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.

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How the British military became a champion for language learning


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Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge

When an army deploys in a foreign country, there are clear advantages if the soldiers are able to speak the local language or dialect. But what if your recruits are no good at other languages? In the UK, where language learning in schools and universities is facing a real crisis, the British army began to see this as a serious problem.

In a new report on the value of languages, my colleagues and I showcased how a new language policy instituted last year within the British Army, was triggered by a growing appreciation of the risks of language shortages for national security.

Following the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military sought to implement language skills training as a core competence. Speakers of other languages are encouraged to take examinations to register their language skills, whether they are language learners or speakers of heritage or community languages.

The UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Centre for Language and Culture also offers training to NATO standards across the four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. Core languages taught are Arabic, Dari, Farsi, French, Russian, Spanish and English as a foreign language. Cultural training that provides regional knowledge and cross-cultural skills is still embryonic, but developing fast.

Cash incentives

There are two reasons why this is working. The change was directed by the vice chief of the defence staff, and therefore had a high-level champion. There are also financial incentives for army personnel to have their linguistic skills recorded, ranging from £360 for a lower-level western European language, to £11,700 for a high level, operationally vital linguist. Currently any army officer must have a basic language skill to be able to command a sub unit.

A British army sergeant visits a school in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Defence Images/flickr.com, CC BY-NC

We should not, of course, overstate the progress made. The numbers of Ministry of Defence linguists for certain languages, including Arabic, are still precariously low and, according to recent statistics, there are no speakers of Ukrainian or Estonian classed at level three or above in the armed forces. But, crucially, the organisational culture has changed and languages are now viewed as an asset.

Too fragmented

The British military’s new approach is a good example of how an institution can change the culture of the way it thinks about languages. It’s also clear that language policy can no longer simply be a matter for the Department for Education: champions for language both within and outside government are vital for issues such as national security.

This is particularly important because of the fragmentation of language learning policy within the UK government, despite an informal cross-Whitehall language focus group.

Experience on the ground illustrates the value of cooperation when it comes to security. For example, in January, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit urgently needed a speaker of a particular language dialect to assist with translating communications in an ongoing investigation. The MOD was approached and was able to source a speaker within another department.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating the cost to business of the UK’s lack of language skills. Much less is known about their value to national security, defence and diplomacy, conflict resolution and social cohesion. Yet language skills have to be seen as an asset, and appreciation is needed across government for their wider value to society and security.

The Conversation

Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics, University of Cambridge

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

Is the spelling bee success of Indian-Americans a legacy of British colonialism?


Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

When spellers win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, audiences always want to know their secret. Yet this question seems to be asked far more in recent years in response to an Indian-American winning streak.

South Asian-American spellers have excelled at the National Spelling Bee for nine years in a row, with 2014, 2015 and now 2016 featuring Indian-American co-champions as well.

This year’s winners – Jairam Hathwar from Painted Post, New York and Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas – present a familiar combination of co-champions. Jairam is the younger brother of 2013 co-champion Sriram, who also dueled with a Texan to ultimately share the trophy.

As a topic of intense speculation on broadcast and social media, the wins have elicited comments that range from curiosity to bafflement and at times outright racism. This curiosity is different from past speculation about “whether home-schooled spellers have an advantage.

The range of responses offers a moment to consider some of the factors underlying the Indian-American success at the bee, as well as how spelling as a sport has changed. Immediately following the 2016 bee, for instance, much of the coverage has focused on the exceedingly high level of competition and drama that characterized the 25-round championship battle that ultimately resulted in a tie.

Since 2013, I have been conducting research on competitive spelling at regional and national bees with officials, spellers and their families, and media producers.

My interviews and observations reveal the changing nature of spelling as a “brain sport” and the rigorous regimens of preparation that competitive spellers engage in year-round. Being an “elite speller” is a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive in recent years.

Let’s first look at history

South Asian-American spelling success is connected to the history of this ethnic community’s immigration to the United States.

For instance, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act solicited highly trained immigrants to meet America’s need for scientists, engineers and medical professionals and opened the door to skilled immigration from Asia and other regions. In subsequent decades, skilled migration from South Asia continued alongside the sponsorship of family members.

Today, along with smaller, older communities of Punjabi Sikhs and other South Asian ethnic groups primarily on the West Coast, South Asian-Americans constitute a diverse population that features a disproportionately high professional class, although with differences of class, languages, ethnicities and nationalities – differences that are often overlooked in favor of a narrative of Indian-American educational and professional success.

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

For upwardly mobile South Asian-Americans, success is in part due to moving from one socially and economically advantageous societal position in the subcontinent to another in the United States.

Moreover, the English-speaking abilities of most educated South Asian-Americans clearly give them an edge over immigrants from other countries. My research indicates that fluency developed in English-medium schools – a legacy of British colonialism – makes them ideal spelling interlocutors for their children, despite their variety of British spelling. Members of this population with elite educational qualifications have likewise emphasized the importance of academic achievement with their children.

Also important here are the strong family and community networks that offer social support and economic opportunities. Community-building has not only been important for individuals and families, but also for advertisers and marketers that target Asian-American ethnic communities.

What explains the success?

Over the past few years spelling bees have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage.

Speller #238 Akash Vukoti from San Angelo, Texas, the only six-year-old speller at the 2016 bee, interviewed by ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

For instance, the North South Foundation holds a range of educational contests, such as spelling bees, math contests, geography bees and essay writing, among others, whose proceeds contribute to promoting literacy efforts in India. The South Asian Spelling Bee, partnering with the insurance company Metlife, offers a highly competitive bee as well.

Taken together, this “minor league” circuit gives South Asian-American spellers far more opportunities to compete, as well as a longer “bee season” to train and practice.

This is particularly helpful because, as past champions confirm, ongoing practice and training are the key to winning.

Invested families

Another factor to note here is the parental ability to dedicate time to education and extracurricular activities. Predictably, families with greater socioeconomic means are able to devote more resources and time.

These parents are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or musicians might be in their children’s matches or performances. As several parents explained to me, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent of travel soccer or Little League.

Of the 30 families I interviewed, the majority had a stay-at-home parent (usually the mother) dedicated to working with children on all activities, including spelling. In dual-income households, spelling training occurred on weeknights and weekends.

Like elite spellers of any race or ethnicity, South Asian-American spellers I spoke with studied word lists daily if possible, logging in several hours on weekends with parents or paid coaches to help them develop strategies and quiz them on words.

A few parents have been so invested in helping their children prepare that they have now started training and tutoring other aspiring spellers as well.

Like any national championship, the pressure on all spellers at a competition on the scale of the National Spelling Bee is intense. South Asian-American children are already subject to living up to the model minority stereotype and feel no reprieve here.

This is especially important to consider when South Asian-American spellers come from lower socioeconomic classes, but nonetheless succeed at spelling bees.

Among the 2015 finalists, for instance, one was the son of motel owners and a crowd favorite, as I observed. He had competed in the bee several times, and his older sister was also a speller, having made it to nationals once. Remarkably, they prepared for competitions by themselves, with no stay-at-home parent or paid coach.

Another 2015 semifinalist was featured in a broadcast segment living in the crowded immigrant neighborhood of Flushing, New York. When I visited this three-time National Spelling Bee participant in 2014, I realized that she lived in the very same apartment complex that my family did in the 1970s. This Queens neighborhood continues to be a receiving area for Indian-Americans who may not have the economic means to live in wealthier sections of New York City or its suburbs.

Many possible explanations

The point is that the reasons that Indian-American spellers are succeeding at the bee are not easily reducible to one answer.

South Asian-Americans, like other Asian immigrants, comprise varying class backgrounds and immigration histories. Yet it is noteworthy that even within this range of South Asian-American spellers, it is children of Indian-American immigrants from professional backgrounds who tend to become champions.

Speller #73 Tara Ganguly from Bloomington, Indiana in Round Two of the 2016 National Spelling Bee.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

The time and resources Indian-American families devote to this brain sport, as I have observed, appear to be raising this competition into previously unseen levels of difficulty.

This can take a toll on elite spellers, who have to invest far more time studying spelling than in the past. With more difficult words appearing in earlier rounds of competition, spelling preparation can take up much of their time outside of school.

Nonetheless, they emphasize the perseverance they develop from competitive spelling. They learn to handle increasing levels of pressure, and alongside this, what they identify as important life skills of focus, poise and concentration.

Ultimately, what makes Indian-American children successful at spelling is the same as children of any other ethnicity. They come from families who believe in the value of education and also have the financial means to support their children through every stage of their schooling. And, they are highly intelligent individuals who devote their childhood to the study of American English.

Are they American?

Some comments on social media, however, seem to discount these factors and years of intense preparation to instead focus on race and ethnicity as sole factors for spelling success.

In a refreshing shift in tone, this year’s topics also included the ferocity of Janga’s competition style and the inspiration he drew from his football hero Dez Bryant.

Nonetheless, such comments, directed toward nonwhite children when they win this distinctly American contest, do push us to reflect: what does it mean to be an American now?

In alleging that only “Americans” should win this contest, Twitter racists ignore that these spellers too have been born and raised in the United States. Recent winners hail from suburban or small towns in upstate New York, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. They express regional pride in these locations by mentioning regional sports teams and other distinctive features in their on-air profiles.

With their American-accented English and distinctly American comportment, it is merely their skin color and names that set them apart from a white mainstream.

Like generations of white Americans and European immigrants, Indian-American parents spend countless hours preparing word lists, quizzing their children and creating ways for their children to learn. They encourage their children in whatever they are good at, including spelling.

As a result, they have elevated this American contest to a new level of competition. Clearly, this is an apt moment to expand our definition of what it means to be an American.

This is an updated version of an article first published on June 4, 2015.

The Conversation

Shalini Shankar, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

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

When languages die, we lose a part of who we are


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Anouschka Foltz, Bangor University

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) is in full gear and climate change is again on everyone’s mind. It conjures up images of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, threatened habitats, endangered species, and displaced people. We know it threatens biodiversity, but what about linguistic diversity?

Humans are the only species on the planet whose communication system exhibits enormous diversity. And linguistic diversity is crucial for understanding our capacity for language. An increase in climate-change related natural disasters may affect linguistic diversity. A good example is Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific, with quite a dramatic recent rise in sea levels.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. These languages exhibit enormous diversity, from the number of distinctive sounds (there are languages with as few as 11 different sounds and as many as 118) to the vast range of possible word orders, structures and concepts that languages use to convey meaning. Every absolute that linguists have posited has been challenged, and linguists are busy debating if there is anything at all that is common to all languages in the world or anything at all that does not exist in the languages of the world. Sign languages show us that languages do not even need to be spoken. This diversity is evidence of the enormous flexibility and plasticity of the human brain and its capacity for communication.

Studying diverse languages gives us invaluable insights into human cognition. But language diversity is at risk. Languages are dying every year. Often a language’s death is recorded when the last known speaker dies, and about 35% of languages in the world are currently losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Most of these have never been recorded and so would be lost forever. Linguists estimate that about 50% of the languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years. Some even argue that up to 90% of today’s languages will have disappeared by 2115.

Why languages die

There are many reasons why languages die. The reasons are often political, economic or cultural in nature. Speakers of a minority language may, for example, decide that it is better for their children’s future to teach them a language that is tied to economic success. For example, the vast majority of second-generation immigrants to the United States do not speak their parents’ languages fluently. It is economically and culturally more beneficial to speak English.

Migration also plays a large role in language change and language death. When speakers of Proto-Indo-European migrated to most of Europe and large parts of Asia between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, they probably brought about massive language change and language death. In Western Europe, Basque could possibly be the only modern language that survived the influx of the Indo-Europeans.

‘The King and the God’ in what linguists think Proto-Indo-European sounded like.

In the coming centuries, we may experience an increase in climate-related migration. It is already clear that climate change influences modern migration patterns. Climate-related disasters displaced an estimated 20m people in 2008.

Vanuatu and diversity

The areas affected by climate-related disasters are often ones that exhibit great linguistic diversity and include languages with small numbers of speakers, which are especially vulnerable. The threat facing islanders in Vanuatu is not just due to rising sea levels.

Recent tectonic movements have also caused parts of some islands to sink. As a result, a whole coastal village had to be relocated further inland from 2002 to 2004. This prompted a 2005 United Nations Environment Programme press release to call these villagers the world’s first climate change refugees. These climate change refugees happen to be living in a country that has one of the highest levels of linguistic diversity in the world.

Vanuatu is the third most linguistically diverse country in the world, as measured by the Greenberg index. The index shows the likelihood that two randomly selected speakers in a country have different native languages. Vanuatu’s Greenberg index is a staggering 97.3%. Vanuatu has 110 indigenous languages spoken in an area of about 15,000 square kilometres (about 6,000 square miles) – that’s about one language for every 136 square kilometres. Half of the languages spoken on Vanuatu have 700 speakers or less.

Losing languages to natural disasters

Some of the countries affected by the earthquake and tsunami that killed about 230,000 people in 2004 are also very linguistically diverse. India has 447 indigenous languages and a Greenberg diversity index of 91.4% and Indonesia has 706 indigenous languages and a Greenberg diversity index of 81.6%.

Researchers had just discovered the Dusner language, which had only a handful of remaining speakers, when flooding in 2010 devastated the Papua region of Indonesia, where the Dusner village is located. Luckily, some of the speakers had survived, and the language could be documented.

Often, we do not know precisely what effect natural disasters have on the languages spoken in affected areas. What we do know though is that environmental pressures increase mobility and migration and that migration affects language change and death. A further increase in climate-related disasters may further accelerate the disappearance of languages. This would be a tragic loss not just for the people and cultures involved, but for cognitive science as well.

The Conversation

Anouschka Foltz, Lecturer in Psycholinguistics, Bangor University

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

Why 1904 testing methods should not be used for today’s students


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Robert Sternberg, Cornell University

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.

How should today’s students be assessed?

Intelligence tests in Halloween costumes

Psychology professor Douglas Detterman and his colleagues have shown that the SAT and the ACT are little more than disguised IQ tests.

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.

Multiple choice questions don’t teach life skills.
biologycorner, CC BY-NC

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.

In my research conducted with my colleagues who include Florida State University professor Richard Wagner and a former professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, George Forsythe, we found that success in managerial, military and other leadership jobs can be predicted independent of IQ levels.

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.

There are other ways of testing kids.
BarbaraLN, CC BY-SA

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.

The Conversation

Robert Sternberg, Professor of Human Development, Cornell University

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

Signs of our times: why emoji can be even more powerful than words


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Vyvyan Evans, Bangor University

Each year, Oxford Dictionaries – one of the world’s leading arbiters on the English language – selects a word that has risen to prominence over the past 12 months as its “Word of the Year”. The word is carefully chosen, based on a close analysis of how often it is used and what it reveals about the times we live in. Past examples include such classics as “vape”, “selfie” and “omnishambles”.

But the 2015 word of the year is not a word at all. It’s an emoji – the “face with tears of joy” emoji, to be precise.

Formerly regarded with disdain as the textual equivalent of an adolescent grunt, it appears that emoji has now gone mainstream. Even if it’s not a fully-fledged language, then it is – at the very least – something that most of us use, most of the time. In fact, more than 80% of all adult smartphone users in the UK regularly use emoji, a finding based on a study I reported in an earlier article.

Yet predictably, Oxford Dictionaries’ selection has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Writing in The Guardian, Hannah Jane Parkinson brands the decision “ridiculous”. For Parkinson, and I’m sure for many other language mavens out there, it’s “ridiculous” because the emoji is not even a word. Surely this is a stunt, they’ll say, dreamt up by clever marketing executives bent on demonstrating just how hip Oxford Dictionaries actually is.

But Parkinson also objects on the basis that there are many other emojis which would make a better word of the year. She suggests the nail painting emoji and the aubergine (or eggplant) emoji as just two examples which have a stronger claim to the title.

Missing the point

But both these complaints miss the point. Emoji – from the Japanese meaning “picture character” (a word which only entered the Oxford Dictionaries in 2013) – is in many respects language-like. Spoken or signed language enables us to convey a message, influence the mental states and behaviours of others and enact changes to our civil and social status. We use language to propose marriage, and confirm it, to quarrel, make-up and get divorced. Yet emoji has similar functions – it can even get you arrested!

Consider an unusual case from earlier this year: a 17-year-old African American teenager posted a public status update on his Facebook page, featuring a police officer emoji with handgun emojis pointing towards it. This landed him in hot water: the New York District Attorney issued an arrest warrant, for an alleged “terroristic threat”, claiming that the emojis amounted to a threat to harm, or incite others to cause harm, to New York’s finest.

A grand jury ultimately declined to indict the teenager for what is arguably the world’s first alleged emoji terror offence. But the point is that emojis, like language, can both convey a message and provide a means of enacting it – in this case, an alleged call to arms against the NYPD.

Like our treasured English words, emojis are powerful instruments of thought and, potentially, persuasion. Just like language, they can and will be used as evidence against you in a court of law. In short, those who dismiss the language-like nature of emoji fundamentally misunderstand how human communication works in our brave new digital world.

Evolution of the emoji

The second complaint – that there are other emojis more deserving of Oxford Dictionaries’ esteem – also misunderstands how language is evolving in the digital domain.

Emoji perfection
from http://www.shutterstock.com

For one thing, recent research suggests that just under 60% of the world’s daily emoji use is made up of smiling or sad faces, of various kinds. And this particular emoji now accounts for around 20% of all emoji usage in the UK (representing a fourfold increase in use over the past 12 months). It is arguably one of the most frequently used emojis today. In this sense, the “face with tears of joy” emoji is a perfectly appropriate representation of the main ways we use emoji in our everyday digital lives.

Yet this specific emoji is apt for a deeper reason, too. Emoji is to text-speak what intonation, facial expression and body language are to spoken interaction. While emoji are not conventional words, they nevertheless provide an important contextualisation cue, which enables us to punctuate the otherwise emotionally arid landscape of digital text with personal expression.

Importantly, emoji helps us to elicit empathy from the person we’re addressing – a central requirement of effective communication. It allows us to influence the way our text is interpreted and better express our emotional selves.

One could even argue that, in some ways, emojis are more powerful than words. The “laughing face with tears of joy” emoji effectively conveys a complex emotional spectrum – which would otherwise require several words to convey – in a single, relatively simple glyph. It manages to evoke an immediate emotional resonance, which might otherwise be lost in a string of words.

Occasionally, emojis they can even replace words – this is what linguists refer to as code-switching. In more extreme examples – such as the translation of literary works such as Alice in Wonderland – they function exclusively as words and are also given grammatical structure. There’s truly no arguing with the expressive power of emoji.

So while some will unkindly accuse Oxford Dictionaries of a marketing stunt, I applaud them. We are increasingly living in an age of emoji: they are, quite literally, a sign of our times. There’s no doubt that language is here to stay – the great English word is not in peril, and won’t be any time soon. But emoji fills a gap in digital communication – and makes us better at it in the process.

The Conversation

Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics, Bangor University

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

Does ‘translating’ Shakespeare into modern English diminish its greatness?


Bosnia Hamlet-a Prince at the Ottoman Court.

Actors perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the National Theatre in Sarajevo late September 14, 2005. The theatre was packed at the Sarajevo premiere of the play, in which Hamlet was shown as a Muslim prince at the Ottoman court, a reflection on the world after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York, according to the play director Haris Pasovic. The play was a multi-national effort, including artists from seven countries. REUTERS/ Danilo Krstanovic FR05090010 DSS/AA – RTRO3AM

Sheila T Cavanagh, Emory University

An uproar ensued after it was reported that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) – southern Oregon’s 80-year-old annual theatrical extravaganza – would be commissioning playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.

The project drew jeers from Shakespearean professors, arts practitioners and others who believe passionately in the power of Shakespeare’s original texts, who abhor any attempt to “dumb down” their language.

OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch maintain that OSF is undertaking a bold, not sacrilegious, experiment. Nevertheless, howls of outrage have followed what Douhit ruefully has deemed a “career-ending” announcement for those involved.

As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language. I require my students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, and through my work on the World Shakespeare Project, I’ve witnessed undergraduates in places such as Uganda, rural India and Buenos Aires enthusiastically respond to the challenge.

Yet the outrage over the OSF’s new modernization project is misguided. The organization – which is known for experimentation – is simply participating in larger, centuries-long tradition of molding, melding and adapting Shakespeare’s original texts.

Shakespeare for dummies?

Among those criticizing the new project is Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, a prominent Shakespearean scholar who maintains that “by changing the language in this modernizing way…it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”

Earlier this month, before an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, he added, “It’s a really bad idea.”

Notably, however, Shapiro (along with many others) responded quite differently to the translation of a different classic text. On Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s oft-praised 1999 rewriting of Beowulf, Shapiro wrote in The New York Times:

Examples like this add up to a translation that manages to accomplish what before now had seemed impossible: a faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right.

In this instance, at least, Heaney’s talent apparently overcame Shapiro’s objections to the concept.

The playwrights the company has commissioned to “modernize” the language of Shakespeare’s works may or may not achieve the majesty attributed to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. But for whatever reason, changing the language of Shakespeare remains an anathema, while the setting, costuming and theoretical conceptualization of his plays are fair game for innovation.

The hottest theater ticket in Britain at the moment, for example, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which caused similar outrage for opening with the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, rather than the traditional “Who’s there?.” By the end of previews, the speech was moved back to (one of) the places it traditionally resides. Cumberbatch’s audiences have been comparatively silent, however, about the production’s addition of modern props, like a phonograph player.

London’s Young Vic Theatre, meanwhile, is currently presenting a strong version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a set filled with dozens of naked, anatomically correct, inflatable dolls. Like the phonograph player on the set of Hamlet, it’s unlikely that theatergoers will object to the dolls, nor will they protest the video screens employed during the performance.

But when it comes to changing the language – well, the main objection, it appears, stems from concerns that it will encourage series such as Shakespeare for Dummies or No Fear Shakespeare, which presents original Shakespearean text adjacent to what its editors call “the kind of English people actually speak today.”

Such projects are understandable, if worrisome. Shakespeare does have a reputation for being too dense for ordinary people to easily comprehend.

At the same time, there are many remarkable projects that bring Shakespeare’s plays to even the most unconventional audiences. There’s Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, which offers prisoners the opportunities to present full-length Shakespeare plays, while former Royal Shakespeare Company artist Kelly Hunter’s project Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses Shakespearean drama as the basis for games designed for children with autism.

Play on!

It’s worth noting the OSF is not planning to replace Shakespeare’s original texts during its current presentation of the complete Shakespearean canon, which will take place over the next decade.

While the company hopes that the newly commissioned versions of Shakespeare will be performed in Oregon and elsewhere, they also retain their commitment to presenting the conventional texts, albeit with regular tweaks and cuts.

As Shapiro and many others admit, Shakespearean drama has been altered, rewritten and reimagined repeatedly since the plays were first presented during the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.

‘Is life even worth living? That’s what I keeping wondering…’
Dylan Martinez/Reuters

During the English Restoration, King Lear was given a happy ending. More recently, the 2001 film Scotland, Pa. offered a modern retelling of Macbeth, set at a fast food restaurant. Henry IV found itself placed among male prostitutes in Oregon in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Even Justin Kurzel’s acclaimed new film Macbeth opens with a twist: the funeral of Macbeth’s toddler.

The best adaptations – West Side Story, the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the Japanese film Throne of Blood – thrive. The bad, silly and unfortunate – Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss and Animal Planet’s Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey’s Tale – fall by the wayside.

As poet Andrew Marvell might say, there is “world enough and time” for any number of Shakespearean adaptations and iterations.

While Shakespeare’s original language is remarkably rich and compelling, like Cleopatra, “age will not wither it.” Neither will OSF’s revisionary experimentation.

The Conversation

Sheila T Cavanagh, Professor of English, Emory University

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