It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned.
The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.
Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.
Why younger may not always be better
Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.
The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.
The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.
Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.
In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.
Language immersion environment best for young children
Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.
Learning in classroom best for early teens
Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.
To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.
For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.
Self-guided learning best for adults
There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.
To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.
How we can apply this to education
What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.
If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.
However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.
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 Oxford English Dictionary – the “OED” to its friends – has announced a 2016 update, consisting of over 1,000 new words and word meanings, along with the revision or expansion of over 2,000 entries.
The revisions are not just new words or phrases, like “glamping”, “air-punching”, “sweary” and “budgie smugglers”. The OED has also revised its entry of “bittem”, an obsolete word over 1000 years old, meaning “the keel or lower part of a ship’s hull”.
Where did the new words come from? Some are borrowed from other languages, such as “narcocorrido” (a Spanish word for a traditional Mexican ballad recounting the exploits of drug traffickers), “potjie” (from Afrikaans, a three-legged cast iron cooking pot for use over a fire), and “shishito” (from Japanese, a particular kind of chilli used in Asian cooking).
Some additions are deeply revealing of our modern preoccupations – such as the terms “assisted death” and “assisted dying”. This category also includes the word “agender” (without gender), born of a communal reaction to our deeply binary thinking around gender. The OED dates its use first to the year 2000.
The OED has also added new “initialisms”. To its existing list, which included IMF (International Monetary Fund) and IDB (illicit diamond buyer), it has added ICYMI (in case you missed it), IRL (in real life), IDK (I don’t know), and FFS (look that one up if you don’t know it already!)
Many of the new entries are made by combining words. Some of these fit the definition of “compound words”, that is, words formed by joining two together, such as “air-punching”, “bare-knuckle”, “self-identity” and “straight-acting”. Others are just two words put side-by-side, such as “power couple”, “hockey mum”, “test drive” and “star sign”.
The term ‘power couple’ has been blessed by the OED. Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Clearly some of these terms – “budgie smugglers” for instance – have been around for some time. The OED dates this term to 1998. The source is The Games, the Australian mockumentary television series about the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
But to make it into a TV program like this, the term must have already been an established expression in the Australian lexicon. The only corpus of English comparing usage across various countries, the GlowBe corpus, shows how deeply Australian the term “budgie smugglers” is.
The expression “battle of the sexes”, meanwhile, has only just made it into the dictionary. The OED first attests its use right back to 1723.
Then there are the new forms from old stock. For instance, to the verb “exploit,” the OED is adding an adjective (“exploitational”), an adverb (“exploitatively”), and a noun to denote someone who is exploiting someone or something (“exploiter”).
To the verb “to swear” the OED now includes “sweary”, both as noun (a swear word can be called “a sweary”) and adjective (meaning something or someone characterized by a lot of swearing).
Why the wait?
So how do words get into the dictionary? “Lexicographers” – the folk who make dictionaries – add words only when there is evidence of usage over some period of time, and across various contexts of usage. The process for Oxford dictionaries is explained here.
A dictionary can never hold every word of a language. The only estimate I know suggests that well over half the words of English are not recorded by dictionaries. Since this research is based on the Google Books corpus, the data is only from published books in university libraries. We can safely say this figure is very conservative.
This latest OED update includes the publication of written and spoken pronunciations for additional English varieties, including those versions spoken in Australia, Canada, the Carribean, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africia. While some of these varieties already had coverage, their presentation has been expanded.
In praise of Singlish
The addition of Hong Kong and Singapore English are entirely new. Speakers of Singapore English, (or “Singlish”) – I count myself as a reasonable speaker of this dialect – will be delighted to see the inclusion of words such as “ang moh” (a light-skinned person of Western origin), “Chinese helicopter” (a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and whose knowledge of English is limited), “killer litter” (objects thrown or falling from high-rise buildings, endangering the people below) and “shiok” (an expression of admiration).
If you think English belongs to Anglos, then you can start by banishing the word “yum cha” from your vocabulary. For a good laugh at Australian English, and the Indian variety, try this series “How to speak Australians”, from the “Dehli Institute of Linguistics”.
By adding the “World Englishes” to the entries on British and American English, the OED has opened a pandora’s box. For instance, read the OED’s explanation for choosing “White South African English” as the model to represent their entries on South African English.
Changes to the OED remind us that a language is not a fixed entity. Not only is English constantly changing, but its boundaries are fluid.
Languages are open and dynamic: open to other dialects and their many and varied users. Therein lies both the power and beauty of language.
Molofo and Bulewani are training as teachers at a university in one of South Africa’s largest cities, Cape Town. Both young men come from rural backgrounds and English is not their first language. Their experiences of moving from a rural area to a city, and of becoming English speakers, offer a fascinating insight into how language development and social transition are intertwined.
There are about 25,720 state schools in South Africa, and 11,252 are designated as rural. These rural schools tend to be poorly resourced – some don’t have proper furniture, let alone enough teachers or textbooks. Most pupils are taught in their mother tongues, not English, and even if they do learn in English they have little chance to practice speaking it at home or outside school. Pupils from schools in such areas tend not to perform as well in their final exams as their urban counterparts.
It was language that set Bulewani and Molofo apart from their classmates. I interviewed them, along with two other teaching students, as part of a research project presented at the 2015 South African Education Research Association Conference. An article based on this research has been submitted to the SA Journal of Education and is under review. The research findings echo results from elsewhere in the world: participants reported that “leaving behind” their home languages and their physical homes produced a sense of both loss and gain.
It is important that this research used rural areas as a context. Such areas tend to be linguistically, educationally and economically isolated from the rest of a country. The students’ experiences are about more than just geographic distance between their rural homes and the city where they study – they’re about social distance, too.
US educationalist John H Schumann talks about this idea of social distance in his research, explaining it as the distance between two language groups in second-language acquisition. Social closeness involves being embedded in a culture. The more culturally comfortable one is, the less the social distance and the easier it is to learn the relevant new language.
Lives in transition
Molofo and Bulewani come from areas where they weren’t surrounded by English speakers. In some rural schools, even the teachers are not particularly proficient in English. Pupils are meant to be taught according to a policy of additive bilingualism – they learn in their mother tongues until Grade 4, and then switch to English as the language of teaching and learning.
This seldom happens, and neither Molofo nor Bulewani learned English this way. They had good English teachers who forced them to speak the language, and both found that they loved it. By the end of their school careers, the young men spoke English well enough to pass it and qualify for university entrance. They also spoke it well enough and had performed well enough at school to earn bursaries. Without this financial support, they would not have been able to take up their university places.
There were two transitory moments at play for Molofo and Bulewani. One involved a physical movement from a rural to an urban area. The other was a transition from functioning in their home or mother tongue to primarily speaking English. Both transitions were facilitated by their acceptance to university. The move came at a cost, though. One of the questions posed in the research was whether students felt that their culture had changed or was under threat because they had learned English. Both said they were losing tradition – but that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Molofo comes from the Eastern Cape province and grew up in an area governed by a chief. Such areas operate under traditional law. Constitutional democracy, with its notions of guaranteed rights, is remote. He had discovered a greater sense of equality and justice since moving to the city, explaining:
I am not that much interested in a traditional way because there is a lot that I discover that is not fair. Some of the things are not happening in the way they are supposed to. It depends maybe on who you are.
Bulewani celebrated the fact that he felt more in charge of his own destiny since his “transitions”. But he also experienced profound loss. His family – who are also from the Eastern Cape – lived off the land, and he missed this way of life. He remarked, for instance, that while at home he could go and pick something from the fields, whereas in the city he had to go out and spend money to buy food.
Mostly, though, his feelings of loss revolved around language:
I am losing a lot of words. I miss a lot of words … I am becoming more educated, but I am losing a lot of things in my culture. I am learning a lot of things from Western culture. Talking English. But I am losing a lot of things. I am losing some Xhosa language and traditions.
Universities need to start collecting more background information about their students to help them settle into this new environment and achieve their goals. For instance, institutions don’t know how many students are from rural areas and might be grappling with the sorts of changes Molofo and Bulewani articulated.
These young men’s voices open an important window on South Africa’s fast-changing society. They are at the forefront of this change, which is both positive and has obvious gains; but is also bittersweet and accompanied by a sense of loss.
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
English was born in the 7th century in England – a small island nation a quarter of the size of France. Since the 17th century, it has become the mother tongue of all locally-born Brits, Americans and Canadians (except for Native Americans on reservations), most Australian and New Zealanders, and several Caribbeans, in the form of English creoles. It has also become the official language of numerous countries of the British Commonwealth: in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
English remains the dominant working language of the United Nations, although Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish are also used as official languages of the organisation. It has become the dominant working language of the European Union too.
English has become the dominant working language of the European Union
The rise of English is unparalleled in world history – dwarfing even the impressive territorial and demographic expansion of Latin, the administrative language of the Western Roman Empire, of the Catholic Church, and of the European scholarly elite for centuries.
The companion of empire
The worldwide spread of English began with the lucrative colonial ventures of that small island. As an imperial language, English has done better than, for instance, Spanish and Russian.
Spanish spread from Castile to the rest of Spain and then to most of Latin America from the 15th century. However, its spread to the rest of the world was curtailed when it lost Morocco and The Philippines as major exploitation colonies. Russian’s importance as a lingua franca of the former Soviet Union has also decreased since the collapse of this communist bloc.
England’s biggest linguistic victory, however, has been over France – its biggest rival in the colonial venture since the 18th century. This nation, which has celebrated the superiority of its culture and language, must surely envy the success of English.
France started losing the maritime provinces of Canada and some of its Caribbean island colonies to England in the 18th century. In 1803, the emerging United States bought a massive chunk of the New France Colony from Napoleon Bonaparte in the Louisiana Purchase.
The acquisition of this vast territory by the United States – from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern border of Quebec, and beyond, cleared the way for the spread of English from the east to the west coast. The growth of American and Canadian populations since then has resulted in a significant increase in the number of mother-tongue English speakers.
The process continues to date as a consequence of mass migration. The current influx of Hispanics to the US is a transition comparable to the immigration of continental Europeans to North America since the 19th century. With their children acquiring English with native competence, the adult Hispanic immigrants are likely to take their heritage languages and their nonnative accents with them to their graves, as did adult continental European immigrants before them.
English in trade, science and scholarship
Now, in the postcolonial era, English has been expanding largely because of the emergence of the US and the British Commonwealth as the dominant players in world trade. In this game, it is the buyer’s language, not the seller’s, that comes out on top – especially when the buyer is truly king.
The economic and military power of the US and its role in saving Europe from two world wars have promoted English to the status of the foremost diplomatic language, thus demoting French. Its leadership, along with the United Kingdom’s, in science and technology has also made English the dominant world lingua franca of scholarship. Even the French and the Germans, economically powerful and influential as they are in science and technology, have had to bow to English. More and more of their scholars publish in English.
To be sure, there are languages such as Hindi and Mandarin, and in fact even Spanish, which have more mother-tongue speakers than English. But from the point of view of what language one needs to be competitive in the scholarly and business world today, English dominates.
In fact, the rise of China as a leading world economic power is helping the spread of English more than it does Mandarin. There are hundreds of millions of speakers of Cantonese, Haka, Hokkien, and other Sinitic languages who learn Mandarin (otherwise known as Putonghua) as the common, official language of China. By my calculations, these Mandarin learners are outnumbered by the multitude of Chinese and other peoples learning English.
A world of many, unequal Englishes
Since the 1950s, even more countries have adopted English as their international language of trade and scholarship. The Indian-born linguist Braj Kachru at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign refers to them as the “Expanding Circle”.
This is in opposition to the “Inner Circle” and the “Outer Circle”. The Inner Circle includes all countries where English is the mother tongue of the majority population. By contrast, the “Outer Circle” consists of Britain’s former colonies, in which English is an official language but is not spoken as a mother tongue by the overwhelming majority of its users.
Although Kachru’s typology has its limitations, it captures some of the power dynamics in world English: native speakers from the Inner Circle claim more authority on English than speakers in the Outer and Expanding circles. They dictate the norms in publishing and international broadcast. They are also less subject to stigmatisation for their grammatical and spoken peculiarities.
It’s back to school for children in France after the half-term winter holidays, which means a return to a particular teaching tradition: giving English names to students who are learning the language for the first time.
This English name is intended to give students a second identity, providing them with both motivation and a place within a specific cultural universe. In a sense, it’s bit like moving Big Ben into a French classroom.
So the children are given names such as Jane, Alison and Betty, or Andrew, George and Peter. Depending on the school, students may or may not get to choose. Some prefer to use their French names in class, with varying responses from teachers. Some teachers accept the student’s decision, others impose the use of the new name. English names can be kept across several years of study and even different schools, or change from year to year.
What’s in a name?
But at a young age, when children’s identity is still under construction, is it really possible to adopt a new name from an unfamiliar culture? In French kindergartens, for example, children’s first names are written by the peg on which their coats hang. They learn to recognise and write out the name, and associate it with their photo – and themselves.
So how should schools manage students who take on a second, scholarly identity? What do such teaching practices tell us about the understanding of the English-speaking world by teachers and students? And do the names given really represent the reality of the culture they are trying to understand?
To answer these questions, I did an informal survey of several language books aimed at seven to nine-year-old pupils, with a focus on English. With the exception of one, all books offered typically “English” names, with none of any other origin, even in the most recent editions.
But England – the reference for publishers of language books for first-year students – is a multicultural nation. There is a large migrant and international populations in Britain, from communities of all cultural backgrounds, including France.
So in such lists, where are the names of Indian or Arabic origin? In Britain, Jack and Harry were the most common boys’ names for a long time, but depending on how you count, the most popular name is now either Muhammed or Oliver, which is of French origin.
As a consequence, French methods of teaching English to children can obscure the genuine cultural diversity of the United Kingdom and so only offer a partial picture of its culture. This is how stereotypes are born.
Through this reduced list of English names, teachers in France are instilling in children an erroneous vision of the United Kingdom from the very beginning. This is a misrepresentation of UK society (or of America or any other English-speaking country).
One of the consequences of shaping students’ choices in this way is to imply that some identities are correct, and others less so. It also influences the value students attach to their own identity. Presumably this practice is well-intentioned, but it’s essentially didactic to the detriment of reality.
Frozen in time
Most often, pupils use their English names in language classes to introduce themselves, according to PrimLangues, a French website providing support to teachers of modern languages. But introducing yourself as “Jane” when your name is actually Aisha or Neweda is anything but easy.
Sometimes, particular names are used to help learn the different sounds of English, as proposed by this list from the Academie Nancy-Metz. This makes sense – English is well known for being difficult to pronounce for many French speakers.
But this list is also only made up of old-fashioned “English” names, such as Laura, Mark, Peter or Samantha. We see neither Indian nor Arabic first names, only a caricature of the English-speaking world. The multicultural reality of the culture being studied is thus neglected.
With all good intentions, these methods of teaching English in France promote a false image of a culture that has been frozen in time. It’s worth thinking twice before giving English names to French students.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So spare a thought for those picking up an English textbook for the first time – mastering the quirks of the language is tough (pronounced tuff).
INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS do not feel welcome in the UK as a result of recent changes to immigration laws brought in by the recent coalition government and the current Conservative administration, according to a recent survey of over 3,000 international students in the UK.
The increasingly tough student visa regime is likely to cut overseas student numbers by 15 per cent, BBC News recently estimated. Currently the main barrier seems to be tougher English language requirements for international students (with even tougher new requirements proposed). BBC News reports that UK universities have been lobbying the UK government to remove overseas student numbers from the government’s net migration figures, but new English language requirements currently being considered could present a complex barrier to entry.
According to the Guardian newspaper, government measures adversely affecting international students in the UK include cancelling the post-study work visa in 2012, students needing proof of more savings when they arrive, tougher rules on academic progression, rising minimum salary requirements for Tier 2 (work) visas and restrictions on work rights for spouses and dependants. Moreover, UK home secretary Theresa May stated in October that overseas students should ‘return home as soon as their visa expires’ unless they have a graduate-level job.
James Richardson, director of international development at Sheffield Hallam University, told the Independent newspaper that the perception created by the UK’s attitude to international students was, ‘Come here, pay your fee and clear off. You have no value to the wider economy.’ The Universities UK association estimates that overseas students make a £7 billion contribution to the UK economy.
In a 2014 survey of 3,135 international students (the majority of them from outside the EU) carried out by the National Union of Students, just over half of respondents said that the UK was either ‘not welcoming’ or ‘not at all welcoming towards international students’, a view held by international PhD students in particular.
The ‘not welcome’ (or worse) comment was made by 61.3 per cent of students from Turkey, 64.5 per cent of students from Japan, 62.8 per cent of Nigerian students, 62 per cent of Indians and 56.1 per cent of Pakistanis surveyed. A notable 19 per cent of all non-EU students canvassed would not recommend the UK as a place to study to a friend or relative, a view shared by 35 per cent of students from India and 37 per cent of students from Nigeria.
While numbers of Indian students in the UK continue to fall (down from 23,985 in 2010 to 12,280 in 2012), visas for Indian students for Australia in academic year 2013–14 increased 38 per cent on the previous academic year, according to the Times of India, with the temporary graduate visa for post-study work reportedly a major attraction.
When I was an elementary school student, schools in my hometown administered IQ tests every couple of years. I felt very scared of the psychologist who came in to give those tests.
I also performed terribly. As a result, at one point, I was moved to a lower-grade classroom so I could take a test more suitable to my IQ level.
Consequently, I believed that my teachers considered me stupid. I, of course, thought I was stupid. In addition, I also thought my teachers expected low-quality work from a child of such low IQ. So, I gave them what they expected.
Had it not been for my fourth grade teacher, who thought there was more to a person than an IQ test score, I almost certainly would not be a professor today.
You might think things have gotten better. Not quite. I have two generations of children (from different marriages), and something similar happened to both my sons: Seth, age 36, now a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, and Sammy, age four.
Some children as young as Sammy take preschool tests. And almost all our students – at least those wanting to go on to college – take what one might call proxies for IQ tests – the SAT and ACT – which are IQ tests by another name.
Testing is compromising the future of many of our able students. Today’s testing comes at the expense of validity (strong prediction of future success), equity (ensuring that members of various groups have an equal shot), and common sense in identifying those students who think deeply and reflectively rather than those who are good at answering shallow multiple-choice questions.
They may look slightly different from the IQ tests, but they closely resemble the intelligence tests used by Charles Spearman (1904), Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon (1916), famous psychologists in Great Britain and France, respectively, who created the first IQ tests a century ago.
While these tests may have been at the cutting edge at the turn of the 20th century, today they are archaic. Imagine using medical tests designed at the beginning of the 20th century to diagnose, say, cancer or heart disease.
People’s success today scarcely hinges on solving simple, pat academic problems with unique solutions conveniently presented as multiple-choice options.
When your kids (or colleagues) misbehave, does anyone give you five options, one of which is uniquely correct, to solve the problem of how to get them to behave properly?
Or, are there any multiple-choice answers for how to solve serious crises, whether in international affairs (eg, in Syria), in business (eg, at Volkswagen) or in education (eg, skyrocketing college tuitions)?
How do we test for success?
The odd thing is that we can do much better. That would mean taking into account that academic and life success involves much more than IQ.
More generally, we have found that practical intelligence, or common sense, is itself largely independent of IQ. Moreover, my research with Todd Lubart, now a professor at the University of Paris V, has shown that creative intelligence also is distinct from IQ.
My colleagues and I, including Professor Elena Grigorenko at Yale, have shown in studies on five continents that children from diverse cultures, such as Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska, Latino-American students in San Jose, California, and rural Kenyan schoolchildren, may have practical adaptive skills that far exceed those of their teachers (such as how to hunt in the frozen tundra, ice-fish, or treat parasitic illnesses such as malaria with natural herbal medicines).
Yet teachers – and IQ tests – may view these children as intellectually challenged.
What are we testing, anyway?
Our theory of “successful intelligence” can help predict the academic, extracurricular and leadership success of college students. In addition, it could increase applications from qualified applicants and decrease differences among ethnic groups, such as between African-American and Euro-American students, that are found in the SAT/ACT.
The idea behind “successful intelligence” is not only to measure analytical skills as is done by the SAT/ACT, but also other skills that are important to college and life success. Although this does mean additional testing, it is an assessment of strength-based skills that actually are fun to take.
What are these other skills and assessments, exactly?
The truth is, you can’t get by in life only on analytical skills – you also need to come up with your own new ideas (creativity), know how to apply your ideas (practical common sense), and ensure they benefit others beside yourself (wisdom).
So, assessments of “successful intelligence” would measure creativity, common sense and wisdom/ethics, in addition to analytical skills, as measured by the SAT/ACT.
Here is how measurement of successful intelligence works:
Creative skills can be measured by having students write or tell a creative story, design a scientific experiment, draw something new, caption a cartoon or suggest what the world might be like today if some past event (such as the defeat of the Nazis in World War II) had turned out differently.
Practical skills can be measured by having students watch several videos of college students facing practical problems – and then solving the problems for the students in the videos, or by having students comment on how they persuaded a friend of some ideas that the friend did not initially accept.
Wisdom-based and ethical skills can be measured by problems such as what to do upon observing a student cheating, or commenting on how one could, in the future, make a positive and meaningful difference to the world, at some level.
A new way to test
My collaborators and I first tested our ideas between 2000 and 2005 when I was IBM professor of psychology and education and professor of management at Yale. We found (in our “Rainbow Project”) that we could double prediction of freshman-year grades over that obtained from the SAT.
Also, relative to the SAT, we reduced by more than half ethnic-group differences between Euro-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and American Indians.
Later in 2011, I engaged, in collaboration with Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, in a project called Kaleidoscope. At the time, I was dean of arts and sciences at Tufts. Kaleidoscope was optional for all undergraduate applicants to Tufts – tens of thousands did Kaleidoscope over the years.
We increased prediction not only of academic success, but also of extracurricular and leadership success, while greatly reducing ethnic-group differences.
Then again, when I was provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University (OSU), in collaboration with Kyle Wray, VP for enrollment management, we implemented a similar program at OSU (called the “Panorama Project”) that also was available to all applicants.
The measures are still being used at Tufts and at Oklahoma State. These projects have resulted in students being admitted to Tufts and OSU who never would have made it on the basis of the high school GPAs and SATs.
On our assessments, the students displayed potential that was hidden by traditional standardized tests and even by high school grades.
The problem of being stuck
So why don’t colleges move on?
There are several reasons, but the most potent is sheer inertia and fear of change.
College and university presidents and admissions deans around the country have revealed to me in informal conversations that they want change but are afraid to rock the boat.
Moreover, because the SAT, unlike our assessment, is highly correlated with socioeconomic status, colleges like it. College tuition brings in big money, and anything that could affect the dollars is viewed with fear. Students who do well on standardized tests are more likely to be full-pay students, an attraction to institutions of higher learning.
As I know only too well, colleges mostly do what they did before, and changes often require approval of many different stakeholders. The effort to effect change can be daunting.
Finally, there is the problem of self-fulfilling prophecy. We use conventional standardized tests to select students. We then give those high-scoring students better opportunities not only in college but for jobs in our society.
As a result, the tests often make their predictions come true. Given my family history, I know all too well how real the problem of self-fulfilling prophecies is.
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