Crimes of grammar and other writing misdemeanours


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Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

Writing an article like this is just asking for trouble. Already, I can hear one reader asking “Why do you need just?” Another suggesting that like should be replaced by such as. And yet another saying “fancy using a cliché like asking for trouble!”

Another will mutter: “Where’s your evidence?”

My evidence lies in the vehement protestations that I face when going through solutions to an editing test or grammar quiz with on-campus students in my writing courses at The University of Queensland, and no, that’s not deferential capitalisation. It is capital ‘T’.

Confirming evidence lies in the querulous discussion-board posts from dozens of students when they see the answers to quizzes on the English Grammar and Style massive open online course that I designed.

Katie Krueger/Flickr

Further evidence lies in the fervour with which people comment about articles such as the one that you are currently reading. For instance, a 2013 article 10 grammar rules you can forget: How to stop worrying and write proper by the style editor of The Guardian, David Marsh, prompted 956 comments. Marsh loves breaking “real” rules. The title of his recent book is For Who the Bell Tolls. I’d prefer properly to proper and whom to who, but not everybody else would.

Marsh’s 10 forgettable rules are ones that my favourite grammarian, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls zombie rules: “though dead, they shamble mindlessly on”. A list of zombie rules invariably includes never beginning a sentence with “and”, “but”, or “because”, as well as the strictures that are a hangover from Latin: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. It (should it be they?) couldn’t be done in Latin, but it (they?) can be done in English. Just covering my bases here.

So, what’s my stance on adhering to Standard English? I’m certainly not a grammar Nazi, nor even a grammando, a portmanteau term that first appeared in The New York Times in 2012 that’s hardly any softer. Am I a vigilante, a pedant, a per(s)nickety person? Am I a snoot? Snoot is the acronym that the late David Foster Wallace and his mother — both English teachers — coined from Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or, for those with neither German nor a cache of obsolete words in their vocabulary, Syntax Nudniks of Our Time.

David Foster Wallace
yoosi barzilai Flickr

Foster Wallace reserves snoot for a “really extreme usage fanatic”, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun would have been to find mistakes in the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times magazine. Safire was a style maven who wrote articles with intriguing opening lines such as this: “A sinister force for solecism exists on Madison Avenue. It is the work of the copywrongers”.

Growing up with a mother who would stage a “pretend” coughing fit when her children made a grammar error clearly contributed to Foster Wallace’s SNOOTitude. His 50-page essay “Authority and American Usage”, published in 2005, constitutes a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, coverage of English grammar.

I need to be a bit of a snoot because part of my brief as a writing educator is to prepare graduates for their utilitarian need to function as writing workers in a writing-reliant workplace where professional standards are crucial and errors erode credibility. (I see the other part of my brief as fostering a love of language that will provide them with lifelong recreational pleasure.)

How do I teach students to avoid grammar errors, ambiguous syntax, and infelicities and gaucheries in style? In the closing chapter of my new book on effective writing, I list around 80 potential problems in grammar, punctuation, style, and syntax.

My hateful eight

My brief for this article is to highlight eight of these problems. Should I identify ones that peeve me the most or ones that cause most dissonance for readers? What’s the peevishness threshold of readers of The Conversation? Let’s go with mine, for now; they may also be yours. They are in no particular order and they depend on the writing context in which they are set: academic, corporate, creative, or journalistic.

Archaic language: amongst, whilst. Replace them with among and while.

Resistance to the singular “they” Here’s an unbearably tedious example from a book published in 2016 in London: “The four victims each found a small book like this in his or her home, or among his or her possessions, several weeks before the murder occurred in each case”. Replace his or her with their.

In January this year, The American Dialect Society announced the singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015, decades after Australia welcomed and widely adopted it.

Placement of modifiers. Modifiers need to have a clear, direct relationship with the word/s that they modify. The title of Rob Lowe’s autobiography should be Stories I Tell Only My Friends, not Stories I Only Tell My Friends. However, I’ll leave Brian Wilson alone with “God only knows what I’d be without you”, though I know that he meant “Only God knows what I’d be without you”.

And how amusing is this commentary, which appeared in The Times on 18 April 2015? “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nevertheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel”.

Incorrect pronouns. The irritating genteelism of “They asked Agatha and myself to dinner” and the grammatically incorrect “They asked Agatha and I to dinner”, when in both instances it should be me .

Ambiguity/obfuscation “Few Bordeaux give as much pleasure at this price”. How ethical is that on a bottle of red wine of unidentified origin?

The wrong preposition The rich are very different to you and me. (Change “to” to “from” to make sense.) Not to be mistaken with. (Change “with” to “for”). No qualms with. (Change “with” to “about”.)

Alastair Bennett/Flickr

The wrong word. There are dozens of “confusable” words that a spell checker won’t necessarily help with: “Yes, it is likely that working off campus may effect what you are trying to do”. Ironically, this could be correct, but I know that that wasn’t the writer’s intended message. And how about practice/practise, principal/principle, lead/led, and many more.

Worryingly equivocal language. After the Easter strike some time ago, the CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, sent out an apologetic letter that included the sentence: “Despite some sensational coverage recently, safety was never an issue … We always respond conservatively to any mechanical or performance issue”. I hoped at the time that that’s not what he meant because I felt far from reassured by the message.

Alert readers will have noticed that I haven’t railed against poorly punctuated sentences. I’ll do that next time. A poorly punctuated sentence cannot be grammatically correct.

The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

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

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Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

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

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere


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Andrew Linn, University of Westminster

After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage. Another is the English language.

In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate, tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.

This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012, for example, a similar point was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1% of the bloc’s total with the departure of the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.

Translation overload

Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all languages used in member states. It recommends that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should make it skulk away in shame.

The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English dominates to a considerable extent.

Lots of work still to do.
Etienne Ansotte/EPA

The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language repertoire of speakers across the globe.

Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a foreign language – “Euro-English” or “English as a lingua franca” – who now constitute the majority of users.

According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12% speaking French and 11% in German.

The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.

Too much invested in English

Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was estimated to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017. The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.

Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language English speakers by 2:1 both in Europe and globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU, English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project on whether the use of English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness. The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.

English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in Amsterdam, has proposed that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.

English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in different times and places.

We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a key to international education and employment.

Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make the post-Brexit hangover more painful.

The Conversation

Andrew Linn, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Westminster

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

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


Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s first look at history

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

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

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

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

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

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

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

What explains the success?

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

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

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

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

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

Invested families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many possible explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they American?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

Could early music training help babies learn language?


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Christina Zhao, University of Washington

Growing up in China, I started playing piano when I was nine years old and learning English when I was 12. Later, when I was a college student, it struck me how similar language and music are to each other.

Language and music both require rhythm; otherwise they don’t make any sense. They’re also both built from smaller units – syllables and musical beats. And the process of mastering them is remarkably similar, including precise movements, repetitive practice and focused attention. I also noticed that my musician peers were particularly good at learning new languages.

All of this made me wonder if music shapes how the brain perceives sounds other than musical notes. And if so, could learning music help us learn languages?

Music experience and speech

Music training early in life (before the age of seven) can have a wide range of benefits beyond musical ability.

For instance, school-age children (six to eight years old) who participated in two years of musical classes four hours each week showed better brain responses to consonants compared with their peers who started one year later. This suggests that music experience helped children hear speech sounds.

Music may have a range of benefits.
Breezy Baldwin, CC BY

But what about babies who aren’t talking yet? Can music training this early give babies a boost in the steps it takes to learn language?

The first year of life is the best time in the lifespan to learn speech sounds; yet no studies have looked at whether musical experience during infancy can improve speech learning.

I sought to answer this question with Patricia K. Kuhl, an expert in early childhood learning. We set out to study whether musical experience at nine months of age can help infants learn speech.

Nine months is within the peak period for infants’ speech sound learning. During this time, they’re learning to pay attention to the differences among the different speech sounds that they hear in their environment. Being able to differentiate these sounds is key for learning to speak later. A better ability to tell speech sounds apart at this age is associated with producing more words at 30 months of age.

Here is how we did our study

In our study, we randomly put 47 nine-month-old infants in either a musical group or a control group and completed 12 15-minute-long sessions of activities designed for that group.

Babies in the music group sat with their parents, who guided them through the sessions by tapping out beats in time with the music with the goal of helping them learn a difficult musical rhythm.

Here is a short video demonstration of what a music session looked like.

Infants in the control group played with toy cars, blocks and other objects that required coordinated movements in social play, but without music.

After the sessions, we measured the babies’ brains responses to musical and speech rhythms using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique.

New music and speech sounds were presented in rhythmic sequences, but the rhythms were occasionally disrupted by skipping a beat.

These rhythmic disruptions help us measure how well the babies’ brains were honed to rhythms. The brain gives a specific response pattern when detecting an unexpected change. A bigger response indicates that the baby was following rhythms better.

Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to both music and speech sounds compared with babies in the control group. This shows that musical experience, as early as nine month of age, improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.

These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.

Other benefits from music experience

Language is just one example of a skill that can be improved through music training. Music can help with social-emotional development, too. An earlier study by researchers Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ariel Knafo-Noam showed that pairs of eight-year-olds who didn’t know each other reported feeling more close and connected with one another after a short exercise of tapping out beats in sync with each other.

Music helps children bond better.
Boy image via www.shutterstock.com

Another researcher, Laura Cirelli, showed that 14-month-old babies were more likely to show helping behaviors toward an adult after the babies had been bounced in sync with the adult who was also moving rhythmically.

There are many more exciting questions that remain to be answered as researchers continue to study the effects of music experience on early development.

For instance, does the music experience need to be in a social setting? Could babies get the benefits of music from simply listening to music? And, how much experience do babies need over time to sustain this language-boosting benefit?

Music is an essential part of being human. It has existed in human cultures for thousands of years, and it is one of the most fun and powerful ways for people to connect with each other. Through scientific research, I hope we can continue to reveal how music experience influences brain development and language learning of babies.

The Conversation

Christina Zhao, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington

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

A teacher’s spelling doesn’t necessarily affect their teaching


Teachers don’t have to have perfect spelling to teach kids how to spell.

Teachers don’t have to have perfect spelling to teach kids how to spell.

Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland

According to recent media reports, a new study shows an alarming number of aspiring teachers have lower literacy levels than the school students they will be teaching.

This coincides with a series of articles in The Australian last week on a report by the NSW government into universities preparing teachers for the teaching of reading.

The argument is compelling: kids (allegedly) can’t read or write, so it’s the teachers’ fault. Teachers themselves have poor literacy skills, so it must be the universities’ fault. The argument is followed by a call for a return to the basics, which will supposedly take education back to some fabled time when everything was better.

This tired old argument has been recycled for decades. Bronwyn Williams, a Professor of English, wryly notes:

Every generation, upon reaching middle age, finds itself compelled to look at the literacy practices of young people and lament at how poor the work produced today is compared to that of idyllic days gone by.

Despite the best endeavours of conservative think tanks and tabloid commentators to create a moral panic, there is no literacy crisis in Australia.

The argument that beginning teachers’ literacy levels has any meaningful impact on their own students’ literacy is not supported by evidence.

Of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, particularly for students from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds and those for whom English is a further language. However, buying into the rhetoric of crisis and moral panic is unhelpful and will not improve outcomes.

Teaching literacy is rocket science

Teaching children to read and write is complex work. Any attempt to narrow the focus to a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.

A mix of methods is needed to assist children in tackling the demands of literacy, which includes developing: grapho-phonic knowledge (understanding the relationship between print and sounds); phonemic awareness (being able to identify sounds that make meaning); the semantics and pragmatics of reading comprehension; fluency; vocabulary development; as well as controlling the syntactic and grammatical conventions of language.

Teaching reading is like rocket science, actually.
Shutterstock

The Four Resources Model, which brought together the very best in literacy research is widely used as a literacy framework in schools and teacher education courses.

Learning the alphabet and how to put these letters together to make words is necessary, but insufficient. Students also need to engage meaningfully in text production and making meaning from the text, along with learning to appreciate and understand the social and cultural practices that are undertaken through reading and writing.

The complexity of literacy needs to be reflected in the training that teachers undertake, and highlights the importance of making connections between theory and practice.

Reading between the lines

One of the things we teach students when learning to read is inferential comprehension – reading between the lines. It is interesting to apply this technique to the treatment of literacy research and education policy in the media.

The research study in question presents a rather different picture from how it has been portrayed in the media. First, it deals specifically with secondary teachers. Second, it deals with one university and a narrowly defined literacy test. It would be like getting one school to sit the NAPLAN tests and then claiming it is representative of everywhere.

Dr Brian Moon, who conducted the study, explains:

No representation is made here as to the general validity of the results in relation to students at other Australian universities.

Interestingly, the paper also refers to earlier studies from the 1980s on low literacy levels of student teachers and comments on how little has changed over the intervening decades.

Literacy and numeracy testing of teaching graduates is on the cards, with NSW committed to a test program by 2016. What effect this may have is anyone’s guess.

It is assumed that teaching graduates who are better spellers will be better teachers, but there is little evidence to suggest this is actually the case.

Having a firm grasp of the basics is important, but it is only the very beginning of what a teacher needs to be able to do.

We know that good teachers need to be many things and have qualities well beyond those of proficient language use.

I was a teacher for seven years and do you know what I did when I didn’t know how to spell a word or what it meant? I grabbed a dictionary and used the opportunity to build it into the lesson.

Teaching is not about knowing everything but rather how to provide meaningful, contextualised and appropriate learning experiences for young people. And yes, sometimes not knowing can actually be useful.

The Conversation

Stewart Riddle, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

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

Learning a language? Sleep on it and you’ll get the grammar


Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen, Royal Holloway

In 2006, former US president George Bush supported his embattled defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the words: “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” This quotation quickly entered the folklore of political humour. But to psychology researchers, it revealed something fundamental about human language.

At that time, most Americans had not encountered the word decider. While this is a common word in some parts of the world, it refers to the part of a game that determines the winner. So how did people understand what it meant? They understood it because across all of the words that people know, the suffix –er often transforms a verb into a person (as in teacher, builder, dancer). Thus, a decider must be someone who decides.

The ability to extract general principles from a small number of examples is fundamental to language and literacy. In teaching children how to read, teachers introduce sets of words like chin, church, chest, chess, chop, to convey information about how to pronounce particular letters. This general knowledge might then be applied to new words like chick. In later years of primary school, children develop general knowledge about the functions of affixes. Through exposure to relevant sets of words like uncertain, unknown, unhappy, children become able to use affixes like -un in new contexts.

What’s a dunklomb?

In new research published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, we investigated the brain processes responsible for acquiring this type of general knowledge. We trained adults on a fictitious language, in which groups of individual words were bound together by a rule that was not disclosed to participants. For example, participants learned:

• a clinglomb is a small device used by cat burglars to cling to skyscrapers

• a dunklomb is the gadget used by royalty to dunk biscuits in tea politely

• a skimlomb is a professional tool which is used to skim cream off milk

• a weighlomb is the official scale used to weigh boxers before an important match

Our interest was not whether people could learn the individual words, but whether they could uncover the rule – in this case, the function of –lomb. We tested this by examining people’s understanding of untrained words like teachlomb when they were presented in sentences.

The remarkable power of sleep

Our key finding was that participants could apply their understanding of the rule (that –lomb refers to some kind of tool) to untrained words such as teachlomb. But this was the case only if participants were tested some days after training. Participants showed no such ability immediately after training.

In later experiments, we mixed words that conformed to the rule with examples of words that violated it – for example, that a mournlomb is “the cost of organising a wake to mourn a loved one”. This word is an exception because -lomb is supposed to refer to a tool. Crucially, the introduction of exceptions abolished people’s learning of the rule being taught. However, people did learn the rule if we inserted a period of overnight sleep between training on the rule-based examples and the exceptions.

Our findings fit neatly into dual-mechanism theories of memory. These theories argue that rapid learning of individual episodes is followed by a slower process of integrating that knowledge into long-term memory. The claim is that these processes rely on different brain structures optimised for fast and slow learning. Critically, these theories suggest that sleep may be a necessary component of the second, slower process.

Research in adults and children has shown that the brain continues to process new memories during sleep, allowing them to become stronger, more resistant to interference – and better integrated with existing knowledge. Our findings advance these theories by showing that sleep may also be necessary for discovering regular patterns across individual episodes and encoding these in the brain.

Helping children understand patterns

A way through the gobbledigook.

This research has clear messages for the teaching of language and literacy. Our work suggests that if teachers want to convey some general linguistic principle, then they must structure the information in a way that promotes learning. If a teacher is trying to illustrate use of the suffix –ing, for example, then presenting a child with a spelling list including the words standing, jumping, swimming, kicking, dancing, talking, nothing would be unlikely to facilitate learning.

For one, the letters –ing do not function as a suffix in the word nothing (noth is not a verb). And although the spelling alterations present in swimming and dancing are highly systematic, these items appear to be exceptions in the list presented. Our research suggests that lists that include such exceptions may disrupt a child’s learning of the pattern.

Most generally, our work adds to a growing body of research implicating overnight sleep in aspects of language learning. It suggests that key aspects of learning arise after classroom instruction – and thus reinforces the importance of proper sleep behaviour in children.

Kathy Rastle is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway

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