Languages from a young age

I’m not entirely sure who dropped this in my twitter feed this morning but it caught my attention because it relates to teaching children foreign languages from the age of 3.

I am in favour of children learning languages from a young age and I am starting to do some research into how children acquire language for a separate reason anyway, but this concerned me:

When children join the preschool class of Moreton First at three years of age, they are exposed to four languages.

The four languages are English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Catherine More, the head of the Moreton First School mentions explicitly research discussing the benefits of bilingualism and I fully favour that. However, bilingualism only works if it’s done properly. Quadrilingualism is not doing bilingualism properly.

Having spoken to parents in bilingual households, full fluency in two languages is hard work and that is with the benefit of home contact. If I were looking to school a child in an atmosphere where they were to be getting linguistic advantage, I’d prefer it to be just one foreign language, but taught in a more indepth manner.

Moreton First is a feeder school for Moreton Senior School. It would be interesting to test the fluency of children in the four languages as they progress through school.


Via twitter, I was pointed to this report on the RTE website this morning.

The takeaway message is:

A new survey has found a third of parents think computer coding is a more important skill to learn than Irish.

I’m getting wary of seeing pieces talking about computer coding rather than computer programming. Ultimately, there is a lot more to writing computer code than just knowing the syntax and I tend to consider coding to be the syntax part of things, and programming to be the wider scale of things.

But even if we leave that little quibble aside, I have problems with the whole idea of either/or when it comes to asking people what should be taught in school. I’m fully in favour of teaching children to program. There are a lot of tools to do this: MIT Scratch is one of the highest profile ones but depending on what age children you are talking about, Python and Java are also options, particularly the former in the context of Raspberry Pis.

Realistically, we need to step back and look at core skills. When you are talking about primary school level, which we are here:

The findings are likely to bolster the arguments of those who say coding should be offered as part of the primary school curriculum, as it has been in Britain since the start of this school year.

the point remains that we are also dealing with literacy and numeracy issues at this stage too.  I have written before on the UK’s policy – and I’d also add that while the authorities there made a lot of noise about this curriculum policy, they did not follow it up with so much support for continuing professional development for teachers who were expected to go from teaching computer use to computer programming in a school year. Ultimately, when you start thinking about getting children to write computer programs, you need to also start thinking about the tools they will have available and what you expect them to achieve.

I am willing to bet that this survey did not actually talk about what the parents in question expected children to be able to do writing computer code at the age of 8 or 10.

One of the items which RTE reported on was this:

Of the 1,000 adults questioned, two-thirds said learning coding is equally important as maths, science and languages.

Leaving aside the fact that whoever wrote this needs to re-read things occasionally, the point is, writing computer programs depends on abilities in maths, science and language. In short, you cannot learn to write computer code without already having core skills in mathematics and communication. Logically, when it is dependent on a skill set, it cannot be as important as that skill set itself.

This is why this part makes me incandescent with rage:

One-third even think it’s more valuable than Irish, with one-fifth believing it is a more important skill than maths.

Every single computer science undergraduate course in the country will have a mathematics component. If you want them to get any value out of the growing sector, which is data analytics, mathematics is absolutely MANDATORY. There is no point in assuming that you know what you’re talking about in terms of education policy if you can agree with the statement “writing computer code is more important than mathematics” given that actually, it’s the other way around.

Put in that context, the one third who think computer coding is more important than Irish did not give the most annoying response to this survey.

In any case, there is also this:

And three quarters of people said they would avail of such classes if they were available in their area.

The thing is, they pretty much are. There are over 100 Coderdojo groups spread out across the island of Ireland, near to 150 actually. They are not all in Dublin.

So the question is, are they availing of the Coder Dojo groups – I hesitate to call them classes as that sort of takes the fun out of things – or is this a throwaway “yeah, they don’t teach it in the school but at least if there were a Coder Dojo around, we’d probably do this…” I would have driven 30km to one when I was a child.

I have asked UPC via their PR and general twitter lines whether I can get a copy of the questions on this survey. I really would like to know what they looked like. Also a copy of the report would be useful.

Mathematica on the Raspberry Pi

Seriously, I have a scary to do list but I finally got around to having a go with this the other day. It is very very nice. If you’re leaning towards a RaspPi and are interested in symbolic programming, it’s a pretty good place. Worth remembering that a RaspPi is not scary fast (ie, Mathematica on it is not hugely fast) but it comes across as something that a) is nice to work with and b) I will probably license on a bigger machine at some point.

Big data – is this really what we want?

If you think of the other places where Big is used to describe an industry, it’s not generally used to by people who like the industry in question. Big Pharma. Big Agriculture, Big Other things We’d Like To Scare You About.

But the data industry insists on talking about big data as a thing that it’s pushing as the next big thing without considering that equally, there are a lot of people pushing back against big data. How Big Data Can Tell A Lot About You Just from Your Zip Code.

This is not good for data analytics. Any term which can be used to engender fear and nerves is not so much an asset as a liability.

There’s an apocryphal story about Target apparently identifying when a teenager was pregnant from her shopping habits, writing to her, her father finding out and getting into a rage with the local branch of Target and having to apologise. A number of people in the data industry have described it although I can’t actually find a source for it. A lot has been written about how retailers can learn a lot about you from your habits, however, which has an impact on which special offers you get when they deign to send you vouchers.

Some people find this a little bit creepy. This, together with news stories about What Your ZipCode Says About You and “What Big Data Knows About You” just reinforces this.

So a couple of things. We need to stop talking about Big Data. Big Data will come back to bite the analytics industry as consumers push back against what they perceive as a bit of spying and general creepiness. And we need to focus on the benefits to consumers of data analytics. It is not just a question of buying them off with extra vouchers. Pinterest, for example, is getting much better with recommendations for new boards (although once they get hold of an idea such as Treasa Likes Fountain Pens it takes weeks for them to realise I’m now following enough fountain pen boards). On the other hand, Amazon is not getting so much better with book recommendations lately.

The other problem I see with the label big data is that it allows people to avoid thinking about what they are really trying to achieve. The question “What are we doing about big data?” never comes across as anything other than “I read this in HBR and everyone’s on about it on my LinkedIn groups so we need to hop on this bandwagon”.

If you take a step back, it’s better to think about this question: “What data do we have, and are we using it effectively to support both ourselves and our customers”. It may be big, it may be small. Some of it may be system related – getting pages to load faster, for example – some of it may be habit recognition related – prefilling forms for transactions which happen regularly like, oh flying to London every Monday morning.

More women in tech

Over the past few days or so, much has been written about the question of egg freezing for women so as not to interrupt their careers. Extensive media reports suggest that Apple and Facebook are offering this to women so that they don’t take a career hit.

There are a lot of ways you can look at it but the first thing that occurs to me is this: this isn’t the most effective way to sort out inequality for the simple reason that it does not sort out the inequality suffered by fathers too much.

Ultimately, when you’re designing a solution for a problem and the question here is, what problem is solved by freezing eggs so that women have (or at least try to have) children much later? Well women take a career hit.

The question is why do mothers take a career hit when fathers do not? The problem to be solved isn’t “get women to try for babies later” but “get parents to have equal rights and and responsibilities”.

The way to do this, however, is not solely to challenge women’s positions in the workplace by keeping them there longer, but to challenge men’s positions in the workplace by keeping them there less time.

Children benefit by this; they benefit by greater contact with both parents, and parents, to be honest, are better equipped to have children at a younger age (ie, when they have more energy) than when they are forty and “established” in their careers for want of a better word.

Ultimately, I think it is good that egg freezing is supported if that is what an individual woman wants; but it should not become a method by which their employers decide when they have children, and when they should wait.

There is no real similarity in terms of paying for contraceptives and paying for egg freezing; contraceptives are not just indicated for preventing babies anyway, and a lot depends on the objective of egg freezing – is it to benefit the woman, or is it to benefit the company paying for it?

Ultimately, the issue I have here is it is not solving the problem; just a symptom of it, and that is the one whereby female parents are discriminated against in the workplace when male parents are not, not to the same extent anyway.

Dave Winer and lock-in

It really is worth having a look at Dave Winer’s comments on lockin in the tech sector at the moment. You can read his piece here.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was studying terminology at college – this was on a language related course – one of the points that came up for discussion was standardisation of terminology, particularly relevant in new fields of technology where translation of terminology was concerned.

We need standards in general terms. Our networks would not hang together if there were not communications and networks standards. If you’ve spent any time on messaging software at all, you know that to get disparate providers to communicate, you need standards of some kind. A lot of work has gone into technical standards over the years; my idea of fun would not involve writing standards for TCP/IP but someone had to do it. Hopefully it was their idea of fun.

Lockin is one of those things you do when you want to be massively controlling about your product. Apple has done it with chargers, for example, which enables them to do a certain amount of planned obsolescence and also, to control their market. It may not, however, be a long term option.

We’ll see what happens. The long term is a bitch, and it has a tendency to plow under get-rich-quick schemes and I know you think it’s idealistic but evolution only builds on open formats and protocols. That’s how technology layers. It’s true some patents hold, and some lock-in gets built on. Look at PDF for example. But there’s a reason HTML took us places PDF never could. The ability of anyone to do anything they wanted to, without having their API key revoked. That’s a big enabler of creativity, to use terminology VCs understand.

The thing is, the tech industry has gone a long way in directions which didn’t exist even 15 years ago. There are very few days on which I don’t read some account of a software patent case, for example. There’s an element of controllery going on in some sectors which focuses more, I think, on financial outcome in the short term rather than the long term and rather on technology impact.

What fascinates me is that for all that, there continues to be pushback against complete control. If you want to learn to program these days, you have several options which don’t rely on you getting an expensive compiler, for example. If you really want to fiddle around with technology, Arduino and Raspberry Pi provide a few open doors. There are services which act as enablers – let’s face it, when I was 25 years old, AWS just didn’t exist. Access to Linux has probably opened up development opportunity to a lot of people as well.

I think ultimately, a lot comes down to a balance of identifying our end objective. Dave is absolutely right to point out that in principle, we move further on open protocols and formats than on closed formats. One of the things which really, really frustrates me these days is that we have so many messaging applications all of which depend on not being interoperable.