Getting Salty About User Experience

So I recently had to pick out a container of Morton’s iodized salt at an American grocery store (the brand doesn’t seem particularly well represented in Europe, although I can’t say that they aren’t there at all). This was all well and good, until I saw the iodized and uniodized salts next to each other.

The iodized salt looks like this:

iodized_salt.jpg

Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt supplies iodide, a necessary nutrient”

Whereas the uniodized salt looks like this:

uniodized_salt

Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt does not supply iodide, a necessary nutrient”

See the problem?

The containers are pretty much identical, except for the line of small text near the bottom of the cannister saying whether the salt is iodized or not. Furthermore, the most significant piece of information — the word “supplies” or the phrase “does not supply” — is embedded in the middle of a fairly long sentence, where it’s hard to see without reading at least the first few words of the label. This is likely the reason why my mother ended up with a cannister of uniodized salt in the first place.

There are a number of very simple changes that Morton could make to their salt labels to make it clearer whether the salt supplies iodide or not. One would be to change the color of the text, or of a border around it (perhaps to green for iodized salt — generally the healthier option — and red for uniodized); another would be to put a check mark next to the label on iodized salt and an X on uniodized salt. A third might be to change the background color of the cannister (or the color of the white end pieces) to something very different for uniodized salt.

Ideally, a combination of the strategies I suggest, plus any others that the marketing and/or branding folks at Morton Salt come up with, would be used, since each strategy comes with its own set of drawbacks (color-coding breaks down for colorblind people, check marks and X’s are still easy to confuse when moving quickly, etc.). I would probably go with something like the following (I unfortunately lack the photo-editing skills to attach the label mock-ups to a picture of a Morton salt cannister):

proposed

Image description: green text with checkmark and border, saying “contains iodide, a vital nutrient”, followed by red text with letter X and border, saying “lacks iodide, a vital nutrient”

It would probably also be fine to use only the “lacks iodide” version, on the variety sold without iodide, and let the iodized salt be the default.

 

Endnote:

My family still buys Morton salt, and I would still buy Morton salt if I lived in a place where it were sold. This isn’t meant as an indictment of the company, or of their product; only a breakdown of what I feel is a bad UX practice.

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Language Learning Tip: Learning is Your Own Job

No matter how good your teacher is, learning a new language is something you will ultimately have to do for yourself. Nobody can simply log into your brain and install new words and grammar, and even if you diligently complete all of the assignments in a language class — even if you get a good grade — it’s still entirely possible to finish without actually improving your ability to speak that language by more than an infinitesimal fraction.

Thus, you ultimately have to be your own teacher. Pay attention to what does and doesn’t work for making new information stick, and which words you contantly have to look up over and over again. Also notice which topics you can already speak relatively fluidly about, versus those where you still have to pause and hunt for terminology or consciously construct sentences, and then concentrate your practice on the areas that you have trouble with. Simply following a teacher’s instructions as to how to practice your language is better than nothing, but more often than not, you will end up wasting a lot of effort on strategies that don’t work for you.

It’s also worth remembering that the grade or other evaluation you receive from a class may not be indicative of your actual ability. This can swing both ways, and you should be on the lookout for both possibilities (either the grade being significantly better than what your ability would warrant, or vice versa). I personally will often get good grades in upper-level language classes while still having very poor listening comprehension (especially when recordings or any sort of noise are involved), since most exams are written and even explicitly oral exams are generally given by careful speakers in idealized sonic conditions.

Even if you have had great experiences with language classes so far, it can never hurt to invest some time in studying the language on your own outside of class. You might discover something that works even better than what you’ve been doing in class, or at the very least simply get ahead.

Hungary (part 3)

I’ve now been here two and a half weeks, and I feel like I’ve started to adjust to my surroundings to a greater extent. Some of this is just increased language ability — using only Hungarian with just about everybody except for my beginning-level suitemates will do that — but I also suspect that I’ve gotten used to some of the more frustrating parts of living here, such as the taste of the water. It probably also helps that, when an extra room opened up in another suite, my roommate decided to move into it, giving me a room to myself for the rest of the program.

Also, if anyone reading this has heard my complaints about some of the infrastructure problems at the Univesity of Pécs last year, I should point out that many of them have been (mostly) solved. My dinner has only been forgotten once so far (which I will accept as a simple mistake), there have always been forks and knives with the food, and the dorm staff in general seem nicer. I wouldn’t say that everything is perfect yet, but they’ve certainly learned from the problems we had last year (and possibly other years before), and are striving to make the summer university an enjoyable and educational experience.

I have a bunch of homework to do tonight, and I really should try and sleep as well (it’s been hard the last few nights due to heat and lack of exercise), but I intend to try and explore the city a bit more tomorrow afternoon. There’s a lot to see here, and while the official excursions are fun, they only cover so much — and I will probably get more out of walking around at my own pace without having to stick with a group.

Language Learning Tip

This will be the beginning of a series, with no definite endpoint, in which I will share things that have helped me learn languages in the past. I can’t promise that everything suggested here will work for everyone — I am a very visual learner, and also a rather strange individual in a number of ways — but hopefully someone will find something useful. At any rate…

One very important part of language learning is making sure you get the material you need to learn — be it vocabulary, morphology, or anything other relevant aspect — in the format that your brain can most easily process, internalize, and recall. For me, this means that I prefer to see new words and expressions written down, since I’m much more likely to remember them that way. If learning the language in a classroom setting, it is extremely helpful if the teacher writes new material down on the board — or just provides it on a handout — so that I can get it in a visual medium without having to be stress out about remembering and trying to write down words that were said once or twice, but that I never actually saw.

In the same vein, I tend to find textbooks and learning materials that expect the student to fill in the definitions for new vocabulary based on classroom discussion rather frustrating. Most of the time, I don’t manage to write down even half of the definitions that were provided, and I end up having to use a dictionary to find them later — why couldn’t the book have just provided a mini-dictionary right there, with the information that I needed to learn the new vocabulary? While there’s definitely something to be said for having to remember and reproduce a new phrase or its definition, there are much better ways of exercising this skill that don’t risk leaving some students in the dark without ever having even seen the material they were supposed to learn (a favorite of mine is simply devoting some classroom time to defining words as a game — but that’s a topic for another post).

If you’re unsure what the most effective way to format new material for your own mind is, it’s worth trying a bunch of different language learning methodologies and keeping track of which ones work and which ones don’t. If, for instance, you’re having trouble recalling vocabulary after staring at each word and picturing the thing is refers to next to it (something that works well for me with words that have relatively concrete meanings), try saying the word and its definition aloud, or making flashcards, or anything else you, your teacher, or your friends can come up with. Eventually, something will work, and then you can switch to that.

In general, if you’re in a class and you feel that some aspect of how the class is being taught is making it harder for you to learn, you should feel free to ask the teacher to try and accommodate you (by, say, writing words on the board). It won’t always be possible, especially if there are a number of students with different learning styles in the same class, but it never hurts to ask. Also, regardless of whether your learning in a classroom setting or solo, make sure that when you’re studying on your own (and you should be doing this even if you’re in a class), you’re putting the material you’re trying to learn into the format that best suits you.

Hungary, part 2

At this point, I’ve been in Pécs for about a week and a half. Unfortunately, for four of those days I was sick enough that I didn’t feel up to doing anything besides going to class and sleeping (and I had to skip a couple of classes), so I haven’t gotten out nearly as much as I had after a similar amount of time last year. Fortuntely, this time around I have a bit more time, so it’s not the end of the world.

At any rate, although I do enjoy the lessons here, sometimes they are a little bit frustrating. The group I’m in is probably a little bit too advanced for me, but that itself is just a challenge, not a problem. The real issue is that, as a very visual learner when it comes to new vocabulary and expressions, I’m receiving most of the new material in a format that I’m not as well equipped to process — it’s hard enough when the teacher gives us a word or phrase verbally without writing it down, but when the only person to actually say the new phrase is a student on the other side of the room with a fairly quiet voice and a strong accent, I more often than not simply don’t hear it. And I’m only comfortable saying “what?” so many times during a class session, not to mention that if I take the time to write one phrase down, I will miss whatever gets said next.

This, of course, isn’t to say that I’m never guilty of mumbling in class myself, although I’m been trying very strongly to kick the habit after noticing how hard it can be for me when other students do it. Part of the problem, though, is just the fact that non-native students of a foreign language are going to have accents different from that of a native speaker, and there’s really no way around that. However, it would certainly help if our textbook actually gave definitions/explanations of new expressions (they’re generally listed, but you aren’t told which expression corresponds to which definition, since you’re supposed to try and figure that out as an exercize — which is all well and good, except that your choices are only ever verified verbally in class).

Besides all of that, though, I am learning a lot more of the language than I knew previously, so that’s good. Also, at this level, I generally only speak to my classmates in Hungarian, so we get a bit of practice outside of class as well (although roommates are not assigned according to language level, so I often have to speak English with my roommates). Now if it would just cool down a bit, that would be awesome!

Hungary, part 1

For the next four weeks, starting today (Monday), I’m going to be studying Hungarian at the University of Pécs, on a scholarship provided by the Tempus Foundation (https://tka.hu/english). This is not my first time with this program — I attended last year as well, on the same sort of scholarship, and thus most of what we’re doing this year is fairly familiar: I know most of the teachers, many students have been coming for more than one year, and I can get from the dormitories to the building where we have our classes without getting lost.

There isn’t all that much to say about how the program is going at this point, since we’ve only had one day of classes (and not even a full day at that), but they seem to have fixed some of the more annoying issues from last year — for instance, we no longer have to walk far, far away from the university to eat lunch (last year lunch was served in a restaurant that was maybe a 10-minute walk from the main class building), and they’ve made it easier to choose between vegetarian and meat lunch options on a day-by-day basis, rather than having to simply elect one for the duration of the program.

I was originally placed into a class that in my opinion was far too easy, but switching to a higher-level class for a few sessions to try it out was extremely easy. Although I feel a little bit behind in the higher-level class, I will probably end up staying there if they let me, since I tend to do best at language learning when I can just jump off the deep end and start talking to people who know the language better than I do.

I unfortunately can’t promise that I’ll write about this program with any regularity, but I will try. Some future posts may be written in Hungarian, but I will include an English translation at the bottom.

Nonbinary Kinship Terms Survey Results 1

A couple of days ago, in a conversation I was in, the question came up of how to refer to one’s nonbinary relatives. While it’s true that there exist gender-nonspecific terms for most relations (e.g. “sibling”, “parent”, etc.), there don’t appear to be terms in common use that refer explicitly to nonbinary people, even in queer parlance.

Thus, being the conlanger that I am, I decided to come up with a few such terms on my own, and to try to make them similar enough to the existing English kinship terms that they would be recognizable as referring to the relationship that they did, even to a person who was hearing them for the first time. I ended up creating terms for five categories (a nonbinary parent, sibling, child, sibling’s child, and parent’s sibling), and ran a brief survey on Tumblr to determine if English speakers could identify which terms referred to which categories.

Of the 78 people who took the survey, 88.5% indicated that they were native speakers of English, and 55.1% indicated that they felt they knew how the novel words were supposed to be pronounced (39.7% said they only felt they could tell sometimes). Below, each group of words is discussed in greater detail.

Vether

Pronounced /’vɛðəɹ/, this word was intended to refer to one’s nonbinary parent. I actually coined this one long before the conversation that led to this survey, after reading an exchange where a person* suggested that the term “baba” would be a good choice for what a baby might call their genderqueer parent; I then backformed that to a hypothetical word that shared the “-ther” suffix found in “father” and “mother”, and began with the one labial fricative that didn’t already begin a kinship term in English, i.e. /v/.

A solid 65.4% of respondents got this one “correct”, identifying it as referring to one’s parent. However, there was a substantial minority (14.1%) who voted for “parent’s sibling”, and smaller minorities who chose the other categories, as well as variations on “I don’t know” and one freeform response.

Sether, Sebber, Sither, Bruster

All of these were intended to refer to one’s sibling. Respectively, they are pronounced /’sɛðəɹ/, /’sɛbəɹ/, /’sɪðəɹ/, and /’bɹʌstəɹ/. All are essentially portmanteaus of “brother” and “sister”, with “sebber” also being influenced by the word “sibling”.

Although a majority of respondents chose the “sibling” option for all four of these, that majority was largest (87.2% and 84.6%, respectively) for “sither” and “bruster”. Only 65.4% of respondents chose “sibling” for “sebber”, with the rest divided between the other four official options and a number of (sometimes humorous) freeform responses. Interestingly, although a majority of individuals (56.4%) got “sether” “correct”, a large minority (21.8%) indicated that it referred to one’s parent.

Tozzer and Tother

I intended for these terms to be pronounced /’tɑzəɹ/ and /’tɑðər/, and refer to one’s child. However, in neither case did a majority of respondents choose this option (although “child” did represent the largest group of responses — 24.4% — for “tozzer”; “parent” and “sibling” received 16.7% and 14.1% respectively). “Tother” received a clear majority of responses in favor of it referring to one’s parent (52.6%), with another large chunk of responses (19.2%) in favor of “sibling”. One freeform responder indicated that they thought “tother” should rhyme with “mother”, which may have contributed to the preponderance of “parent” responses.

One complication that I, as an American, did not anticipate is that the word “tosser” is apparently an insult in Great Britain. This was pointed out multiple times in the freeform responses to both of these words. I did notice that “tozzer” sounded a bit like “tosser” while creating these words, but was not aware that it was an insult. Both terms come from playing with the sounds in “daughter”, adding elements from “father”, “mother”, and “brother”, plus a healthy dose of random variation.

Naith

Prnounced /neɪθ/, and referring to a sibling’s child, this is the term that I hypothesized would produce the most confusion among respondents, but it seems to have been clearer than I expected: 61.5% of answers went to the “sibling’s child” option, with minorities of 15.4% and 11.5% for “child” and “parent’s sibling” respectively.

I coined this word by playing with the vowel in “niece”, and then changing the sibilant /s/ to /θ/ in order to resemble, but not match exactly, the /f/ (written “ph”) in “nephew”.

Entle

A portmanteau of “uncle” and “aunt” with the stressed vowel changed to /ɛ/, and pronounced /’ɛntəl/, this word was meant to refer to a parent’s sibling, and 78.2% of respondents agreed. Of the remaining answers, about half chose “child”, with the rest being split between the remaining options and freeform answers of “grandparent” and “grandchild”.

Conclusions

Most of the terms I created produced the desired associations in readers, although there was a lot of uncertainty with some of them. “Tozzer” and “tother” were totally off the mark, but this is probably explainable by their similarity to “tosser”, and the fact that “tother” can be read as rhyming with “mother”, neither of which I anticipated when I coined those two terms.

I’m probably going to start using “vether”, “naith”, and “entle” when I need them. I would also like to work one of the “sibling” words into my vocabulary, but choosing one is going to be difficult, since my personal aesthetic favorite (sether) is also the least obvious of the four options surveyed.

Finally, it’s very clear that we need a new word for one’s nonbinary child. I’m currently at a loss for ideas — I thought about trying to derive a term from the Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₂ylios, but couldn’t come up with anything that felt like it would evoke the concept of a child, at least not to my own brain.

Further Analysis

I’d like to see how much of a correlation there is between getting the “correct” answer for a particular word, and being a native speaker of English. This isn’t conceptually that hard to do, but I’ll need to play with the data a bit, and I’m exhausted and wanted to get *something* posted tonight. I’ll try and post an update in the next couple of days. I’d also like to provide actual charts with the data I received, but Google Forms doesn’t provide an easy way to export them as images without going through at least one WYSIWYG editor.

*If the person in question sees this and asks me to cite them by name, I will do so. I’ve decided to keep them anonymous for now for privacy’s sake.