Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.
There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.
Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.
The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.
The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.
In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.
In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.
Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.
Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.
Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.
Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.
Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.
And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: “Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung”. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.
Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.
Do you remember being taught you should never start your sentences with “And” or “But”?
What if I told you that your teachers were wrong and there are lots of other so-called grammar rules that we’ve probably been getting wrong in our English classrooms for years?
How did grammar rules come about?
To understand why we’ve been getting it wrong, we need to know a little about the history of grammar teaching.
Grammar is how we organise our sentences in order to communicate meaning to others.
Those who say there is one correct way to organise a sentence are called prescriptivists. Prescriptivist grammarians prescribe how sentences must be structured.
Prescriptivists had their day in the sun in the 18th century. As books became more accessible to the everyday person, prescriptivists wrote the first grammar books to tell everyone how they must write.
These self-appointed guardians of the language just made up grammar rules for English, and put them in books that they sold. It was a way of ensuring that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.
They took their newly concocted rules from Latin. This was, presumably, to keep literate English out of reach of anyone who wasn’t rich or posh enough to attend a grammar school, which was a school where you were taught Latin.
And yes, that is the origin of today’s grammar schools.
The other camp of grammarians are the descriptivists. They write grammar guides that describe how English is used by different people, and for different purposes. They recognise that language isn’t static, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all.
1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction
Let’s start with the grammatical sin I have already committed in this article. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Obviously you can, because I did. And I expect I will do it again before the end of this article. There, I knew I would!
Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp.
However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history,
it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.
It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.
2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
Well, in Latin you can’t. In English you can, and we do all the time.
Admittedly a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a preposition is, so this rule is already obsolete. But let’s have a look at it anyway, for old time’s sake.
According to this rule, it is wrong to say “Who did you go to the movies with?”
Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say “With whom did you go to the movies?”
I’m saving that structure for when I’m making polite chat with the Queen on my next visit to the palace.
That’s not a sarcastic comment, just a fanciful one. I’m glad I know how to structure my sentences for different audiences. It is a powerful tool. It means I usually feel comfortable in whatever social circumstances I find myself in, and I can change my writing style according to purpose and audience.
That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.
3. Put a comma when you need to take a breath
It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used.
Commas provide demarcation between like grammatical structures. When adjectives, nouns, phrases or clauses are butting up against each other in a sentence, we separate them with a comma. That’s why I put commas between the three nouns and the two clauses in that last sentence.
Commas also provide demarcation for words, phrases or clauses that are embedded in a sentence for effect. The sentence would still be a sentence even if we took those words away. See, for example, the use of commas in this sentence.
4. To make your writing more descriptive, use more adjectives
Teachers have been shaping lives for centuries. Everyone remembers their favourite (and of course their least favourite) teachers. This important group of people even has its own special day, marked each October by the United Nations.
Teachers are at the coal face when it comes to watching societies change. South Africa’s classrooms, for instance, look vastly different today than they did two decades ago. They bring together children from different racial, cultural, economic and social backgrounds. This can sometimes cause conflict as varied ways of understanding the world bump up against each other.
How can teachers develop the skills to work with these differences in productive ways? What practical support do they need to bring the values of the Constitution to life in their classes?
To answer these questions, my colleagues and I in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University have put together four examples from modules within our faculty’s teacher education programme. These ideas are by no means exhaustive; other institutions also tackle these issues. What we present here is based on our own research, teaching and experience and is open to further discussion.
1. Working with multilingualism
English is only South Africa’s fifth most spoken home language. Teachers must remember this: even if their pupils are speaking English in the classroom, their home languages may be far more diverse.
Trainee teachers can benefit enormously from a course on multilingual education. In our faculty, for instance, students are given the chance to place multilingual education in a South African policy framework. They model multilingual classroom strategies like code switching and translation. They visit schools to observe how such strategies are applied in the real classroom. Students then report back on whether this approach helps learners from different language backgrounds to participate actively in the lesson.
There’s also great value in introducing student teachers to the notion of “World Englishes”. This focuses on the role of English in multilingual communities, where it is seen as being used for communication and academic purposes rather than as a way for someone to be integrated into an English community.
2. Supporting diverse learning needs
Student teachers must be trained to identify and support pupils’ diverse learning needs. This helps teachers to identify and address barriers to learning and development and encourages linkages between the home and the school.
This is even more meaningful when it is embedded in experiential learning. For instance, in guided exercises with their own class groups, our students engage with their feelings, experiences and thinking about their own backgrounds and identities. Other activities may be based on real scenarios, such as discussing the case of a boy who was sanctioned by his school for wearing his hair in a way prescribed by his religion.
In these modules we focus on language, culture, race, socioeconomic conditions, disability, sexual orientation, learning differences and behavioural, health or emotional difficulties. The students also learn how to help vulnerable learners who are being bullied.
And these areas are constantly expanding. At Stellenbosch University, we’ve recently noted that we need to prepare teachers to deal with the bullying of LGBT learners. They also need to be equipped with the tools to support pupils who’ve immigrated from elsewhere in Africa.
3. Advancing a democratic classroom
Courses that deal with the philosophy of education are an important element of teacher education. These explore notions of diversity, human dignity, social justice and democratic citizenship.
In these classes, student teachers are encouraged to see their own lecture rooms as spaces for open and equal engagement, with regard and respect for different ways of being. They’re given opportunities to express and engage with controversial views. This stands them in good stead to create such spaces in their own classrooms.
Most importantly, students are invited to critically reconsider commonly held beliefs – and to disrupt their ideas of the world – so that they might encounter the other as they are and not as they desire them to be. In such a classroom, a teacher promotes discussion and debate. She cultivates respect and regard for the other by listening to different accounts and perspectives. Ultimately, the teacher accepts that she is just one voice in the classroom.
4. Understanding constitutional rights in the classroom
All the approaches to teacher education described here are underpinned by the Constitution.
The idea is that teacher education programmes should develop teachers who understand notions of justice, citizenship and social cohesion. Any good teacher needs to be able to reflect critically on their own role as leader and manager within the contexts of classrooms, schools and the broader society. This includes promoting values of democracy, social justice and equality, and building attitudes of respect and reciprocity.
A critical reflective ethos is encouraged. Students get numerous opportunities to interrogate, debate, research, express and reflect upon educational challenges, theories and policies, from different perspectives, as these apply to practice. This is all aimed at building a positive school environment for everyone.
Moving into teaching
What about when students become teachers themselves?
For many new teachers these inclusive practices are not easy to implement in schools. One lecturer in our faculty has been approached by former students who report that as beginner teachers, they don’t have “the status or voice to change existing discriminatory practices and what some experience as the resistance to inclusive education”. This suggests that ongoing discussion and training in both pre-service and in-service education is needed.
At the same time, however, there are signs that these modules are having a positive impact. Students post comments and ideas on social media and lecturers regularly hear from first-time teachers about how useful their acquired knowledge is in different contexts. Many are also eager to study further so they can explore the issues more deeply.
Everything I’ve described here is part of one faculty’s attempts to provide safe spaces where student teachers can learn to work constructively with the issues pertaining to diversity in education. In doing so, we hope they’ll become part of building a country based on respect for all.
Author’s note: I am grateful to my colleagues Lynette Collair, Nuraan Davids, Jerome Joorst and Christa van der Walt for the ideas contained in this article.
The most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport.
That’s a standard joke among pilots, who know even better than the flying public that aviation is the safest mode of transportation.
But there are still those headlines and TV shows about airline crashes, and those statistics people like to repeat, such as:
Between 1976 and 2000, more than 1,100 passengers and crew lost their lives in accidents in which investigators determined that language had played a contributory role.
True enough, 80% of all air incidents and accidents occur because of human error. Miscommunication combined with other human factors such as fatigue, cognitive workload, noise, or forgetfulness have played a role in some of the deadliest accidents.
The most well-known, and widely discussed, is the collision on the ground of two Boeing 747 aircraft in 1977 in Tenerife, which resulted in 583 fatalities. The incident was due in part to difficult communications between the pilot, whose native language was Dutch, and the Spanish air traffic controller.
In such a high-stakes environment as commercial aviation, where the lives of hundreds of passengers and innocent people on the ground are involved, communication is critical to safety.
So, it was decided that Aviation English would be the international language of aviation and that all aviation professionals – pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) – would need to be proficient in it. It is a language designed to minimise ambiguities and misunderstandings, highly structured and codified.
Pilots and ATC expect to hear certain bits of information in certain ways and in a given order. The “phraseology”, with its particular pronunciation (for example, “fife” and “niner” instead of “five” and “nine”, so they’re not confused with each other), specific words (“Cleared to land”), international alphabet (“Mike Hotel Foxtrot”) and strict conversation rules (you must repeat, or “read back”, an instruction), needs to be learned and practised.
In spite of globalisation and the spread of English, most people around the world are not native English speakers, and an increasing number of aviation professionals do not speak English as their first language.
Native speakers have an advantage when they learn Aviation English, since they already speak English at home and in their daily lives. But they encounter many pilots or ATC who learned English as a second or even third language.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that communication is successful? Can native speakers simply speak the way they do at home and expect to be understood? Or do they also have the responsibility to make themselves understood and to learn how to understand pilots or ATC who are not native English speakers?
As a linguist, I analyse aviation language from a linguistics perspective. I have noted the restricted meaning of the few verbs and adjectives; that the only pronouns are “you” and sometimes “we” (“How do you read?”; “We’re overhead Camden”; how few questions there are, mostly imperatives (“Maintain heading 180”); and that the syntax is so simple (no complement clauses, no relative clauses, no recursion), it might not even count as a human language for Chomsky.
But, as a pilot and a flight instructor, I look at it from the point of view of student pilots learning to use it in the cockpit while also learning to fly the airplane and navigate around the airfield.
How much harder it is to remember what to say when the workload goes up, and more difficult to speak over the radio when you know everyone else on the frequency is listening and will notice every little mistake you make?
Imagine, then, how much more difficult this is for pilots with English as a second language.
Everyone learning another language knows it’s suddenly more challenging to hold a conversation over the phone than face-to-face, even with someone you already know. When it’s over the radio, with someone you don’t know, against the noise of the engine, static noise in the headphones, and while trying to make the plane do what you want it to do, it can be quite daunting.
No wonder student pilots who are not native English speakers sometimes prefer to stay silent, and even some experienced native English speakers will too, when the workload is too great.
This is one of the results of my research conducted in collaboration with UNSW’s Brett Molesworth, combining linguistics and aviation human factors.
Experiments in a flight simulator with pilots of diverse language backgrounds and flying experience explored conditions likely to result in pilots making mistakes or misunderstanding ATC instructions. Not surprisingly, increased workload, too much information, and rapid ATC speech, caused mistakes.
Also not surprisingly, less experienced pilots, no matter their English proficiency, made more mistakes. But surprisingly, it was the level of training, rather than number of flying hours or language background, that predicted better communication.
Once we understand the factors contributing to miscommunication in aviation, we can propose solutions to prevent them. For example, technologies such as Automatic Speech Recognition and Natural Language Understanding may help catch errors in pilot readbacks that ATC did not notice and might complement training for pilots and ATC.
It is vital that they understand each other, whatever their native language.
As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.
However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.
It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.
So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”
What we know about second language aptitude
Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.
Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.
Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?
In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.
Studying the resting brain
Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.
We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.
To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.
We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.
The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.
Here’s a video demonstration:
Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.
As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.
A new brain measure for language aptitude
When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.
Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.
Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.
Implications for learning a new language
Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?
First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.
Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.
Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.
The British Council is to open a bilingual pre-school in Hong Kong in August. The International Pre-School, which will teach English and Cantonese and have specific times set aside for Mandarin, will follow the UK-based International Primary Curriculum.
The British Council already has bilingual pre-schools in Singapore (pictured above) and Madrid. The adoption of a bilingual model of early years learning, rather than a purely English-medium one, is supported by much of the research on this age group. In a randomised control trial in the US state of New Jersey, for example, three- and four-year-olds from both Spanish- and English-speaking backgrounds were assigned by lottery to either an all-English or English–Spanish pre-school programme which used an identical curriculum. The study found that children from the bilingual programme emerged with the same level of English as those in the English-medium one, but both the Spanish-speaking and anglophone children had a much higher level of Spanish.
After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage. Another is the English language.
In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate, tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.
This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012, for example, a similar point was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1% of the bloc’s total with the departure of the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.
Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all languages used in member states. It recommends that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should make it skulk away in shame.
The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English dominates to a considerable extent.
The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language repertoire of speakers across the globe.
Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a foreign language – “Euro-English” or “English as a lingua franca” – who now constitute the majority of users.
According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12% speaking French and 11% in German.
The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.
Too much invested in English
Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was estimated to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017. The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.
Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language English speakers by 2:1 both in Europe and globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU, English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project on whether the use of English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness. The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.
English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in Amsterdam, has proposed that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.
English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in different times and places.
We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a key to international education and employment.
Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make the post-Brexit hangover more painful.
This year’s winners – Jairam Hathwar from Painted Post, New York and Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas – present a familiar combination of co-champions. Jairam is the younger brother of 2013 co-champion Sriram, who also dueled with a Texan to ultimately share the trophy.
As a topic of intense speculation on broadcast and social media, the wins have elicited comments that range from curiosity to bafflement and at times outright racism. This curiosity is different from past speculation about “whether home-schooled spellers have an advantage.”
The range of responses offers a moment to consider some of the factors underlying the Indian-American success at the bee, as well as how spelling as a sport has changed. Immediately following the 2016 bee, for instance, much of the coverage has focused on the exceedingly high level of competition and drama that characterized the 25-round championship battle that ultimately resulted in a tie.
Since 2013, I have been conducting research on competitive spelling at regional and national bees with officials, spellers and their families, and media producers.
My interviews and observations reveal the changing nature of spelling as a “brain sport” and the rigorous regimens of preparation that competitive spellers engage in year-round. Being an “elite speller” is a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive in recent years.
Let’s first look at history
South Asian-American spelling success is connected to the history of this ethnic community’s immigration to the United States.
For instance, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act solicited highly trained immigrants to meet America’s need for scientists, engineers and medical professionals and opened the door to skilled immigration from Asia and other regions. In subsequent decades, skilled migration from South Asia continued alongside the sponsorship of family members.
Today, along with smaller, older communities of Punjabi Sikhs and other South Asian ethnic groups primarily on the West Coast, South Asian-Americans constitute a diverse population that features a disproportionately high professional class, although with differences of class, languages, ethnicities and nationalities – differences that are often overlooked in favor of a narrative of Indian-American educational and professional success.
The question is, what gives the community an edge?
For upwardly mobile South Asian-Americans, success is in part due to moving from one socially and economically advantageous societal position in the subcontinent to another in the United States.
Moreover, the English-speaking abilities of most educated South Asian-Americans clearly give them an edge over immigrants from other countries. My research indicates that fluency developed in English-medium schools – a legacy of British colonialism – makes them ideal spelling interlocutors for their children, despite their variety of British spelling. Members of this population with elite educational qualifications have likewise emphasized the importance of academic achievement with their children.
Over the past few years spelling bees have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage.
For instance, the North South Foundation holds a range of educational contests, such as spelling bees, math contests, geography bees and essay writing, among others, whose proceeds contribute to promoting literacy efforts in India. The South Asian Spelling Bee, partnering with the insurance company Metlife, offers a highly competitive bee as well.
Taken together, this “minor league” circuit gives South Asian-American spellers far more opportunities to compete, as well as a longer “bee season” to train and practice.
This is particularly helpful because, as past champions confirm, ongoing practice and training are the key to winning.
Another factor to note here is the parental ability to dedicate time to education and extracurricular activities. Predictably, families with greater socioeconomic means are able to devote more resources and time.
These parents are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or musicians might be in their children’s matches or performances. As several parents explained to me, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent of travel soccer or Little League.
Of the 30 families I interviewed, the majority had a stay-at-home parent (usually the mother) dedicated to working with children on all activities, including spelling. In dual-income households, spelling training occurred on weeknights and weekends.
Like elite spellers of any race or ethnicity, South Asian-American spellers I spoke with studied word lists daily if possible, logging in several hours on weekends with parents or paid coaches to help them develop strategies and quiz them on words.
A few parents have been so invested in helping their children prepare that they have now started training and tutoring other aspiring spellers as well.
Like any national championship, the pressure on all spellers at a competition on the scale of the National Spelling Bee is intense. South Asian-American children are already subject to living up to the model minority stereotype and feel no reprieve here.
This is especially important to consider when South Asian-American spellers come from lower socioeconomic classes, but nonetheless succeed at spelling bees.
Among the 2015 finalists, for instance, one was the son of motel owners and a crowd favorite, as I observed. He had competed in the bee several times, and his older sister was also a speller, having made it to nationals once. Remarkably, they prepared for competitions by themselves, with no stay-at-home parent or paid coach.
Another 2015 semifinalist was featured in a broadcast segment living in the crowded immigrant neighborhood of Flushing, New York. When I visited this three-time National Spelling Bee participant in 2014, I realized that she lived in the very same apartment complex that my family did in the 1970s. This Queens neighborhood continues to be a receiving area for Indian-Americans who may not have the economic means to live in wealthier sections of New York City or its suburbs.
Many possible explanations
The point is that the reasons that Indian-American spellers are succeeding at the bee are not easily reducible to one answer.
South Asian-Americans, like other Asian immigrants, comprise varying class backgrounds and immigration histories. Yet it is noteworthy that even within this range of South Asian-American spellers, it is children of Indian-American immigrants from professional backgrounds who tend to become champions.
The time and resources Indian-American families devote to this brain sport, as I have observed, appear to be raising this competition into previously unseen levels of difficulty.
This can take a toll on elite spellers, who have to invest far more time studying spelling than in the past. With more difficult words appearing in earlier rounds of competition, spelling preparation can take up much of their time outside of school.
Nonetheless, they emphasize the perseverance they develop from competitive spelling. They learn to handle increasing levels of pressure, and alongside this, what they identify as important life skills of focus, poise and concentration.
Ultimately, what makes Indian-American children successful at spelling is the same as children of any other ethnicity. They come from families who believe in the value of education and also have the financial means to support their children through every stage of their schooling. And, they are highly intelligent individuals who devote their childhood to the study of American English.
Are they American?
Some comments on social media, however, seem to discount these factors and years of intense preparation to instead focus on race and ethnicity as sole factors for spelling success.
In a refreshing shift in tone, this year’s topics also included the ferocity of Janga’s competition style and the inspiration he drew from his football hero Dez Bryant.
Nonetheless, such comments, directed toward nonwhite children when they win this distinctly American contest, do push us to reflect: what does it mean to be an American now?
In alleging that only “Americans” should win this contest, Twitter racists ignore that these spellers too have been born and raised in the United States. Recent winners hail from suburban or small towns in upstate New York, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. They express regional pride in these locations by mentioning regional sports teams and other distinctive features in their on-air profiles.
With their American-accented English and distinctly American comportment, it is merely their skin color and names that set them apart from a white mainstream.
Like generations of white Americans and European immigrants, Indian-American parents spend countless hours preparing word lists, quizzing their children and creating ways for their children to learn. They encourage their children in whatever they are good at, including spelling.
As a result, they have elevated this American contest to a new level of competition. Clearly, this is an apt moment to expand our definition of what it means to be an American.
This is an updated version of an article first published on June 4, 2015.
Presenter Jeremy Paxman recently hailed the victory of English “in the battle of global tongues” in an article for the Financial Times in which he also claimed that French was “useless” and “bad for you”.
First of all, no language is useless: it serves communication between people. While languages may differ in the number of users and the practical and economic advantages attached to their mastery, they bring similar intellectual and developmental benefits. And multilingualism combines and increases all these gains by favouring personal mental agility, widening horizons and potentially contributing to overcoming parochialism.
Let us now focus on Paxman’s attack on French. Are his barbs aimed at the language or at the people? It’s difficult to say as he confuses countries and languages throughout his column. While he concedes that: “France has enhanced civilisation”, he argues that its influence has long gone. It is very true that the rise and fall of a language greatly depends on extra-linguistic factors such as politics and economy – and France’s current situation does little to enhance the international prestige of its mother tongue.
Does that mean that the French language is doomed? Clearly not, as French is the official language in 29 countries and France only represents between a quarter and a third of French speakers in the world. Perhaps we might stop to consider, en passant, why Paxman’s analysis does not extend to Britain and English. How much has the elevated status of English worldwide got to do with Britain in the 21st century?
Speaking in tongues
Paxman writes that: “English is the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sports”. And he’s right – to an extent. As we know and as all academics can testify, there is huge pressure to publish in English (without necessarily achieving the heights of Shakespeare’s language). And our daily life has been turned upside down in the past 30 years or so thanks to the discoveries of Silicon Valley (which wasn’t in Britain the last time I looked).
When travelling, an ability to master at least “pidgin” English comes in very handy – although it didn’t get me anywhere in Beijing in 2005, and I had to revert to speaking French while in Italy. As for entertainment, of course, people are flocking from all around Europe to take part in Britain’s got Talent … but Hollywood may have a role to play on the global entertainment stage as well.
Like Paxman, I would not expect the singer, Johnny Hallyday (who is, in fact, Belgian-born), to be “the future of pop” – he probably deserves a break after his stellar 50-year career. But the rising global fame of the singer Stromae (real name Paul Van Haver) – the son of a Rwandan father and a Flemish mother – seems to show that entertainment through the medium of French may still have a few good years ahead.
Paxman also argues that “France never really decolonised” and its continued influence is stifling development in former colonies by imposing French on their higher education systems rather than English which, he says, would be far more useful. The linguistic imperialism of France certainly does not apply to all former colonies, as eloquently illustrated by the disengagement of France in Djibouti, to the dismay of Francophile locals.
The accusation of colonialism against France appears nonetheless a bit ironic from a British citizen. The Commonwealth is an organisation of British former colonies where Britain played an instrumental role. In contrast, Francophonie – the official use of the French language – was adopted in Senegal by poet and politician Leopold Senghor, in Tunisia the decision to adopt French was taken by Habib Bourguiba and in Cambodia by Norodom Sihanouk.
English and French have coexisted and exchanged words and phrases for a millennium and more. From a 2016 perspective, there is no denying that English has become the most widespread and used language of the two, but it may be worth remembering that for the first half of this coexistence, English was the poor relative and has only taken off as the lingua franca (oh, the irony) since the late 18th century.
History teaches us that civilisations and their language soar and collapse – what would Alexander the Great make of Greece’s current situation? With that in mind, Paxman may be well inspired to moderate his triumphalism. How will the global English language fare in five centuries – will it suffer the same fate as Latin? And even if it could be argued that our hyperconnected civilisation may prevent the death of English, there is no dearth of evidence from the blooming field of “global English” studies to show that the language changes as it conquers the world.
Your language has won the latest battle, Mr Paxman – but no more than that. As you say, the future may belong to those who speak English – but above all, it belongs to those who speak English fluently alongside other languages. And, as former US president George Bush discovered, French is very useful if you want to acquire a really sophisticated vocabulary in English.
Children are often at the forefront of working out what it means to be a new arrival in a different country. They feel the anxiety that comes with being the new girl or boy at school. They’re in an environment that emphasises “integration” – learning new rules, making new friends, possibly learning a new language and grappling with a new testing regime.
Amid all of these changes, teachers may not realise how important it is simply for children to feel included. Even making their home countries a feature of lessons in, for example, geography can help children feel more at ease. It is a valuable opportunity for them to contribute. If their identities are ignored these children may feel detached from school. This sense of detachment has been shown to negatively affect learning. It may also have more serious consequences for a child’s sense of belonging and, ultimately, well-being.
Research I am currently doing in South Africa and England – countries with long histories of migration – looks at the inclusion of migrant learners in primary schools through their own lens, quite literally. The children take photographs in school as a way of explaining and engaging with their environment as a place of inclusion and exclusion.
Children as migrants
South Africa’s 2011 census showed that almost 2.2 million people living there were born elsewhere. Some are economic migrants, seeking work. Others are refugees or asylum seekers. There is also a large population of undocumented migrants. Most come from other African countries.
It’s not known exactly how many migrant children attend South African schools. New arrivals – especially refugees – may lack the formal documentation required for school registration. Added to this challenge is the reality of xenophobic attacks against new immigrants.
On paper, at least, children enjoy good protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires all signatories – South Africa and the UK included – to adhere to a long list of rights. These include the right to free primary education, non-discrimination and to be consulted on anything that affects them.
But my previous research in conflict-affected societies revealed that children and adolescents, particularly those from marginalised groups, struggle with freedom of speech in school. They also don’t often feel represented in the curriculum.
A new, visual voice
My new, ongoing research explored inclusion in primary schools from the point of view of recent migrant children. The learner-researchers, who are nine or ten years old, worked in small groups, each child using a digital camera. We worked with The Arrival, a wordless picturebook that has recently started to be used in this sort of research. It helped the children think about what it’s like to arrive in a new country and stimulated memories of their own experiences.
Then we walked together around school photographing signs, classrooms, playgrounds and people – anything that the children thought was important to know about their school. Finally, we talked about the photos and came up with some advice for teachers and other learners about how to help new arrivals feel included.
Three ways to include migrant learners
So how can we include migrant learners in school? Here are three tips based on a combination of what the learners in the two countries shared while taking part in the photographic project.
First, ask them. Children struggle with the idea that they are free to make suggestions to adults. I found that when we tried to come up with a list of advice for teachers, it turned into a list of rules for the learner to keep. It emerged that some things teachers did to be helpful, like getting the learner to introduce themselves on the first day, were the opposite of what the children wanted – to be welcomed quietly while sitting with a classmate.
Part of the process of doing research that involves children as participants includes building their capacity so that they can see themselves as individuals who have something important to say. Simply explaining that “We, as adults, know some things about school, but you also know many things that I don’t know because you go to this school” can empower them.
Second, be creative. Use picturebooks, photography, music and dance. These methods can engage new arrivals in a way that doesn’t demand great proficiency or confidence in using the school’s language. Of course the school day is very demanding for both learners and educators, but finding time to do something outside of the normal routine may pay great dividends in learners’ confidence and well-being.
Third, make sure that their identities are discussed and valued in the curriculum, and reflected in their school’s ethos. We must allow them to “find themselves in the story” of what they are learning in school. This will ensure their confidence in who they are, and is particularly important for marginalised groups. The very fact that these learners were chosen to take part in this project seemed to make them feel privileged and valued.
Children’s voices matter
The late statesman Nelson Mandela is quoted as declaring that:
Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.
Migrant children are a part of this great treasure. They must be included – and this will happen best when their own voices and stories are heard.
Author’s note: most of the children’s photographs featured their own faces, and so cannot be republished here. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the CPUT, where I have been working as a visiting researcher.
Helen Hanna, Lecturer in Education Studies and Visiting Researcher at Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Leeds Trinity University
by Gianfranco Conti, PhD. Co-author of 'The Language Teacher toolkit' and "Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen', winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com