Beware the bad big wolf: why you need to put your adjectives in the right order


Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Unlikely as it sounds, the topic of adjective use has gone “viral”. The furore centres on the claim, taken from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, that adjectives appearing before a noun must appear in the following strict sequence: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, Noun. Even the slightest attempt to disrupt this sequence, according to Forsyth, will result in the speaker sounding like a maniac. To illustrate this point, Forsyth offers the following example: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife”.


But is the “rule” worthy of an internet storm – or is it more of a ripple in a teacup? Well, certainly the example is a rather unlikely sentence, and not simply because whittling knives are not in much demand these days – ignoring the question of whether they can be both green and silver. This is because it is unusual to have a string of attributive adjectives (ones that appear before the noun they describe) like this.

More usually, speakers of English break up the sequence by placing some of the adjectives in predicative position – after the noun. Not all adjectives, however, can be placed in either position. I can refer to “that man who is asleep” but it would sound odd to refer to him as “that asleep man”; we can talk about the “Eastern counties” but not the “counties that are Eastern”. Indeed, our distribution of adjectives both before and after the noun reveals another constraint on adjective use in English – a preference for no more than three before a noun. An “old brown dog” sounds fine, a “little old brown dog” sounds acceptable, but a “mischievous little old brown dog” sounds plain wrong.

Rules, rules, rules

Nevertheless, however many adjectives we choose to employ, they do indeed tend to follow a predictable pattern. While native speakers intuitively follow this rule, most are unaware that they are doing so; we agree that the “red big dog” sounds wrong, but don’t know why. In order to test this intuition linguists have analysed large corpora of electronic data, to see how frequently pairs of adjectives like “big red” are preferred to “red big”. The results confirm our native intuition, although the figures are not as comprehensive as we might expect – the rule accounts for 78% of the data.

We know how to use them … without even being aware of it.

But while linguists have been able to confirm that there are strong preferences in the ordering of pairs of adjectives, no such statistics have been produced for longer strings. Consequently, while Forsyth’s rule appears to make sense, it remains an untested, hypothetical, large, sweeping (sorry) claim.

In fact, even if we stick to just two adjectives it is possible to find examples that appear to break the rule. The “big bad wolf” of fairy tale, for instance, shows the size adjective preceding the opinion one; similarly, “big stupid” is more common than “stupid big”. Examples like these are instead witness to the “Polyanna Principle”, by which speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.

Another consideration of Forsyth’s proposed ordering sequence is that it makes no reference to other constraints that influence adjective order, such as when we use two adjectives that fall into the same category. Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” would have sounded strange if he had called it Tall Long Sally, but these are both adjectives of size.

Definitely not Tall Long Sally.

Similarly, we might describe a meal as “nice and spicy” but never “spicy and nice” – reflecting a preference for the placement of general opinions before more specific ones. We also need to bear in mind the tendency for noun phrases to become lexicalised – forming words in their own right. Just as a blackbird is not any kind of bird that is black, a little black dress does not refer to any small black dress but one that is suitable for particular kinds of social engagement.

Since speakers view a “little black dress” as a single entity, its order is fixed; as a result, modifying adjectives must precede little – a “polyester little black dress”. This means that an adjective specifying its material appears before those referring to size and colour, once again contravening Forsyth’s rule.

Making sense of language

Of course, the rule is a fair reflection of much general usage – although the reasons behind this complex set of constraints in adjective order remain disputed. Some linguists have suggested that it reflects the “nouniness” of an adjective; since colour adjectives are commonly used as nouns – “red is my favourite colour” – they appear close to that slot.

Another conditioning factor may be the degree to which an adjective reflects a subjective opinion rather than an objective description – therefore, subjective adjectives that are harder to quantify (boring, massive, middle-aged) tend to appear further away from the noun than more concrete ones (red, round, French).

Prosody, the rhythm and sound of poetry, is likely to play a role, too – as there is a tendency for speakers to place longer adjectives after shorter ones. But probably the most compelling theory links adjective position with semantic closeness to the noun being described; adjectives that are closely related to the noun in meaning, and are therefore likely to appear frequently in combination with it, are placed closest, while those that are less closely related appear further away.

In Forsyth’s example, it is the knife’s whittling capabilities that are most significant – distinguishing it from a carving, fruit or butter knife – while its loveliness is hardest to define (what are the standards for judging the loveliness of a whittling knife?) and thus most subjective. Whether any slight reorganisation of the other adjectives would really prompt your friends to view you as a knife-wielding maniac is harder to determine – but then, at least it’s just a whittling knife.

The Conversation

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

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

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


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?


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

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.

Learning to speak English? Making yourself understood isn’t all about the accent


Talia Isaacs, University of Bristol; Dustin Crowther, Michigan State University; Kazuya Saito, Waseda University, and Pavel Trofimovich, Concordia University

Being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language is a challenge faced by many of us. If you’re a newcomer to a country, conveying a message in a language that is not your mother tongue is often necessary to access vital services, perform well on the job, achieve good grades and integrate into society. But it’s possible that speakers of different native languages face different challenges in making themselves easily understood.

In new research comparing the speaking performances of 60 adult learners of English from four different language groups: Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Romance languages (French/Spanish) and Farsi, we found dramatic differences between how their use of language determines how understandable they are.

But our study showed that the language-related factors that underlie what makes someone sound accented were very similar regardless of a person’s mother tongue. For example, vowel and consonant errors universally make people sound accented.

Yet it’s not always these factors that affect how easy or difficult to understand a person is. Whereas producing inaccurate vowels and consonants impeded how easy Chinese learners were for English listeners to understand, for Hindi or Urdu learners, it was appropriate use of vocabulary and grammar that helped their ability to be understood.

Too much focus on accent

Foreign accents often receive an undue amount of attention because they are highly noticeable to listeners. Previous research has shown that untrained listeners can tell native and non-native speakers apart after listening to speech that is just 0.03 seconds long, is played backwards, or is in an unfamiliar language.

Despite listeners’ sensitivity to accent, there is growing agreement among language teachers and researchers that trying to reduce a learner’s accent is not an appropriate goal. This is mostly because people do not need to sound like native speakers to successfully integrate into a new society or to effectively carry out their professional tasks.

In addition, sounding like a native speaker is an unrealistic language learning goal for adults and also perhaps an undesirable one due to issues of identity. So most language experts agree that what counts the most in oral communication is for learners to be readily understandable or comprehensible to their conversational partners.

By teasing apart the aspects of speech that are essential for being understood from those factors that might be noticeable or irritating but do not actually impede communication, English teachers can target the most vital aspects of speech their students need to get their messages across.

Making yourself understood

We wanted to find out what impact an adult learner’s mother tongue has on how easy they are to understand when they speak a foreign language, and how important a part their accent played.

In our experiment, ten experienced English teachers scored the speech of four groups of 15 international students telling a story in English. The 60 students spoke Chinese, Hindi or Urdu, Romance languages (French or Spanish), and Farsi.

The teachers first provided judgements on how accented each speaker sounded and how difficult he or she was to understand. Next, they provided judgements using ten language variables including pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary, and grammar.

Here are some example recordings of speakers who scored relatively low and high. First, from the Chinese native speakers:

A Chinese person judged relatively hard to understand.
A Chinese person judged relatively easy to understand.

And then from the Farsi speakers:

A Farsi person judged relatively hard to understand.
A Farsi person judged relatively easy to understand.

What difference an acccent makes

Statistical tests were carried out to examine language-related influences on the listeners’ judgements of accent and comprehensibility, first for the entire group of 60 speakers, then broken down by each of the four language groups.

When it came to scoring the speakers on how accented they sounded, variations in their pronunciation were the strongest contributing factors. Our listeners – all English teachers – paid most attention to vowel and consonant errors regardless of the speaker’s native language background. Chinese accents sounded stronger than those of the other language groups.

Different stumbling blocks

The picture was different for ease of understanding. The graph below shows that – for the entire group of 60 international students – pronunciation variables: a combination of vowel/consonant accuracy, word stress, intonation and speech rate are not the only contributing factors to how easy a speaker is to understand. Vocabulary, grammar accuracy and complexity or “lexicogrammar” variables also play a part.

Author provided

But there are no universal rules when it comes to making yourself understood. For Chinese learners, who were the lowest rated group overall, vowel and consonant errors were detrimental to being understood. Although such errors made Hindi and Urdu speakers sound more accented, it was grammatical errors, and not errors of pronunciation, that affected their comprehensibility.

A French person who scored low relative to other French speakers.

In contrast, for Farsi learners, no single language variable was striking enough to be strongly linked with comprehensibility. But our listening English teachers may have had difficulty pinpointing problematic aspects of Farsi learners’ speech – who were rated as the most uniformly comprehensible of all groups in the study.

Pronunciation lessons for non-native English speakers should make it a priority to help learners be more easily understandable to their conversational partners rather than minimising their accents. Our study helps to shed light on the marked influence that people’s first language background can have on their ability to communicate in a comprehensible way.

Ultimately, instructional materials and teaching techniques should take into account the factors that are most important for helping learners communicate more effectively depending on their native language background.

The Conversation

Talia Isaacs, Senior Lecturer in Education; Director of the Second Language Speech Lab, University of Bristol; Dustin Crowther, PhD Student, Michigan State University; Kazuya Saito, Assistant Professor of English, School of Commerce, Waseda University, and Pavel Trofimovich, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Education, Concordia University

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

Why teaching immigrant children English is turning into a 2015 election issue

Frank Monaghan, The Open University

The education of children who speak more than one language is being used as part of a wider debate about immigration just months before the UK’s 2015 general election. But there is surprisingly little water between politicians from different parties on the issue.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been allowed to set the agenda and linked the issue of speaking the English language to Britishness (quite where this leaves Welsh and Gaelic speakers is not clear). The Telegraph carried a report of his claim that “parts of Britain are a foreign land” and recounted his recent experience of a train ride through south-east London where he heard no English until he “got past Grove Park”.

This alleged absence of audible English left him: “feeling quite awkward… a view that will be reflected by three quarters of the population, perhaps even more.” He went on to link this to the number of children in our schools learning English as an additional language.

Taking a cue from UKIP

Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith decided to appropriate the theme when interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics on November, 16 when asked about immigration from within the EU.

He dismissed as “silly” a report by two leading economists that claimed EU immigrants to Britain “contributed to the fiscal system 34% more than they took out, with a net fiscal contribution of about £22.1 billion between 2000-2011”. He then added that the report ignored that children with another language “literally change the schooling” and then linked this with “problems, you know, with local services, transport all that kind of stuff.”

Labour leader Ed Milliband has apparently decided that the language “problem” is not an area he wants to open up clear blue water on. In an article announcing Labour’s plans for new rules on benefits for immigrants, he claims that Labour will not “try to ape UKIP”. But he also equated speaking English with entitlement to rights, announcing: “reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements”.

Nobody, and least of all immigrants themselves, of course, would deny the benefits of having a command of English to their economic and social well-being. But what we seem to be witnessing is an equation of the English language with Britishness (they are not the same) and a somewhat distasteful demonising of children who are in the process of acquiring it.

Statutory duty

It is worth reminding ourselves that their entitlement is not some EU-imposed burden, but was written into the National Curriculum by the current government. The current National Curriculum Statutory Guidance requires that:

4.5 Teachers must also take account of the needs of pupils whose first language is not English. Monitoring of progress should take account of the pupil’s age, length of time in this country, previous educational experience and ability in other languages.
4.6 The ability of pupils for whom English is an additional language to take part in the national curriculum may be in advance of their communication skills in English. Teachers should plan teaching opportunities to help pupils develop their English and should aim to provide the support pupils need to take part in all subjects.

As the UKIP threat to Tory election chances grows ever stronger, we may expect to see our children’s multilingualism being used as a mark of their “foreignness” in the debate about immigration. But there is no substantive difference between native English speakers learning foreign languages and children learning English as an additional language.


The recently published Manifesto for Languages by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages points out the false dichotomy between learning modern foreign languages and English as an additional language when it says: “English is an important world language, but the latest cutting-edge research shows that, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English.”

Paying for this will occupy many column inches in the months to come. A recent article in the Mail on Sunday screamed: “£244 MILLION – That’s the staggering sum YOU pay each year to help children in British schools who cannot speak English”. The amount is by no means “staggering’” when seen as part of the overall £90 billion budget for schools – it shows that less than 0.3% of spending is being targeted at 1.1m pupils for whom English is an additional language – roughly 15% of the school population.

It isn’t possible to say exactly how much we currently spend on teaching children foreign languages, but a conservative estimate might be 2.5% of the overall schools budget, which would be approximately £2.25 billion. Investing less than 10% of that figure on teaching English as an additional language shouldn’t be seen as “extraordinary”. Surely it should be in all politicians’ interests for these children to succeed.

Next read: Bid to force immigrants to speak German in their homes won’t help integration

The Conversation

Frank Monaghan, Senior Lecturer in Education and Language Studies, The Open University

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

When Should I Use Capital Letters in English?

Writing in English can be confusing – particularly if you are writing formal business letters or emails. You want to get it right – the last thing you need is for a customer or boss to think your incapable of producing correctly written correspondence. Here are a few rules on when to use capital letters:


Why can’t us British emulate foreign students?

I feel very honoured to be part of a team that help people learn another language. Authors/Publishers and language schools should feel that also. They are creating new futures, lives and opportunities. IATEFL consisted of networking and selling all sorts of English Language resources. It was amazing to see how big and friendly the ELT community was. Although everyone is competing with each other by selling books, everyone respects each other and looks after one another. It is one big happy family. Authors were talking at seminars throughout the week, about the prospects of using a certain book to gain certain skills within the English language. These authors have put so much effort into helping others, they see and feel what the prospected English speaker needs to learn and how English speaking/listening/reading and writing, can be achieved. Teachers in language schools, have the patience and drive to help all levels of English learners, some whom might not pick up the basic language quickly, but they are in the school for a reason. And these Teachers see that these people have spent time, and money to gain extra knowledge, and a new way of looking at life. The English language gives them an extra stepping stone to achieving their dreams.

These people at IATEFL had aspirations, future goals and it was a delight to see how important books were for the future of these dedicated professionals. Being in digital marketing, I know how important it is to keep up with the digital times. The internet is and always will be important for learners of English. It gives them the opportunities to buy online, to search for schools online and to be part of a community socially. English books online are presumably the future in certain countries. Language schools that can afford to supply iPads or tablets will have an advantage but not every country or school can afford this. Books, material that you can touch, feel and own, are and always will be the future. We can talk about online material until we are blue in the face, but thinking back to when I was at school, material that was in front of you, that you could write on, practice, was the best way to learn. Each and every one of us could not wait for the TV to be rolled into the classroom, ready to watch something educational or perhaps not. Most days, we had enough of listening to teachers. Little did we know, that these teachers were drilling information into our brain without us even knowing.

It became apparent that the English, and the British educational system is way behind in terms of second or third language learning. The attitude of ‘well, we don’t need to learn another language, we have the main language’ is just not acceptable in my eyes. Why shouldn’t we learn another language? Why isn’t it used in primary schools where children soak information up like a sponge?

I have often been told by foreigners that the English people are lazy when it comes to learning another language. It isn’t the children’s fault. They want to learn, they need to learn, but for some reason, the British government don’t think we need to add languages as a primary subject. Well forgive me if I’m wrong, but myself and this is an estimated guess, 90% of the people in this country will not, use trigonometry or pie in their lifetime. I’m not singling out maths because basic maths is a must. This is just an example of how much time is used on subjects that unless you have aspirations to be a scientist, accountant or in mechanical engineering you might not ever use these for as long as you live. This goes for other subjects that we spent a lot of time learning at school, with very little outcome at the end of it. I think it’s great that we learn all parts of certain subjects that we might use to help us for the future, but to only introduce language learning as a secondary subject is why we lag behind. People who speak another language are smarter in my eyes because they have two or three words for our one word.

I have tried and failed miserably to learn another language over the years. It’s hard to want to learn when all you here is English. Your friends, family, people at work, everyone you know, can speak to you without even thinking about it. But what if we had to think about it. What if, while I was writing this blog, I picked a word and turned it into French/Spanish and started waffling on in that language. I think I would impress myself let alone other people that I have drawn in an audience who are French/Spanish speakers. If we had to learn it, we would.

A few things spring to mind when thinking about why and how the foreigners need to learn English. I used to be an agent for language schools, travelling to the Middle East to find prospected students wanting to learn English. On more than one occasion, I visited these students’ homes, some living in very bad conditions, but somehow, the parents had chosen to use their life savings on their children’s education. It was honourable to see the passion in these parents faces, wanting, needing their children to learn the English language. It was inspiring to say the least. It made me think of how important these families see the English language. It’s a must have in their eyes. They are setting their children on a path and there is no better language to learn.

Imagine if our parents had this thought process drummed into them. Saving up money for their kids’ education into language learning. No one is to blame. It’s not a natural thing. We have the most spoken language in the world. Why on earth would we need to learn another? Just imagine if the UK curriculum added a few extra hours of language learning a week, and gave students the chance to study abroad for a week or a couple of weeks instead of a week away at an adventure playground. Of course it comes down to money and taking kids out of the school for a certain period of time. But imagine if it started now and young parents wanted their kids to speak another language. Going abroad and learning a new language and culture, might open the pupil’s eyes. It might make them realise that there are other languages out there and not frown upon pupils in their school that are speaking to parents, friends in their first language.  Learning early would solve all of this. When I was learning French, I remember looking at my schedule of the week and was shocked. Two hours a week! What would you gain when you learn 1 hour every two days. Our teacher, although having a vast knowledge of the French language, weren’t even French and didn’t have the expressions, the tone and accent. We were also 15 years old, easily distracted by what else was going on in the class. We had not been taught the language early enough and we just weren’t interested.

This was over 15 years ago. So has it changed? I asked my 11 year old cousin who lived in France for 5 years and has a very good understanding of the French language. She is now back in the UK and so I asked her how much time was spent learning another language. One hour a week was her response and she said the French teacher was mispronouncing a lot of words. She knew this because she attended French schools. I may also add she has 4 hours a week learning Religious Education. And she watched the animated film The Lorax in her last RE lesson. I mean this is not right. When is it going to change? The UK is one of the brightest and cosmopolitan countries in the world and why can we not see that millions of people come to this country to learn our language. I actually feel embarrassed when someone from around the world asks me if I speak another language. I want my children to have a better understanding and at least be given the opportunity of language learning. It’s important as a human to learn as much as possible and it will do wonders for their future if they learnt from the early ages, say around 5 years old. British people who have married foreign nationals have an advantage. Being around speakers of another language, you pick up words, body language and become automatically interested. My wife is a foreign national and we have a daughter coming up to two years old. My wife speaks to her in French, Arabic and English and she is beginning to understand all three. I have another huge advantage, as I will watch and learn my daughter grow up, learning three languages. It will be in my best interest to learn while she learns. I will feel very odd if my daughter and her mother are communicating and I don’t understand a word.

I will now grab the bull by the horns and learn as much as I can. This is my opportunity. I just hope I have the attention span and need for this, because I have grown up in a country where learning languages isn’t on our agenda.

I hope the UK change the curriculum for every youngster’s sake. BEBC have been selling ESL/ELT books for over 40 years now, and that shows you how long students have been willing to learn English in our country and around the world. Our language schools would be even busier if it wasn’t for visa regulations and cost implications. This country and its state schools are now full up with many nationalities, many of whom can speak 2 languages. Instead of English kids turning their nose up at another language, let’s instil a mind-set that makes them jealous of these lucky people. I hope my rant reaches people who have the same opinion on our curriculum and the need for kids to learn languages early. Let us not underestimate the brain power of a child, they can cope with learning two languages. Trust me.

Nick Edwards

BEBC (Bournemouth English Book Centre)

Supporting the teacher as innovative learning designer

Diana Laurillard’s Wednesday plenary session at IATEFL focussed on supporting the teacher as an innovative learning designer. She emphasised the importance of changing the way in which the world of education uses technology and giving teachers the tools they need to do this effectively.

The key message that stuck out from this session was that teaching using technology should not be about the transmission of content to students, it should be about engaging students in active learning. Watch the full plenary here:


Diana Larillard’s new book, Teaching as a Design Science, is available to order from BEBC.

Exhibing at IATEFL – End of Day One

BEBC’s Bethany Ansell reports at the end of day one exhibiting at her first ever IATEFL Conference…

It’s been busy for BEBC on the first day of the annual IATEFL Conference 2012 in Glasgow. From an exhibitor’s perspective, I can already conclude that it’s an event well worth attending!

I have met so many interesting people from various different companies and backgrounds, and the atmosphere is brilliant for networking. I have also had conversations with many teachers from all over the world and gained feedback on the types of books they need and want, which will enable us at BEBC to improve our offering internationally.

I was even lucky enough to catch some of Carole Nicholl‘s session – Let’s Turn You On! Switch to Rhythmic Mobile Learning! in which Carole demonstrated how catchy songs and rhythm (EARWORMS) can assist in the retention of large chunks of language. However the highlight of my day was definitely getting a free cupcake and glass of champagne, courtesy of North Star ELT!

Our stand at IATEFL 2012 (No. 28):


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