English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do the tests currently work?

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

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

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

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

Impact of proposed changes

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

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

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

Mismatched proficiency expectations

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

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

Bar too high?

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising diversity of experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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


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


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.



The EFL industry in Spain enjoyed a mini boom during the early years of the global economic crisis as many adult students rushed to improve their English language skills, either to get themselves back into the job market, or else in an attempt to hang on the job they had. As we reached the new decade, the boom slowed down and then started to tail-off. But no-one expected the sudden and significant drop in adult student numbers that hit the industry at the start of the current academic year.

The drop wasn’t school, city, or even region specific; it was the same story all over Spain. And the numbers were eye-watering. Depending who you talk to (and/or who you believe) adult student numbers fell by between 10-20%. Enough to make any school owner or manager wince.

What happened? Where did all these students go? Well, as is normally the case, there is no one, simple answer. There has been a slight upturn in in-company teaching, so it may be that some students, who were previously paying for their own courses in our schools, are now studying in their company (if they’re fortunate to have a job in the first place; Spanish unemployment is still well over 20%.)

The standard of English teaching in main-stream education is also getting better, slowly, so it may be that there are more school leavers who have achieved a basic level of communicative competence.

Some adult students – especially the younger ones – may also have decided to switch from a traditional, bricks and mortar language school to a Web-based classroom.

My own theory is that it’s the free movement of labour in the European Union which is having the greatest effect on our market. In other words, as there so few jobs available in Spain, hundreds of thousands of young adults – many of whom may previously have been our students – have simply upped sticks and gone abroad to find work.

A recent survey conducted in the UK indicates that migrants from Spain rose to 137,000 in 2015 (up from 63,000 in 2011). Most of them are probably working in relatively unskilled jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants, but at least they’re working – and they’re improving their English language skills as they go.

A similar number probably emigrated to other countries in the north of Europe and another significant number emigrated to Latin America. Add up all these emigrants and we could be looking at a total of well over 300,000 migrants – just in 2015.

On a recent trip to Oxford I met a young Spanish guy, working in a hotel, who had previously been a student at our school in Barcelona. He’s a typical example. Will he ever move back to Spain, I asked him? Perhaps, in the future, he said, but only if the situation in Spain changes and he can find a decent job. His new fluency in English, learnt by living and working in Oxford, might just help him with that.

So where does that leave Spanish language schools? Will adult students come back to our schools in the same numbers as before? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on this market. If adult students won’t come to us, we can use the Internet to take our services to them. Even those living and working abroad.


This article was written by Jonathan Dykes – His Blog page can be found here:- https://jonathandykesblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/where-have-all-the-adult-students-gone/

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.

Not all English tests for foreign students are fraudulent

Sarah Michelotti, University of Surrey

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

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

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

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

Stringent anti-fraud measures

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

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

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

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

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

Value of international students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

The Americans are destroying the English language – or are they?

epa00566426 US President George W. Bush (R) and First Lady Laura Bush(2nd f. L) greet Prince Charles (2nd f. R) and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, as they arrive at the South Portico of the White House Wednesday 02 November 2005. As part of their 8 day US visit the Prince and Duchess will have lunch and dinner at the White House.  EPA/SAMANTHA REINDERS

Former US President George W. Bush (R) and First Lady Laura Bush(2nd f. L) greet Prince Charles (2nd f. R) and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, as they arrive at the South Portico of the White House Wednesday 02 November 2005. As part of their 8 day US visit the Prince and Duchess had lunch and dinner at the White House. EPA/SAMANTHA REINDERS

Rob Pensalfini, The University of Queensland

In 1995 Prince Charles caused a ruckus when he lamented the unchecked spread of American English – and the effect of American usage is one that’s perennially lamented. But is it true? Are Americans really ruining the English language?

Whose language is it?

First of all, nobody’s ruining the English language.

And for anyone to call it “our” language is repugnantly colonial. Language spreads and language changes.

English is spoken across the globe by more people (as a first, second or foreign language) than any other, and has the third highest number of native speakers (only Mandarin and Spanish having more).

The United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English – the USA has almost 60%.

The language has many different and distinct “standard” or “official” varieties (Standard British, Standard American, Standard Australian) and innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins.

Some of these non-standard varieties are spoken in England (Cockney, Yorkshire Scouse, Brummy) and differ far more from Standard British English than does Standard American. The phonology (sound pattern, including pronunciation) of some prestige varieties of British English, such as the “Upper RP” spoken by some remnants of English nobility, differs greatly from Standard British, so that much of it needs subtitles in order to be understood by speakers of “ordinary” standard Englishes around the world.

The accusations

Let’s suppose for a moment that there was such a thing as “ruining” a language.

The notion of “ruining” implies changing in unacceptable ways. Languages do change – despite all attempts to the contrary, or to constrain their change.

The further implication of “ruin” is that the change is necessarily negative.

Presumably it threatens the capacity of the language to express something – be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument. Or that it somehow threatens the integrity of the speech community, which as we have seen was never integrated in the first place.

What I want to look at here is who is doing the changing – or the ruining, depending on your perspective.

Here are some of the changes of which American English has been accused.

  • corrupt spelling: center, honor, neighbor
  • discordant sounds – post-vocalic /r/, “flat” /a/
  • double negatives
  • ending sentences with prepositions
  • singular they
  • using nouns as verbs.

Let’s look at these one by one.

I’m going to use examples from Shakespeare to illustrate a lot of these, partly because it’s the best-known source of early Modern English, the language we speak today, but also because for many, Shakespeare represents a sort of pinnacle of English language usage.

Shakespeare is not generally considered as someone who would “ruin” the language. On the contrary he is generally regarded – not entirely accurately – as someone who enhanced the expressive force and prestige of English.

Changes to spelling

It is indeed true that Noah Webster, American lexicographer, introduced several spelling reforms in the 1820s into American spelling.

Among these are what are now considered “American spellings” such as honor, neighbor, center, and jail. Other of Webster’s reforms are accepted in British as well as American English, such as public and mask (in place of publick and masque). Some of Webster’s suggested reforms failed to take hold even in America, such as tung (tongue) and wimmen (women).

The curious thing is that it’s only the “or” and “er” words that seem to raise the ire of anti-Americans. The British gaol has given way to jail without a whimper of protest in the UK (it remains in limited use in Ireland and Australia), and no champion of British spelling would use publick or masque today.

Yet the very “or” and “er” words that draw such ire actually represent an older British spelling.

The spelling “honour” is found 393 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (published in 1623), while the spelling “honor” occurs 530 times.

“Humour” scores 47 while “humor” is used 90 times. The spelling “center” is found nine times, while “centre” occurs only once; “sceptre” occurs four times, but “scepter” 36.

Webster chose the “or” and “er” spellings because they looked less French. Indeed the reason that, when British spelling was standardised in the 19th century, the “our” and “re” spellings were chosen was precisely because their French look lent them a certain dignity. In other words, the spellings were deliberately snobby.

Those ugly sounds

Standard American English pronounces /r/ in the coda of a syllable where Standard British English does not. The difference is illustrated in words like car and farther (twice in the latter word).

There are non-standard British varieties, such as West Country or Scots, which still do pronounce post-vocalic /r/, and there are non-standard American varieties, such as Eastern Massachusetts or African-American Vernacular English, which lack it.

More to the point, though, the post-vocalic /r/ as found in Standard American was a part of Middle English, heard by all classes and in all regions, until the 15th century, when it started to disappear in some dialects.

As far as ruining the language is concerned, there could be case made that the loss of /r/ erodes comprehension, with pairs like father/farther, pawn/porn, caught/court and batted/battered merging. Going to the pawnshop has become potentially risky to one’s reputation.

Like the syllable-final /r/, the flat “a” that Americans use in words like bath also represents an older form of the language.

Double negatives

Where would the Rolling Stones be if they had insisted on singing “I can’t get any satisfaction”?

Of course, they were mimicking a blues style associated with African American linguistic behaviour – and they were also making use of a pattern which is found in all varieties of English up to and including early Modern English. From Shakespeare:

Never none shall mistress be of it (Twelfth Night)

I never was nor never will be (Richard III)

Pedants claim that a double negative logically should imply the affirmative, so that “I can’t get no satisfaction” actually means “I can get satisfaction”. But a double negative has never meant this in the unmarked case, and there are many perfectly logical languages which use the double negative as a matter of course in negation.

(Also, the logic applied here would imply that a double positive can never imply a negative. To which I say, yeah right.)

In any case the double negative is a red herring when it comes to making an argument that “Americans are ruining the language.” Double negatives are not accepted in Standard American English any more than they are in Standard British English. When it comes to non-standard varieties, non-standard varieties in the UK are as rife with double negatives as non-standard American Englishes (watch EastEnders if you don’t believe me).

Sentence-final prepositions

We’re often told that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.


In fact, this is as common in British as in American English. Would you really say “From whence did you come?” Seriously? “Where did you come from?” is absolutely standard for all varieties of English. This one is just silly.

Singular they

This is often used when wanting to remain ambiguous about the gender of a singular referent, or when the gender is unknown.

For example, if you had just got off the phone I might ask you “What did they want?” This is appropriate even though it’s taken as given that you were speaking to only one person. I’d have to have a pole inserted very far into my sphincter indeed to ask “What did she or he want?”

Furthermore, singular they has a long and illustrious English history.

You guessed it, Shakespeare used it:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well acquainted friend (Comedy of Errors), or

God send everyone their heart’s desire (Much Ado About Nothing).

We can go back in time to find it in Chaucer’s writing:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up” (Pardoner’s Prologue).

Or we can come forward and find it among the Victorians, as in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida:

It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

We can even find it used by more modern English writers such as C.S. Lewis:

She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

The final word on this goes to the title of an article in the UK newspaper The Telegraph last year, which was “If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed.“

Verbing nouns

The sort of thing that gets pedants’ collective goat is the use of words like impact and action as verbs, as in:

How does this impact upon your writing?

We’re going to have to action this proposal within the month.

This phenomenon is called conversion or, if you want to get really technical, zero-derivation, and it’s been with the English language since at least the early Middle English period.

About ten years ago I supervised an MA dissertation on the history of this kind of construction. While some rare instances of it were found in Old English, conversion became widespread in the Middle English period (1066-1500) and reached a zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries, since which time it has declined slightly. So the modern-day Americans aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shakespeare (“Grace me no grace; nor uncle me no uncle” (Richard II)).

The real culprits

One of several conclusions is available to us.

One is that the English are ruining the language, for in each and every case the American situation represents an older form, and the Standard British is actually the innovative, the newer form.

The next possible conclusion is that the language started out ruined (most ruinous in the age of Shakespeare), and Americans inherited this ruin from the British, but that somehow Victorian English “saved” the English language from ruin.

If this is true, it is still not true that the Americans “are ruining” or “have ruined” the language. It was still the English who ruined it. And if you believe this one, I think you’ve got far more serious problems than worrying about language.

The final view is of course that language changes, and that claims of ruin or otherwise have nothing to do with language, and everything to do with feelings of cultural superiority and bias.

Many people in England will never forgive the world for allowing the sun to set on the British Empire – and will certainly never forgive the USA for being a more powerful nation than the UK.
This article is an edited version of a piece that first appeared here.

The Conversation

Rob Pensalfini, , The University of Queensland

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

Why teachers should be sceptical of a new College of Teaching

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with trainee teachers at the Harris City Academy in south London.

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with trainee teachers at the Harris City Academy in south London.

Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham

Barely one month after the current government was elected in 2010, the secretary of state for education Michael Gove announced the abolition of the General Teaching Council for England. Now, only a few months from the next election, his successor Nicky Morgan has committed to establishing a College of Teaching.

While not a like-for-like replacement, the similarities are sufficient enough to argue that this represents a significant policy volte-face. Ironically, for a move claimed to take the politics out of education, it highlights precisely why teachers feel so frustrated by the interventions of politicians. Not only does policy swing one way and another between governments, it does so within the lifetime of a government.

Proposals on the table

The proposed College of Teaching “needs to be independent of government and led by the profession if it is to be truly successful” according to the government ministers advocating its establishment.

The body will take responsibility for promoting professional standards, and in time could oversee their enforcement and the standards for teacher training. It will also promote teachers’ access to training and development. According to the proposals, this will include a framework of evidence-based professional development in which: “Evaluation of impact will be hard-wired into these professional development projects from the outset to build a clear evidence based around “what works”.’ A consultation on the proposals was launched on December 9 and runs until early February.

The principle of a College of Teaching is, according to the proposals, apparently: “almost universally agreed upon by experts”. But it is important to be sceptical. Especially when teachers appear unconvinced it will drive up standards – as a poll by the website Schools Improvement has highlighted.


A question of independence

The reason for this scepticism is linked to how independent the college is likely to be in reality. Problems will arise if it has little more than a licensed independence in which professional autonomy will be contingent on the profession demonstrating “good behaviour”.

The desire to be seen to be independent and “free of political influence” is clearly viewed by those who wrote the proposals as central to securing teacher support. But they also make very clear that it will operate in a context where real political pressure is imposed by assessment bodies apparently “independent” of the political process.

The emphasis in the document on “world class teachers”, and the almost obligatory referencing of Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai and Finland, highlight the influence of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. “PISA envy” is now driving policy at a national level in many countries.

In England, this is reinforced through the disproportionate influence of Ofsted, as the “independent” body with the power to decide what is “good” or not in education. It is these pressures that explain teachers’ principal grievance – the apparently relentless increase in their workload. They also reflect the democratic deficit in the English state education system whereby key policy issues are determined by bodies outside of any transparent political process.

More autonomy, or more control?

With the drivers of markets, managerialism and high-stakes testing in place, it becomes possible for government to step back, safe in the knowledge that a complex web of mechanisms – league tables, performance-related pay and Ofsted – can be relied on to do the work.

The danger is that a College of Teaching simply becomes another element in this web of control that frames how teachers are expected to do their work. It provides the appearance of autonomy and independence, but in reality it serves to reinforce the culture of compliance that bedevils English state education.

This is because what will be valued will be what the College has decided is “what works”. Asking teachers to focus on what works, and privileging the research methods often associated with such questions, runs the risk of creating new orthodoxies. Through this, career advancement remains contingent on implementing what others have decided is “good”, or what constitutes “best practice”. Rather than liberating teachers from the dead hand of Ofsted’s “one best way” of teaching, the risk is that such approaches are subtly reproduced and then legitimated by apparently being “evidence-based”.

Wider questions closed down

The focus on “what works” deflects attention from a wider set of questions about “what matters?” or “what’s wrong?”. For example, teachers are encouraged to ask what works to close achievement gaps in their classroom. But they are not encouraged to ask wider questions on how to close these gaps when governments preside over ever-widening inequalities.

At the same time, the spaces in which these more critical questions might be posed are progressively closed down, illustrated by the undermining of educational research in university-based schools of education. What research takes place will be increasingly focused on securing improvement in relation to a narrow range of outcomes. This will be reinforced through the influence of those able to fund and commission research. The result will be less about a self-improving school system and more about a self-reproducing school system.

If teachers are confined to asking “what works?” while only the policy elites get to decide “what matters” then teachers remain shut out of the debates about the really big questions: what is education for and how should young people be helped to understand and engage with the world they are growing up in?

A new professional voice?

This is why teachers should welcome the government’s proposals with considerable caution. While superficially attractive, it is not at all clear that the proposed College of Teaching will give teachers the professional voice they have often been denied.

It could be argued that teachers already have a professional voice, through their unions, that is already independent, democratic and can claim to represent the overwhelming majority of the profession – criteria the new college is unlikely to be able to meet. It is governments that have chosen not to listen to that voice: Michael Gove clearly presented the case for a College of Teaching as an alternative to teacher unionism.

Perhaps now is the time for teachers to demand a much more ambitious prospectus for change than that currently on offer. This should be based on teachers having both autonomy and influence in relation to all the key elements of their work – learning and teaching conditions, professional development and the fundamental aspects of education policy. Professional agency in these three different domains are the real features of a high-status teaching profession.

This concept of a new democratic professionalism underpins a much more positive vision of what teaching can be like, but also a much more hopeful and optimistic vision of what education should be like.

The Conversation

Howard Stevenson, Director of Research and Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, School of Education, University of Nottingham

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

Multilingualism boosts learning – and can create new science knowledge too

A student jokes with a dinosaur robot built with recycled materials during the annual robotics fair supported by the Bolivian Education Ministry in La Paz, August 10, 2015. REUTERS/David Mercado - RTX1NT9X

A student jokes with a dinosaur robot built with recycled materials during the annual robotics fair supported by the Bolivian Education Ministry in La Paz, August 10, 2015. REUTERS/David Mercado – RTX1NT9X

Robyn Tyler, University of Cape Town; Carolyn McKinney, University of Cape Town, and Xolisa Guzula, University of Cape Town

Teaching science involves far more than someone simply standing with a few sheets of paper or a PowerPoint presentation while learners diligently take notes. Meaning is made in science through many forms of communication.

American physicist and applied linguist Jay Lemke has shown that when scientists communicate and perform their work they rely on graphs, tables, gestures, mathematical equations and verbal language, whether spoken or written.

Some in South Africa have advocated for science in schools to be taught only in English.

But Lemke’s work and other research shows that science as a field is particularly suited to being made up of different languages. In fact, using more than one language when teaching and learning science in schools can greatly enhance concept development – and that is the heart of science.

English dominates

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. English is only the fifth most commonly spoken of these.

A review in 2010 of South Africa’s school language policies showed that 79% of learners switch from learning in their home language to using English as the language of learning and teaching for science and similar content subjects from Grade 4.

This switch happens despite international research which shows that it takes at least six years to become proficient enough in a new language to use it as the language of instruction, textbooks and assessment.

It would be nearly impossible for many people to imagine that an English-speaking eight or nine-year-old could learn science in isiXhosa after just three years of occasional tuition in that language. So why does the policy expect exactly this feat of children who don’t speak English as a home language?

Science registers in African languages

The reality is that many South African teachers are not proficient enough in scientific English to use it exclusively for teaching. This means that the home language predominates in science lessons anyway. Things get really difficult for learners when they then have to complete written assessments in English after being taught concepts in an entirely different language.

Textbooks like these give South African children the chance to learn science in languages besides English.

Everyone from school children to publishers and science professors is using a variety of South African languages, and not just English, to get science done. It is predominantly the everyday registers of these languages that are used to talk about what people are doing in experiments or to translate concepts in classrooms.

Researchers are increasingly seeing a science register being developed in African languages, especially when used in conjunction with other modes of communication like graphs, tables, diagrams and mathematical equations. The development of these verbal science registers echoes the process followed when Afrikaans became a vehicle for science during the last century.

In a Grade 6 isiXhosa science textbook you’ll find entirely new terms coined just for the subject – like umbane ongashukumiyo for static electricity. In other cases, words or terms are borrowed from other languages – ifotosintesisi is photosynthesis. Particular grammatical constructions become conventionally used, just as happens with an English science register.

This process is organic and happens at many levels simultaneously. But the development of a language’s scientific register can get a huge boost if publishers produce textbooks in that language.

Science textbooks are being published in African languages. Examples include Maskew Miller’s multilingual maths and science dictionaries, first produced in 2008; and PRAESA and New Africa Books’ science and technology dictionary from the same year.

More recently, the University of Fort Hare in 2014 produced an isiXhosa-English science and maths dictionary. A particularly exciting example is Xolisa Guzula and Phiway Mbuyazi’s forthcoming translation of Lucy and Stephen Hawkings’ book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe.

Multilingualism boosts concept learning

Concept development lies at the heart of science and teaching language. It is here that science registers in African languages hold their greatest power. When we contest and negotiate the meanings of scientific terms in different languages to select one or more to use in the science registers of that language, we deepen our understanding of the concept.

Studies done at the University of Cape Town have shown how economics students have deepened their understandings of concepts like “deficit” by debating the meanings of multiple terms in different languages to express a concept.

These students have an advantage over monolingual English speakers who may accept the English term at face value without truly understanding it.

A way to create new science

When languages are viewed as resources rather than problems, it paves the way for the thoughtful, planned and informed use of more than one language in science classrooms and textbooks.

We believe that using both home languages and English in science teaching will enhance meaning making, which will ultimately enrich children’s learning of both science and these languages.

South African learners’ many languages offer great potential for expressing accepted scientific meanings. More importantly, they can help to create new science that is inclusive of the indigenous knowledge systems so valorised in the country’s curriculum.

The Conversation

Robyn Tyler, PhD candidate in Language in Education, University of Cape Town; Carolyn McKinney, Associate Professor in Language Education, University of Cape Town, and Xolisa Guzula, PhD candidate in language and literacy with specific interest in bilingual education and biliteracy development, University of Cape Town

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