Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Searle and the Korean room

Without John Searle, I might have been a completely different person. Searle, as I've written before, appeared in a video in my high school philosophy class. At the time, I remember being amused by his demeanour, perfectly fitting the stereotype of how a philosopher talks and sounds. In time, I would come to admire Searle both for his scholarship, his ability to write and express himself in comparatively plain language, and his attempts to write about the philosophy of the mind to a mass audience.

Admittedly, what I remember most about Searle from that video to this day, even after reading some of his work in university, is the idea of the Chinese room. Put simply, would you consider yourself to be a Chinese speaker if you could manage to give the appearance of intelligibly communicating in Chinese by matching English expressions to their Chinese equivalents using someone else's instructions? Searle thinks not, and holds this as evidence of why the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, since the computer gives the appearance of understanding by just following instructions.

I thought about Searle's Chinese room when I watched my middle school students (grades 8-10 in North America) write phone conversations. Trained for years to find and avoid making even the slightest of mistakes, they scoured textbooks, workbooks and notebooks to find phrases, sentences and sometimes even parts of conversations. They then combined what they had found in their books to create what was a comprehensible phone dialogue, though it gave off the impression of creating a paragraph in German by just copying various phrases and sentences from a Lonely Planet phrasebook.

 This was not quite the same as Searle's thought experiment, but just like I wouldn't consider myself a German speaker if I scraped together some sentences in German with only an understanding of what entire groups of words meant in English, I didn't consider my students to have so much as written the dialogues as they generated or produced it. I was satisfied with the process as a step towards both writing on their own someday, as well as learning proper grammar and diction, but I was probably more impressed with their ingenuity.

This sort of semi-productive English is probably how future high school students in Korea will cope with potential changes in the university entrance exam (suneung in Korean). As it stands, English education in Korea chiefly tests your ability to distinguish which one of four or five sentences has a slight grammatical mistake. Exams with high stakes, like the suneung, have fewer errors though they are not immune to them. Exams in more ordinary settings, then, fall into the trap of thinking that English, like Korean, has a standard.

English is sufficiently diverse that what is considered incorrect in North America is a common saying in Europe, and enough people make enough mistakes that grammar, in many cases, is about style and preference rather than correct answers. Testing for grammar against this backdrop seems counterproductive if not pointless. A North American, for example, would probably never say "New York are winning 2-1 against Chicago", and students here who have studied North American English exclusively would mark that as wrong when they become teachers.

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