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


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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.
Shutterstock

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


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

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

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

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

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

What we know about second language aptitude

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

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

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

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

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

Studying the resting brain

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a video demonstration:

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

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

A new brain measure for language aptitude

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

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

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

Implications for learning a new language

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

Not quite.

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

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


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Andrew Linn, University of Westminster

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

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

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

Translation overload

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

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

Lots of work still to do.
Etienne Ansotte/EPA

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

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

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

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

Too much invested in English

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

How other languages can reveal the secrets to happiness


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Tim Lomas, University of East London

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

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

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

Speaking of happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enriching emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

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


Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s first look at history

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

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

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

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

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

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

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

What explains the success?

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

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

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

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

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

Invested families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many possible explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they American?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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

Could early music training help babies learn language?


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Christina Zhao, University of Washington

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

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

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

Music experience and speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how we did our study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.

Other benefits from music experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

Christina Zhao, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington

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

Want your kids to learn another language? Teach them code


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Steve Goschnick, Swinburne University of Technology

Among Malcolm Turnbull’s first words as the newly elected leader of the Liberal Party, and hence heading for the Prime Minister’s job, were: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”

And near the heart of the matter is the code literacy movement. This is a movement to introduce all school children to the concepts of coding computers, starting in primary school.

One full year after the computing curriculum was introduced by the UK government, a survey there found that six out of ten parents want their kids to learn a computer language instead of French.

The language of code

The language comparison is interesting because computer languages are first and foremost, languages. They are analogous to the written versions of human languages but simpler, requiring expressions without ambiguity.

They have a defining grammar. They come with equivalent dictionaries of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs; with prepositions and phrase patterns, conjunctions, conditionals and clauses. Of course the dictionaries are less extensive than those of human languages, but the pattern rendering nature of the grammars have much the same purpose.

Kids that code gain a good appreciation of computational thinking and logical thought, that helps them develop good critical thinking skills. I’ve sometimes heard the term “language lawyer” used as a euphemism for a pedantic programmer. Code literacy is good for their life skills kit, never mind their career prospects.

Scratch is one of a new generation of block programming languages aimed at teaching novices and kids as young as eight or nine to write code.

Scratch teaches code with movable instruction blocks.
Screenshot from code.org

The Scratch language uses coloured blocks to represent the set of language constructs in its grammar. A novice programmer can build up a new program by dragging-and-dropping from a palette of these blocks onto a blank canvas or workspace.

The individual shapes of the blocks are puzzle-like, such that only certain pieces can interlock. This visually enforces the grammar, allowing the coder to concentrate on the creativeness of their whole program.

The Scratch language (and its derivatives) are embedded in a number of different tools and websites, each dedicated to a particular niche of novice programmers. The code.org website is a prime example and has a series of exercises using the block language to teach the fundamentals of computer science.

Code.org is a non-profit used by 6 million students, 43% of whom are female. It runs the Hour of Code events each year, a global effort to get novices to try to do at least an hour of code.

For a week in May this year, Microsoft Australia partnered with Code.org to run the #WeSpeakCode event, teaching coding to more than 7,000 young Australians. My local primary school in Belgrave South in Victoria is using Code.org successfully with grade 5 and 6 students.

Unlike prose in a human language, computer programs are most often interactive. In the screenshot of the Scratch example (above) it has graphics from the popular Plants vs Zombies game, one that most kids have already played. They get to program some basic mechanics of what looks a little like the game.

Hit the ‘Show Code’ button at it reveals the JavaScript language behind the coloured blocks.
Screenshot from code.org

But code.org has a ‘Show Code’ button that reveals the JavaScript code generated behind the coloured blocks (see above). This shows novices what they created in tiles, translated into the formal syntax of a programming language widely used in industry.

It’s not all about the ICT industry

Both parents and politicians with an eye to the future see the best jobs as the creative ones. Digging up rocks, importing, consuming and servicing is not all that should be done in a forward-thinking nation.

But teaching kids to code is not all about careers in computer programming, science and software engineering. Introducing young minds to the process of instructing a computer allows them to go from “I swiped this” to “I made this”. From watching YouTube stars, to showing schoolyard peers how they made their pet cat photo meow.

It opens up young minds to the creative aspects of programming. Not only widening the possible cohort who may well study computer science or some other information and communications technology (ICT) professions, but also in design and the creative arts, and other fields of endeavour yet to transpire or be disrupted.

For most kids, teaching them to code is about opening their mind to a means to an end, not necessarily the end in itself.

The Conversation

Steve Goschnick, Adjunct Professor, Swinburne University of Technology

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

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


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

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

Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching literacy is rocket science

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

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

Teaching reading is like rocket science, actually.
Shutterstock

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

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

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

Reading between the lines

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

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

Dr Brian Moon, who conducted the study, explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

Stewart Riddle, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

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

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


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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.

Ignore the fads: teachers should teach and students should listen


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Greg Ashman, UNSW Australia

When imagining a teacher at work there’s a good chance you picture someone standing at the front of a classroom, explaining concepts and asking questions. Add to this students independently applying the concepts with some corrective feedback from the teacher and you have a form of teaching known as “explicit instruction”.

What is explicit instruction?

It’s as old as the hills and pretty effective; so much so that the New South Wales government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) recently published a report that stresses explicit teaching as one of its seven evidence-based themes.

You may have heard of the Direct Instruction initiative in Cape York that is being promoted by Noel Pearson. This is a specific form of explicit teaching where lessons are scripted and a clear progression through concepts is mapped out in accordance with the ideas of the American educationalist Siegfried Engelmann. Although it is too early to say how the program is going in Cape York, Engelmann’s ideas have demonstrated great potential in the US, notably through the huge “Follow Through” project of the 1960s and 1970s.

There is a large body of evidence for explicit teaching more generally. Different types of research examining a range of learning goals support the basic principles. But not all explicit instruction is equally effective.

You might therefore imagine that researchers would be working on ways to fine-tune it. What makes a good explanation? How should concepts be sequenced? How can we ensure students are thinking about the key ideas? What’s the right balance between abstract concepts and concrete examples?

Unfortunately, explicit instruction is unfashionable. While accepting that it has a role to play, educationalists often seem ambivalent towards it, sometimes describing explicit approaches using pejorative terms such as “drilling”.

The key principle behind explicit instruction is that the teacher fully explains ideas and concepts. In this sense, its opposite is something that is often called “inquiry learning” where students are asked to pose questions and find out things for themselves. In such programs, teachers are seen as co-learners rather than subject-matter authorities.

There is little evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of inquiry learning for learning new concepts (although it can be effective for those who are more expert in a subject).

When tested in controlled experiments, features characteristic of inquiry learning such as problem-solving are shown to be less effective than features characteristic of explicit instruction such as the use of worked examples. And a number of attempts to introduce programs similar to inquiry learning have met with very little success over the past 50 years.

Why is explicit instruction daggy?

Despite this, inquiry learning is very much in vogue. Teacher education courses run units on it even though you would struggle to find equivalent units on explicit instruction. A recent report from the OECD on “Schools for 21st-Century Learners” has a whole section on inquiry learning while mentioning explicit instruction only in passing.

New science VCE courses in Victoria have focused on incorporating inquiry learning and will require evidence that it has taken place. The physics VCE study design explains that:

In VCE Physics students develop a range of inquiry skills involving practical experimentation and research, analytical skills including critical and creative thinking, and communication skills.

As the OECD report also suggests, the evidence in favour of inquiry learning may be lacking but it is assumed to be superior in preparing students for the 21st century by developing ill-defined skills such as critical thinking or creativity.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such skills are highly dependent upon knowing a lot about the subject: if you want to think critically about physics, then first learn a lot of physics.

There may also be philosophical reasons that educationalists choose to privilege inquiry methods over explicit instruction. There is a tradition of questioning teacher-led approaches to education that is at least 200 years old.

Philosophers of education such as John Dewey and Paolo Freire have criticised the notion that a teacher’s role is to impart knowledge. Freire called it the “banking model” and found that it did not fit his revolutionary principles. Others believe it to be inimical to the spirit of democracy. How can students grow up to ask questions if we expect them to defer to a teacher’s authority in the classroom?

This argument fails on two counts. Firstly, teachers really should know more than their students, so why pretend otherwise? Secondly, it fails to recognise the compassionate and empathetic ways in which contemporary teachers structure explicit instruction in the classroom, providing plenty of time for students to be heard.

Clearly, there are instances where we might choose to use varied approaches to learning for a wide variety of reasons. I am all in favour of balance. Sometimes, we may be seeking to build motivation. At other times, we may simply wish to mix things up a bit.

However, an unbalanced focus on inquiry learning that sidelines the proven practice of explicit instruction should be a matter of serious concern.

The Conversation

Greg Ashman, Experienced teacher and PhD candidate in instructional design, UNSW Australia

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