Monday, November 10, 2014

Conversation with Star Trek: How does the Universal Translator work?

Letter to Andre Bormanis, of Star Trek, written around 2001
The first episode of Enterprise included a language lesson that was unworthy of the 22rd century. In fact,
it was unworthy of the beginning of the 21st century.
It employed a methodology that was discredited decades ago. In the class, taught by Ensign Sato, cadets were taught an alien language by listening to the teacher model a sentence, attempting to repeat the model, and having their efforts corrected by the teacher, a
method very similar to what is known as the audio-lingual method. This method have been repeatedly demonstrated to be an extremely inefficient and in
fact painful way of acquiring another language.
The theory of second language acquisition with the most supporting evidence maintains that we do not acquire language when we speak it, or when we get our errors corrected. It is also not the result of learning and memorizing grammar rules. Rather, we acquire language when we understand it, when we understand what people tell us, and when we understand what we read. According to this view, speaking is a result of language acquisition, not a cause, and grammatical accuracy develops gradually, as language acquirers receive more comprehensible input. The entire process of language acquisition is subconscious; while it is happening, the acquirer is not aware it is happening. In addition, language acquirers are generally not aware of the rules they have acquired; this knowledge is represented subconsciously in the brain.
A class consistent with this view of language acquisition would look very different from the one Ensign Sato was teaching. In such a class (termed “Natural Approach”), the role of the teacher is to provide students with interesting and comprehensible messages in the second language. For example, Ensign Sato might be telling a simple story, using pictures and other objects to make the story more comprehensible.
Students would be free to respond using either the language they are acquiring or in English. If they chose to respond in the second language, their errors would not be corrected. Also, they would be encouraged to indicate when they were not understanding, and the teacher would be very alert to signs of incomprehension.
Ensign Sato might also use a technique called Total Physical Response (developed by Prof. James Asher of San Jose State University), giving students commands, and modeling the movements called for; for example,
she might command the students to sit down, and
actually sit down herself, command them to stand up,
and stand up herself, command them to raise their
right hand, and do so herself, etc.. Her movements
help make the commands comprehensible. Gradually, the commands get more complicated, as students’ competence increases, and the physical movements can be part of a game.
Methods based on the principle of comprehensible input have been a consistent winner in the research for beginners and for intermediate level students.
Students in these methods perform much better than students in traditional, grammar-based methods when the test used is communicative (eg conversation, reading). When tested on grammar, students in comprehensible input-based methods do as well as grammar students, or slightly better.
The Star Trek Universal Translator operates on the
principle of comprehensible input. When the UT absorbs
a new language, it does not produce examples to see if
they are right (output plus error correction); rather,
it relies solely on input, gradually acquiring the
language as it understands what it hears. This gradual
process of acquisition via input is demonstrated in
the Deep Space Nine episode 30 (Sanctuary).
In this episode the UT is, at first, unable to
translate what DS9 visitors, the Skrreeans are saying. Gradually, the translator succeeds. DS9 officers are at first only
able to understand individual words, then larger
units, whole sentences, and then everything the
Skrreeans say. What is interesting here is what the UT did not
do: It did not kick in right away, with crude attempts
at translation, have its efforts corrected, and did
not then try again. Rather, it went through a “silent period” of no or limited output.
The UT thus works the same way as the human brain does in acquiring language, gradually acquiring more of the language as it understands it better.
Language clearly plays a central role in the Enterprise series. Star Trek should at least be up to date on research in this area, and rely of what is known in 2001 rather than the state of the art in 1960.
I can provide extensive documentation of the validity of this approach, as well as demonstrations of lessons.
Stephen Krashen, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Education University of Southern California

Dear Stephen:
Thanks for your letter; I thought I'd responded to you shortly after I received it, but evidently not. Blame the combination of 80 hour work weeks and aging gray matter on my confusion...
Your points of course are well taken. In more recent episodes, we've tried to show ensign Sato encouraging aliens to speak and recording their language to obtain the beginnings of a "translation matrix." She also uses her own knowledge of linguistics and the numerous alien languages she's already learned figure out the basics of an alien grammar and program the UT.
The real problem on a show like Enterprise is time. We only have
44 minutes and 33 seconds to tell our stories, so we can't spent
too much screen-time watching Hoshi work her UT. But I hope we are at least giving viewers the sense that the UT is a kind of learning machine, acquiring language in a way similar to the way children learn, albeit at a much accelerated rate (I think we can be granted
a little dramatic license on that).
I hope that featuring a linguist as a regular character on the show will, if nothing else, encourage kids to believe that the subject
is cool and possibly fun to learn. I think it's utterly
inexcusable that primary school students in this country aren't required to learn a second language, given how easily children can learn language.
Thanks again for your letter. I do appreciate feedback from experts, and try to incorporate what I learn from them in our scripts. Hope you continue to enjoy the show.
Sincerely, Andre Bormanis
Date: Thu, 3 Jan 2002 10:01:00 -0700
To: Andre Bormanis Subject: Re: language acquisition and the universal translator
Thanks for your note. Yes, the subsequent UT material on Enterprise has been consistent with how I think the UT works to both acquire and translate at the same time.
Just for the record, our research strongly indicates that adults
acquire language the same way children do and the way the UT does, by understanding messages. Not by learning grammar, but from listening, conversing, and reading.
A note on Ensign Sato:
Our research also shows that some people are perfectionist with language, reluctant to use it until they have consciously learned
all the rules. This is a bad strategy, because it inhibits communication, and hurts language acquisition, because it means less input. Ensign Sato has tendencies in these directions. Recall that in Fight or Flight, Archer had to force her to speak to the aliens even though she hadn't completely mastered the language yet. This was a good scene.
I think that Sato is a good character, and yes, featuring a linguist does a lot for linguistics and language education.

1 comment:

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