If You Speak Multiple Languages, Do You Need Multiple Therapists?

Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

by Andrew Fiouzi

Last week, Javier Bardem told Esquire that he has two therapists — one that he speaks to in his native Spanish and another that he speaks to in English. If you’re rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. When I first mentioned the quote to a few other people here, I was met with a conference room full of eyerolls. “That sounds like a Javier Bardem problem,” said one of my colleagues derisively before cackling and repeating it at least two more times (you know, in case someone hadn’t heard him the first time).

But I didn’t see it the same way.

Having grown up in a bilingual home — one in which my first words were in Farsi (a vestige of my Iranian heritage) but my first full sentence was in English (the language of my family’s future) — I had firsthand experience in how difficult it can be to translate certain sensibilities from one language to the other.

Case in point: The farsi word ta’arof has no English equivalent. Wikipedia explains it as an Iranian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank. Writing for the L.A. Times, Sarah Parvini does her best to explain the meaning as “the Persian art of etiquette.” She adds that “in a culture that emphasizes deference, ta’arof is a verbal dance that circles around respect. … People fight over who pays the bill, seem to refuse payments for a purchase and pretend they don’t want something to eat when they’re starving.”

If you’re still confused, that’s exactly my point. Much the same way that a non-Russian version of Dostoevsky can never fully capture the romantic murmurs behind his despair, neither is the English language capable of providing the true implications of ta’arof. It doesn’t exist in English primarily because its cultural, emotional and psychological underpinnings can’t be replicated within the confines of Americana.

So, in other words, I’m kind of lost when I want to express this civility to anyone other than my family members. The closest English equivalent? Again, absolutely nothing. And more generally, I’m often caught between two worlds. I dream in Farsi, speak in English and think in both.

“Emotions and bilingualism produce a complicated but also a very personal reality that has no set rules,” writes Francois Grosjean, a former psycholinguistics professor at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, in his Psychology Today column “Life as a Bilingual.” “Some bilinguals prefer to use one language, some the other, and some use both of them to express their feelings and emotions.”

In an interview with Grosjean, Cuban-American author Gustavo Pérez Firmatsimilarly tells of how different languages trigger different memories and associations, “When I think in Spanish, behind my voice is the voice of my father; when I think in English, behind my voice are my wife’s and my children’s voices. Spanish is a father tongue, desired and distant; English is a conjugal and filial tongue, here for the taking.”

More proof: María Luisa Bombal, a Chilean author, complained that writing in English never gave her the goce íntimo [intimate pleasure] she experienced in Spanish…




We Need Conscious Robots

Kanai_BRH. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images

How introspection and imagination make robots better.

People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.

That may sound presumptuous. The mechanisms of consciousness—the reasons we have a vivid and direct experience of the world and of the self—are an unsolved mystery in neuroscience, and some people think they always will be; it seems impossible to explain subjective experience using the objective methods of science. But in the 25 or so years that we’ve taken consciousness seriously as a target of scientific scrutiny, we have made significant progress. We have discovered neural activity that correlates with consciousness, and we have a better idea of what behavioral tasks require conscious awareness. Our brains perform many high-level cognitive tasks subconsciously.

Consciousness, we can tentatively conclude, is not a necessary byproduct of our cognition. The same is presumably true of AIs. In many science-fiction stories, machines develop an inner mental life automatically, simply by virtue of their sophistication, but it is likelier that consciousness will have to be expressly designed into them.

And we have solid scientific and engineering reasons to try to do that. Our very ignorance about consciousness is one. The engineers of the 18th and 19th centuries did not wait until physicists had sorted out the laws of thermodynamics before they built steam engines. It worked the other way round: Inventions drove theory. So it is today. Debates on consciousness are often too philosophical and spin around in circles without producing tangible results. The small community of us who work on artificial consciousness aims to learn by doing.

Furthermore, consciousness must have some important function for us, or else evolution wouldn’t have endowed us with it. The same function would be of use to AIs. Here, too, science fiction might have misled us. For the AIs in books and TV shows, consciousness is a curse. They exhibit unpredictable, intentional behaviors, and things don’t turn out well for the humans. But in the real world, dystopian scenarios seem unlikely. Whatever risks AIs may pose do not depend on their being conscious. To the contrary, conscious machines could help us manage the impact of AI technology. I would much rather share the world with them than with thoughtless automatons.

When AlphaGo was playing against the human Go champion, Lee Sedol, many experts wondered why AlphaGo played the way it did. They wanted some explanation, some understanding of AlphaGo’s motives and rationales. Such situations are common for modern AIs, because their decisions are not preprogrammed by humans, but are emergent properties of the learning algorithms and the data set they are trained on. Their inscrutability has created concerns about unfair and arbitrary decisions. Already there have been cases of discrimination by algorithms; for instance, a Propublica investigation last year found that an algorithm used by judges and parole officers in Florida flagged black defendants as more prone to recidivism than they actually were, and white defendants as less prone than they actually were.

Beginning next year, the European Union will give its residents a legal “right to explanation.” People will be able to demand an accounting of why an AI system made the decision it did. This new requirement is technologically demanding. At the moment, given the complexity of contemporary neural networks, we have trouble discerning how AIs produce decisions, much less translating the process into a language humans can make sense of.

In the real world, dystopian scenarios seem unlikely.

If we can’t figure out why AIs do what they do, why don’t we ask them? We can endow them with metacognition—an introspective ability to report their internal mental states. Such an ability is one of the main functions of consciousness. It is what neuroscientists look for when they test whether humans or animals have conscious awareness. For instance, a basic form of metacognition, confidence, scales with the clarity of conscious experience. When our brain processes information without our noticing, we feel uncertain about that information, whereas when we are conscious of a stimulus, the experience is accompanied by high confidence: “I definitely saw red!”…




Against flow

Resultado de imagem para The Spanish National Dance Company perform during rehearsals for Don Quixote. Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty

image edited by Web Investigator – The Spanish National Dance Company perform during rehearsals for Don Quixote. Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty

In the myth of flow, the performer soars when the music starts. But it’s grit and self-analysis until the very last bar

Barbara Gail Montero  is associate professor of philosophy at the City University of New York (CUNY). Her latest book is Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind (2016). She lives in New York.

When I was a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, I loved watching the advanced dancers in the class before mine. Their soaring leaps, their whirlwind turns, their command over everything from the sweep of their arms to the delicate placement of their heels – so easy did they make it all seem that I sometimes wondered if these beauteous creatures were made, not out of flesh and blood, but from dance itself.

I was therefore surprised one day to come upon a member of the class, facing the barre, working diligently on her battement tendus. A tendu is one of the first exercises you learn as a child taking ballet. It’s simple: starting from a standing position, you move one leg out to the side, point the foot on the floor, then bring it back to your starting position. Why did this supernal being need to practise such an easy step? What could possibly be improved?

Years later I realised that the answer to this question is: everything. There can be more articulation of the toes; rotation can be made more extreme; even that ineffable quality of artistry can be developed. It’s often thought that the greater your prowess, the easier your performance becomes. However, as I progressed upward through the ranks of the ballet world, I saw that this wasn’t the case. Rather, as my dancing improved, I developed both higher standards for what counts as excellence and an enhanced ability to evaluate my technique. What was once facile became difficult; what was once flawless revealed myriad imperfections; and, in certain instances, what was once enjoyable turned into a nightmarish trial.

That under the appearance of grace lies an abundance of grit is a hard-won truth running counter to the popular concept of ‘flow’: the seductive idea that when it’s time to perform – be it on stage or green, in the operating theatre or around the boardroom table – the true virtuoso leaves all striving behind. On this model of expertise, there is no intervention of conscious control, let alone doubt or indecision. Performance simply occurs, one movement after the other, with the inevitability of water running downstream. There is no need to search for ideas, because the ideas find you; there is no need to try, instead you just do.

One of the high priests of contemporary flow-speak is the writer Malcolm Gladwell. In a piece in The New Yorker in 2000, he describes how the tennis superstar Jana Novotná ‘choked’ during a match at Wimbledon in 1993, supposedly after she started thinking too much about her performance:

She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person – playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner – because, in a sense, she was a beginner again; she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.

But missing from Gladwell’s account is Novotná’s own perspective on what caused her to crumble; without that, it is difficult to know if overthinking was the culprit. What might have been going on in her mind instead? Perhaps some comments by the former Major League Baseball pitcher Steve Blass provide a clue. In the middle of a stunning career, he inexplicably lost his ability to control his pitches. As Blass writes in his memoir, A Pirate for Life (2012):

Before my control problem, I had the ability to just concentrate on the immediate task at hand, which is a wonderful thing for an athlete. I could block out family, world hunger, or anything that was going on, because of that focus. That focus all went away, and everything was occurring in my mind. I was like an antenna.

Although Blass claims that his loss of skill is mysterious, this description makes it sound as if the problem wasn’t that he was thinking too much about his actions, but rather that he was unable to think about them enough. Novotná, though her problem was thankfully short-lived, might have found herself similarly unable to focus on what mattered.

What’s more, in contrast to Gladwell’s account, it’s not clear that young beginners do proceed with cautious deliberation. In their 1987 study of children’s writing skills, the education researchers Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia found that ‘the paragons of effortless performance were fifth-graders who, given a simple topic, would start writing in seconds and would produce copy as fast as their little fingers could move the pencil.’

Those fifth-graders are in flow. The young tennis player’s game is fun, and the child’s tendu is easy. It’s the experts’ technique that becomes difficult; not to the outside world, but to themselves. Just as in Plato’s dialogue the Apology, where Socrates is wise because he knows he is ignorant, it’s the capacity to recognise where there’s room for improvement that leads us to the highest levels of human achievement. In other words, the idea that expert actions are in a placid state of flow – a state in which things seem to fall into place on their own – is a myth…