I submitted to the DFG (the proposal was rejected, and despite DFG's loud proclamations that they always send reasons for rejections, and completely contrary to anything I've ever seen in the case of the NSF, I never received a single sentence explaining why the project was rejected). This reviewer had a major objection to the project (as far as he expressed it to me): why are you working on Hindi? Why Hindi? Why not some other language more relevant to Germany, like Turkish?

Another time, a reviewer of an experiment involving German we submitted to the CUNY sentence processing conference in the US. The reviewer asked: why are you working on German, why not English? (To which my co-author replied: Because English is a bastardized version of German.)

And an Indian student of mine once went to a German high school to talk about her research on Hindi, and the school teacher asked, why should our tax money pay for work on Hindi? Why indeed.

It's as if any language other than the one right in front of you is irrelevant, and maybe (if these speech therapists are to be believed) even dangerous.