Recognizing a Pioneer in Language Teaching
From 1998 through 2001 my wife and I lived in Provo, Utah (USA) while I worked on a graduate degree. During this time, we settled a few houses down from a truly extraordinary woman named Lorna Call Alder. Born in 1906, Lorna had grown up in the so-called “Mormon Colonies” in northern Mexico. These remote settlements were established by followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly called Mormons. In the 19th century this religious group practiced polygamy – officially ending the practice in 1904 – and families with multiple wives frequently fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution under U.S. anti-bigamy laws. Lorna was one of the younger daughters in such a family and grew up in a largely Anglophone environment, but learned Mexican Spanish at a relatively young age as well. She lived through the Mexican Revolution and even recalled meeting Pancho Villa as a young girl.
Subsequently, she came to the United States for her university education. With her bachelor’s degree in hand, she returned to the Colonies, where she realized the need for improved Spanish-language education. At that time foreign language education was very different than it is today, with an emphasis on text-based translation exercises and memorization of vocabulary lists. But Lorna pioneered a different approach that sought to provide contextual learning to students. She developed a method that emphasized the deliberate and careful introduction of vocabulary in context and repetition in use within instructional materials, with guidelines for how often to repeat new vocabulary. She constructed her first book – she showed me the original manuscript of it during a visit in 2003 – by typing out texts on sheets of paper and then cutting and pasting (when this task literally involved scissors and glue) strips onto hand-illustrated pages.
The result, as primitive as it was, would be instantly recognizable to any modern language student, but it was among the first applications of a now-ubiquitous approach. When Lorna showed me this, she did not seem to think it was of any great importance, but I recognized it as something quite extraordinary. Had Lorna just published the book in the Mormon Colonies, it would have disappeared from memory, but she subsequently went to Columbia University for a master’s degree in education and there she was able to introduce her ideas to others.
One of the hallmarks of a truly good idea is that it seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, even if nobody anticipated it prior to its introduction. So it was with Lorna’s method of introducing vocabulary items in language learning: To the best of my knowledge, she received no credit for her idea and made no scholarly publications about it, but it spread rapidly and within just a few years was used around the world. Almost every translator today who learned a language through formal education owes a small debt of gratitude to this humble woman who never sought any recognition for a truly extraordinary life. During the time I knew her, prior to her death at the age of 106 in 2013, she would frequently mention things she had done that, for most people, would have been the work of a lifetime, but which were just one more episode in her life. Indeed, she often seemed bemused that I thought they were of any importance at all. As with her language learning methods, she was simply happy to have improved the world and did not care who had the credit as long as the result was good.
As I look back on more than 20 years of involvement with the localization industry, this seems to be a widespread pattern: We have visionaries who introduce new ideas and technologies – such as translation memory – that revolutionize the field, but which then seem obvious to everyone. Often the inventors quietly move on to new things and realize little credit or financial reward, leaving it to others to build up businesses and convert those insights into practical tools and then reap the benefit. These humble creators may not be household names (and some would not want to be, even if they could) but their inventions and insights have helped transformed the localization industry from a cottage craft into the multibillion-dollar activity it is today.
As we look at the phenomenal developments in machine translation, natural language processing, and other language technologies that are transforming the industry, it is useful to recognize those who went before, the giants on whose shoulders we stand, even if those “giants” are diminutive, gentle souls like Lorna Alder. Without them, none of what we do today would be possible.
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