Why do some accents sound better than others

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One man’s soothing sound can be another’s harsh tones.

Gerry Howley, University of Sheffield

When a funeral planning business recently decided to open its new contact centre in Newport, South Wales, it said it was doing so because Welsh accents sounded more empathetic and consoling – beating off competition from Teeside, another popular call centre location thought to have a friendly accent. The Conversation

Everyone has something to say about their favourite accents and which ones they hate. If I asked your opinion on, for example, the Liverpool (Scouse), Birmingham (Brummie) and southern Irish accents, what would you say? You might not like the sound of the first two, although you might find the Irish accent pleasing to the ear – but why? What is it that shapes how we feel about accents?

A considerable amount of research has been done to find out why people have such strong opinions about accents. One of the key methods that dialectologists use is to play lots of different regional accents to people who come from a range of locations. The listeners rate the voices they hear on a scale according to, for example, how educated or friendly the speakers sound to them. Listeners typically get to judge speakers on competence and status traits, like intelligence and self-confidence, as well as social attractiveness traits, such as friendliness and sincerity.

In one notable study listeners compared Received Pronunciation (RP) speakers with speakers from South Wales. RP – which many linguists now call Standard Southern British English (SSBE) – is an accent associated with high social prestige. Non-linguists sometimes also call this type of speaking “BBC English” or “the Queen’s English”. Think Emma Thompson and Patrick Stewart.

In the study, the RP voices were rated higher for intelligence, self-confidence, independence, ego, and job status. The South Welsh speakers meanwhile were rated more trustworthy, sincere, supporting, and understanding. The results of other similar studies are highly consistent. Standard accents tend to be rated highly on status and competence characteristics, while regional accents are consistently viewed more favourably for social attractiveness traits.

Regional listening

However, the consistency of listeners’ attitudes to accents only holds if we ask native English speakers who live in the UK. One PhD researcher asked listeners to rate 20 different accents including southern Irish, Welsh, Scouse, and Brummie. The native English speakers predictably rated southern Irish highly while the others came 15th, 17th, and 19th respectively.

In contrast, the non-native English speaking listeners rated Welsh second, Brummie third, Scouse sixth and southern Irish tenth. The non-native English speakers also described the Birmingham accent as “beautiful”, “cool”, “sexy”, “sweet”, and “lovely”, which might come as quite a surprise to native English people who give the Brummie accent a really hard time for being “ugly”.

Studies like this where people from different places consistently rate accents differently to native listeners demonstrate that in actual fact there is nothing innately attractive or ugly about how an accent sounds. So where do we get these attitudes from?

The reason that standard accents are perceived more favourably is probably because of the social and cultural pressures that operate within a community. So, standard English is perceived more favourably than regional dialects because of the social and cultural authority of those who speak with an SSBE accent. Standard language is traditionally viewed as the language of the elite and while SSBE speakers may be stereotyped as sounding “posh”, the standard forms are considered by most to be “correct”. From a very young age, society makes us believe that anything else is “wrong” or “lazy”, and if we want to get a job and succeed, we must use the standard forms.

However, when it comes to rating differences between regional dialects, for example in the case of southern Welsh vs Brummie, it’s likely that our attitudes are more closely linked to our local environment.

From a very young age, we shape our attitudes to everything around us, including social connotations, even if we never come into contact with them. We learn from a range of sources, including people around us and the things we see and read.

People from different places are associated with distinct characteristics and as a result, the accents they use are also associated with those characteristics. Speakers of SSBE are thought of highly as they are seen as being professional, successful, and wealthy. People who speak with strong urban dialects are often considered to have lower status because of a historical reputation of those areas for higher crime rates, unemployment, and industrialisation. However, people from other countries have not grown up around these specific cultural stereotypes and have not developed these perceptions. As a result, they do not associate those characteristics with the accent and so they rate speakers differently.

In addition, our own experiences impact our attitudes. If we have (or hear of someone we know having) a negative or positive experience of someone from a particular town or city, we subconsciously connect those good or bad feelings with certain features, such as their accent. When we later hear that accent, this can trigger those feelings and make us attribute them to anyone who talks in that way.

So next time you find yourself having a strong reaction to the way that someone speaks, try to remember that what you think is ugly and nasal may be someone else’s lilting and beautiful.

Gerry Howley, Teaching Associate in Sociolinguistics, University of Sheffield

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

Agents speak: how do student visa processes compare?

US student visa application interview, Consulate General, Chennai, India

Posted on May 12, 2017 by Sara Custer (The Pie News) 

Negotiating student visa applications is an ominous task. With foreign governments requiring evidence of financial background, letters of intent, biometric data and credibility interviews, an application takes months to prepare, followed by usually weeks of waiting for the decision.

“A good agent isn’t scared of the visa process. In some parts of the country, to students it is the number one thing”

Like it or not, visa processing carries weight when students are choosing study destinations; they know it can often be a subjective decision, and rumours swirl among peer groups about how likely a visa rejection might be.

A country’s immigration policy, local press coverage and its reputation in their homeland all affect students’ feelings on visa processing, says George Burke, international admissions and recruitment specialist at the University of Albany SUNY in the US.

“Individual bad episodes carry a lot of folklore”

“Individual bad episodes carry a lot of folklore,” he says. In China, it took recruiters five years to communicate improved practices at the US consulate “because the US had such a bad approach [to visa interviews] at first”.

And the impact of policy shifts (and subsequent press coverage) such as Trump’s attempt to halt entry to the US from selected countries “can linger for five to 10 years”, he relates.

It’s no wonder, then, that students seek the help of education agencies. Most agencies have dedicated visa application departments that follow immigration policy in host countries and maintain regular contact with foreign embassies. They step in after advisors have secured students’ confirmation of enrolment on a study course. And increasingly, the agency’s role might be only to provide visa processing services, as more students apply to courses directly themselves.

“A good agent isn’t scared of the visa process,” says Sushil Sukhwani, director at India’s Edwise International.

With more than four million students worldwide studying overseas, the visa application processes can’t be that great a deterrent to mobility. It’s merely a necessity, says Sukhwani, but students don’t always see it that way. “In some parts of the country like Punjab or a Sikh person applying for a Canadian visa, to them it is the number one thing. It’s like ‘oh my god, visa’.”

Agents often tailor their counselling depending on the student’s profile and likelihood of being granted a visa. For mature students, it’s especially challenging, recounts Anastassia Romanenko, managing director at Insight-Lingua in Russia.

“If they are 30-something and they’ve only been on holiday to Turkey, the UK probably won’t work for them”

“If they are 30-something and they’ve only been on holiday to Turkish hotels, then the UK probably won’t work for them,” she says. “We offer Malta or Cyprus quite a lot for them, where the visa is much easier.”

Nationality influences students’ chances as well. For applicants from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, refusal rates are higher “because there is also a much higher rate of fake documents that they supply and the living conditions in those countries are poorer”, notes Romanenko.

“We recommend they go to Malaysia, because it’s culturally closer to them, and then at least they can have a certificate that they spent six months learning English abroad and they came back. It looks a little bit better on their profile.”

For this article, we spoke to admissions professionals and asked 20 major education agencies around the world – responsible for sending more than 150,000 students overseas a year – about visa application processes in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and China.

Canada has mountains to climb

If there was one visa process that agents said was the most difficult, it was Canada’s, despite its reputation as a country intent on growing its international education industry.

It’s “extremely old school”, said one Brazilian agent, while another in India describes the system as “unpredictable and they don’t specify the refusal reason”.

“In Canadian immigration law, it’s very clear that the officer evaluating your process has the right to his own interpretation,” says Ed Santos, director of operations and franchising at Canada Intercambio. Canada’s required documentation isn’t easily laid out on the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website and in addition to evidentiary documentation, students are encouraged to include a letter of explanation, the importance of which many agents underestimate, he says.

“It’s very clear that the officer evaluating your process has the right to his own interpretation”

The letter is an opportunity to address any questionable areas of the student’s application; it should “go directly to the point that could make the guy scratch his head,” Santos explains.

Because there is comparatively less guidance for visa applications, refusal rates in Canada are higher, one agent charged. In September 2016, IRCC put aggregated approval rates for temporary resident visas (used for short-term study) at 81% and study permits at 71%.

Canada is also known for having lengthy processing times. Agents reported that wait times for study permits could be as short as one week or as long as eight. The government has, however, taken steps to shorten wait times, including launching the Canada Express Study Program in Vietnam last year, which streamlines the visa process for students applying to selected colleges.

Also helpful is IRCC’s own website, which is updated weekly with current average processing times for temporary resident visas and study permits. As of February 6, for a student in China, it took 15 days to process a visitor visa and four weeks for a study permit. For an applicant applying from Brazil, the TRV processing time dropped to 10 days but the study permit was estimated at 10 weeks.

Australia’s streamlined system is swift

In July 2016, Australia rolled out a modernised, pared-down and entirely online visa application system, and trimmed visa categories from eight to two.

The Simplified Student Visa Framework extends streamlined visa processing – previously available only to students enrolling at a few providers – to all students, based on a risk assessment of their country of origin and institution.

“Australia is good at inviting agents to presentations about upcoming changes”

SSVF was by far the system that was most favoured by surveyed agents. “Australia’s system made it all online, which makes it easier for all of our students and branches to apply,” said an agent in Brazil.

Agents reported wide-ranging wait times, from 20 minutes to 15 days. In Nigeria, an agent reported eight weeks and a Brazilian agent said his students wait up to 60 days. According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, from April 1 to June 30, 2016, 75% of student visa applications were processed within 29 days.

Agents also praised Australia’s offline support. “Australia is good at inviting agents to presentations about upcoming changes,” said an agent in Brazil.

A Russian agent added: “Unlike Canada or the UK, where you submit an application and if something is missing it simply gets refused, Australian consular services contact us or the applicant if anything is missing and tell us which extra documents we need to provide.”

But like Canada, agents said Australia’s documentary requirements are burdensome. In addition to showing their confirmation of enrolment, the application requires students’ proof of finances through tax returns, employment history, bank statements or loans and information on the agent that has helped them apply.

The Genuine Temporary Entrant measure is the greatest point of subjectivity. Students must submit a personal statement explaining their immigration history, their circumstances, why they want to study in Australia and any documents to support their case. This could include their employment history, their CV, any previous certifications they’ve earned, or proof of a need for professionals in their field of study in their home country.

“Stakeholders are pleased that ‘ambush style’ phone interviews are no longer taking place”

But the current GTE measure is an improvement on previous editions, says Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA. “Australia’s Immigration Department argues strongly that it has now trained its locally engaged staff at most overseas postings to be much more attuned to cultural factors in their GTE interviews and assessments. Stakeholders are also pleased to hear that ‘ambush style’ GTE phone interviews are no longer taking place.”

Like other study destinations receiving large volumes of foreign students, national security concerns are also beginning to weigh in on policy debates and visa decisions in Australia. “These filters are having their greatest impact on postgraduate student applicants from certain countries, largely based on the student’s potential access to sensitive information,” says Honeywood.

US system: straightforward but not simple

The US application process is generally considered straightforward and efficient. Documentation requirements are relatively low and although interviews are required for some students, questioning is brief and students are told instantly if their visa has been granted.

But the DS-160 form, completed by students before their interview – requiring a photo, proof of return travel, dates of their last five trips to the US, and sometimes employment history and additional background information – can overlook particularities of student applicants.

“Students are facing a kind of ignorance by visa officials”

“The US’s system is not foolproof,” said one Indian agent, noting the DS-160 “has no specific questioning which highlights information specific to student visa applications”.

Another reports he has seen “great inconsistencies” in decisions for students opting for ESL, bridge or foundation programs. “Students are facing a kind of ignorance by visa officials,” he said. “It is time for the USA now to come up with a country-specific policy.”

Many said interview requirements are an added burden for students who have to travel to other cities for consulate appointments. And some agents said the interviews don’t give students time to explain their application.

“The student is given hardly a minute or two during the interview to present his case before the officer,” reported an Indian agent. An agent in Saudi Arabia added that there are no clear metrics for the interview. “Many times it depends on the case officer and his decision.”

Still, most agents reported acceptance rates above 90%. Acceptance rates for B1/B2 visas (used for short-term study) stood at 76% in FY15, according to the State Department. For F-1 visas, for long-term degree courses, the issue rate was 75%, and for J-1 visas, used for study exchanges, 88%.

Aside from the UK, the US is the only country in the sample where current politics are perceived to have a direct impact on student visa applications, though many agents still report relatively high acceptance rates.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of rejections because of the new government arriving,” reported an agent in Saudi Arabia, and the promises for additional tightening are casting a shadow on the process.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of rejections because of the new government arriving”

Martyn Miller, interim assistant vice president of the Office of International Affairs at Temple University in Philadelphia, says the university has been advising students that they need to be prepared for longer visa application appointment times and for visa appointments to be later than they might have hoped. “More and more people are required to do the interview, which of course puts a higher burden on the US consular officers.”

While Trump’s ‘travel ban’ may have been halted, the cancellation of the Visa Interview Waiver Program has not. All visa applicants must undergo an interview at a US consulate office.

“This was a big one,” says Miller. “Might this have a negative impact on individuals who might want to come to the US either as students or even as tourists? Absolutely.”

UK is objective but changes like the wind

In the UK’s points-based immigration system, visa categories and application requirements change regularly. Staying up to date is like “keeping pace with the wind”, one agent said.

However, the surveyed agents lauded the UK system’s objectivity. They credited simplified document requirements and an understanding that if the student has an “established clear direction for the future that is well supported and communicated by his/her choice of course and documentation”, the visa will be issued.

Keeping pace with changes to application requirements is like “keeping pace with the wind”

One Chinese agent said refusal rates, the level of requirements to apply and efficiency mean “the UK has the best visa application system”. Another commended “a good policy of 24-hour urgent service for study visas [that] wins students’ praise”.

Reported wait times for non-priority services were consistent among all agent responses. Visas processing takes 15 working days to three weeks, and as little as one to two days if students pay for priority processing.

And agents all reported UK approval rates of 95-100%. This is probably due to the government’s Tier 4 compliance regulation for higher education providers, rather than an abundance of welcoming visa officers. Institutions are kept on a tight leash; the government only allows Tier 4 licence holders a 10% visa refusal rate (it used to be 20% until 2014).

Home Office data for applications received between April 2015 and March 2016 shows that of 216 higher education institutions, only nine didn’t meet the 10% cut off. However, a cautious climate creates a tendency by institutions to reject applications they believe could perturb visa officers.

Providers using the six- or 11-month short-term study visa route, used mostly for language programs, don’t face the same stringent compliance regulations. But according to English UK, the average number of visa denials for state sector members rose from 7.5 per centre in 2014 to 8.2 in 2015, when the visa was introduced. Visa refusals among private providers rose from 6.2 to 8.2 per centre.

Surveyed agents didn’t mention the reduction in the number of UKVI-approved testing centres providing English language proficiency exams required for Tier 4 entry from thousands to a little more than 100. Nor did they highlight the abolition of onshore visa renewal for certain students taking further study. But these do present challenges.

“The major problem for us is the changes reducing the number of students that could apply for a visa once they are in the UK”

“The major problem for us now is the changes that came in this year in reducing the number of students or advanced students that could apply for a visa once they are in the UK so they can go from one course to another,” says Joanne Purves, the University of Sheffield’s director of global engagement.

“Students who get here and decide it’s not for them – which many British students do – would then have to return home to get a new visa to change their course, which is a significant burden… so you can end up having students on courses which they’re not suited to do.”

The UK’s credibility interviews, introduced in 2014 for countries considered high-risk, did come up in our survey responses. An agent in Nigeria said interviews are subjective and “can mislead visa application outcomes”.

So, given the many changes in recent years, the UK was surprisingly well considered by many agents. They sound a note of caution, however, about further change. In 2016, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a consultation to improve non-EU study and work immigration routes, but its results have yet to be released.

China – inconsistent but unlikely to reject

While many surveyed agents don’t send students to China, agents from Brazil and Russia said they found the visa application process confusing – but visa issuance is almost a guarantee.

China-bound students must apply for either an X1 visa if their study is more than 180 days, or an X2 visa if less. Documentary evidence includes a form and multiple copies of the prospective student’s school admission letter.

“It can take up to three months to find out the decision, or it could take up to a week. You never know”

Because of variable processing times, an agent in Brazil said they advise students to start the process three or four months before the course begins. “It can take up to three months to find out the decision, or it could take up to a week. You never know,” they said. “But we’ve never had visas denied. It’s hard, but you’re going to get the visa as long as you have all the documents.”

Students must deliver the application to the Chinese consulate, and the agent reported: “Sometimes you never know at the visa appointment what they’re going to ask for.”

David Goodman, head of China studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, acknowledges that “there are even inconsistencies in visa issuings from the same office”.

An agent in Russia added: “The Chinese long-term visa system is very complicated and there is very little correlation between the documents that the embassy requires from the institution and the documents that the institution can actually provide.”

However, in Russia, new visa centres allowing agents to apply on behalf of students could ease the process. China has also struck a slew of reciprocal visa agreements with the UK, Australia, Canada and the US on 10-year multiple entry visas for trade, tourism and to visit families.

With the all-important visa being a critical hurdle to overcome, talk of rare visa denials in China could soon start making more of an impact on future students’ decisions. They all seek a country that can help them achieve their ambitions – with the reassurance that they won’t be “rejected” before they begin.


What will the English language be like in 100 years?

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Ever evolving.
Feng Yu/www.shutterstock.com

Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

One way of predicting the future is to look back at the past. The global role English plays today as a lingua franca – used as a means of communication by speakers of different languages – has parallels in the Latin of pre-modern Europe. The Conversation

Having been spread by the success of the Roman Empire, Classical Latin was kept alive as a standard written medium throughout Europe long after the fall of Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change, forming new dialects, which in time gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian.

Similar developments may be traced today in the use of English around the globe, especially in countries where it functions as a second language. New “interlanguages” are emerging, in which features of English are mingled with those of other native tongues and their pronunciations.

Despite the Singaporean government’s attempts to promote the use of Standard British English through the Speak Good English Movement, the mixed language known as “Singlish” remains the variety spoken on the street and in the home.

Spanglish, a mixture of English and Spanish, is the native tongue of millions of speakers in the United States, suggesting that this variety is emerging as a language in its own right.

Meanwhile, the development of automatic translation software, such as Google Translate, will come to replace English as the preferred means of communication employed in the boardrooms of international corporations and government agencies.

So the future for English is one of multiple Englishes.

Looking back to the early 20th century, it was the Standard English used in England, spoken with the accent known as “Received Pronunciation”, that carried prestige.

But today the largest concentration of native speakers is in the US, and the influence of US English can be heard throughout the world: can I get a cookie, I’m good, did you eat, the movies,_ “skedule”_ rather than “shedule”. In the future, to speak English will be to speak US English.

US spellings such as disk and program are already preferred to British equivalents disc and programme in computing. The dominance of US usage in the digital world will lead to the wider acceptance of further American preferences, such as favorite, donut, dialog, center.

What is being lost?

In the 20th century, it was feared that English dialects were dying out with their speakers. Projects such as the Survey of English Dialects (1950-61) were launched at the time to collect and preserve endangered words before they were lost forever. A similar study undertaken by the BBC’s Voices Project in 2004 turned up a rich range of local accents and regional terms which are available online, demonstrating the vibrancy and longevity of dialect vocabulary.

But while numerous dialect words were collected for “young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery” – pikey, charva, ned, scally – the word chav was found throughout England, demonstrating how features of the Estuary English spoken in the Greater London area are displacing local dialects, especially among younger generations.

The turn of the 20th century was a period of regulation and fixity – the rules of Standard English were established and codified in grammar books and in the New (Oxford) English Dictionary on Historical Principles, published as a series of volumes from 1884-1928. Today we are witnessing a process of de-standardisation, and the emergence of competing norms of usage.

In the online world, attitudes to consistency and correctness are considerably more relaxed: variant spellings are accepted and punctuation marks omitted, or repurposed to convey a range of attitudes. Research has shown that in electronic discourse exclamation marks can carry a range of exclamatory functions, including apologising, challenging, thanking, agreeing, and showing solidarity.

Capital letters are used to show anger, misspellings convey humour and establish group identity, and smiley-faces or emoticons express a range of reactions.

Getting shorter

Some have questioned whether the increasing development and adoption of emoji pictograms, which allow speakers to communicate without the need for language, mean that we will cease to communicate in English at all? 😉

The fast-changing world of social media is also responsible for the coining and spreading of neologisms, or “new words”. Recent updates to Oxford Dictionaries give a flavour: mansplaining, awesomesauce, rly, bants, TL;DR (too long; didn’t read).

How Oxford Dictionaries choose which new words to include.

Clipped forms, acronyms, blends and abbreviations have long been productive methods of word formation in English (think of bus, smog and scuba) but the huge increase in such coinages means that they will be far more prominent in the English of 2115.

Whether you 👍 or h8 such words, think they are NBD or meh, they are undoubtedly here to stay.

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

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

Is there such a thing as a national sense of humour?

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A statue celebrating Monty Python’s sketch The Dead Parrot near London’s Tower Bridge ahead of a live show on the TV channel Gold.

Gary McKeown, Queen’s University Belfast

We’re all aware that there are stereotypes. The British are sharply sarcastic, the Americans are great at physical comedy, and the Japanese love puns. But is humour actually driven by culture to any meaningful extent? Couldn’t it be more universal – or depend largely on the individual? The Conversation

There are some good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as a national sense of humour. But let’s start with what we actually have in common, by looking at the kinds of humour that most easily transcend borders.

Certain kinds of humour are more commonly used in circumstances that are international and multicultural in nature – such as airports. When it comes to onoard entertainment, airlines, in particular, are fond of humour that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries for obvious reasons. Slapstick humour and the bland but almost universally tolerable social transgressions and faux pas of Mr Bean permit a safe, gentle humour that we can all relate to. Also, the silent situational dilemmas of the Canadian Just for Laughs hidden camera reality television show has been a staple option for airlines for many years.

Just for laughs.

These have a broad reach and are probably unlikely to offend most people. Of course, an important component in their broad appeal is that they are not really based on language.

Language and culture

Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function. Puns and idioms are obvious examples.

Indeed, most modern theories of humour suggest that some form of shared knowledge is one of the key foundations of humour – that is, after all, what a culture is.

Some research has demonstrated this. One study measured humour in Singaporean college students and compared it with that of North American and Israeli students. This was done using a questionnaire asking participants to describe jokes they found funny, among other things. The researchers found that the Americans were more likely to tell sex jokes than the Singaporeans. The Singaporean jokes, on the other hand, were slightly more often focused on violence. The researchers interpreted the lack of sex jokes among Singaporean students to be a reflection of a more conservative society. Aggressive jokes may be explained by a cultural emphasis on strength for survival.

International humour?
C.P.Storm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another study compared Japanese and Taiwanese students’ appreciation of English jokes. It found that the Taiwanese generally enjoyed jokes more than the Japanese and were also more eager to understand incomprehensible jokes. The authors argued that this could be down to a more hierarchical culture in Japan, leaving less room for humour.

Denigration and self-deprecation

There are many overarching themes that can be used to define a nation’s humour. A nation that laughs together is one that can show it has a strong allegiance between its citizens. Laughter is one of our main social signals and combined with humour it can emphasise social bonding – albeit sometimes at the cost of denigrating other groups. This can be seen across many countries. For example, the French tend to enjoy a joke about the Belgians while Swedes make fun of Norwegians. Indeed, most nations have a preferred country that serves as a traditional butt of their jokes.

Sexist and racist humour are also examples of this sort of denigration. The types of jokes used can vary across cultures, but the phenomenon itself can boost social bonding. Knowledge of acceptable social boundaries is therefore crucial and reinforces social cohesion. As denigration is usually not the principle aim of the interaction it shows why people often fail to realise that they are being offensive when they were “only joking”. However, as the world becomes more global and tolerant of difference, this type of humour is much less acceptable in cultures that welcome diversity.

Self-denigration or self-deprecation is also important – if it is relatively mild and remains within acceptable social norms. Benign violation theory argues that something that threatens social or cultural norms can also result in humour.

Importantly, what constitutes a benign level of harm is strongly culturally bound and differs from nation to nation, between social groups within nations and over the course of a nation’s history. What was once tolerable as national humour can now seem very unacceptable. For the British, it may be acceptable to make fun of Britons being overly polite, orderly or reluctant to talk to stangers. However, jokes about the nature of Britain’s colonial past would be much more contentious – they would probably violate social norms without being emotionally benign.

Another factor is our need to demonstrate that we understand the person we are joking with. My own ideas suggest we even have a desire to display skills of knowing what another person thinks – mind-reading in the scientific sense. For this, cultural alignment and an ability to display it are key elements in humour production and appreciation – it can make us joke differently with people from our own country than with people from other cultures.

‘Fork handles’.

For example, most people in the UK know that the popular phrase “don’t mention the war” refers to a Fawlty Towers sketch. Knowing that “fork handles” is funny also marks you as a UK citizen (see video above). Similarly, knowledge of “I Love Lucy” or quotes from Seinfeld create affiliation among many in the US, while reference to “Chavo del Ocho” or “Chapulín Colorado” do the same for Mexicans and most Latin Americans.

These shared cultural motifs – here drawn mostly from television – are one important aspect of a national sense of humour. They create a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They make us feel more confident about our humour and can be used to build further jokes on.

A broadly shared sense of humour is probably one of our best indicators for how assimilated we are as a nation. Indeed, a nation’s humour is more likely to show unity within a country than to display a nation as being different from other nations in any meaningful way.

Gary McKeown, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast

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

What immigrants in Britain think of immigration

John Wildman, Newcastle University; Muhammad Waqas, University of Sheffield, and Nils Braakmann, Newcastle University

Both the referendum vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s successful run for the US presidency have highlighted increasingly negative sentiments towards immigration. The Conversation

One argument frequently used to explain anti-immigration sentiment is that native-born populations object to immigration because they fear competition in the labour market. If that is the case, immigrants might also oppose further immigration because they are even more likely to compete with more recent immigrants in the labour market than natives. In a recent research paper, we decided to look at the evidence for what immigrants in Britain actually think about immigration.

Results taken from UK Citizenship Surveys between 2007 and 2010, suggest that 71% of all respondents were opposed to further immigration – a statistic which rises to 83% for only those who were born in the UK.

When we looked at the position of immigrants, we found that overall nearly 50% were opposed to further immigration. But this proportion rises to 53% for immigrants who have lived in the UK for over five years, and falls to 33% for more recent immigrants.


Not just about jobs

We found that employment status was not associated with the views of immigrants or natives towards further immigration. While you could expect unemployed people to be more opposed to further immigration than the employed, we found no significant difference between these groups. This suggests that opposition towards immigration is not primarily driven by labour market concerns.

Among recent immigrants, different income groups had different attitudes towards immigration – and the poorest and richest groups were the most supportive of further immigration. Among people born in the UK and earlier immigrants, it was only the richest who were most likely to support further immigration. These complex patterns suggest that views towards immigration are not driven by straightforward economic concerns.

However, being affected by economic shocks seems to be important for determining attitudes towards further immigration. We found both native-born people and immigrants who had reported suffering economic worries in the past, such as job losses, drops in income, or who had been forced to cut back on luxuries or necessities, were more likely to be opposed to further immigration. This was even the case if we took their current income levels into account, meaning economic perceptions seemed to matter more than current economic circumstances when it came to feelings about future immigration.

Longer stay, harder line

One of our main findings was that immigrants who have been living in the UK for over five years hold views towards immigration that are similar to those held by UK-born people. And that the socio-economic factors associated with the strength of opposition towards immigration are also similar between UK-born people and these established immigrants.

We suggest that there are two main reasons for this. First, that these views reflect increasing integration into British society. Immigrants integrate into their host society and it is quite possible that they start to hold the views and values of the native community. Indeed, such assimilation patterns have been seen by others.

Second, there is a self-selection effect, meaning that the composition of earlier immigrants is different to that of more recent immigrants. Immigrants who hold views that are similar to UK-born people, or those more likely to integrate, are the immigrants who are most likely to live in a host country for a long time. So, on average, the immigrants who stay hold views that are closer to the host population because those immigrants who leave are the ones who are different.

Not all anti-immigration sentiment is the same as xenophobia or motivated by concerns about culture. After all, it may make little sense for immigrants to oppose future immigration on these grounds. Both people born in the UK and immigrants can be opposed to further immigration and these views will be complex and multi-dimensional. Some, for example, might be concerned about future labour market competition, others might worry about public services or housing.

The immigration debate is multi-faceted. But what’s particularly concerning in our findings, particularly in the context of economic policies focused on austerity, is that economic shocks can be linked to anti-immigration sentiments. These factors highlight some of the driving forces behind anti-immigration views, which played a large role in both the referendum and the US presidential elections.

John Wildman, Professor of Health Economics, Newcastle University; Muhammad Waqas, InstEAD Research Associate, University of Sheffield, and Nils Braakmann, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Newcastle University

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

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language

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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

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

English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead. The Conversation

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

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