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 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.

‘Teaching artists’: creative ways to teach English to immigrant kids


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Liane Brouillette, University of California, Irvine

Bringing professional actors and dancers into the classroom may seem an unusual strategy for boosting the speaking skills of children who speak a language other than English at home. Yet, these creative drama and movement activities can help children struggling to improve their fluency in the English language.

English language learners face a daunting challenge in today’s classrooms, which have an increased focus on written work. To improve their English language skills, these children need frequent opportunities to engage in verbal interactions. Children who do not become proficient in reading by the end of third grade are at an increased risk of dropping out of school.

Schools in San Diego, California, are successfully leading the way in using creative ways to teach English.

Educators and teaching artists have come together in San Diego schools to demonstrate how theatre games and creative movement activities in early grades can help children improve their English language fluency.

Making it happen

Having begun my career as an educator in Europe, I was attracted by the idea of an arts-rich curriculum that motivated children through imaginative engagement.

As the director of the Center for Learning in the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, I approached the Visual and Performing Arts Department of the San Diego Unified School District about setting up a pilot project in 15 San Diego elementary schools.

In 2007, our proposal was funded by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Over a period of several months, the San Diego Visual and Performing Arts Department recruited and trained the professional actors and dancers who would serve as “teaching artists.”

The idea of recruiting teaching artists was to have a group of professionals trained in dance and drama, who could visit as many as five classrooms each day and encourage English learners to use language as a tool of communication even during the first lessons.

Two teachers at Central Elementary lead a theatre warm-up.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Classroom teachers co-taught with a teaching artist for 50 minutes each week for 28 weeks (14 weeks of drama, 14 weeks of dance). Teachers practiced with their pupils on the days between visits. Videos of lessons were made available online, so that teachers could remind themselves of details.

How it worked

In a way, this program was not all that new. These lessons were only an enhanced version of the theatre and dance curriculum that was available to all San Diego elementary schools before testing and budget pressures caused the school district to reduce its offerings.

Budget cuts over the years have forced the elimination of arts activities in kindergarten to second grade in many school districts nationwide. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2009–2010, only 4% of US elementary schools offered instruction that was designated as drama or theatre; just 3% offered dance.

When the teaching artists arrived in San Diego classrooms, children welcomed them enthusiastically and eagerly joined in.

The lessons generally started with the class standing in a circle, responding through words and physical movements to directions given by the teaching artist. Instead of memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar, children learned through active participation.

And English learners who were unsure of the meaning of verbal instructions could check their understanding by watching the teaching artist and other students.

Rigorous evaluation has shown that the program has helped children, especially those with the most limited English speaking skills.

Kindergartners at Balboa Elementary practice a dance activity with their teacher.
University of California eScholarship Repository, CC BY

Teacher interviews affirmed that the vocabulary and communication skills of all children were enhanced by the teaching artist visits.

The most striking improvement was in the speaking skills of the English learners.

Limited learning in classrooms

Today’s classrooms face many challenges.

Nearly 10% of the student population in the US now comes from non-English speaking homes. In California, children whose home language is not English make up over 20% of the public school enrollment.

The passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has made the situation particularly challenging for non-English speaking children. Proposition 227 requires California public schools to teach even limited English-proficient students in classes that are taught nearly all in English.

In today’s classrooms, children’s learning is limited by several factors.

Contemporary kindergarten classrooms resemble the first grade classes of a generation ago. First graders are tackling assignments that were formerly taught in second grade.

Moreover, the demands of a highly structured curriculum and rising class sizes leave limited opportunities for rich verbal interactions between the teacher and the pupil. Chances for individualized feedback are also often limited.

This is reflected in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data: only 11 of the 50 states are meeting adequate yearly progress targets for limited English-proficient students under NCLB. At the same time, the number of school-age kids who speak English as a second language is continuing to grow.

What English learners need

Unfortunately, preparation programs for elementary teachers currently dedicate little time to methods for teaching oral language skills.

Research has demonstrated that oral language proficiency in the primary grades is critical to the literacy development of children in general, but especially of English learners.

Drama and dance activities in which nonverbal communication is utilized in combination with verbal interactions can offer an effective substitute for one-on-one interactions with the classroom teacher.

Given that the weekly teaching artist visits constitute a relatively low-cost intervention, such programs may provide a means of affordably addressing an urgent problem.

The San Diego project did not just help English learners; it provided benefits for English-speaking students as well through increased engagement, attendance and exposure to the arts.

But clearly, the need is greater for English learners, for whom the arts can provide a bridge to understanding the language of the classroom.

Next: How should kids learn English: through Old MacDonald’s farm or Ali Baba’s farm?

The Conversation

Liane Brouillette, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

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.

Zuckerberg is ploughing billions into ‘personalised learning’ – why?


Natalia Kucirkova, The Open University and Elizabeth FitzGerald, The Open University

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes personalised learning is the answer to many of education’s current woes, and is one of the four key areas that he and his wife Prescilla Chan’s US$45 billion Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will fund.

While some argue whether this is a philanthropic act or a shrewd business strategy, others will ask: what is personalised learning anyway? Because despite some politicians’ enthusiastic endorsements of personalised education, there’s still no clear definition.

Many in education would argue that personalised learning is what all good teachers do as a matter of course – modifying learning materials and teaching styles to accommodate the different ways pupils learn. Others see it as an antidote to top-down, centralised school bureaucracy, with the term “personalised” used interchangeably with individual, learner-centered or customised. It’s far from clear how teachers are supposed to support such personalised learning with personalised resources on a per pupil basis, nor who should bear the costs of doing so.

Zuckerberg has a clear definition in mind, however. For him, personalised learning is about teachers “working with students to customise instruction to meet the student’s individual needs and interests”. Although the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Personalised Learning Platform is not part of Facebook, the underlying principles are the same: human work is replaced by technology, algorithms provide users with content based on an analysis of their past behaviour and demonstrated interests. This is similar to how Facebook’s news feed works, and other commercial personalisation models based on text and behaviour analysis.

There has been much hype about the potential for new technology or approaches to disrupt education and, not unreasonably, there’s concern that investment in personalised learning may be a boost for Silicon Valley but a kick in the teeth for teachers.

The dangers of personalised learning

Zuckerberg’s idea of personalised learning has three major flaws. First, education has always been about acquiring knowledge and skills relevant to a profession, but also about acquiring general knowledge. By feeding children only the content they’re interested in, we may end up with many specialists and few generalists.

Second, while learners may cope poorly with trying to learn in a way that’s not suited to them, in the real world life will not always be so accommodating. Their lack of ability to compensate may mean they suffer as a result.

People are different, and learn differently too.
algogenius, CC BY

Finally, children’s preferences are not fixed – in fact they often change as immediate responses to the environment. To predict content relevant for children there needs to be sensitive, human-directed input – not automation. Otherwise we end up with what might be called de-personalised learning, and classrooms with little conversation between student and teacher. In subcontracting out teaching to technology, the risk is that the valuable social contact between students, teachers and parents that’s inherent to effective learning will be reduced.

There is also the issue of ensuring that children’s data is not misused. Recording children’s personal progress, preferences and needs poses a privacy risk if it is not managed properly. The recent example of Vtech, whose internet-connected childrens’ toys and gadgets were hacked revealing millions of images of children and chatlogs, illustrates the dangers – who’s going to decide what data is collected and how it is stored and used?

Personalised learning brings with it all manner of complex issues involving children’s agency, power, collaboration and dialogue (or lack of them). But it also brings exciting prospects for the future.

Where personalised learning could help

Motivation is crucial for effective learning, and personalised learning gives children a sense of ownership and relevance, while personalised assessments are regarded as effective.

These values are at the core of AltSchool, which recently raised US$100m (including from Zuckerberg, who funded its expansion). AltSchool is a community of micro-schools whose personalised learning experience involves collecting data about pupils’ attainment, grades and also memory test results and energy levels. This data is crunched together with the pupil’s interests and preferences to tailor the content.

Putting together a jigsaw of personalised learning.
Jason Devaun, CC BY-ND

So far we don’t know how well it works, or whether it works at all. What we do know is that this is only one vision of personalised learning, underpinned by evidence that is ambiguous at best. With Zuckerberg’s endorsement, the danger is that this could be the new kid, if not the only kid, on the education block. The end result would be undeserved kudos and the promise of a brave new (and unrealistic) world where the different between every learner can be accounted for.

A compromise approach

Other organisations combine user data with standard educational content, for example adaptive course-ware platforms such as those from Smart Sparrow or Pearson. Personalised learning by McGraw Hill allows educators to choose between the adaptive or customized study plans. The former adapts all topics to a learners’ pace, while the latter provides a course modified according to the teacher’s knowledge of what fits the students best.

If personalised learning is conceived of as the means to adapt and customise a pupil’s learning according to their needs as well as teachers’ experience and school requirements, it holds promise. As Mike Sharples and other Open University colleagues write in their Innovating Pedagogy 2015 report, personalised learning combined with emotional analytics, personal inquiry, dynamic and stealth assessment could be a very powerful combination.

But this requires developing the strategies which can marry the needs of children and teachers in education. This is something that takes time, conversation and collaboration, and cannot be hurried through by simply pouring millions of dollars into technology – even if your name is Mark Zuckerberg.

The Conversation

Natalia Kucirkova, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, The Open University and Elizabeth FitzGerald, Lecturer in Educational Technology, The Open University

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

How do you haha? LOL through the ages


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Lauren Collister, University of Pittsburgh

Laughter is uniquely human. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes uncontrollable, we laugh out loud to signal our reaction to a range of occurrences, whether it’s a response to a joke we hear, an awkward encounter or an anxious situation. The way we laugh is, according to anthropologist Munro S Edmonson, a “signal of individuality.”

And an outburst of laughter is an important enough part of communication that we represent it in text.

In a recent The New Yorker article, Sarah Larson wrote about laughter in internet-based communication – the use of hahaha and hehehe, even the jovial hohoho.

Larson writes, “The terms of e-laughter – ‘ha ha,’ ‘ho ho,’ ‘hee hee,’ ‘heh’ – are implicitly understood by just about everybody. But, in recent years, there’s been an increasingly popular newcomer: ‘hehe.’”

However, even before texting and online chatting, textual representations of laughter – most of which have onomatopoeic forms – have appeared in writing since Chaucer’s time.

Like all language, it has merely evolved with our culture and adapted to new technology, becoming in the process far more nuanced – much like the true “spoken” laughter it’s intended to represent.

A brief history of laughter

In her 2011 book Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, Observation, Interpretation, linguist Sali Tagliamonte shares three historical examples of laughter in literature.

Page 340 from Variationist Sociolinguistics (click to zoom).

As Tagliamonte shows, hehe is not exactly a new invention: it appears in a Latin grammar book written by Ælfric of Eynsham in about 1000 AD. Haha appears in Chaucer 300 years later, while ha, ha, he can be found in the works of Shakespeare.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows users to search for words and phrases in all of the books that Google has scanned, it is evident that hehe – along with haha and hohohas been in use for quite some time.

A Google Ngram graph depicts the prevalence of laughter in text through the centuries (click to zoom).
Author provided

If you look closely at the examples from this search, you’ll see a number of misreads of the text by the search function (for example, hehe is often confused with the name of the Greek goddess Hebe). However, you’ll also see texts from plays and scripts, along with dialogue in novels and even dictionaries of other spoken languages. All of these representations of laughter are connected to words being spoken out loud.

The evolution of LOL

Words like haha and hehe have traditionally been used to represent actual laughter in text, whether in response to a joke or to indicate nervousness or awkwardness.

Only in recent years have various acronyms arisen to represent laughter in text. From ROFL (Rolls On Floor Laughing) to LMAO (Laughing My Ass Off) – and, of course, LOL – these acronyms have become increasingly popular as internet and online conversation has proliferated.

LOL is perhaps the most ubiquitous of these acronyms. According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the first recorded use of LOL is from the May 1989 edition of the FidoNews Newsletter (though some have disputed this).

Almost everyone who has typed these acronyms knows that don’t always represent physical laughter. As linguist David Crystal asked in his 2006 book Language and the Internet, “How many people are actually ‘laughing out loud’ when they send LOL?”

Not many. In one study of online teen language, researchers found that LOL is “used by our participants in the flow of conversation as a signal of interlocutor involvement, just as one might say mm-hm in the course of a conversation.”

And another linguist, John McWhorter, pointed out that LOL has changed from indicating real laughter to a signal of “basic empathy between testers” – in other words, a sign that you have read and acknowledged the message. It’s also a way to interject a bit of a casual flair to a conversation, much in the same way we might use a short laugh or a nod in face-to-face conversation.

So LOL – just like some of the basic laughs that it represents – doesn’t really mean any one thing in particular, but rather displays the speaker’s (or typer’s) attitude. In a sense, LOL works much in the same way emoticons and emoji do: when people send a smiley face, they may not actually be smiling; they simply want to convey that they’re feeling happy.

Just like the many variations of emoticons and emojis, so too are there many flavors of lol: the emphatic lololol, the sarcastic lolz and even lulz-seeking internet trolls.

Laughter signals individuality in text, too

What about haha, hehe, and hoho in our e-language? Returning to the online teen language study, researchers found that haha was the most widely used representation of laughter after LOL on instant message.

Hehe was the third most widely used form – and this one, they say, represented giggling. But what may be new are the connotations that hehe has taken on to differentiate itself from its competitors, haha and hoho.

For example, the users of hehe interviewed in The New Yorker article agree on the giggling aspect of hehe, but vary in whether they view it as friendly or conspiratorial: it all depends on how many E’s the word has.

Clearly, the connotations associated with each form seem to be as unique as the people using them. These variations give all the more support to Edmonson’s assertion from 1987 that our laughter is a sign of our individuality – even in text.

The Conversation

Lauren Collister, Electronics Publications Associate, University of Pittsburgh

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

Want your kids to learn another language? Teach them code


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Steve Goschnick, Swinburne University of Technology

Among Malcolm Turnbull’s first words as the newly elected leader of the Liberal Party, and hence heading for the Prime Minister’s job, were: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”

And near the heart of the matter is the code literacy movement. This is a movement to introduce all school children to the concepts of coding computers, starting in primary school.

One full year after the computing curriculum was introduced by the UK government, a survey there found that six out of ten parents want their kids to learn a computer language instead of French.

The language of code

The language comparison is interesting because computer languages are first and foremost, languages. They are analogous to the written versions of human languages but simpler, requiring expressions without ambiguity.

They have a defining grammar. They come with equivalent dictionaries of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs; with prepositions and phrase patterns, conjunctions, conditionals and clauses. Of course the dictionaries are less extensive than those of human languages, but the pattern rendering nature of the grammars have much the same purpose.

Kids that code gain a good appreciation of computational thinking and logical thought, that helps them develop good critical thinking skills. I’ve sometimes heard the term “language lawyer” used as a euphemism for a pedantic programmer. Code literacy is good for their life skills kit, never mind their career prospects.

Scratch is one of a new generation of block programming languages aimed at teaching novices and kids as young as eight or nine to write code.

Scratch teaches code with movable instruction blocks.
Screenshot from code.org

The Scratch language uses coloured blocks to represent the set of language constructs in its grammar. A novice programmer can build up a new program by dragging-and-dropping from a palette of these blocks onto a blank canvas or workspace.

The individual shapes of the blocks are puzzle-like, such that only certain pieces can interlock. This visually enforces the grammar, allowing the coder to concentrate on the creativeness of their whole program.

The Scratch language (and its derivatives) are embedded in a number of different tools and websites, each dedicated to a particular niche of novice programmers. The code.org website is a prime example and has a series of exercises using the block language to teach the fundamentals of computer science.

Code.org is a non-profit used by 6 million students, 43% of whom are female. It runs the Hour of Code events each year, a global effort to get novices to try to do at least an hour of code.

For a week in May this year, Microsoft Australia partnered with Code.org to run the #WeSpeakCode event, teaching coding to more than 7,000 young Australians. My local primary school in Belgrave South in Victoria is using Code.org successfully with grade 5 and 6 students.

Unlike prose in a human language, computer programs are most often interactive. In the screenshot of the Scratch example (above) it has graphics from the popular Plants vs Zombies game, one that most kids have already played. They get to program some basic mechanics of what looks a little like the game.

Hit the ‘Show Code’ button at it reveals the JavaScript language behind the coloured blocks.
Screenshot from code.org

But code.org has a ‘Show Code’ button that reveals the JavaScript code generated behind the coloured blocks (see above). This shows novices what they created in tiles, translated into the formal syntax of a programming language widely used in industry.

It’s not all about the ICT industry

Both parents and politicians with an eye to the future see the best jobs as the creative ones. Digging up rocks, importing, consuming and servicing is not all that should be done in a forward-thinking nation.

But teaching kids to code is not all about careers in computer programming, science and software engineering. Introducing young minds to the process of instructing a computer allows them to go from “I swiped this” to “I made this”. From watching YouTube stars, to showing schoolyard peers how they made their pet cat photo meow.

It opens up young minds to the creative aspects of programming. Not only widening the possible cohort who may well study computer science or some other information and communications technology (ICT) professions, but also in design and the creative arts, and other fields of endeavour yet to transpire or be disrupted.

For most kids, teaching them to code is about opening their mind to a means to an end, not necessarily the end in itself.

The Conversation

Steve Goschnick, Adjunct Professor, Swinburne University of Technology

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