Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Too strong to get out

At four, my nephew speaks English (his dominant language) very well. He still shows some interesting divergences from the standard of those around him, though. Some are influenced by German (a close second): he uses "mine" as a determiner in English (like German "mein") rather than "my", saying things like "mine house". Others seem to result from language-internal overgeneralization, as when he said:
  • If I push the Lego box then the carpet will destroy. [intended meaning: be destroyed]
Presumably, he's interpreted "destroy" as a labile verb, like "open" or "burn".

At first blush, I thought the following sentence was another example of overgeneralization:

  • I'm too strong to get out, so you can't. [intended meaning: I'm too strong for anyone to get me out]
However, reflection suggests that this ought to be perfectly grammatical in English, since "get out" is already labile. "This stump is too heavy to pull out" works fine, so why not "I'm too strong to get out"? Yet, for me at least, the clause immediately receives a pragmatically absurd interpretation with "I" as the subject of "get out", and the obviously intended interpretation is barely accessible even when I've consciously concluded that it should be grammatically acceptable.

In terms of the classic Chomskyan analysis of control, the two interpretations correspond to different unpronounced pronouns PRO:

  1. Ii'm too strong [PROi to get out]
  2. Ii'm too strong [PROarb to get PROi out]
A lot of linguists really dislike the idea of an unpronounced pronoun. Whatever its psychological merits, though, this analysis has the advantage of suggesting why the first interpretation comes more easily than the second here: it only involves one empty pronoun, whereas the desired interpretation needs two. So if anything is going wrong in this sentence, it's not so much the syntax as the pragmatics: an adult speaker might be more aware that listeners could have trouble processing a clause of this form, and avoid it in favour of something less ambiguous. That would need empirical checking though.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

How Tunisia ruined its PISA performance

PISA 2015 is an OECD-run survey intended to evaluate education systems worldwide by giving the same test to (almost) all students of the same grade across a large number of countries and comparing the results. This years' results have gotten a lot of coverage, notably for the dismal perfomance of all the Arabic-speaking countries participating. The UAE did least badly in terms of combined scores, managing 48th place out of 70; it was trailed by Qatar (59th), Jordan (61st), Lebanon (65th), Tunisia (66th), and, most ignominiously, Algeria at 69th place, barely beating the Dominican Republic.

Laudably, PISA have made their science tests publicly available online in many languages, including four Arabic versions labelled Israel, Qatar, Tunisia, and the UAE - don't ask me what happened to Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Browsing through these, one immediately notices that the Tunisian translation (unlike the Gulf ones) has a remarkable number of grammatical errors, typos, and phrasings so awkward as to be barely comprehensible. For instance:

  • Bird Migration 1: "يستعملون العدّ الذي يقوم به المتطوّعين" - wrong case: should be المتطوّعون
  • Bird Migration 1: extremely awkward phrasing: "هجرة الطيور هي حركة موسمية كبيرة، يتنقل أثناءها الطيور نحو أماكن تكاثرها أو هي تعود منها." ("Bird migration is a great seasonal movement, during which birds move to the places of their reproduction and they come back from them.") Contrast the clearer phrasing in the Qatar version: "هجرة الطيور الموسمية هي انتقال واسع النطاق للطيور من وإلى مناطق تكاثرها. وفي كل عام يتولى متطوعون إحصاء عدد الطيور المهاجرة في مواقع محددة."
  • Bird Migration 3: the bird's name is "الزقزوق الذهبي" in the text, but in the question it turns into "الزقزاق الذهبي".
  • Running in Hot Weather 1: Garden path title: anyone looking at "العدو في الطقس الحار" is going to read it as "the enemy in hot weather", at least until the context is established. Contrast the Qatari translation "الجري في الجو الحار", using a better known, graphically unambiguous term for "running".
  • Running in Hot Weather 1: Grammatical error in "يدل على ذلك {كمية العرق | ضياع الماء | درجة حرارة الجسم} العداء بعد ساعة من السباق": for the sentence to make sense (even in dialectal Arabic!), none of the alternatives should contain the definite article, since they form part of an idafa genitive. Contrast the Qatari version, which avoids the problem by putting "للعداء".
  • Running in Hot Weather 2: Garden path sentence: "شرب الماء خلال السباق يمكن أن يكون له تأثير على حصول تجفّف وضربة حرارة بالنسبة إلى العداء. أيّهما؟ " Anyone reading this will start by reading the first word as šariba "he drank", giving "he drank water during the race, it can have an effect..." and only after the fifth word will they be in a position to read it, as intended, as "Drinking water during the race can have an effect on the occurrence of dehydration and heatstroke for the runner. Which of the two?" Having gotten that far, they'll still be given pause by the need to decide the intended referents of "Which of the two?" Contrast, yet again, the much easier to read Qatari version: " ماهو تأثير شرب المياه خلال الجري على تعرض العداء للجفاف وضربة الشمس ؟ " (What is the effect of drinking water during the race on the runner's exposure to dehydration and heatstroke?")

I could keep going, and no doubt more fluent Arabic speakers can find problems I haven't even noticed, but the pattern is clear: Compared to Qatari students, to say nothing of Western ones, Tunisian students were systematically disadvantaged in the PISA 2015 science tests by bad translation.

Whose fault is this? Clearly there was a failure at the level of PISA's international verification, which should have eliminated such problems. But the translations themselves are carried out at the national level (PISA2012 Technical Report Ch. 5). In other words, this mess was produced by Tunisian translators under the direction of the Tunisian government.

How is that possible? Simple: in Tunisia, appallingly enough, science is taught in French from the start of secondary school onwards. Science teachers have little need to keep up their Standard Arabic proficiency. Which raises the question of why this test, targeted at 15-year-olds, was administered in Arabic there to begin with.