How training can prepare teachers for diversity in their classrooms


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Maureen Robinson, Stellenbosch University

Teachers have been shaping lives for centuries. Everyone remembers their favourite (and of course their least favourite) teachers. This important group of people even has its own special day, marked each October by the United Nations.

Teachers are at the coal face when it comes to watching societies change. South Africa’s classrooms, for instance, look vastly different today than they did two decades ago. They bring together children from different racial, cultural, economic and social backgrounds. This can sometimes cause conflict as varied ways of understanding the world bump up against each other.

How can teachers develop the skills to work with these differences in productive ways? What practical support do they need to bring the values of the Constitution to life in their classes?

To answer these questions, my colleagues and I in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University have put together four examples from modules within our faculty’s teacher education programme. These ideas are by no means exhaustive; other institutions also tackle these issues. What we present here is based on our own research, teaching and experience and is open to further discussion.

1. Working with multilingualism

English is only South Africa’s fifth most spoken home language. Teachers must remember this: even if their pupils are speaking English in the classroom, their home languages may be far more diverse.

Trainee teachers can benefit enormously from a course on multilingual education. In our faculty, for instance, students are given the chance to place multilingual education in a South African policy framework. They model multilingual classroom strategies like code switching and translation. They visit schools to observe how such strategies are applied in the real classroom. Students then report back on whether this approach helps learners from different language backgrounds to participate actively in the lesson.

There’s also great value in introducing student teachers to the notion of “World Englishes”. This focuses on the role of English in multilingual communities, where it is seen as being used for communication and academic purposes rather than as a way for someone to be integrated into an English community.

2. Supporting diverse learning needs

Student teachers must be trained to identify and support pupils’ diverse learning needs. This helps teachers to identify and address barriers to learning and development and encourages linkages between the home and the school.

This is even more meaningful when it is embedded in experiential learning. For instance, in guided exercises with their own class groups, our students engage with their feelings, experiences and thinking about their own backgrounds and identities. Other activities may be based on real scenarios, such as discussing the case of a boy who was sanctioned by his school for wearing his hair in a way prescribed by his religion.

In these modules we focus on language, culture, race, socioeconomic conditions, disability, sexual orientation, learning differences and behavioural, health or emotional difficulties. The students also learn how to help vulnerable learners who are being bullied.

And these areas are constantly expanding. At Stellenbosch University, we’ve recently noted that we need to prepare teachers to deal with the bullying of LGBT learners. They also need to be equipped with the tools to support pupils who’ve immigrated from elsewhere in Africa.

3. Advancing a democratic classroom

Courses that deal with the philosophy of education are an important element of teacher education. These explore notions of diversity, human dignity, social justice and democratic citizenship.

In these classes, student teachers are encouraged to see their own lecture rooms as spaces for open and equal engagement, with regard and respect for different ways of being. They’re given opportunities to express and engage with controversial views. This stands them in good stead to create such spaces in their own classrooms.

Most importantly, students are invited to critically reconsider commonly held beliefs – and to disrupt their ideas of the world – so that they might encounter the other as they are and not as they desire them to be. In such a classroom, a teacher promotes discussion and debate. She cultivates respect and regard for the other by listening to different accounts and perspectives. Ultimately, the teacher accepts that she is just one voice in the classroom.

4. Understanding constitutional rights in the classroom

All the approaches to teacher education described here are underpinned by the Constitution.

The idea is that teacher education programmes should develop teachers who understand notions of justice, citizenship and social cohesion. Any good teacher needs to be able to reflect critically on their own role as leader and manager within the contexts of classrooms, schools and the broader society. This includes promoting values of democracy, social justice and equality, and building attitudes of respect and reciprocity.

A critical reflective ethos is encouraged. Students get numerous opportunities to interrogate, debate, research, express and reflect upon educational challenges, theories and policies, from different perspectives, as these apply to practice. This is all aimed at building a positive school environment for everyone.

Moving into teaching

What about when students become teachers themselves?

For many new teachers these inclusive practices are not easy to implement in schools. One lecturer in our faculty has been approached by former students who report that as beginner teachers, they don’t have “the status or voice to change existing discriminatory practices and what some experience as the resistance to inclusive education”. This suggests that ongoing discussion and training in both pre-service and in-service education is needed.

At the same time, however, there are signs that these modules are having a positive impact. Students post comments and ideas on social media and lecturers regularly hear from first-time teachers about how useful their acquired knowledge is in different contexts. Many are also eager to study further so they can explore the issues more deeply.

Everything I’ve described here is part of one faculty’s attempts to provide safe spaces where student teachers can learn to work constructively with the issues pertaining to diversity in education. In doing so, we hope they’ll become part of building a country based on respect for all.

Author’s note: I am grateful to my colleagues Lynette Collair, Nuraan Davids, Jerome Joorst and Christa van der Walt for the ideas contained in this article.

The Conversation

Maureen Robinson, Dean, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University

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.
Shutterstock

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.

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.

Slang shouldn’t be banned … it should be celebrated, innit


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Rob Drummond, Manchester Metropolitan University

Geezers and girls literally ain’t allowed to use slang words like “emosh” (emotional) anymore. The head teacher and staff of an academy in Essex, England appear to have taken great pleasure in banning the type of slang used in reality television series TOWIE, including many of the words in the above sentence, in a bid to improve the job prospects of their students.

Head teacher David Grant reportedly believes that by outlawing certain words and phrases and forcing students to use “proper English”, they will be in a better position to compete for jobs with non-native English speakers who may have a better command of the language. The way forward, he believes, is for young people to be using “the Queen’s English”, and not wasting time getting totes emosh about some bird or some bloke.

While nobody would doubt the good intentions behind such a scheme, it simply isn’t the way to go about achieving the desired aims. Of course, there’s always the possibility that this is all part of some clever plan to raise awareness and generate debate among the students about the language they use; in which case, great. Unfortunately, phrases such as “proper English”, “wrong usage” and “Queen’s English” suggest a very different and alarmingly narrow-minded approach to language.

Indeed, banning slang in schools is a short-sighted and inefficient way of trying to produce young people who are confident and adaptable communicators. What we should be doing is encouraging students to explore the fluidity, richness, and contextual appropriateness of an ever-changing language.

Slang: the real English.
Shutterstock

The fact is, there really is no such thing as “proper English”; there is simply English that is more or less appropriate in a given situation. Most of us would agree that “well jel” (very jealous) or “innit” have no place in most job interviews, but they do have a place elsewhere. Similarly, some people might get annoyed at what they see as the overuse of “like”, but it’s as much a part of young people’s language as “cool”, “yeah”, or “dude” might have been to their parents in their day.

This isn’t the first time a school has gone down this particular route in the quest to create more employable school leavers. In 2013, Harris Academy in south London produced a list of banned slang words and phrases including “bare” (alot), “innit” and “we woz” in a bid to improve their pupil’s chances. Fast forward to 2015 and the policy was hailed a success, with the “special measures” school now being rated “outstanding”. But are we really to believe that this turnaround was purely due to eager staff policing children’s use of a few slang words? Isn’t it perhaps more likely that the new leadership team brought with them rather more than a naughty words list?

Language in flux

What is always missed in these discussions is that English is in a constant state of change, and this change simply can’t be stopped. You can hang on to your belief that “literally” can only mean “in a literal manner” as much as you like, but you can’t change the fact that it has another, equally legitimate, meaning. You can disapprovingly count the number of times your teenage son or daughter says “like” in a single conversation, but you can’t stop its rise in English in general.

Which is why a ban is so pointless. All it can possibly achieve is to make young people self-conscious about the way they speak, thus stifling creativity and expression. Do we really want the shy 13-year-old who has finally plucked up the courage to speak in class to be immediately silenced when the first word he or she utters is “Like…”? Or would we rather the teacher listens to what they have to say, then explores how the use of language can change the message, depending on the context? In other words, celebrate language diversity rather than restrict it.

And this is precisely what English language teachers do every day in their classes. Learning about language variation, about accents, dialects, and slang is all part of the curriculum, especially as they head towards A level. I can only imagine how frustrated they must be when their senior staff then seek to publicly undo their good work by insisting on outdated, class-based, culturally-biased notions of correct and incorrect usage.

In an English language class, students are taught how the ways in which we use language are part of how we construct and perform our social identities. Unfortunately, their break-times are then patrolled by some kind of language police who are tasked with ensuring those identities aren’t expressed (unless, presumably, they happen to be performing an acceptably middle-class job applicant identity at the time).

Different language is appropriate for different contexts. Yes, using TOWIE slang is inappropriate in a job interview, but no more inappropriate than using the Queen’s English in the playground. Unless you’re the Queen, obvs.

The Conversation

Rob Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University

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

How teachers can help migrant learners feel more included


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Helen Hanna, Leeds Trinity University

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.

The Conversation

Helen Hanna, Lecturer in Education Studies and Visiting Researcher at Centre for International Teacher Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Leeds Trinity University

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.

We wouldn’t be mourning lost languages if we embraced multilingualism


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Rachel Nordlinger, University of Melbourne

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made news shedding tears over the plight of an elderly Indigenous woman. Turnbull wiped away tears during a TV interview with Stan Grant as he told of hearing a Moss Vale woman recall her mother singing to her in the Ngunawal language as a young child.

Malcolm Turnbull, in an interview with Stan Grant, cries as he recalls a lullaby sang by Aboriginal Australians.

“She was a very old lady and she remembers her mother singing this (lullaby) to her,” he was reported as saying.

And the thing that’s so sad is to imagine that mother singing that story to her at a time when you were losing culture and the last thing that baby was was safe.”

While I welcome Turnbull’s concerns for the loss of Indigenous language and culture, it’s hard to miss the irony of this happening only two weeks after Bess Price was denied the right to speak her language, Warlpiri, in the Northern Territory parliament. As a nation, we mourn what has been lost, while failing to embrace and support that which we still have.

Why are Australians so resistant to embracing multilingualism, especially when it comes to our nation’s Indigenous languages? Why can we not see the value of our nation’s linguistic heritage, and the wealth that languages bring?

Malcolm Turnbull speaking at the Referendum Council on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Paul Miller/AAP

Language is central to what it means to be human. Each individual language reflects another way of talking about the world, another framework for solving communicative problems, another example of the cognitive capabilities of our species. Each language is also a repository of accumulated knowledge about the world; knowledge that is lost when languages are no longer spoken.

However, some stark facts illustrate quickly how fragile our linguistic diversity is: 96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 4 per cent of the world’s population. The dire predictions are that half of the world’s 7000 languages will have disappeared by the end of this century – a rate of more than 40 languages lost per year. The Asia-Pacific region is home to half of the world’s languages, 250 indigenous to our own country. All our Indigenous languages are endangered.

Some believe that language diversity is problematic, and that speaking one language produces harmony and unity. Interestingly, however, those who express this view seem to assume that it should be their language, English, that is chosen for this purpose. Would they feel equally strongly in favour of moving towards a single language if it were Mandarin, Arabic or Warlpiri?

The fact is that our mother language is intimately connected to our sense of self. It is the language in which we can fully be ourselves, where we feel most comfortable, where we can laugh and grieve and dream. This is why supporting people all over the world in speaking their own languages is so important. As stated by the United Nations:

Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet.

The majority of people in the world are multilingual. Mainstream Australia, however, is fiercely monolingual and wary of people who speak other languages as a part of their heritage.

This is particularly true for Australia’s Indigenous languages, which fight a constant battle for recognition and survival against the monolingual mindset of Australian policy makers.

The reaction to Bess Price’s use of Warlpiri in the Northern Territory Parliament is an all too common example of mainstream Australia’s lack of respect for our nation’s Indigenous languages.

Another is the experience of Aboriginal artist Elizabeth Close who was yelled at in a shopping centre for speaking to her child in Pitjantjatjara and told,

It’s Australia Day! We speak English in Australia.

The irony of insisting that a language from England be more closely associated with this country than one which has been spoken here for thousands of years was clearly lost on this indignant shopper.

In fact, there is a further double standard reflected in recent events, which also saw Malcolm Turnbull speak in the Ngunawal language in Federal Parliament, without permission from the chamber, and with great approval from the broader community.

Why is it that we embrace the effort from a non-Indigenous politician to symbolically use an Indigenous language, while shutting down a request from an Indigenous politician to use her own native language?

Turnbull had reportedly heard of the Moss Vale woman’s plight while learning a passage of Ngunawal language for his Closing the Gap address. In the speech, he announced A$20 million funding for the preservation of Indigenous language and culture.

This money is definitely welcome but it’s a drop in the ocean when one considers the attitudinal change that is also needed across mainstream Australia. We need to start valuing Indigenous languages as a vital part of our heritage – and recognising them as living languages that are used in everyday life.

The majority of people across the world speak at least two languages. Australia is proud of its multiculturalism. It’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the world and embrace multilingualism as well.

The Conversation

Rachel Nordlinger, Associate Professor and Reader, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Research Unit for Indigenous Language, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne

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