Things you were taught at school that are wrong


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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

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.

Punctuation is a minefield and I don’t want to risk blowing up the internet. So here is a basic description of what commas do, and read this for a more comprehensive guide.

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

American writer Mark Twain had it right.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”

If you want your writing to be more descriptive, play with your sentence structure.

Consider this sentence from Liz Lofthouse’s beautiful children’s book Ziba came on a boat. It comes at a key turning point in the book, the story of a refugee’s escape.

“Clutching her mother’s hand, Ziba ran on and on, through the night, far away from the madness until there was only darkness and quiet.”

A beautifully descriptive sentence, and not an adjective in sight.

5. Adverbs are the words that end in ‘ly’

Lots of adverbs end in “ly”, but lots don’t.

Adverbs give more information about verbs. They tell us when, where, how and why the verb happened. So that means words like “tomorrow”, “there” and “deep” can be adverbs.

I say they can be adverbs because, actually, a word is just a word. It becomes an adverb, or a noun, or an adjective, or a verb when it is doing that job in a sentence.

Deep into the night, and the word deep is an adverb. Down a deep, dark hole and it is an adjective. When I dive into the deep, it is doing the work of a noun.

Time to take those word lists of adjectives, verbs and nouns off the classroom walls.

Time, also, to ditch those old Englishmen who wrote a grammar for their times, not ours.

If you want to understand what our language can do and how to use it well, read widely, think deeply and listen carefully. And remember, neither time nor language stands still – for any of us.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

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

Clear skies ahead: how improving the language of aviation could save lives


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Dominique Estival, Western Sydney University

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.

Camden Airport.
Supplied

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.

The Conversation

Dominique Estival, Researcher in Linguistics, Western Sydney University

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

Beware the bad big wolf: why you need to put your adjectives in the right order


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Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Unlikely as it sounds, the topic of adjective use has gone “viral”. The furore centres on the claim, taken from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, that adjectives appearing before a noun must appear in the following strict sequence: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, Noun. Even the slightest attempt to disrupt this sequence, according to Forsyth, will result in the speaker sounding like a maniac. To illustrate this point, Forsyth offers the following example: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife”.

 

But is the “rule” worthy of an internet storm – or is it more of a ripple in a teacup? Well, certainly the example is a rather unlikely sentence, and not simply because whittling knives are not in much demand these days – ignoring the question of whether they can be both green and silver. This is because it is unusual to have a string of attributive adjectives (ones that appear before the noun they describe) like this.

More usually, speakers of English break up the sequence by placing some of the adjectives in predicative position – after the noun. Not all adjectives, however, can be placed in either position. I can refer to “that man who is asleep” but it would sound odd to refer to him as “that asleep man”; we can talk about the “Eastern counties” but not the “counties that are Eastern”. Indeed, our distribution of adjectives both before and after the noun reveals another constraint on adjective use in English – a preference for no more than three before a noun. An “old brown dog” sounds fine, a “little old brown dog” sounds acceptable, but a “mischievous little old brown dog” sounds plain wrong.

Rules, rules, rules

Nevertheless, however many adjectives we choose to employ, they do indeed tend to follow a predictable pattern. While native speakers intuitively follow this rule, most are unaware that they are doing so; we agree that the “red big dog” sounds wrong, but don’t know why. In order to test this intuition linguists have analysed large corpora of electronic data, to see how frequently pairs of adjectives like “big red” are preferred to “red big”. The results confirm our native intuition, although the figures are not as comprehensive as we might expect – the rule accounts for 78% of the data.

We know how to use them … without even being aware of it.
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But while linguists have been able to confirm that there are strong preferences in the ordering of pairs of adjectives, no such statistics have been produced for longer strings. Consequently, while Forsyth’s rule appears to make sense, it remains an untested, hypothetical, large, sweeping (sorry) claim.

In fact, even if we stick to just two adjectives it is possible to find examples that appear to break the rule. The “big bad wolf” of fairy tale, for instance, shows the size adjective preceding the opinion one; similarly, “big stupid” is more common than “stupid big”. Examples like these are instead witness to the “Polyanna Principle”, by which speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.

Another consideration of Forsyth’s proposed ordering sequence is that it makes no reference to other constraints that influence adjective order, such as when we use two adjectives that fall into the same category. Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” would have sounded strange if he had called it Tall Long Sally, but these are both adjectives of size.

Definitely not Tall Long Sally.

Similarly, we might describe a meal as “nice and spicy” but never “spicy and nice” – reflecting a preference for the placement of general opinions before more specific ones. We also need to bear in mind the tendency for noun phrases to become lexicalised – forming words in their own right. Just as a blackbird is not any kind of bird that is black, a little black dress does not refer to any small black dress but one that is suitable for particular kinds of social engagement.

Since speakers view a “little black dress” as a single entity, its order is fixed; as a result, modifying adjectives must precede little – a “polyester little black dress”. This means that an adjective specifying its material appears before those referring to size and colour, once again contravening Forsyth’s rule.

Making sense of language

Of course, the rule is a fair reflection of much general usage – although the reasons behind this complex set of constraints in adjective order remain disputed. Some linguists have suggested that it reflects the “nouniness” of an adjective; since colour adjectives are commonly used as nouns – “red is my favourite colour” – they appear close to that slot.

Another conditioning factor may be the degree to which an adjective reflects a subjective opinion rather than an objective description – therefore, subjective adjectives that are harder to quantify (boring, massive, middle-aged) tend to appear further away from the noun than more concrete ones (red, round, French).

Prosody, the rhythm and sound of poetry, is likely to play a role, too – as there is a tendency for speakers to place longer adjectives after shorter ones. But probably the most compelling theory links adjective position with semantic closeness to the noun being described; adjectives that are closely related to the noun in meaning, and are therefore likely to appear frequently in combination with it, are placed closest, while those that are less closely related appear further away.

In Forsyth’s example, it is the knife’s whittling capabilities that are most significant – distinguishing it from a carving, fruit or butter knife – while its loveliness is hardest to define (what are the standards for judging the loveliness of a whittling knife?) and thus most subjective. Whether any slight reorganisation of the other adjectives would really prompt your friends to view you as a knife-wielding maniac is harder to determine – but then, at least it’s just a whittling knife.

The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

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

How the Queen’s English has had to defer to Africa’s rich multilingualism


Rajend Mesthrie, University of Cape Town

For the first time in history a truly global language has emerged. English enables international communication par excellence, with a far wider reach than other possible candidates for this position – like Latin in the past, and French, Spanish and Mandarin in the present.

In a memorable phrase, former Tanzanian statesman Julius Nyerere once characterised English as the Kiswahili of the world. In Africa, English is more widely spoken than other important lingua francas like Kiswahili, Arabic, French and Portuguese, with at least 26 countries using English as one of their official languages.

But English in Africa comes in many different shapes and forms. It has taken root in an exceptionally multilingual context, with well over a thousand languages spoken on the continent. The influence of this multilingualism tends to be largely erased at the most formal levels of use – for example, in the national media and in higher educational contexts. But at an everyday level, the Queen’s English has had to defer to the continent’s rich abundance of languages. Pidgin, creole, second-language and first-language English all flourish alongside them.

The birth of new languages

English did not enter Africa as an innocent language. Its history is tied up with trade and exploitation, capitalist expansion, slavery and colonisation.

The history of English is tied up with trade, capitalist expansion, slavery and colonialism.
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As the need for communication arose and increased under these circumstances, forms of English, known as pidgins and creoles, developed. This took place within a context of unequal encounters, a lack of sustained contact with speakers of English and an absence of formal education. Under these conditions, English words were learnt and attached to an emerging grammar that owed more to African languages than to English.

A pidgin is defined by linguists as an initially simple form of communication that arises from contact between speakers of disparate languages who have
no other means of communication in common. Pidgins, therefore, do not have mother-tongue speakers. The existence of pidgins in the early period of West African-European contact is not well documented, and some linguists like Salikoko Mufwene judge their early significance to be overestimated.

Pidgins can become more complex if they take on new functions. They are relabelled creoles if, over time and under specific circumstances, they become fully developed as the first language of a group of speakers.

Ultimately, pidgins and creoles develop grammatical norms that are far removed from the colonial forms that partially spawned them: to a British English speaker listening to a pidgin or creole, the words may seem familiar in form, but not always in meaning.

Linguists pay particular attention to these languages because they afford them the opportunity to observe creativity at first hand: the birth of new languages.

The creoles of West Africa

West Africa’s creoles are of two types: those that developed outside Africa; and those that first developed from within the continent.

The West African creoles that developed outside Africa emerged out of the multilingual and oppressive slave experience in the New World. They were then brought to West Africa after 1787 by freed slaves repatriated from Britain, North America and the Caribbean. “Krio” was the name given to the English-based creole of slaves freed from Britain who were returned to Sierra Leone, where they were joined by slaves released from Nova Scotia and Jamaica.

Some years after that, in 1821, Liberia was established as an African homeland for freed slaves from the US. These men and women brought with them what some linguists call “Liberian settler English”. This particular creole continues to make Liberia somewhat special on the continent, with American rather than British forms of English dominating there.

These languages from the New World were very influential in their new environments, especially over the developing West African pidgin English.

A more recent, homegrown type of West African creole has emerged in the region. This West African creole is spreading in the context of urban multilingualism and changing youth identities. Over the past 50 years, it has grown spectacularly in Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, and it is believed to be the fastest-growing language in Nigeria. In this process pidgin English has been expanded into a creole, used as one of the languages of the home. For such speakers, the designation “pidgin” is now a misnomer, although it remains widely used.

In East Africa, in contrast, the strength and historicity of Kiswahili as a lingua franca prevented the rapid development of pidgins based on colonial languages. There, traders and colonists had to learn Kiswahili for successful everyday communication. This gave locals more time to master English as a fully-fledged second language.

Other varieties of English

Africa, mirroring the trend in the rest of the world, has a large and increasing number of second-language English speakers. Second-language varieties of English are mutually intelligible with first-language versions, while showing varying degrees of difference in accent, grammar and nuance of vocabulary. Formal colonisation and the educational system from the 19th century onwards account for the wide spread of second-language English.

What about first-language varieties of English on the continent? The South African variety looms large in this history, showing similarities with English in Australia and New Zealand, especially in details of accent.

In post-apartheid South Africa many young black people from middle-class backgrounds now speak this variety either as a dominant language or as a “second first-language”. But for most South Africans English is a second language – a very important one for education, business and international communication.

For family and cultural matters, African languages remain of inestimable value throughout the continent.

The Conversation

Rajend Mesthrie, Professor of Linguistics, University of Cape Town

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

Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

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?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

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?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

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 Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

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

English: the Empire is dead. Long live the Empire


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Salikoko S. Mufwene, University of Chicago

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.

The Conversation

Salikoko S. Mufwene, The Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College, University of Chicago

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

Letting kids stand more in the classroom could help them learn


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Ranjana Mehta, Texas A&M University

Study after study has connected inactivity with negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. But most of this attention has been focused on adults in an office environment, and the negative impact of sitting on physical health. Hence, the growing popularity of standing desks in offices.

Moving more is good for our bodies. Over the past few years many researchers have begun evaluating the use of standing-height desks (allowing students to sit on a stool or stand at will) instead of the more traditional seated desks in school classrooms. Results have been promising, but until now, researchers have typically focused on utilizing standing desks as a way to combat sedentary behavior.

While studies shows that standing desks can burn calories, anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that students also focus more and behave better while using standing desks.

But is there anything to these anecdotal observations? Our team at the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center decided to investigate whether standing desks had neurocognitive benefits for students. It turns out that letting kids move in the classroom helps boost attention and focus.

Standing desks let kids move more.
Your Milbura/Flickr, CC BY

Standing desks in schools help kids burn calories

My colleague, Dr. Mark Benden, first looked at classroom movement as a way to deal with the growing number of obese children. In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have quadrupled, particularly in adolescents aged 12-19 years.

Benden found that students assigned to classrooms equipped with standing desks that allow the students to have the option to stand or sit on a stool, burned 15 to 25 percent more calories than those assigned to traditional seated classrooms.

While burning calories is certainly important, the question at hand is whether standing desks improve learning.

Standing helps students stay engaged

In a study of nearly 300 children in second through fourth grade over the course of a school year, Benden and his team found that kids in classrooms with standing desks exhibited 12 percent greater “on task” engagement when compared to kids in classrooms with the traditional seated desks.

Engagement was measured both during fall and spring by looking at behaviors such as answering questions, raising a hand or participating in active discussion. However, we aren’t sure if standing height desks were behind the increase in classroom engagement. For instance, the way desks are arranged in a classroom and how well teachers engage the students can also influence classroom engagement.

Thus, Dr. Benden and I set out to explore the benefits of standing desks on basic cognitive tasks such as reaction time, response inhibition, attention, memory and cognitive flexibility.

Together, these abilities are lumped as executive function. Figuring out how well someone’s executive function is working is a proxy for measuring goal-directed behavior that is integral cognitive development.

Maybe standing will help?
Boy in class via www.shutterstock.com.

Freedom to sit or stand makes more attentive students

We studied 34 high school freshman who used standing desks at two points during the school year. Desks were installed in the classrooms during the fall so we could compare the same kids before they got the standing desks and after. We wanted to see whether continued use of standing desks affected executive functions.

Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multistep problems and organize their thoughts in writing.

We gave students a series of computerized tests to assess their executive function, which they took at standing desks in a computer lab. This allowed us to isolate the effects of the standing desk from classroom configuration and other classroom variables. Because executive functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain region, students wore biosensors on their foreheads while taking the tests. That way, our portable brain imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) could track changes in frontal brain function.

Our test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant performance improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.

This is the first study to objectively examine students’ cognitive responses while using standing desks and provide a neuropsychological basis of the improvements observed. Moreover, by testing basic cognitive functions, we got to measure the impact of standing desks on the building blocks of child behavior in classrooms.

Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function by seven percent to 14 percent, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs.

Kindergarten students sing a song inside a classroom at Penjaringan district in Jakarta.
Beawiharta/Reuters

We all need to move more

We now plan to expand this research to multiple schools and to study more children across different age groups, and over several years. Further research could encourage policymakers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to increase physical activity and enhance cognitive development and educational outcomes.

Let’s face it – society as a whole used to be more active. Standing desks allow for children to stand or sit at will and these transitions facilitate movement. If we can start slowly changing behaviors in children (and allow them to wiggle, fidget and move during the school day), movement could become the norm.

After all science says we think better when we move.

The Conversation

Ranjana Mehta, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, Texas A&M University

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