How other languages can reveal the secrets to happiness


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Tim Lomas, University of East London

The limits of our language are said to define the boundaries of our world. This is because in our everyday lives, we can only really register and make sense of what we can name. We are restricted by the words we know, which shape what we can and cannot experience.

It is true that sometimes we may have fleeting sensations and feelings that we don’t quite have a name for – akin to words on the “tip of our tongue”. But without a word to label these sensations or feelings they are often overlooked, never to be fully acknowledged, articulated or even remembered. And instead, they are often lumped together with more generalised emotions, such as “happiness” or “joy”. This applies to all aspects of life – and not least to that most sought-after and cherished of feelings, happiness. Clearly, most people know and understand happiness, at least vaguely. But they are hindered by their “lexical limitations” and the words at their disposal.

As English speakers, we inherit, rather haphazardly, a set of words and phrases to represent and describe our world around us. Whatever vocabulary we have managed to acquire in relation to happiness will influence the types of feelings we can enjoy. If we lack a word for a particular positive emotion, we are far less likely to experience it. And even if we do somehow experience it, we are unlikely to perceive it with much clarity, think about it with much understanding, talk about it with much insight, or remember it with much vividness.

Speaking of happiness

While this recognition is sobering, it is also exciting, because it means by learning new words and concepts, we can enrich our emotional world. So, in theory, we can actually enhance our experience of happiness simply through exploring language. Prompted by this enthralling possibility, I recently embarked on a project to discover “new” words and concepts relating to happiness.

I did this by searching for so-called “untranslatable” words from across the world’s languages. These are words where no exact equivalent word or phrase exists in English. And as such, suggest the possibility that other cultures have stumbled upon phenomena that English-speaking places have somehow overlooked.

Perhaps the most famous example is “Schadenfreude”, the German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words pique our curiosity, as they appear to reveal something specific about the culture that created them – as if German people are potentially especially liable to feelings of Schadenfreude (though I don’t believe that’s the case).

German’s are no more likely to experience Schadenfreude than they are to drink steins of beer in Bavarian costume.
Kzenon/Shutterstock

However, these words actually may be far more significant than that. Consider the fact that Schadenfreude has been imported wholesale into English. Evidently, English speakers had at least a passing familiarity with this kind of feeling, but lacked the word to articulate it (although I suppose “gloating” comes close) – hence, the grateful borrowing of the German term. As a result, their emotional landscape has been enlivened and enriched, able to give voice to feelings that might previously have remained unconceptualised and unexpressed.

My research, searched for these kind of “untranslatable words” – ones that specifically related to happiness and well-being. And so I trawled the internet looking for relevant websites, blogs, books and academic papers, and gathered a respectable haul of 216 such words. Now, the list has expanded – partly due to the generous feedback of visitors to my website – to more than 600 words.

Enriching emotions

When analysing these “untranslatable words”, I divide them into three categories based on my subjective reaction to them. Firstly, there are those that immediately resonate with me as something I have definitely experienced, but just haven’t previously been able to articulate. For instance, I love the strange German noun “Waldeinsamkeit”, which captures that eerie, mysterious feeling that often descends when you’re alone in the woods.

A second group are words that strike me as somewhat familiar, but not entirely, as if I can’t quite grasp their layers of complexity. For instance, I’m hugely intrigued by various Japanese aesthetic concepts, such as “aware” (哀れ), which evokes the bitter-sweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty. This is symbolised by the cherry blossom – and as spring bloomed in England I found myself reflecting at length on this powerful yet intangible notion.

Finally, there is a mysterious set of words which completely elude my grasp, but which for precisely that reason are totally captivating. These mainly hail from Eastern religions – terms such as “Nirvana” or “Brahman” – which translates roughly as the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena in the Hindu scriptures. It feels like it would require a lifetime of study to even begin to grasp the meaning – which is probably exactly the point of these types of words.

Now we can all ‘tepils’ like the Norwegians – that’s drink beer outside on a hot day, to you and me
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

I believe these words offer a unique window onto the world’s cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. People are naturally curious about other ways of living, about new possibilities in life, and so are drawn to ideas – like these untranslatable words – that reveal such possibilities.

There is huge potential for these words to enrich and expand people’s own emotional worlds, with each of these words comes a tantalising glimpse into unfamiliar and new positive feelings and experiences. And at the end of the day, who wouldn’t be interested in adding a bit more happiness to their own lives?

The Conversation

Tim Lomas, Lecturer in Applied Positive Psychology , University of East London

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

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


Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s first look at history

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

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

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

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

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

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

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

What explains the success?

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

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

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

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

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

Invested families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many possible explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they American?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

Speaking in tongues: the many benefits of bilingualism


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Teresa Parodi, University of Cambridge

We live in a world of great linguistic diversity. More than half of the world’s population grows up with more than one language. There are, on the other hand, language communities that are monolingual, typically some parts of the English-speaking world.

In this case, bilingualism or multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm – for example in regions of Africa. A Cameroonian, for example, could speak Limbum and Sari, both indigenous languages, plus Ewondo, a lingua franca, plus English or French, the official languages, plus Camfranglais, a further lingua franca used between anglophone and francophone Cameroonians.

On a smaller scale, we all know families where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak different languages or because the family uses a language different from that of the community around them.

How difficult is it for a child to grow up in such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very young age. They can understand and produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the other.

Noses for grammar

Clearly we are talking here of a range of different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.

But they also have linguistic skills, some very obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.

Less known are the cognitive skills developed by bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.

Is it worth it?

What if one of the languages is not a “useful” one because, for example, it does not have many speakers (for example, Cornish)? Is it worth exposing the child to it? The linguistic, social and cognitive advantages mentioned above hold, independently of the specific languages. Any combination of languages has the same effect.

A common worry is that trying to speak two (or more) languages could be too strenuous for the child. But there is no need for concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows.

Telling you where to get off in two languages.
Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.com

There could be a practical problem, though, in providing enough exposure to the languages. The stress is then on the parents to ensure the opportunity to interact with speakers of the languages in question. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different language does not guarantee a bilingual child.

Code-switching is cool

Another frequent worry is that of the child learning two half languages, short of the “proper” version of either of them. One may, for example, hear bilinguals – children and adults – using words or expressions from two or more of the languages in their linguistic repertoire in a single sentence or text, a phenomenon known as code-switching.

Often people assume that the main reason for doing this is a lack of sufficient proficiency in one of the languages, such that the speaker cannot continue in the language they started in. They also often assume that the choice of the words from one language or the other is random. Far from it. Code-switching is common among bilinguals and, contrary to popular belief, it follows grammatical rules.

Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often, code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned. Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.

Additionally, if asked for clarification, they know if they have spoken too quietly or used the wrong language, and only switch in the latter case. Both bilingual children and adults have a range of reasons, including sociolinguistic reasons to code-switch. Code-switching can be cool!

All typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one language is an asset well worth the investment.

The Conversation

Teresa Parodi, Lecturer of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge

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

Why textbooks are a crucial part of every child’s learning journey


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Faranaaz Veriava, University of Pretoria

South Africa’s education system is widely accepted to be in crisis. An alarming number of its children are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Many schools lack equipment, infrastructure and even basic necessities like furniture.

In this context, could improving access to textbooks make any real difference?

The answer is yes. Textbooks matter. That’s why their absence from one South African province’s classrooms made headlines in 2012. The country’s Department of Basic Education failed to deliver textbooks to learners in the Limpopo province that year.

This led to a court battle between the organisation I work for, Section27 – a public interest law centre focusing on health and education rights – and the government.

The court found in Section27’s favour, with the judge ordering that the department urgently deliver textbooks to Limpopo’s schools. That wasn’t the end of the matter. In 2014 Section27 launched a new application on behalf our clients – an organisation called Basic Education for All and a number of Limpopo schools – because not all the province’s schools had received the textbooks they needed that year.

Thousands of learners in the Limpopo province went without books in 2012, and again in 2014.
Section27

In May 2014, judge Neil Tuchten of the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the department had violated children’s rights to a basic education. Tuchten ordered the department to provide a textbook to every learner for every subject by the start of every academic year. The department appealed this ruling, a matter now due before the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Tuchten in his judgment said:

Textbooks have been part of the stock in trade of the educator for centuries. There is something special about a book. It has a very long life, far longer than that of the individual reader. It is a low tech (nology) device. It is accessible to anyone who can read the language in which it has been written. During the hours of daylight it can be read (accessed) without any other supporting technology at all. It needs no maintenance except the occasional strip of adhesive tape.

Some of South Africa’s foremost education researchers agree. They have found a positive correlation between access to textbooks and learners’ results. Here’s why, in a country as unequal as South Africa, textbooks matter so much.

South Africa’s poor educational outcomes

Education researchers are reluctant to pinpoint a single cause for a child’s poor performance at school. But many agree that having access to textbooks is an important contributor to improved performance.

A transnational study involving 15 countries in Africa – among them South Africa, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Malawi and Uganda – assigned maths and reading tests to Grade 6 learners (who are on average 12-years-old) and to their teachers.

In an analysis of the results, Stellenbosch University economist Nic Spaull found that 27% of South Africa’s Grade 6 learners were functionally illiterate and 40% functionally innumerate. Figures differed substantially across South Africa’s nine provinces. Limpopo, centre of the textbook crisis and court cases, recorded the lowest reading test results: 49% of the province’s Grade 6 learners were deemed to be functionally illiterate.

Spaull’s research also measured the impact of access to textbooks on educational performance. He found that learners with their own reading textbooks, or who share with not more than one student, “perform significantly better” than those who have to share textbooks with more than one other classmate.

Teacher content knowledge

In the Limpopo textbook case, the Department of Basic Education argued that teachers can fulfil the function of textbooks. But current research suggests otherwise. In many cases, teachers lack content knowledge in the subjects they are teaching.

Data from the pan-African study shows that only 32% of South African teachers had the required levels of content knowledge.

The function of a textbook is essentially to guide the teaching and learning of the curriculum in a particular subject. Against the backdrop of poor teacher context knowledge, textbooks play a fundamental role in supplementing teachers’ knowledge deficits.

Cultural practices

Education researchers have also explored the importance of what’s called “cultural capital”. This relates to family literacy and practices in homes and communities that can help children prepare for school. It also includes exposure and access to books and other printed materials.

But South Africa is not a reading society: the country’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has said that only 14% of South Africans are active book readers and a mere 5% of parents read to their children.

Where learners do not have access to books in their own homes textbooks can potentially remedy this “cultural” deficit.

There is no single “magic bullet” that will solve South Africa’s educational problems. But there is clear evidence that access to textbooks is an important part of the solution. Textbooks do matter. They play a crucial part in overcoming some of the broader structural deficits to teaching and learning.

The Conversation

Faranaaz Veriava, PhD Candidate, University of Pretoria

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

Ranking universities on excellent teaching will be better for everyone


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Roger King, University of Bath

The quality of teaching at universities has emerged as one of the key priorities for the new Conservative majority government. In a recent speech to Universities UK, Jo Johnson the new universities minister, said he wanted to see universities in England enhance teaching quality, bear down on grade inflation and achieve parity of esteem between teaching and research.

Driven by a desire to give student consumers better information about where to study based on the excellence of a university’s teaching, his plan is to introduce a long-mooted Teaching Excellence Framework. He said that this:

creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.

One problem that might hinder Johnson’s chances of succeeding is that, while each of the particular aspirations on his wish list are credible, together they appear somewhat contradictory. For example, take grade inflation – above-trend increases in the numbers of firsts and 2:1s granted by universities in recent years. How much this reflects higher student achievement is unclear. But the elevation of the “student-as-consumer” in the era of £9,000 per year fees and the competitive marketisation of the higher education sector, which Johnson advocates, may bear some responsibility for unwarranted classification hikes.

Universities regard student grade classifications as a metric around which they cannot fall short – or else their reputations or student recruitment suffers. People paying high fees expect to do well and university rankings include this dimension in their calculations.

The US faces similar issues, in part as a result of empowered, fee-paying, student consumers demanding value-for-money as part of an entitlement to a good student experience. Arguably, increased emphasis on the “student experience” – or consumer delight – can take focus away from the rigour traditionally associated with simply teaching the curriculum.

Jo Johnson, the new universities minister.
Gareth Fuller / PA Archive

Universities’ preoccupations with ensuring that the high grades they award are “in alignment” with those of similar universities are likely to be reinforced by both the minister’s comments and also recent proposals by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for quality assurance. Both want to shift the focus of debates around quality away from university evaluation onto student outputs – their grades and wages once they leave graduate.

There is less concern with “regulating regulation” – auditing universities’ own procedures by an external bureaucratic entity such as the Quality Assurance Agency – than there is on monitoring standards of student attainment around knowledge and skills.

However, judging institutions in these ways, including those struggling to attract good students, is actually a real incentive for grade inflation – at least in subjects, such as the arts and social sciences, where grades are awarded more as a result of subjective, rather than metric processes.

Don’t put all hope in external examiners

It’s unclear whether the government can regulate these potential market perversities to sustain the reputation of the English higher education system. Johnson (like HEFCE) shows a rather touching faith in a modernised, external examination system for universities as a key instrument to guarantee this. External examiners are set to become professionalised and trained guardians of standards at higher education institutions, helping to damp down any tendencies towards grade inflation.

Yet the notion of a highly trained cadre of external examiners is an oxymoron. External examining is done mostly reluctantly (except for those starting out on their careers as academics), is poorly paid, and undertaken as a professional responsibility mostly with a deep sigh. It only operates at all because the whole rickety affair is so fragmented and loosely disciplined. Tell external examiners that they have to become trained, registered and subject to bureaucratic oversight, and nobody will do it.

One alternative option could be to set up a central examining system so that all papers are assessed at one point by a trained group of examiners – as is done for school exams. This would overcome the somewhat isolated role of the current wandering external examiner and would provide more rigorous comparability.

But universities would hate this and object violently. It would be seen as an assault on their autonomy. Probably it would be better, if a key aim is to keep a handle on grade inflation, to set up a national sampling process. This could entail selections of university exam papers receiving some form of scrutiny outside the university itself by panels of experts – rather like the Research Excellence Framework for research.

Which incentives will work?

The question is then how best can ministers create incentives for universities to drive up teaching quality? The first step is to better understand how it can be improved. Responsibility for improving teaching needs to be owned and taken forward by departmental and course teams. External agencies and particularly institutional managers need to ensure that local teams are working collectively to raise standards. Here the National Student Survey and other feedback instruments are very important by helping to drive these local processes competitively.

Devices that shame universities for bad teaching may be as effective as extra funding that rewards those where teaching is judged to be outstanding. Public rankings of universities based on their teaching quality performance, judged by student attainments, would be an energising force. It would help, too, if there were funding benefits for teams that demonstrate key “learning gains” by their students, measured by comparing the progress students make between starting and concluding a course.

Above all, good teaching quality is encouraged if institutions are transparent about it and discuss it openly. This is far easier with online and digital learning. Here, the fingerprints of teaching and learning quality are increasingly recordable and clear for all to see as students are tracked throughout the learning process. Real-time intervention (including by insisting that assessment marking and feedback are undertaken online by all academic staff) is traceable and helps address persisting student complaints about the long waits to get their results.

If ministers and HEFCE could create incentives for innovation and the spread of good practice in digital learning through competitive funding awards, this would be an important contribution to raised standards. The key is making teaching more transparent, recordable and therefore accountable.

Only in this way will teaching in England’s universities attain “market-like” characteristics similar to the way research is currently funded. We need to reward the best practitioners by allowing them to “cash in” on their teaching expertise by moving to better-rewarded positions in other institutions. Marketisation needs to spread to teaching careers in just the way it has done for researchers.

The Conversation

Roger King, Visiting Professor, School of Management, University of Bath

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

Not all English tests for foreign students are fraudulent


Sarah Michelotti, University of Surrey

Revelations of fraudulent practices allowing bogus students to obtain visas to study in the UK have been received with shock and disbelief by English language teachers.

An investigation by BBC’s Panorama focused on the sale of fake examination certificates and bank statements to enable students to gain visas to study in the UK. The students then only had to put in an occasional appearance at their college while simultaneously holding down a job.

As an academic working in English Language testing, I was stunned by what I watched on Panorama. It was hardly credible that an invigilator could actually stand in an examination room and read out the answers to a multiple-choice test paper. Equally mind-boggling was the sight of examination candidates making room for surrogate candidates to take their place and complete their exam for them.

The test in question was the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). But this is not the most commonly used test to generate a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), a pre-requisite for people applying for a student visa for the UK.

Stringent anti-fraud measures

There is now a growing fear of the reputational damage the Panorama investigation could have on all English language tests among teachers.

The University of Surrey, like many other higher education institutions, is a centre for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). This system is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP:IELTS Australia, a subsidiary of education company IDP, and the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment. It is one of the most commonly used tests of English for entry to degree programmes in the UK, with more than 2m people taking the IELTS test in 2013.

Over the years, IELTS has introduced a series of security measures aimed at detecting the increasingly ingenious attempts of unscrupulous test-takers to cheat the system. Since 2012, biometric measures have been implemented to assist in combating imposters. These include finger scans and a high-resolution photograph of the candidate that appears on their certificate.

IELTS test centre staff are also trained in impostor detection and fraudulent document recognition. The authenticity of certificates can also be verified online by all recognising organisations that accept IELTS scores.

Examiners, invigilators and administrators at Surrey’s IELTS centre are now concerned that the international reputation of IELTS could suffer as a result of the negative publicity for English language tests. This seems intensely unfair. There are more than 900 locations worldwide, including Surrey, where IELTS is administered and the same high standards of security are demanded in each one.

Value of international students

Many sectors of the population worry about immigration and probably many of their concerns are justified. As usual, it is the law-abiding, bona fide majority who often suffer as a result of the misdemeanours of the minority. In the current case, this minority is a group of opportunistic, profiteering businessmen with extremely dubious notions of ethics, intent on making money out of bogus students.

It is no surprise that the home secretary, Theresa May, wholeheartedly condemned the fraud. The investigation made a mockery of the stringent security measures the government has been applying in an attempt to win voters’ support on the immigration question. And there are some serious implications which go the heart of the higher education sector.

Statistics recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency put the number of international students in UK higher education at 425,265 in 2012-13. These students are highly valued members of our universities – not only for their financial contribution.

Universities UK estimates these students bring in £10.2 billion a year, projected to increase to £17 billion by 2025. But they also make an important contribution to the educational environment in terms of their linguistic and cultural heritage. They create an enriching multicultural experience for all UK students, and bring fresh expertise to our research communities.

They can facilitate links for our UK graduates as they enter the competitive global marketplace. And after graduation, international students retain strong, positive links with the UK. In a 2013 research paper setting out the wider benefits of higher education, the UK government said this “growing ‘army’ of alumni” are going on to act as informal ambassadors for “brand UK”.

The ties forged through the emotional bond created by these students while they are in the UK can have important implications for future social, economic and political collaborations.

So, although government authorities, educationalists and the general public are right to be alarmed by the fraud exposed by Panorama, the vast majority of bona fide international students and English language test providers should not be forgotten. Their contribution to the social and economic fabric of the UK should remain valued.

The Conversation

Sarah Michelotti, Senior tutor, School of English and Languages, University of Surrey

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

Adorbs new words will only really join the English language when we see them in print


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Gillian Rudd, University of Liverpool

Listicle: an article made up of lists. This may be regarded as
Bare lazy as it obviates the need for coherent paragraphs, or as
Douchebaggery, if it’s taken to be
Clickbait.

The temptation to create a listicle in response to the latest raft of words to win a place in the Oxford English Dictionary is great, but to be resisted. These latest additions do not simply show the love of creating words – this is something that has always happened in responses to changes in life and attitudes.

Instead, it demonstrates our current ability to promulgate such nonsense words, allowing them to gain sudden currency, perhaps through “trending”, to make use of another relative newcomer to the fold, or “retweeting”. (These are not to be confused with the newcomer “subtweets” which themselves perpetuate another long tradition in English – that of making snide remarks through indirect allusion in a public arena. Alexander Pope would have been a great subtweeter.)

Some of the newly accepted words make one of the main processes of linguistic evolution clear: that of creating a new word by analogy with one already in use. “Binge-watching” is the clearest example. This is the viewing of several episodes or indeed whole series of a televised drama in one sitting. This word is clearly created by analogy with “binge-drinking”, which came to replace the phrase “going on a binge” or “going on a bender” when referring to drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short space of time.

Yes, there’s a difference here – where the earlier two phrases indicated that the occurrence was infrequent, if not actually unusual, “binge-drinking” is habitual, normally taking place at weekends, much as “binge-watching” does for many. I’d like to think that “binge-browsing” might be next, with the specific meaning of spending hours browsing the OED site when one visited to look up just one word. But possibly this is not a habit to encourage, after all, ”YOLO“.

Such changes always provoke reaction. Reliably, this varies from outrage at the abuse of language and ignorance of etymological development that such words betray, to celebration of English as a language flexible enough to admit such vibrant new forms and accommodate the creativity of its users.

But what’s interesting to me, as someone whose most frequent uses of dictionaries are to correct spelling and check historical usage, is the way that great institution, the Oxford English Dictionary, is able to satisfy two roles at once. This is thanks to its dual format – in print and online. It’s the online version that will soon include “listicle” and the rest, with no guarantee that these words will make it into the next print version (assuming there is one, which is what the current distinction between print and online versions implies).

This allows for the OED to record passing uses and trends without compromising its role as final arbitrator on whether or not a word can be said to have entered the English language. This is, after all, a decision which to a large extent depends on proving that word not only gained currency but retained a decent, level of recorded usage over a period of time and, crucially, in print.

And so print retains its sense of permanence in the face of ephemeral but ubiquitous electronic media. Or apparently ephemeral. The recent ruling requiring Google in particular to “remove” records from the internet has reminded us that it is in fact all but impossible to delete anything committed to the electronic ether – however paradoxical that seems. It’s all still out there, it’s just no longer appearing in the search results.

Googling itself is a word now accepted by the online OED, and while at first its currency was an indicator of the success of the company, it’s interesting to speculate on the survival of the word should Google itself go under, or lose its predominant position. Would we then all revert to “web-searching” for background information, or would we google, just as we hoover, forgetful the fact that the common verb once indicated a specific, dominant company?

Only the print version of the OED will tell.

The Conversation

Gillian Rudd, Professor in English Literature, University of Liverpool

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