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.

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The world’s words of the year pass judgement on a dark, surreal 2016


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Philip Seargeant, The Open University

Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.

There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.

Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.

The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.

The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.

In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.

Dark days

In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.

Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.

The referendum that spawned a thousand words.
EPA/Andy Rain

Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.

Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.

Around the world, a similar pattern of politics and apprehension emerges. In France, the mot de l’année was réfugiés (refugees); and in Germany postfaktisch, meaning much the same as “post-truth”. Swiss German speakers, meanwhile, went for Filterblase (filter bubble), the idea that social media is creating increasingly polarised political communities.

Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.

2016’s golden boy, as far as Japan’s concerned.
Albert H. Teich

Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.

And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.

Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.

The Conversation

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, The Open University

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

How training can prepare teachers for diversity in their classrooms


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Maureen Robinson, Stellenbosch University

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

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

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

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

1. Working with multilingualism

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

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

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

2. Supporting diverse learning needs

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

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

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

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

3. Advancing a democratic classroom

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

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

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

4. Understanding constitutional rights in the classroom

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

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

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

Moving into teaching

What about when students become teachers themselves?

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

Maureen Robinson, Dean, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University

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

We need creative teaching to teach creativity


Dallas J Baker

Whether or not creativity can be taught is still a contested question, though it really shouldn’t be. The evidence is well and truly in on this question. The idea that creativity cannot be taught is based on two misunderstandings: a misunderstanding of what creativity is and a misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Let’s tackle creativity first.

For many of us, when we think of creativity we think it is some kind of internal personality trait or characteristic inherent to a rare type of person. Many of us also think that creativity is difficult to define. Both of these notions miss the mark.

The first notion, that creativity is an inherent personality trait, a rare characteristic in exceptional people, has its roots in the notion of creative genius that we have inherited from the Romantics. The Romantic ideal of the creative genius is epitomised in the figure of Lord Byron – brooding, eccentric, solitary, difficult. This Romantic notion leads us to believe creative types are not only rare but born rather than made: people cannot be taught to be creative, they just are or they aren’t.

Over the last few decades a lot of evidence has been generated that not only disproves the idea that creativity is an inborn trait, but actually indicates the direct opposite.

What we know about creativity

This research into creativity has occurred mostly in the fields of psychology and neuroscience.

The evidence shows that creativity is a learned behaviour: it is not restricted to exceptional people and it is not even a solitary activity. Creativity, the evidence shows, is most often socially-engaged and often undertaken in group situations.

This research also demonstrates that creativity is not an ill-defined, somehow esoteric quality but a set of cognitive approaches that generate innovative ideas. Basically, creativity is just a way of thinking and acting differently to the way we are normally encouraged to think and act. American scholar R. Keith Sawyer compiled and discussed much of this evidence in his 2008 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.

And yet the idea of the poet or artist born to suffer in isolation for their art continues to be a potent cultural idea.

Why is Lord Byron so frequently understood to be the model of creative living?
Wikimedia Commons

How we learn

The second misunderstanding, the one about teaching, comes from our own experience of education. The dominant model of teaching of which we all have experience is often referred to as “direct instruction”, which is routinely teemed with learning by repetition.

In direct instruction we are basically given information or techniques that we are asked to remember or assimilate. The idea that direct instruction is the ideal model of teaching is, thankfully, on its last legs, but it is still how most of us were taught. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for us to expect that if creativity were to be taught, it would be taught using this method.

Some aspects of creativity can be taught with direct instruction, but others cannot.

Part of learning to be creative is acquiring knowledge about our field of endeavour. We can teach the history of ideas within visual art, poetry or physics and show the benefits of thinking differently in those disciplines. We can demonstrate that innovations in physics, poetry and visual art are often breaks from tradition, departures from received wisdom or belief.

Direct instruction is also valuable in showing how things are done: how paint can be applied to give texture, how atoms respond to each other when placed in proximity, how white space on a page can make a poem breathe.

Nevertheless, teaching creativity needs to go further than direct instruction; it needs to be a relational kind of teaching in which the teacher mentors, encourages and inspires the student. To teach creativity we need creative teaching, and creative teachers. We cannot expect to be more creative if those who teach us are not capable of inspiring and encouraging us.

That’s why the best teachers of creativity are also practitioners, those engaged in creative practice, whether in visual art, writing or chemistry.

Creative teachers need to be experts in their discipline and also experts in teaching creatively. Too often we assume that success in a field of endeavour qualifies someone to teach. This is not the case. Teaching is in itself a creative undertaking that requires real commitment and expertise.

Most of all, teachers of anything needs to have confidence in their students, they need to believe that their students can learn what it is that they are teaching, that their students can acquire the creativity they need and become great in their chosen fields.

As esteemed educational expert Sir Ken Robinson has noted, you can be creative at anything, creativity is simply “the process of having original ideas that have value”.

As a process, a way of thinking and acting rather than an inborn trait, creativity is something we can all learn to apply in our lives.
Read other articles in our creativity series here.

The Conversation

Dallas J Baker, Adjunct Fellow

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