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A year and a half later

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on 2013 March 13 by Asad Sayeed

Been a while, eh? I’ve largely tended to post on Twitter, because it’s easier, and I can do it when I have an off-handed thought on the bus.  But German-language Tweeter and blogger 3c5x9 requested on Twitter a few months ago now that I actually write a blog update to my life in Germany.  Since it’s easy to procrastinate, thus I did.  I actually have a lot of thoughts, and if I actually don’t drop the blog for another few centuries, I might expand on them, but here are some highlights.

On the job

So I’m 18 months into this job, and I can say it was a very good choice.  If I may say so myself, Vera Demberg and I remain at the bleeding edge of computational psycholinguistics as well as at the intersection between theory, experiment, and application. We’ve defined for ourselves an ambitious problem: how to characterize the relationship between syntax, semantics, and overall cognition via the notion of “cognitive load,” the burden of cognitive processes on the language user.  Our main (but not exclusive) syntactic framework: Vera’s PLTAG formalism. Our semantic vehicle: Neo-Davidsonian event semantics.  Our experimental framework: eye-tracking, particularly pupil diameter as a measure of cognitive activity, and we use information-theoretic techniques to measure this from a language-internal side.  And our application: multitasking with language in an automotive setting.

We already have some interesting results on all these fronts, some published, some in the process of being published.  And on another note, I found I fit quite well into the intellectual culture here, give or take my in-Europe-unfashionable tendency towards Chomskyan minimalism.  I found myself adopted by the German comp. ling. community quite easily.  In a sense, some of my ways of thinking about things, particularly my interest in formal structure, never went as out of fashion as they have in North America—until recently.

Country

If you leave out the, uh, little matter of language, then Germany is basically 90% a Standard Developed Western Country.  People tend to work Monday-Friday, they draw cash from very familiar ATMs, they go to the movies or watch TV, some people eat at MacDonald’s, and soon, and so forth.  Salaried employees get a Lohnsteuerbescheinigung at the end of the year, which is just like a Canadian T4 or US W2 slip—good to know that tax returns, at least, are the same concept everywhere.

BUT, a lot of little details are contained in that 10%, especially if you’re coming from North America or possibly even English-speaking countries in general.  For example, the strange practice of Haftpflichtversicherung, widespread personal liability insurance.  It was only by chance that I even figured out it was necessary (prospective landlady trying to explain it to me and bugging out that I didn’t grasp the concept—turns out it wasn’t my German, I simply didn’t believe it).  The necessity of obtaining a Anmeldebestätigung from the Einwohnermeldeamt (residency registration from the resident’s office).  The widespread absolute Sunday closure of retail including basic supplies—unless you want to go to a gas or train station, where they will rip you off.  They have a special exemption because a carton of milk is obviously a necessary travel supply…

Not all differences, of course, are inconveniences, just so that you don’t catch me focusing on the negative.  During opening hours, the shopping concept is far cheaper and more convenient, at least for basic groceries.  The train network is heaven-sent, for a North American.  It’s a day trip for me to go to Frankfurt or Paris, and not terribly expensive either.  I have a nationwide smartphone plan and a USB data stick as well as unlimited DSL for a tiny fraction of what I was paying in the USA, for service that is no slower for my purposes and certainly at least as reliable. And the weather in Saarbrücken mostly suits me very well, very pleasant summers.

Some differences are simply neutral, and just have to be learned.  Now that I’ve had my current apartment for over a year, I’m learning the little differences in home maintenance.  You always say “Guten Appetit” before a meal with more than one person. (German eyeballs seem to fall out when I tell them that an equivalent custom doesn’t exist at least in North America.)  Little things like that.

Language

I had a bit of a head start on this, as I took four years of German classes when I was in high school in Ottawa.  This got me up to a fairly high level of “theoretical Deutsch”, meaning that I knew my Zustandspassiv from my Konjunktiv II.  It helps that I transitioned directly from there into linguistics, so that grammar has been at the forefront of my mind ever since.

Naturally, this wasn’t sufficient to become a participating member of society.  But it gave me a hook to progress quicker than circumstances would otherwise appear to afford—with help from the dearly-appreciated Max Planck Institute’s free language classes.  My current teacher has said that I could probably pass a B2 exam with a high score if I wanted to (language proficiency levels are standardized in Europe), and likely even C1—second highest official rank for foreign learners.  This does NOT mean that I am yet truly conversationally fluent, merely that in combination with some test-taking strategies, I can prove to the examiners that I am not an idiot, heh.

Conversational fluency requires actual conversation, and at work there are too many foreigners who don’t speak German for this to happen—what you get when you want to recruit highly-specialized researchers on the world market.  My reading proficiency is probably at C2 easily, otherwise, and I can make myself understood in written form.  But functioning in society really requires being forced to use the language, and very many foreigners who come here do not, especially when the workplace is international.  For me, part of the problem is confidence—I am a terrible pedant and am terrified of “hurting” the language through grammatical errors, like getting noun genders wrong!  Irrational, I know.

Still, there is a misconception that it is economical to live in Germany without German.  I strongly consider this a false economy.  Non-German learners simply forego many things, including things that could make their lives easier, cheaper, more convenient. Even a little bit of German proficiency can mean the avoidance of a stupid, expensive mistake. I may not yet be so great over the phone, but I am sure glad I do have some German experience.  (But, contrary to what you might think, my previous German experience was simply a happy coincidence—I didn’t choose Germany for German, but because it was a job I wanted.)

People and culture

Now we wade into thorny territory here, and what probably requires a separate blogpost.  So, let’s just say that brown people from English-speaking countries have a thoughtless belief that central Europe is white homeland of whiteness, where everyone is blonde and white—and many people I knew were sort of dubious about this aspect of my move.

Of course, for Germany at least, that hasn’t been true for a long time.  That someone is not exactly white doesn’t mean that their first language isn’t German or they weren’t born in a town outside of Stuttgart to German-speaking parents!  It is by no means all roses (or as Germans say, Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen), but…even if döner kebap comes from Turkey, it is as much a part of the fabric of German life as the stereotypical schnitzel, and what’s more, agonizing about what way it is part of German culture is also a part of German culture…

There’s room for a dozen blog posts here, and the truth is, German multiculturalism is more accidental and less planned/accepted/intentional than Canadian multiculturalism, and therefore not as far along.  But it is nevertheless a diverse society working on a ways to integrate its heritage into a demographically changing future.

And I’m a big fan of the subsidized opera and theatre, of German art and German museums, and the German temperament actually suits this Canadian quite well.

Food

German carnival food completely destroys American carnival food.  Reibekuchen (closely related to Jewish potato latkes), well, I’ll have them with or without Apfelmus. I wish Saarbrücken had more spicy food, but well, it’s a small city.

Politics

Once again, oh, boy.  Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am addicted to political and economic news.  Naturally, I am now addicted to German political news, and have Opinions.  (The capital O loses force for Germans, but anyway.)  That requires maybe a different post and maybe a pseudonymous blog.

But let’s just say that I’m a bit left of the political spectrum and am not a fan of German policy regarding the Euro and the Eurozone.  I do like German proportional representation much better than Canada’s Westminster-esque system, however.

Everything else and Zum Schluss

That only scratches the surface of what I haven’t (perhaps yet) blogged about.  As I said in a previous post, Saarbrücken is a nice, affordable city to live in.  It’s next to France, has great train connections in Europe, and friendly weather.  I made friends quickly here and got in touch with the anglophone expat community.  I could stand to find some activities in German other than MPI German classes, although time and, I think, a continuing lack of confidence have held me back.

Other themes I could have written more about: driving (people who prefer manual transmission are crazy, Germans prefer manual transmission, therefore…?), German television, shopping culture, the peculiarities of banking, rental contracts, and so on.  Maybe some other time.

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Why I am still a No Facebook zone

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 2009 September 8 by Asad Sayeed

I have given in a little bit to the social networking trend that I have generally resisted by adopting Twitter for certain purposes.  It’s useful for running an occasional headline feed of my life and activities or for publishing a running commentary.  While it has the followspam problem, it’s relatively easy to hide in the crowd.

From fairly early on, I have had a Facebook page.  But almost from its inception, I have set its status to say in no uncertain terms that I will not respond to friend requests.  I got the Facebook page because certain aspects of my life required interaction with undergrads who live their lives publicly and mostly use the Facebook Internet to manage their social lives, as I pay attention to one or two undergraduate-run campus cultural organizations.  Suffice it to say that since that time, these organizations have failed to pique my interest, but I have kept my identity “parked” on Facebook anyway, rather than delete it.

Nevertheless, I admit that I have never found a good way to articulate my dislike of Facebook and its reasons. However, Valerie Aurora has done so for me (incl. link to great Wired article).

Facebook’s internal messaging system is 100% pure evil and completely representative of what I hate about Facebook. I can get an email notification that someone has sent me a message, but replying to them via email requires me to look up their email address on their profile by hand – so you don’t, you just reply using internal Facebook messaging, which requires me to go back to their damn web site every time I want to communicate with this person. I can see this being very attractive if you have a sucky email provider with bad spam filtering, but you could also write this in such a way that it integrates smoothly with your existing email account. Facebook didn’t, because they want Facebook Internet to partition from Real Internet, leaving them with far more control over your online data than Google could ever dream of acquiring.

That said, despite the temptation of Gmail at times, I have not allowed myself to become too well-integrated into the BorG for now, as I am a little bit paranoid of them too, although it’s true, they are still not as problematic as Facebook.

Woohoo, first substantive post!

Greetings, totality of existence!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 2009 September 8 by Asad Sayeed

Hi, folks.  I decided to take the plunge into blogging in the open, based on the recent successful tweeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics conference in Singapore.  I found that I paid more attention to the talks by tweeting them, and so will now experiment to see if full-on blogging makes me more productive.  My previous track record with blogging is that I never managed to make it quite work for me, but then I never tried to blog my professional life, so perhaps the confluence of real life and bloggery will actually work.

So expect to see occasional posts on computer science, linguistics, computational linguistics, and so on—including life in the DC metro area and at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I am currently working on a computer science PhD.  Interesting things I pick up on the Internet may also appear here.