Friday, 27 June 2014

Arabic in Amman: Immersion?

This blog is taking a holiday from astronomical instruments, and turning its attention to language learning.  That's odd! I hear you exclaim.  Yes, it may seem that way, but I have long been fascinated by different languages, and passionate about learning them.  And now I am in Jordan, spending 2 months improving my Arabic.  I plan to write a short series of language-focused posts while I'm here.

The big question for this post: to immerse or not to immerse?  When is it better to learn a language in that language, and when is it better to do it in your native language?

This makes me feel exotic and special...
First, a bit about why I'm here and what I'm doing.  I'm studying at the Qasid Institute in Amman.  This is a specialist language school which started out teaching Classical Arabic to Americans who were keen to read the Qur'an and other religious texts, but over the last decade or so has expanded into Modern Standard (written) Arabic, and now has students who come to learn the language for all kinds of reasons (still mainly Americans, though).  This is the second time I've studied here (I spent 2 months here in Summer 2012 too) and I am impressed by their professionalism and the standard of teaching.  I'm here now because texts translated from Arabic were incredibly important in medieval astronomy, and I'd like to be able to access some of those texts (many of which remain unpublished) in their original language.

But what's the best way for me to do this? Should I be focused on immersing myself in Arabic, or should I be thinking about translating into English and understanding the structures of the language?

Now, I have some experience teaching English - both as a foreign language (EFL) and English literature, though it's obviously EFL that's relevant here.  When I trained as a TEFL teacher, the course included 4 hours of full immersion Swedish.  Why? In order to show us how a language can be taught from scratch without a word of the user's native language being used.  Many people believe this is the best way to learn: you are not constantly comparing the language to your own, you quickly learn to think in the language instead of translating, and you can somehow trick yourself into forgetting that you can use your native language.  That last point means you're less likely to switch back into your native language, and will instead force yourself to make the best use of whatever ability you have in the new language to communicate whatever it is you want to say.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who say that the best way to learn a language is to understand how it works, and it is much quicker and easier to do that through your native language.  These people tend to place emphasis on understanding the structures and grammar of a language, in contrast to advocates of immersion who focus on vocabulary and communication strategies.  This approach might well be suitable for someone like me, more interested in reading, understanding and translating texts than speaking.  Arguably it's well suited to Classical (and Modern Standard) Arabic in general, which are structured written languages, distinct from the spoken dialects ('Amia).  This way of learning is familiar to anyone who's learned Latin. (Are there any schools that teach full immersion Latin? That would be interesting.)  And since I've learned Latin on-and-off for a while, it might suit me quite well.

Now most people, when confronted by a spectrum of views like this, assume that the optimum is somewhere in the middle.  But for the immersionists, of course, there is no happy medium: if you get used to using your native language, particularly if you become accustomed to using it with a particular individual (your teacher, say), it immediately becomes much harder to use and to think in the target language.

Qasid have come up with a nice solution to this problem.  They split the class in two, with a different teacher for each half.  So each day I have two hours of "Skills", followed by two hours of "Sciences".  The Skills are taught exclusively in Arabic, including all instructions, definitions and feedback.  In these two hours we use the familiar four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking - but no translation, you'll note.  In the Sciences class we study Arabic grammar, learning to analyse and parse the structures of texts, discussing the patterns of grammar and seeing how the texts fit together.

For me, this is a good compromise.  It has its drawbacks: grammar questions arise in the immersion (Skills) class, of course, and it's tricky to ask in Arabic why a verb has a certain ending, and even harder to understand the teacher's answer.  Meanwhile questions of vocabulary and usage arise in the grammar (Sciences) class, but asking them sometimes feels like a distraction, as if it's inappropriate to focus on minutiae when we're looking at the bigger picture.  But in general I like the approach.  There's not much space at present for translation, but that's a skill to work on in future.  For now, I'm happy getting my head around the 10 Forms in one class, and discussing the battle tactics of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed in the other.  Come back soon for an update on how it's going!

What are your experiences of language learning?  How do you prefer to learn?  Feel free to comment below!

Monday, 9 June 2014

Launch of the Digital Equatorium

I wrote this post for the Peterhouse Perne and Ward Libraries blog.  It is cross-posted from there with their kind permission.

28 May saw the launch at the Whipple Museum of the online Peterhouse Manuscripts Collection, housed in the Cambridge Digital Library. The collection aims to present highlights from the College’s collection of 276 medieval manuscripts, and will be developed as time and funding allow. High-quality images are presented alongside searchable transcription, commentaries and critical apparatus, making the Peterhouse manuscripts accessible to scholars around the world. Initial work on the collection has been made possible by generous funding from donors to the College, particularly Dr Joe Pesce.

The launch focused on the first manuscript to be digitised, the fourteenth-century Equatorie of the Planetis (MS 75.I). This manuscript has been at Peterhouse since at least 1538, but it was first brought to the world’s attention in the 1950s by the historian of science Derek (de Solla) Price. Price was a PhD student, conducting research into “the history of scientific instrument making”, and came to the Perne Library expecting to examine an unexceptional astrolabe treatise. He found something quite different, as he later recalled:
As I opened it, the shock was considerable. The instrument pictured there was quite unlike an astrolabe – or anything else immediately recognizable. The manuscript itself was beautifully clear and legible, although full of erasures and corrections exactly like an author’s draft after polishing (which indeed it almost certainly is) and, above all, nearly every page was dated 1392 and written in Middle English instead of Latin. [Science Since Babylon, enlarged edition, 1975, 26-27]
What Price saw, one cold December day in 1951...
Price realised straight away that the manuscript might be by the poet and astronomer Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), whose Treatise on the Astrolabe, probably written in 1391, is a very early example of scientific writing in English. He quickly changed his PhD to focus exclusively on this manuscript, and the resulting thesis (published in 1955) included an edition and translation of the instrument treatise that takes up nine folios of the manuscript (alongside seventy folios of astronomical tables).

The instrument Price could not at first identify turned out to be an equatorium, a device designed to compute the positions of the planets. Few equatoria survive today, but they were popular tools of astronomy and astrology in the later middle ages. They were based on the models of planetary motion explained by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (c.90-c.168) – essentially three-dimensional diagrams with moving parts. Medieval astronomers took pride in adapting and refining their predecessors’ designs, and the Peterhouse equatorium, whose construction is explained in detail in the manuscript, represents an improvement on the equatoria of notable astronomers such as Campanus of Novara (c.1220-1296) and Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). Because the manuscript is a draft, we can see the author-translator working out and refining his ideas, learning new techniques and devising improvements as he goes.

Equatorium made at Cavendish Laboratory for
Derek de Solla Price, 1952. Now at Whipple Museum
of the History of Science, Cambridge (Wh.3271).
Price decided to build the equatorium, following the manuscript’s instructions. In an era when historians favoured intensive textual scholarship and did not particularly value reconstruction, this was unusual. So why did Price do it? The answer perhaps lies in his biography. He was from a working-class, Jewish background in the East End of London, and had taken his first PhD in metal physics at the South-West Essex Technical College in 1946. He came to Cambridge from the University of Malaya, where he had been teaching applied mathematics. He arrived in Cambridge in 1951, the year that the University set its first exams in History of Science, and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science opened. The discipline of history of science was in its infancy, and scientists and historians were competing for authority as its boundaries were laid out. In this context, Price clearly felt he needed to establish himself; the publicity surrounding the discovery of a manuscript that might be written in the hand of Chaucer allowed him to do that. Price had worked in the Cavendish Laboratory, helping organise its archives and historic apparatus, and had a good relationship with the Cavendish Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg. Bragg helped him organise a full-scale model of the equatorium to display at an event at the Royal Society in 1952. The model, pictured above, is now at the Whipple Museum. An account of its construction, later loss and rediscovery, has just been published in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, written by current Petrean Seb Falk.

Now, though, another model of the equatorium has been made – but this one is virtual. Produced by programmer and designer Ben Blundell, in collaboration with Scott Mandelbrote and Falk, the model is embedded in the Digital Library website alongside the manuscript. It allows users to gain the full experience of using the equatorium, giving results for the longitudes of the planets very close to those achieved by modern astronomical computation. In order to produce the model, Blundell needed to create his own calendar that transitioned seamlessly between the Julian and Gregorian systems, and to write new programming language to simulate movement of the equatorium’s silken threads!
Virtual equatorie created by Ben Blundell for the Peterhouse
collection at the Cambridge Digital Library
It is hoped that visitors to the website will gain a new understanding of how the equatorium works and might have been used. It is based on a simplified version of Ptolemy’s planetary models, ignoring the planets’ motions in latitude, and by scaling the parameters of the different planetary models to give them all equally sized deferent circles, their motions in longitude can all be modelled on a single disc. A single epicycle is used, its radius corresponding in size to the common deferent radius; a rotating rule is fixed at its centre and marked with the radii of the planets’ epicycles, which are thereby traced out as it rotates. The longitudes of the planets are found by taking easily calculated linear components of their motion from pre-prepared tables, and transferring those values to the equatorium by laying threads on the scales on the circumference of the disc and epicycle. (For more information, see the explanation on the Digital Library website, and try the model there!)
Study of the manuscript has not been confined to its technical content. At the launch, Professor Kari Anne Rand explained how linguistic and palaeographic evidence has been used to locate the manuscript’s production to the periphery of London, and to cast doubt on its attribution to Chaucer. She showed how certain characteristic features of the scribe’s practised, informal hand appeared in another manuscript that she has found, raising the possibility that an alternative candidate for the authorship of MS 75.I may soon be identified.
Detail from British Library MS Burney 275, f.390v (early 14th century). The illustrator of this copy of Ptolemy's Almagest clearly had some understanding of the use of astronomical instruments.
Whoever wrote the manuscript was part of a thriving astronomical culture, based in but not restricted to the growing universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Instruments like this equatorium were used not just for astrology, or to model the movements of celestial bodies with greater ease, but as a route to greater comprehension of the cosmos. As the picture above indicates (and as Dr Catherine Eagleton reminded us at the launch), devices like astrolabes were familiar features of literate culture. The equatorium was undoubtedly a more complex device but, as the references to the Treatise on the Astrolabe in the Equatorie suggest, it might be a suitable next challenge for someone who had already mastered that more commonplace tool. If the fox could learn from nature with the help of his astrolabe, so too could the medieval English readers who, for the first time in the Peterhouse manuscript, had the opportunity to learn about equatoria in their mother tongue.