‘Staying silent now is a really bad idea’


TheWhiteHouse TrumpTheresaweb

July 2017 (EL Gazette)

International students are ‘upset’ about US and UK immigration policies and could head elsewhere if universities fail to show their friendly side, a survey suggests.

The findings reveal that ‘unwelcoming’ foreign policies are changing students’ perceptions – and possibly decisions – even when they don’t directly affect them.

‘International students are registering their distaste,’ said Ben Waxman, chief executive of Intead, one of the two student-marketing companies behind the research.

‘They are asking, “Why are you closing your doors to internationalisation?”’

The survey, conducted in February by Intead and FPPEDU Media and presented last month, received responses from over 57,400 prospective international students.

Many of those in non-EU countries said they were less likely to study in the UK because of Brexit. This included 43 per cent of respondents from India and 39 per cent from Nigeria – the fifth- and sixth-largest source markets for the UK higher education sector.

As for the US, the election of Donald Trump seems to be making some students think twice. About 60 per cent of respondents from Brazil said they were less likely to study in the US – up from 49 per cent when the same question was asked before the 2016 presidential elections.

But the percentage of Mexican students who said they would not study in the US has actually fallen, from 80 per cent in 2016 to 61 per cent this year.

Similar percentages of all students surveyed said they would be less likely to choose the US as a study destination due to the US government’s travel policies. A total of 59 per cent of UK students said they would be less likely to study in the US for this reason.

The picture is quite grim, but how likely are students to follow through?

Trump numbers

International students are ‘upset’ about US and UK immigration policies and could head elsewhere if universities fail to show their friendly side, a survey suggests.

The findings reveal that ‘unwelcoming’ foreign policies are changing students’ perceptions – and possibly decisions – even when they don’t directly affect them.

‘International students are registering their distaste,’ said Ben Waxman, chief executive of Intead, one of the two student-marketing companies behind the research.

‘They are asking, “Why are you closing your doors to internationalisation?”’

The survey, conducted in February by Intead and FPPEDU Media and presented last month, received responses from over 57,400 prospective international students.

Many of those in non-EU countries said they were less likely to study in the UK because of Brexit. This included 43 per cent of respondents from India and 39 per cent from Nigeria – the fifth- and sixth-largest source markets for the UK higher education sector.

As for the US, the election of Donald Trump seems to be making some students think twice. About 60 per cent of respondents from Brazil said they were less likely to study in the US – up from 49 per cent when the same question was asked before the 2016 presidential elections.

But the percentage of Mexican students who said they would not study in the US has actually fallen, from 80 per cent in 2016 to 61 per cent this year.

Similar percentages of all students surveyed said they would be less likely to choose the US as a study destination due to the US government’s travel policies. A total of 59 per cent of UK students said they would be less likely to study in the US for this reason.

The picture is quite grim, but how likely are students to follow through?


Refugees welcome? How UK and Sweden compare on education for young migrants

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Joanna McIntyre, University of Nottingham

In the UK, the world’s fifth richest economy, vulnerable children are being denied education. Asylum seekers and refugee children are struggling to access education – and unable to attend school or college. This contravenes rights to equal educational access in accordance with international human rights law.

I’m currently working on research projects about child refugees, one of which compares experiences of children in the UK with those arriving in Sweden – and I am concerned that the UK education system is not currently fit for purpose or able to provide adequate schooling for every child.

The fact of the matter is that refugee children should be resettled in the UK. It is quite simply the right thing to do for obvious humanitarian reasons. As Ghandi observed:

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.

Lessons should be learned from countries such as Sweden, where more inclusive practices are already in place. It should also be considered how education policies and practices are working against schools and teachers who want to welcome refugees but who are unable to.

Hassan’s story

Take Hassan, he’s 15 and Iranian, and I met him at an arts workshop for recently arrived child refugees in the UK. Hassan had been in the UK for four months and did not yet have a school place.

His age is the first barrier when it comes to an education. This is because Hassan should be in year 11 – GCSE year – which means a school could be reluctant to take him because he is unlikely to have sufficient preparation time for exams.

Teachers are also under massive amounts of pressure to deliver outcomes to boost their school’s progress scores and performance in league tables. And new arrivals such as Hassan – regardless of their prior attainment and experience – are unlikely to be able to adjust to the English school culture and absorb the content and skills required to pass high stakes examinations in the remaining months of year 11.

Are refugees really welcome?
Pexels

The second barrier is language. When we met, Hassan had a friend translating. And until he has a school place, Hassan will be reliant on the support of volunteer groups for English language lessons.

There is another practical barrier, too – Hassan had a letter from his local authority (which he carries with him) saying there are three potential schools for him. But none are near Hassan’s home, and two of the schools are two bus rides away.

Navigating the system

If Hassan isn’t successful in finding a school place in 40 days, his case will appear before what’s known as a Fair Access Panel. This will allocate a place to Hassan and there will be a further period of time when the school can appeal this decision.

Should he find a place, the school, undoubtedly worried about balancing budgets and managing limited resources, will decide which class to put him in, which subjects, and which sets. He might also attend an intervention programme to develop his English and help him access the curriculum, but such places are limited.

Language training for refugees.
Shutterstock

More likely, Hassan will be placed in a mainstream classroom and given in-house language support – which will mean withdrawal from some lessons. He will probably also be placed in lower sets because his English will mask his real ability.

These decisions will have short, and maybe, longer term implications for Hassan’s prospects and for the friendship groups he develops.

The Swedish way

But until Hassan gets a school place, he is stuck. He reached the UK but is unable to begin making a new life because he cannot access the support the education system should be able to offer him. And if this is still the case after the age of 16, his experiences are likely to be worse because places in post 16 provision are often even more limited.

But had Hassan landed in Sweden, he and his family would access two hours daily of Swedish language tuition – as part of their residence permit. In school, Hassan would also receive two hours teaching per week in his home language.

This reflects research which shows that when it comes to language learning, a bilingual environment is most successful. This means a child’s first language is continued to enable them to learn a second or third language more quickly.

In Sweden, Hassan’s local school would also commit to enrol him as quickly as possible. Often within a fortnight of arriving in the country.

Not just another brick in the wall.
Shutterstock

Like Sweden, schools in the UK should also be inclusive spaces that offer education for all rather than just for league tables. This is important because young refugees are likely to complete their education in their new country – becoming full members of their “post-settlement” society.

The ConversationSo instead of restricting access to education, the UK should instead recognise the potential of these children and welcome them in its schools as they begin their new lives.

Joanna McIntyre, Associate Professor of Education, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

The ConversationEquating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


English has taken over academia: but the real culprit is not linguistic

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In academia, you’ll need to.
Africa Studio/www.shutterstock.com

Anna Kristina Hultgren, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, The Open University

Not only is April 23 the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, but the UN has chosen it as UN English Language Day in tribute to the Bard.

If growth in the number of speakers is a measure of success, then the English language certainly deserves to be celebrated. Since the end of World War I, it has risen to become the language with the highest number of non-native users in the world and is the most frequently used language among people who don’t share the same language in business, politics and academia.

In universities in countries where English is not the official language, English is increasingly used as a medium of instruction and is often the preferred language for academics in which to publish their research.

In Europe alone, the number of undergraduate and masters programmes fully taught in English grew from 2,389 in 2007 to 8,089 in 2014 – a 239% increase.

In academic publishing, the use of English has a longer history, especially in the sciences. In 1880, only 36% of publications were in English. It had risen to 50% in 1940-50, 75% in 1980 and 91% in 1996, with the numbers for social sciences and humanities slightly lower.

Today, the proportion of academic articles in the Nordic countries which are published in English is between 70% and 95%, and for doctoral dissertations it’s 80% to 90%.

Pros and cons of using English

One frequently cited advantage of publishing in English is that academics can reach a wider audience and also engage in work produced outside of their own language community. This facilitates international collaboration and, at least ideally, strengthens and validates research. In teaching, using English enables the mobility of staff and students and makes it possible for students to study abroad and get input from other cultures. It also helps develop language skills and intercultural awareness.

But some downsides have been identified. In the Nordic countries, for example, the national language councils have expressed concerns at the lack of use of national languages in academia. They’ve argued that this may impoverish these languages, making it impossible to communicate about scientific issues in Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. There has also been fears that the quality of education taking place in English is lower because it may be harder to express oneself in a non-native language. And there are concerns about the creation of inequalities between those who speak English well and those who don’t – though this may begin to change.

Research suggests a more nuanced picture. National languages are still being used in academia and are no more threatened here than in other domains. Both teachers and students have been shown to adapt, drawing on strategies and resources that compensate for any perceived loss of learning. The ability to cope with education in a non-native language depends on a number of factors, such as level of English proficiency – which varies significantly across the world.

English built into the system

Some solutions to these problems have focused on devising language policies which are meant to safeguard local languages. For instance, many Nordic universities have adopted a “parallel language policy”, which accords equal status to English and to the national language (or languages, in the case of Finland, which has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish). While such initiatives may serve important symbolic functions, research suggests that they are unlikely to be effective in the long run.

Learning in Oslo – but in what language?
AstridWestvang/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

This is because the underlying causes of these dramatic changes that are happening in academia worldwide are not simply linguistic, but political and economic. A push for competition in higher education has increased the use of research performance indicators and international bench-marking systems that measure universities against each other.

This competitive marketplace means academics are encouraged to publish their articles in high-ranking journals – in effect this means English-language journals. Many ranking lists also measure universities on their degree of internationalisation, which tends to be interpreted rather simplistically as the ratio of international to domestic staff and students. Turning education into a commodity and charging higher tuition fees for overseas students also makes it more appealing for universities to attract international students. This all indirectly leads to a rise in the use of English: a shared language is necessary for such transnational activities to work.

The ConversationThe rise of English in academia is only a symptom of this competition. If the linguistic imbalance is to be redressed, then this must start with confronting the problem of a university system which has elevated competition and performance indicators to its key organising principle, in teaching as well as research.

Anna Kristina Hultgren, Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, Lecturer of English Language Teaching , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why is English so hard to learn?

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Sean Sutherland, University of Westminster

The prime minister, David Cameron, wants more Muslim women in the UK to be taught English to reduce segregation between different linguistic communities and even limit the lure of extremism.

Most of us who have tried it probably feel that learning a new language is difficult, even if that new language is similar to our own. So how difficult is it to learn English and especially if your first language is quite different?

The difficulty of learning a new language will depend on how similar that language is to one you already know. Despite English speakers often rating certain languages as being particularly difficult – languages such as French, which indicate the gender of nouns with articles like le and la, and the Chinese writing system – there are similarities between these languages.

If you were to learn French you’d immediately recognise many words, because the English equivalents have French Latin roots, such as ballet or amiable. If you were to learn Chinese you’d find that its grammar is similar to English in many ways – for example each Chinese sentence has a subject, a predicate and an object (though an English speaker would most likely find learning French easier than Chinese).

The most difficulty arises when people learn English when they don’t have the advantage of sharing many borrowed words or grammatical patterns with English. This will include speakers of Arabic, Urdu and Bengali – three of the most common languages spoken by Muslim immigrants in Britain.

Baffling spellings

In my experience, the most common complaint language learners make about English is that the spelling of words often has little or nothing to do with their pronunciation. It’s easy enough to teach someone how to write the letter “a”, for example, but then they must be taught that its pronunciation changes in words like hat, hate and father. In oak it isn’t pronounced at all.

Compare this to the simplicity of Spanish, a language in which an “a” and other vowels rarely change pronunciation from word to word.

Laugh is pronounced larf but the similar-sounding half is not written haugh – but of course there are regional differences in accent too. Like the “l” in half, there are silent letters sprinkled throughout English words: the “k” in knife and knead, the “s” in island, the “p” in receipt, and so on.

A recent poem of unknown origin, a favourite of English language teachers who want to amuse their students, contains tongue twisters such as:

I take it you already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

Another area of difficulty that learners of English often comment on is the prevalence of irregular past verbs in English. It’s simple enough to remember that the past tense of walk is
walked, shout is shouted and pick is picked.

But what about all the irregular verbs, like hit, read and think? For hit, the past tense looks and sounds the same as the present tense. For read, the past tense looks the same, but is pronounced differently. For think, the past tense thought involves substantial change to both the spelling and the pronunciation.

There’s not always a pattern to many of these irregular verbs. For verbs ending with “ink” we have “think/thought”, but another irregular pattern “drink/drank” and a regular pattern “wink/winked”. English has several hundred such irregular verbs for learners to look forward to memorising, and many of them are very frequently used: be, get, have, see, eat, and so on.

Being polite

A delicate difficulty concerns how English speakers show politeness. Some languages have quite clear ways for their users to do this. In French you can use the pronoun vous instead of tu to be polite.

Not as easy as it looks.
banlon1964/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

English only has you, so that doesn’t work. In Japanese you can substitute polite forms of words, so that although kuu, taberu and meshiagaru all mean “eat” in Japanese, the longer words are more polite.

In English we can use longer words: “Would you like to consume nourishment?” instead of “Would you like to eat?” – but it doesn’t sound polite, rather a bit awkward.

There are less obvious ways of marking politeness in English: use a question (“Could you pass the … ” instead of “Pass the …”), express some doubt (“I don’t suppose you could … ”) and apologise, even for small requests (“Sorry to bother you, but …”).

If subtleties aren’t mastered then otherwise-fluent learners of English (or any other language) – even if they don’t intend to be impolite – may unintentionally appear rude.

The ConversationSo spare a thought for those picking up an English textbook for the first time – mastering the quirks of the language is tough (pronounced tuff).

Sean Sutherland, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ELT teachers living in a ‘nether world’


ELT teachers living in a ‘nether world’

June 2017 (EL Gazette)

Members of the Unite trade union in Ireland held a protest outside the Department of Education in Dublin today, calling for better pay and conditions.

Prior to the rally, the Unite ELT branch committee had requested a meeting with Ireland education minister Richard Bruton to discuss how to improve current wage and working conditions for ELT teachers. However, the members said Bruton had refused to meet with them, referring them to the Workplace Relations Commission because they were employed by private companies and not the government.

Regional organiser Roy Hassey agreed to speak to the EL Gazette about the protest and why they felt it was important.

What do you hope to achieve in this protest?

We want the minister of education to sit down with a small delegation from the Unite ELT branch and for the first time listen to the concerns of teachers. Mr Bruton has met with all other stakeholders in the industry but has not spoken to teachers or the representatives of teachers.

We want the minister to acknowledge the pervasive abuse of employment rights that occur in the sector and include the regulation of employment law and the application of basic standards in employment legislation in the sector.

It is also important to highlight an industry which is worth billions to the Irish economy and is an enormous growth sector but has employment practices from the dark ages. Over 100 English language schools exist in the state employing up to 1,200 teachers at any one time. The majority of these schools are hugely profitable, but Unite members live in a nether world of contractless jobs, zero hour contracts, bogus self-employment, no job security, unpaid work [and] discrimination against non-native speakers.

How long have you been trying to make contact with education and skills minister Richard Bruton and has he given you any reason as to why he hasn’t responded to your demands?

We originally wrote to the minister in March requesting a meeting. He responded to us some time later stating that “a meeting was unnecessary” as any issues around employment can be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission as these were for-profit businesses. However the government regulates virtually every aspect of the industry around the ownership and administration of schools, to how many students should be in each class, temperatures in the rooms, desk sizes, etc., but he claims they cannot regulate around employment rights for teachers. If schools are obliged to have a set number of toilets and to heat the classroom at a certain temperature, they can be regulated to ensure that teachers are paid for all hours worked, are paid an established and fair wage and have proper, legal contracts.

How many people do you expect to be at the protest?

As schools have different hours and different lunch times, it is difficult to find a time for a rally that suits everyone. We are hoping for a big turnout of teachers from city centre schools.

At the rally, union members handed in a letter reiterating the union’s concerns and request for a meeting with the minister. They were accompanied by Unite regional secretary Jimmy Kelly and opposition politicians.

*At the time of going to press, the Irish government had not responded to requests for comment from the EL Gazette.

Original article: (http://www.elgazette.com/item/409-elt-teachers-living-in-a-nether-world.html)


What brain regions control our language? And how do we know this?

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Our language abilities are enabled by a co-ordinated network of brain regions that have evolved to give humans a sophisticated ability to communicate.
[bastian.]/Flickr, CC BY

David Abbott, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

The brain is key to our existence, but there’s a long way to go before neuroscience can truly capture its staggering capacity. For now, though, our Brain Control series explores what we do know about the brain’s command of six central functions: language, mood, memory, vision, personality and motor skills – and what happens when things go wrong.


When you read something, you first need to detect the words and then to interpret them by determining context and meaning. This complex process involves many brain regions.

Detecting text usually involves the optic nerve and other nerve bundles delivering signals from the eyes to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. If you are reading in Braille, you use the sensory cortex towards the top of the brain. If you listen to someone else reading, then you use the auditory cortex not far from your ears.

A system of regions towards the back and middle of your brain help you interpret the text. These include the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe, Wernicke’s area (comprising mainly the top rear portion of the temporal lobe), insular cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

These regions work together as a network to process words and word sequences to determine context and meaning. This enables our receptive language abilities, which means the ability to understand language. Complementary to this is expressive language, which is the ability to produce language.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds. Regions in your frontal, temporal and parietal lobes formulate what you want to say and the motor cortex, in your frontal lobe, enables you to speak the words.

Most of this language-related brain activity is likely occurring in the left side of your brain. But some people use an even mix of both sides and, rarely, some have right dominance for language. There is an evolutionary view that specialisation of certain functions to one side or the other may be an advantage, as many animals, especially vertebrates, exhibit brain function with prominence on one side.

Why the left side is favoured for language isn’t known. But we do know that injury or conditions such as epilepsy, if it affects the left side of the brain early in a child’s development, can increase the chances language will develop on the right side. The chance of the person being left-handed is also increased. This makes sense, because the left side of the body is controlled by the motor cortex on the right side of the brain.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds.
paul pod/Flickr, CC BY

Selective problems

In 1861, French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca described a patient unable to speak who had no motor impairments to account for the inability. A postmortem examination showed a lesion in a large area towards the lower middle of his left frontal lobe particularly important in language formulation. This is now known as Broca’s area.

The clinical symptom of being unable to speak despite having the motor skills is known as expressive aphasia, or Broca’s aphasia.

In 1867, Carl Wernicke observed an opposite phenomenon. A patient was able to speak but not understand language. This is known as receptive aphasia, or Wernicke’s aphasia. The damaged region, as you might correctly guess, is the Wernicke’s area mentioned above.

Scientists have also observed injured patients with other selective problems, such as an inability to understand most words except nouns; or words with unusual spelling, such as those with silent consonants, like reign.

These difficulties are thought to arise from damage to selective areas or connections between regions in the brain’s language network. However, precise localisation can often be difficult given the complexity of individuals’ symptoms and the uncontrolled nature of their brain injury.

We also know the brain’s language regions work together as a co-ordinated network, with some parts involved in multiple functions and a level of redundancy in some processing pathways. So it’s not simply a matter of one brain region doing one thing in isolation.

Broca’s area is named after French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca.
Wikimedia Commons

How do we know all this?

Before advanced medical imaging, most of our knowledge came from observing unfortunate patients with injuries to particular brain parts. One could relate the approximate region of damage to their specific symptoms. Broca’s and Wernicke’s observations are well-known examples.

Other knowledge was inferred from brain-stimulation studies. Weak electrical stimulation of the brain while a patient is awake is sometimes performed in patients undergoing surgery to remove a lesion such as a tumour. The stimulation causes that part of the brain to stop working for a few seconds, which can enable the surgeon to identify areas of critically important function to avoid damaging during surgery.

In the mid-20th century, this helped neurosurgeons discover more about the localisation of language function in the brain. It was clearly demonstrated that while most people have language originating on the left side of their brain, some could have language originating on the right.

Towards the later part of the 20th century, if a surgeon needed to find out which side of your brain was responsible for language – so he didn’t do any damage – he would put to sleep one side of your brain with an anaesthetic. The doctor would then ask you a series of questions, determining your language side from your ability or inability to answer them. This invasive test (which is less often used today due to the availability of functional brain imaging) is known as the Wada test, named after Juhn Wada, who first described it just after the second world war.

Brain imaging

Today, we can get a much better view of brain function by using imaging techniques, especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a safe procedure that uses magnetic fields to take pictures of your brain.

When we see activity in a region of the brain, that’s when there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow.
from shutterstock.com

Using MRI to measure brain function is called functional MRI (fMRI), which detects signals from magnetic properties of blood in vessels supplying oxygen to brain cells. The fMRI signal changes depending on whether the blood is carrying oxygen, which means it slightly reduces the magnetic field, or has delivered up its oxygen, which slightly increases the magnetic field.

A few seconds after brain neurons become active in a brain region, there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow to that brain part, much more than required to satisfy the oxygen demand of the neurons. This is what we see when we say a brain region is activated during certain functions.

Brain-imaging methods have revealed that much more of our brain is involved in language processing than previously thought. We now know that numerous regions in every major lobe (frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes; and the cerebellum, an area at the bottom of the brain) are involved in our ability to produce and comprehend language.

Functional MRI is also becoming a useful clinical tool. In some centres it has replaced the Wada test to determine where language is in the brain.

Scientists are also using fMRI to build up a finer picture of how the brain processes language by designing experiments that compare which areas are active during various tasks. For instance, researchers have observed differences in brain language regions of dyslexic children compared to those without dyslexia.

Researchers compared fMRI images of groups of children with and without dyslexia while they performed language-related tasks. They found that dyslexic children had, on average, less activity in Broca’s area mainly on the left during this task. They also had less activity in or near Wernicke’s area on the left and right, and a portion of the front of the temporal lobe on the right.

Could this type of brain imaging provide a diagnostic signature of dyslexia? This is a work-in-progress, but we hope further study will one day lead to a robust, objective and early brain-imaging test for dyslexia and other disorders.


The ConversationWant to know how the brain controls your mood? Read today’s accompanying piece here.

David Abbott, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Epilepsy Neuroinformatics Laboratory, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.