Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Excerpts from:

Fossilization: five central issues
by ZhaoHong Han, Teachers College, Columbia University

"...let us look at an extract from an obituary of the renowned physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997) published in The Guardian, May 13, 1997:

"Professor Chien-Shiung Wu, who has died aged 83, was a physicist whose brilliance carried her from obscurity in China during the early thirties to fame in the United States during and after the second world war. As a postdoctoral physicist, speaking idiosyncratic English but with a unique knowledge of gaseous fission products, she was called in by the great Enrico Fermi when, in 1942, an experimental reactor began to run down within weeks of going critical. She quickly and correctly diagnosed poisoning by the rare gas xenon, produced in the fission process...

In 1992, Wu came to Europe for an 80th birthday symposium held in her honor at the international Cern laboratory at Geneva. She was delighted and, with her early difficulties with English still evident, talked about her beta decay work and the importance of choosing critical experiments. It is said that few left the meeting uninspired by her amazing clarity of thought, or unmoved by the power of her quiet yet very special genius."

Professor Chien-Shiung Wu, who arrived in the U.S. in 1936 at the age of 24 and had since lived and worked there until her death at 83, had 56 years of exposure to English, her second language. She was nevertheless unable to overcome all of her early difficulties with English, despite her undoubted intelligence and her enormous scientific achievements over the intervening decades. Why were some of her early language difficulties insurmountable? Professor Wu’s case is typical of millions of adult L2 learners who, despite long exposure and concerted efforts, become caught up somewhere in the learning process and find themselves unable to progress...

"The term “fossilization” was introduced to the field of SLA by Selinker
in 1972 on the basis of his observation that the vast majority of second
language learners fail to achieve native-speaker competence...

This earliest conception suggests several properties of fossilization. First,
fossilizable structures are persistent; second, they are resistant to external
influences; and third, fossilization affects both child L2 learners and adult L2
learners alike...

Fossilization is the process whereby the learner creates a cessation of interlanguage learning, thus stopping the interlanguage from developing, it is hypothesized, in a permanent way . . . The argument is that no adult can hope to ever speak a second language in such a way that s/he is indistinguishable from native speakers of that language. (Selinker 1996b)

Hyltenstam (1988: 68), for example, gives the following definition of fossilization:

Fossilization – according to observations – is a process that may occur in the second language acquisition context as opposed to first language acquisition. It covers features of the second language learner’s interlanguage that deviate from the native speaker norm and are not developing any further, or deviant features which – although seemingly left behind – re-emerge in the learner’s speech under certain conditions. Thus, the learner has stopped learning or has reverted to earlier stages of acquisition.

Bley-Vroman (1989: 47–9), for example, asserts:

It has long been noted that foreign language learners reach a certain stage of learning – a stage short of success – and that learners then permanently stabilize at this stage. Development ceases, and even serious conscious efforts to change are often fruitless. Brief changes are sometimes observed, but they do not ‘take’. The learner backslides to the stable state.

Fossilization is thus taken to be “permanent stabilization”, and as such, an
ultimate stage in the interlanguage process. Corroborating this view, Tarone (1994: 1715) points out: “A central characteristic of any interlanguage is that it fossilizes – that is, it ceases to develop at some point short of full identity
with the target language.”

Tarone’s claim is worth noting for its strong implication that fossilization is inevitable, and that it is what characterizes the ultimate attainment of every learner.

Summing up: fossilization – in the eyes of many – is a product as well as a process; it affects the entire IL system as well as its sub-systems; it is literally permanent as well as relatively permanent; it is persistent and resistant; for some researchers it happens to every learner and for others to only some learners (for a detailed discussion of these positions, see Han 1998). It is a stage of interlanguage learning, therefore incorporating the fossilization of correct as well as of incorrect forms (e.g. R. Ellis 1985; Vigil and Oller 1976). It is externally manifested as well as internally determined. Furthermore, it is suggested that fossilization may represent the ultimate outcome of L2 learning (e.g. Tarone 1994).

The suggested causal variables include but are not limited to:
• lack of instruction (e.g. Krashen and Seliger 1975, 1976; Schmidt 1983)
• absence of corrective feedback (e.g. Higgs and Clifford 1982; Lightbown
and Spada 1999; Tomasello and Herron 1988; Vigil and Oller 1976; Valette
• satisfaction of communicative needs (e.g. Corder 1978, 1983; R. Ellis 1985;
Klein 1986; Klein and Perdue 1993; Kowal and Swain 1997; Selinker and
Lamendella 1978; Wong-Fillmore 2002)
• age (passim the SLA literature)
• lack of written input (e.g. Schmidt 1983; VanPatten 1988)
• false automatization (Hulstijn 1989, 2002a)
• end of sensitivity to language data (Schnitzer 1993)
• lack of access to UG learning principles (White 1996)
• learning inhibits learning5 (Elman et al. 1996)
• language transfer (e.g. Han 2000; Jain 1974; Kellerman 1989; Major 2002;
Selinker and Lakshmanan 1992).

In brief, over the years, the term fossilization has come to be associated
with a wide range of variables, exhibiting divergent interpretations of the
construct. The lack of uniformity in the conceptualization and application of
the notion, while creating confusion, points to, among other things, the fact
that fossilization is no longer a monolithic concept as it was in its initial
postulation, but rather a complex construct intricately tied up with varied
manifestations of failure.

It is important to note that the various theoretical and empirical attempts
made over the years have resulted more in conceptual diversity than uniformity,
though all recognize fossilization as a central characteristic of SLA.
The differences seem to center around four issues: (1) whether fossilization
is global or local; (2) whether L2 ultimate attainment is isomorphic with
fossilization; and (3) whether fossilization is a product or a process, and
(4) whether stabilization and fossilization are synonymous.

The preponderance of the available empirical evidence points instead to local fossilization (Han 2003a,b, 2004); that is, fossilization only hits certain linguistic features in certain subsystems of the interlanguage of individual learners, while other linguistic features in the same subsystems are successfully acquired or continue to evolve.

Success in this context, in the view of some researchers, means complete mastery of a second language, namely, the attaining of “all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains” (Selinker and Lamendella 1978: 373; see also Sharwood Smith’s 1997 SLART-L on-line communication). The general lack of such success is characteristically seen to reside in the imbalance between the rate of success and the rate of failure.8 Over the years, the 5% success rate proposed by Selinker (1972) has been widely quoted. Some argue that this figure is too conservative (Birdsong 1999, 2004; Seliger, Krashen and Ladefoged 1975), while others claim that even 5% is a gross overestimate (Long 1990; Gregg 1996).9 If we follow Gregg’s (1996: 52) speculative argument that “truly native-like competence in an L2 is never attained”, there can be no question of any imbalance since no learner would ever achieve perfect mastery of an L2 (cf. Sorace 1993). Still other researchers (e.g. Kellerman 1995) who quote the 5% figure do so merely as a general recognition of the fact that there is overwhelmingly more failure than success in adult L2 acquisition.

In the SLA literature, it is also worth noting, there exist different views on what success should entail. As mentioned, for some, success means complete mastery of every facet of the L2; for others (e.g. Schachter 1996), however, it means achieving only native-like competence in the core grammar of L2 without taking account of linguistic peripherals. Despite the lack of consensus, the point nevertheless remains that in whichever sense, complete success is not achievable in post-adolescent L2 acquisition. This claim has gained considerable support from studies of ultimate attainment in so-called “near-natives” (e.g. Coppieters 1987; Sorace 1993).10 Although they each focused only on a small number of linguistic subsystems, Coppieters (1987) and Sorace (1993) both present convincing evidence of the existence
of a significant gap, assumed to be permanent, between the interlanguage grammar and the mature native grammar.

Counterevidence, to a lesser extent, is also available (Birdsong 1992; Bongaerts 1999; Ioup et al. 1994; White and Genesee 1996). White and Genesee(1996), for instance, come to the conclusion that it is possible for adult L2 learners to acquire native-like competence. Birdsong (1992), on the other hand, offers mixed evidence from his subjects showing that with some subsystems complete mastery is possible, whereas with other sub-systems it is not.

Similarly, Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2001: 164) note:

The ultimate attainment of individual L2 learners varies enormously in its approximation to nativelike proficiency, although some individuals may reach very high levels of proficiency and in some cases even pass as native speakers."

Jules et Jim Interactif project

Jules et Jim Interactif project

A film-based interactive program at the intermediate and advanced levels, now completed and distributed by Thomson Heinle.

Amazon DVD

Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope

Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope
Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music.

The Telegraph
20 Feb 2010

For decades critics of modern classical music have been derided as philistines for failing to grasp the subtleties of the chaotic sounding compositions, but there may now be an explanation for why many audiences find them so difficult to listen to.

A new book on how the human brain interprets music has revealed that listeners rely upon finding patterns within the sounds they receive in order to make sense of it and interpret it as a musical composition.

While traditional classical music follows strict patterns and formula that allow the brain to make sense of the sound, modern symphonies by composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern simply confuse listeners' brains.

Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, has drawn on the latest scientific findings from neuroscientists to show structure and patterns in music are a fundamental part of musical enjoyment.

He said: "Many people still seem to find modern classical music challenging. If that is the case, then they can relax as it is challenging for a good reason and it is not because they are in some way too musically stupid to appreciate it.

"The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear. The music of Bach, for example, embodies a lot of the pattern forming process.

"Some of the things that were done by those composers such as Schoenberg undermined this cognitive aid for making music easier to understand and follow. Schoenberg's music became fragmented which makes it harder for the brain to find structure.

"That isn't to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to, it is just harder work. It would be wrong to dismiss such music as a racket."

Mr Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain.

In the early twentieth century, however, composers led by Schoenberg began to rally against the traditional conventions of music to produce compositions which lack tonal centres, known as atonal music.

Under their vision, which has been adopted by many subsequent classical musicians, music no longer needed to be confined to a home note or chord.

But such atonal music has been badly received by audiences and critics who have found it difficult to follow.

Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces.

He said: "Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events.

"We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.

"For listeners, this means that, every time you try to predict what happens next, you fail. The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction."

Dr Aniruddh Patel, a researcher at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, said that tonal music such as traditional classical music uses some of the same mechanisms needed for processing language.

"This may be one reason such music is congenial to the human mind," he said. "It may be a reason why atonal music is more difficult when first encountered."

Dr Timothy Jones, deputy principal at the Royal Academy of Music, said: "Mozart and Bach have similar levels of complexity as Schoenberg, but those complexities are in different musical domains. Their music is very information dense.

"I would question how much of the familiarity with the music of Mozart and Bach has to do with culturalisation rather than an innate cognitive inability to understand the music of composers like Schoenberg. Certain people can learn to appreciate it."

Research has shown that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires considerable processing resources to unpick harmony, rhythm and melody.

Recent studies by Professor Nina Kraus, a neuroscientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have shown that the electrical activity inside the brain while listening to music closely matches the physical properties of sound waves.

Using brain scanning equipment Professor Kraus, who presented her findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego on Saturday, said the brainwaves recorded from volunteers listening to music could be converted back to sound.

In one example where volunteers listened to Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, when the brainwaves were played back the song was clearly recognisable.

She said: "When we play the brainwaves back as sound, although they don't sound exactly like the song, it is pretty similar. It shows that the brain matches the physical properties of sound very closely."

Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills

Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills
ScienceDaily (Mar. 16, 2009)

"Children exposed to a multi-year programme of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a study published in the journal Psychology of Music.

According to authors Joseph M Piro and Camilo Ortiz from Long Island University, USA, data from this study will help to clarify the role of music study on cognition and shed light on the question of the potential of music to enhance school performance in language and literacy.

Studying children the two US elementary schools, one of which routinely trained children in music and one that did not, Piro and Ortiz aimed to investigate the hypothesis that children who have received keyboard instruction as part of a music curriculum increasing in difficulty over successive years would demonstrate significantly better performance on measures of vocabulary and verbal sequencing than students who did not receive keyboard instruction.

Several studies have reported positive associations between music education and increased abilities in non-musical (eg, linguistic, mathematical, and spatial) domains in children. The authors say there are similarities in the way that individuals interpret music and language and “because neural response to music is a widely distributed system within the brain…. it would not be unreasonable to expect that some processing networks for music and language behaviors, namely reading, located in both hemispheres of the brain would overlap.”

The aim of this study was to look at two specific reading subskills – vocabulary and verbal sequencing – which, according to the authors, are “are cornerstone components in the continuum of literacy development and a window into the subsequent successful acquisition of proficient reading and language skills such as decoding and reading comprehension.”

Using a quasi-experimental design, the investigators selected second-grade children from two school sites located in the same geographic vicinity and with similar demographic characteristics, to ensure the two groups of children were as similar as possible apart from their music experience.

Children in the intervention school (n=46) studied piano formally for a period of three consecutive years as part of a comprehensive instructional intervention program. Children attending the control school (n=57) received no formal musical training on any musical instrument and had never taken music lessons as part of their general school curriculum or in private study. Both schools followed comprehensive balanced literacy programmes that integrate skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

All participants were individually tested to assess their reading skills at the start and close of a standard 10-month school year using the Structure of Intellect (SOI) measure.

Results analyzed at the end of the year showed that the music-learning group had significantly better vocabulary and verbal sequencing scores than did the non-music-learning control group. This finding, conclude the authors, provides evidence to support the increasingly common practice of “educators incorporating a variety of approaches, including music, in their teaching practice in continuing efforts to improve reading achievement in children”.

However, further interpretation of the results revealed some complexity within the overall outcomes. An interesting observation was that when the study began, the music-learning group had already experienced two years of piano lessons yet their reading scores were nearly identical to the control group at the start of the experiment.

So, ask the authors, “If the children receiving piano instruction already had two years of music involvement, why did they not significantly outscore the musically naïve students on both measures at the outset?” Addressing previous findings showing that music instruction has been demonstrated to exert cortical changes in certain cognitive areas such as spatial-temporal performance fairly quickly, Piro and Ortiz propose three factors to explain the lack of evidence of early benefit for music in the present study.

First, children were tested for their baseline reading skills at the beginning of the school year, after an extended holiday period. Perhaps the absence of any music instruction during a lengthy summer recess may have reversed any earlier temporary cortical reorganization experienced by students in the music group, a finding reported in other related research. Another explanation could be that the duration of music study required to improve reading and associated skills is fairly long, so the initial two years were not sufficient.

A third explanation involves the specific developmental time period during which children were receiving the tuition. During the course of their third year of music lessons, the music-learning group was in second grade and approaching the age of seven. There is evidence that there are significant spurts of brain growth and gray matter distribution around this developmental period and, coupled with the increased complexity of the study matter in this year, brain changes that promote reading skills may have been more likely to accrue at this time than in the earlier two years.

“All of this adds a compelling layer of meaning to the experimental outcomes, perhaps signaling that decisions on ‘when’ to teach are at least as important as ‘what’ to teach when probing differential neural pathways and investigating their associative cognitive substrates,” note the authors.

“Study of how music may also assist cognitive development will help education practitioners go beyond the sometimes hazy and ill-defined ‘music makes you smarter’ claims and provide careful and credible instructional approaches that use the rich and complex conceptual structure of music and its transfer to other cognitive areas,” they conclude."

SAGE Publications/Psychology of Music (2009, March 16). Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills. ScienceDaily.

Music has the power to shape a child's mind

Learning an instrument enhances the brain's sensitivity to all sounds, including speech, say researchers

By Kate Youde
Sunday, 21 February 2010


Parents may not appreciate the screeching of violins and recorders during the hours of practice, but new evidence suggests music lessons help children improve their language skills. Scientists have discovered that playing an instrument significantly enhances the brain's sensitivity to speech.

Schools which fail to make music a core subject are making a mistake, because it has advantages for the growing brain and would help all children, including those with dyslexia and autism, neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus said yesterday.

"Playing an instrument may help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice," she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.

"Cash-strapped school districts are making a mistake when they cut music from the curriculum," she warned.

Professor Kraus's team at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, have shown that the nervous system responds to the acoustic properties of speech and music with sub-millisecond precision. The effectiveness with which the nervous system interprets sound patterns is linked to musical ability.

"Playing music engages the ability to extract relevant patterns, such as the sound of one's own instrument, harmonies and rhythms, from the 'soundscape'," said Professor Kraus. "Not surprisingly, musicians' nervous systems are more effective at using the patterns in music and speech alike."

Professor Kraus's team had previously discovered sensitivity to sound patterns correlated with reading skill and the ability to hear speech against background noise.

The research also suggests that playing an instrument affects automatic processing in the brainstem, the lower part of the brain, which controls breathing, the heartbeat and responses to complex sounds. She said they had discovered music can "fundamentally shape" brains in ways that may enhance everyday tasks, including reading and listening.

Emma Hutchinson, the founder and director of The Music House for Children, a not-for-profit music teaching school in London, agreed music benefited children's academic development. Babies as young as three months could respond to different frequencies in music and develop communication skills, she said.

A National Autistic Society spokeswoman said many children with autism respond well to music: "It seems that music can help children to communicate and interact with those around them, relax or to express emotions."

Playing musical instruments may improve reading

Playing musical instruments may improve reading

Now, what about listening vs playing?

The Telegraph

Learning to play a musical instrument could help to improve children's reading and their ability to listen in noisy classrooms, according to new research.

The part of the brain that interprets sound, known as the auditory cortex, responds faster in people with musical training and is better primed to pick out subtle patterns from the huge volumes of information that flood into the brain from our senses.

Neuroscientists have found that musicians benefit from heightened brain activity that allows them to process information from their eyes and ears more efficiently than non-musicians.

They found that the part of the brain that interprets sound, known as the auditory cortex, responds faster in people with musical training and is better primed to pick out subtle patterns from the huge volumes of information that flood into the brain from our senses.

Professor Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist and amateur musician at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has also found that this part of the brain plays a crucial role in reading.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego on Saturday, she called for music to become a more important part of school syllabuses to help children develop better reading and language skills.

She said: "There is a strong argument for more musical education, especially in schools.

"Our eyes and ears take in millions of bits of information every second and it is not possible for the brain to process all of that, so the sensory systems in our brains are primed to tune into regularities or patterns in the signals it receives.

"People who are musically trained are better at picking up these patterns because they learn to recognise notes and pitches within melodies and harmonies.

"The better you are at picking up these patterns in music, the better reader you are. This makes sense as letters and words on a page are really just patterns."

Professor Kraus and her team have used a method known as electroencephalography, which measures electrical activity in the brain, to examine how musicians and non-musicians brains respond to different stimulus.

She found that people who are better at picking out harmonies and timing in sounds are also better at reading.

Preliminary findings, which are still to be published, have also shown that musicians are better at reading.

She is currently conducting a major study of children in schools in Chicago to test whether musical training can improve their reading skills.

She has also shown that musicians are better at picking out speech in noisy environments such as restaurants and classrooms because their brains are primed to distinguish notes within melodies and harmonies.

She said: "Musical experience can enhance everyday listening and language tasks. We are making new strides in understanding what changes happen in the brain with musical experience."

Dr Aniruddh Patel, a neuroscientist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, added: "Music and language have a lot more interactions than anyone had previously thought and have real implications for treating people with language problems."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

University to Provide iPads for All New Students

University to Provide iPads for All New Students

Seton Hill University will supply a new Apple iPad and a 13″ MacBook laptop to every full-time student arriving at its Greensburg, Pennsylvania, campus in fall 2010.

The giveaway kicks off the small liberal arts university’s Griffin Technology Advantage Program, which aims to cultivate digital literacy among its students. It also marks a growing shift to provide students with e-books rather than textbooks.

Students will have complete access to the devices during classes and for personal use. They can download textbooks from the iBook Store, take notes, communicate and share files with professors, advisers and classmates, conduct research and engage in interactive learning experiences.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain

Wolf, M. (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Cambridge, England, Icon Books Ltd.

Book reviews

The joy of reading

“We were never born to read.” That’s how Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts childhood development professor, begins her book with the unlikely title: Proust and the Squid. It is, as her subtitle states, the story of science and the reading brain.

The title comes from the reading insights we gain from Proust (reading as a kind of intellectual sanctuary) and the squid (reading by making neuron connections).

We were never born to read; we were born to tell stories and keep oral histories going. Reading came late in our human development and “folks in the know” at various times said—don’t do it! It will destroy your memory. Socrates didn’t write because he believed books could short-circuit the work of critical understanding. In India during the 5th century BCE Sanskrit scholars decried the written language (as did the Druids in another part of the world) because they thought oral traditions made for intellectual and spiritual growth. But I tend to agree more with Menander who said, “Those who can read see twice as well.”

Brain & Behaviour - 32 million lost words

Do you know how many words separate a middle-class child and a child from a deprived background by the age of five? About 32 million....
The language gap between the deprived and privileged child represents, says Professor Wolf, “a disaster in the making”. As her book shows, what we hear and what we read literally changes our brain.

“Every time you hear language, you develop pathways in the brain,” she says. Reading and talking to their young children is the single most important thing parents can do to help them learn to read, she adds: “It truly enhances the child’s ability to distinguish sounds within words and gives them an unconscious understanding of the structure of words and narrative.” The human contact is vital: TV and audio tapes are not as effective...

In the same way, the invention of reading has required our brains to connect up older structures for vision and language to learn this new skill. As Stephen Pinker, the cognitive neuroscientist, put it: “Children are wired for sound but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”

It’s perhaps Professor Wolf’s personal interest in dyslexia that makes the final section of her book the most interesting of all. She has a missionary zeal to avoid the human tragedy of intelligent people made to feel stupid because they find reading difficult. Even though they find it difficult, dyslexic children will learn to read, she says, “more laboriously and slowly, but they will learn”, as the right hemisphere of their brain learns to take on the role played by the left in normal readers...

At what age should children be explicitly taught to read? Professor Wolf is firmly against those who brandish flash cards in front of their babies in an attempt to give them a step up to early reading. “Five to seven is the right age,” she says.
“People trying to teach true reading before this are in danger of doing a disservice to the biological schedule.” Only about 5 per cent of children learn to read before the age of five without pressure to do so.

“Why is there this unnecessary debate between phonics and the whole language?” she asks. “The more children learn about a word, the better: the sounds, yes, but also visual recognition, meaning (and multiple meanings), connections, different grammatical uses … The more children learn about a word, the better and faster they will read it. Let the very young play with language, through jokes and rhymes.
“Reading never just happens. The wise teacher leaves nothing to chance and doesn’t leave children to infer. Forty per cent of our children don’t infer.”
Professor Wolf ends our conversation, as she ends the book, voicing concern about the state of reading at a time when books are at increasing threat from the internet. As she says, during the seven years she took to write the book: “Reading changed beneath my sons’ fingers.”

What are the implications of digital culture for our capacity to read inferentially and analytically, she wonders? Will the immediacy and volume of information make us more intelligent as a species or short-circuit our deeper understanding of knowledge and our creativity, or both?

Her tentative answer is that children and teachers of the future should not have to choose. Just as children learn to switch between two or more oral languages, we can also teach them to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis. But as a lover of the slow pleasures of literature, she is doubtful whether this will happen.

Unravelling reading

Of significance for a study of adults’ reading skills, Wolf defines fluency in a more advanced reader as:

“a level of accuracy and rate at which decoding is relatively effortless, oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody, and attention can be paid to comprehension.” (p. 268).

She includes a useful visual time line (p. 144) of the cognitive processes (and their brain location) that an “expert” reader follows when reading text. In pinpointing the complexity of the process, Wolf emphasises the “beautiful change from novice reading [to expert]...testimony to our continually expanding intellectual evolution.” (p.162)

She points out the subtype of dyslexia that her own research has led her to explore, involving a double deficit of naming speed and phonology (p.189). This difficulty implicates three of the four Kruidenier (2002) components, alphabetics (decoding for Wolf), fluency and comprehension. Although she does not go on to examine the implications for adult readers, Wolf’s account is a good reminder of the importance of an eclectic approach and a practical stance on individualised support for reading.

The Washington Post

She urges that we "teach our children to be 'bitextual' " or 'multitextual,' able to read and analyze texts flexibly in different ways" so that our sons and daughters don't end up as mere "decoders of information," distracted from the "deeper development of their intellectual potential." Early on in Proust and the Squid, she had noted that infants and toddlers who aren't told stories by their caregivers, who aren't read to from a very early age, nearly always fail to learn to read well themselves.

Ready to Read? Neuroscience Research Sheds Light on Brain Correlates of Reading

Ready to Read? Neuroscience Research Sheds Light on Brain Correlates of Reading
By Brenda Patoine


"While a high-level cognitive skill such as reading may seem like a natural province of brain research – all learning occurs in the brain, after all, and learning disabilities have clear brain correlates – until recently relatively few neuroscience laboratories have focused efforts on investigating the brain basis for this uniquely human skill. As neuroscience now delves into the neurobiology of reading, one thing is becoming clear: not all children’s brains are “wired” for reading in the same way.

Researchers are finding increasing evidence linking reading ability to subtle differences in the neural pathways. These pathways connect and coordinate brain regions involved in the elemental skills that comprise reading proficiency, from visual recognition of letters and words to phonological processing, to higher-level systems that enable content comprehension.
In particular, new techniques in neuroimaging are beginning to shed light on the neurobiological underpinnings of “reading readiness” and subtle brain differences that may help explain the wide variance of reading proficiency among children. These emerging data are illuminating the neural bases for the longstanding observation that reading abilities run a wide gamut from exceptional to below normal – the latter sometimes dipping to a level that society typically terms as reading-disabled.
But some researchers are wary of labeling kids as such, with all the consequent implications for academic stigmatization, lowered self-esteem, and family strife, and prefer to think of high- and low-achieving readers as merely at opposite ends of a normal distribution of skill proficiencies.
“My perspective, after 40 years of working on this entity we call ‘reading disability’ or ‘dyslexia,’ is that we need to be thinking of it as a variant of normal, rather than an abnormality,” said Martha Bridge Denckla, a research scientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. She suggests reading can be better understood as a talent, a biologically bestowed gift that is not doled out equally to everyone.
“There is variability at the highest level of the brain for a whole bunch of different things we call talents,” said Denckla. “We accept completely that there are people who do not have whatever the neurological basis for musical talent may be – we just say they don’t have that ‘ear’ for music. Well, people can also be born with an untalented ‘ear’ for the speech sounds of language, which makes it very difficult to connect with an alphabetic system and be proficient at reading.”

An ‘Inconvenient Difference’

Rather than a disability, Denckla prefers to think of people who have difficulty reading as having an “inconvenient difference in biological organization” – though she is quick to point out that the disability moniker is crucial for enabling struggling kids to get the help they need in the education system because of the way special-education laws are set up.
Stanford University psychologist Brian Wandell echoed this sentiment: “Historically, people have assumed that all children’s brains come adequately equipped and ready to learn to read,” just as with learning to speak, which occurs naturally without much training. But, he said, “Sometimes, there is a natural distribution of capabilities. Reading is probably the hardest thing we teach people to do in the education system. There are some kids who are just going to have a hard time.”

Taken as a whole, Denckla said, these results suggest that in children who have difficulty reading, “the brain’s ‘wiring diagram’ is just a little bit different, better thought of as an anomaly than an abnormality. For all we know, it may have some benefit for some other activities, but it appears to be somewhat disadvantageous for reading.”
There are many examples, she pointed out, of highly successful people who are not so great at basic academic skills like reading, from Albert Einstein to Charles Schwab. “It turns out that the talent for reading – and particularly for reading quickly, which makes it useful – is not distributed to every human being, and not in direct proportion to one’s other talents,” Denckla said.

“If these fibers are weak, it may be that the signals aren’t coming in strong enough, or at the proper rate,” he said. Using larger text or three-dimensional characters, for example, or somehow manipulating the timing of the textual inputs, might “amp up the signal” enough to make a difference, he said. A similar principle has been used successfully to remediate language-based learning disabilities."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Phonological sensitivity and memory in children with a foreign language learning difficulty

Phonological sensitivity and memory in children with a foreign language learning difficulty

Paola Palladino, Marcella Ferrari


The phonological processing and memory skills of 12- and 13-year-old Italian children with difficulty in learning English as a foreign language (foreign language learning difficulty, FLLD) were examined and compared with those of a control group matched for age and nonverbal intelligence. Three experiments were conducted. A dissociation between verbal and visuo-spatial working memory was observed when compared to the control group; children with FLLD showed a poorer performance in a phonological working memory task but performed to a comparable level in a visuo-spatial working memory task (Experiment 1). In Experiment 2 the word length and the response modality of an auditory word span task were manipulated in order to examine the efficiency of the phonological loop and the relevance of the spoken output. The FLLD group did not show sensitivity to the word length effect and showed no advantage in the picture pointing recall condition. In Experiment 3 children with FLLD were shown to be sensitive to phonological similarity but again they showed neither a word length effect nor a slower articulation speed. Furthermore, in all three experiments children with FLLD were shown to be less efficient in phonological sensitivity tasks and this deficit appeared to be independent of the phonological memory problem. All three experiments consistently showed that children with FLLD have an impairment in phonological memory and phonological processing, which appear to be independent from one other but both contribute to the children's difficulty in learning a second language.

Why we learn languages

There is no single answer, reason, path. Some of these men had to learn the language in 6-12 months.

Six Who Served

Gene Sosin

"The day after Pearl Harbor, I was on the living floor of my fraternity house, Beta Sigma Rho, listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s broadcast. We were stunned. I had graduated from Columbia in June 1941 but had remained to take my master’s in French. I remember going to class that day. I had a professor of 19th-century French literature and criticism, and he encouraged us to be firm and have resolve, and not to lose our spirits, because our way of life will prevail.

It was obvious to us that we would have to serve in some way or another. The father of one of my fraternity brothers said to me, “You’re a good linguist, you got honors in French. Take Japanese immediately. There will be a desperate need for Americans who know Japanese.”

So I enrolled in an intensive Japanese class in the spring semester. A member of our course was Henry Graff, who later became a professor of history at Columbia. By the time the class ended, we could read and write pretty well, so when military recruiting officers came to Columbia, it was a gold mine for them. The Navy snapped up several of us.

In June 1942 we left on the Trail Blazer from Pennsylvania Station to Chicago. There we boarded the Denver Zephyr and took a bus to Boulder, 34 miles
away, to the Navy Japanese Language School. It was originally located at the University of California at Berkeley, but because of that tragic page in American history where the Japanese were moved inland, the whole school was relocated to the University of Colorado. A member of my Columbia College graduating class transferred from Berkeley — William Theodore de Bary, who later became chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and provost of Columbia. We were pretty good at Japanese because of the training we had had at Columbia, so for the first few months of school, we did a minimum of homework while everyone else caught up. We got to go horseback riding and went swimming in the lake. That was fun. We were commissioned in July 1943 as ensigns.

For the first few months we translated Japanese diaries taken from the bodies of soldiers in the Pacific. Here were young men our age who had obviously perished. And the bloodstained pages were indicative of the conditions under which they died. They wrote simple things: the feelings that they had at the time. The human tragedy of war was so stark for us. We couldn’t help but empathize with these gallant people who fought for the things they believed in. But the wrong goals, we felt.

If I hadn’t learned Japanese, I probably would have been drafted and ended up in the infantry."

Fatty foods may cause cocaine-like addiction

Fatty foods may cause cocaine-like addiction

What does this have to do with language learning? Everything.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Language without grammar 2

If we assumed the existence of a language processing mechanism as described in the previous post and grammar were reduced to nothing but a collection of residual records of how this computational system goes about combining words, the question remains as to how adult language learners should go about acquiring a new language/building a new mechanism. Are adults even able to reverse engineer a brand new language processing unit (LPU)? Are all adult language learners instead building a translation mechanism? Is translation a scaffold towards building the new mechanism?

Now, we know that words have partcular properties. Do we try to discover these properties by ourselves, or should we look at descriptions (grammar)? A description would contribute towards the speed of language acquisition. It would also reinforce translation. Memory decay and constant refreshment through native examples should greatly attenuate this effect. There is no guarantee that trying to soak up the language through exposure would not result in subconscious (or even conscious) translation.

So, the use of aids should be deemed beneficial. How should we use these aids? From the above, I would assume that the best approach would be to dive into the text and simply look up the meanings. The properties of words should be inferred. I don't see why a grammar could not also be consulted, albeit sparingly, as a reference book. So, consult it, don't study it. Do this until you can get the gist of things and later whenever the meaning is absolutely crucial to understanding the gist. Or don't. My main reason for not using the dictionary is that it's six feet away, under the table. And it's heavy.

Breaking into a new language language, with or without the use of aids is the first step. Even high levels of comprehension however do not guarantee adequate production. Language use may guarantee automatization but not necessarily native-like fluency. This disconnect seems to confirm the existence of a very complex mechanism.

On the silent period.

On the silent period

November 14, 2009 by Solnushka

You have a bit of a love/ hate relationship with a man named Stephen Krashen.

Not that he knows you exist, mind. He’s a luminary in the field of research into language acquisition*, although his entire body of work seems to consist of him stating the bleeding obvious and then giving it a seriously researched kind of name, preferably accompanied by a nice, completely unprovable, formula and being hailed as a visionary**.

To be fair, when he started out he was battling against the prevailing language teaching method called audiolingualism. Based on behaviorism, it was a pedagogical style a bit like training a dog not to shit on the carpet. A student makes a mistake with cohesive devices, has his nose thoroughly rubbed in it, listens to a lot of Beethoven, and eventually becomes too traumatised ever to use ‘however’ to join two ideas in one sentence ever again.

Krashen’s big revelation was to point out that, as we learn much better if we are feeling happy, motivated, confident and anxiety-free, some aspects of this approach might not be terribly efficient.

Of course, Krashen also called it ‘the affective filter hypothesis’. Much to your irritation, it’s a phrase that seems to have made its way straight to the hindbrain of the EFL profession and stuck there.

But just because you have a proper cynical bristle at any claims that being pleasant, especially pleasantness given a special name, is the key to saving the planet, doesn’t necessarily make the claims wrong. The reason why he irritates you so much is that you agree with him about almost everything, you just don’t like having to use the phrase ‘comprehensible input’ before anyone else will agree about the importance of grading your language when talking to students of a second language.

That said, you’ve always been suspicious of his ideas about the ’silent period’ (TM) in language acquisition***.

You once watched a very amusing video of him explaining this theory. The way he tells it, the entire idea came about as a result of him being unable to get his (Japanese?) neighbours’ kids to produce any words in English for months and months and months and months, despite being on the receiving end of his expertise as a non-teacher-of but thinker-in-depth-about language.

Yet finally they did speak! And it was as if a flood barrier had opened and lo, Stephen did behold that before we are ready to communicate we need to spend a certain amount of time listening to and understanding language first. He recommends that students are not pushed into using the target language in classrooms but that art should mirror real life and they should be allowed to acquire language naturally. Just like babies do in their first language.

Now normally you hesitate to use yourself as an example of how people learn languages because in fact you don’t. Learn languages that is. Or even acquire them. In fact, you especially don’t acquire them. You spent ten months listen to Russian the first time round and didn’t pick up a word. You sent seven more years there and still can’t hold your own in conversation. The times when your Russian made any ground was, in fact, the times when you were being forced to actually use the bloody language, which is why your domestic Russian is much better than anything else, including, occasionally, English, thanks to your non-English speaking MiL.

It’s also why children, any children, don’t learn to speak by watching TV. The input can be as comprehensible as you like, but there’s no interaction, no struggle for communication and ultimately, no acquisition. As the BabyEinsteiners found out to their cost. In your opinion, the reason why babies spend so long listening to the language before producing it has more to do with physical ability to produce, combined with a certain mental immaturity. Look at the success of baby signing, for example. Give him the tools to use language before his lips are able to co-ordinate with his tongue and he will take that opportunity. He’s not waiting around for any other reason.

Of course, this one of Krashen’s theories isn’t at all where your profession is now. Now you’re all about the task-based learning. Learning to communicate through having a go at it, being given feedback on a performance and then going again. Forcing the buggers to interact, in effect.

But you are up close and personal to a case of the silent period in action at the moment because the Star is being stubborn about producing his first word.

Or at least, a word that he uses more than once, in an appropriate context, without excessive prompting.

You aren’t too bothered. It’s clear he understands. He’ll point at things you ask him to. He’ll point at things Papa asks him to. He’ll bring you a book when you suggest it. He’ll even put them away when Babushka gives the command.

So you suspect he’s being excessively noncommittal because he is being brought up bilingually.

‘There’s a train!’ shouts Mummy, gleefully. ‘A train!’

‘Poezd,’ says Babushka, a few minutes later. ‘Smotri poezd!’

‘Duck!’ Mummy points out. ‘Ducky duck duck!’

‘Utka!’ Babushka exclaims. ‘Uty uty utka!’

‘Helicopter!’ yells Mummy, gesturing madly. ‘It’s a helicopter!’

‘Vertalot! challenges Babushka. ‘Eta vertalot!’

The Star therefore has wisely come to a compromise. He makes noises which both Mummy and Babushka agree on.

Anything on wheels is now greeted by ‘toot toot!’ Dogs are growled at, cows**** receive something approximating a moo, and he caws when he sees a crow. All things he has been taught, mainly by his Babushka, who is excellent at coming up with toddler friendly sounds.

Still, you will be relieved when you can get onto the next stage of his language development proper.

Teaching him the correct use of the word ‘however’. Naturally.

And now for something completely related:

Tom: The soup is cold, Mommy.
Mommy: Tom, you never spoke before!
Tom: The soup was never cold before.

*He’s also, you gather, a bit of an activist in the war zone of bilingual education.

**Of course, it’s easy to dis the inventor of sliced bread now.

***Sadly, ‘language acquisition’ is another phrase Krashen has patented.

****In pictures. This is central London.

Language without Grammar

Language without Grammar

to appear in the Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, edited by Nick Ellis & Peter Robinson, published by Erlbaum

William O’Grady
University of Hawaii

Sentences have systematic properties. Subjects occur in a structurally
higher position than direct objects. Only some word orders are acceptable. Verbs
agree with certain nominals, but not others. Relative clauses are formed in
particular ways. Reflexive pronouns have a narrowly circumscribed set of
possible antecedents. And so forth.

Comment: This, and the "so forth" represent very good evidence that a skilled language learner should go straight for the jugular, dive into authentic material armed with a dictionary and simply plough through it.

The factors to which emergentists turn for their explanations vary
considerably, ranging from features of physiology and perception, to processing
and working memory, to pragmatics and social interaction, to properties of the
input and of the learning mechanisms.

This sort of approach offers a way to think about language without
grammar. What it basically says is that language and languages are the way they
are because of what happens when words with particular properties are assembled
in real time in the course of actual speech and comprehension. A preliminary
illustration of how this might work involves the design of sentence structure.

Responsibility for the actual mechanics of sentence formation falls to a
computational system, which operates on words and morphemes drawn from the
lexicon, combining them in particular ways to construct phrases and sentences.
The computational system corresponds roughly to what one might think of as

The particular computational system that I propose is indistinguishable in
its structure and functioning from a processor. It operates in a linear manner, it
combines elements, and it checks to make sure that lexical requirements are being
satisfied. However, unlike classic processors, it is entirely unconstrained by
grammatical principles, obeying a single efficiency-related imperative that is
independent of language—it must minimize the burden on working memory, the
pool of resources that supports operations on representation (e.g., Carpenter,
Miyake, and Just, 1994; Robinson, 2002).

As I see them, ‘syntactic structures’ are nothing but a fleeting residual
record of how the computational system goes about combining words.

A metaphor may help clarify this point. Traditional UG-based approaches
to language focus on the ARCHITECTURE of sentences, positing principles that lay
down an intricate innate grammatical blueprint for language. As I see it though,
there are no architects. There are just carpenters, who design as they build, limited
only by the material available to them (words with particular properties) and by
the need to complete their work as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
On this view then, there is no grammar per se. There is a lexicon that
includes an inventory of words and information about the particular arguments
that they require. And there is a computational system, which is just a processor
that combines words one at a time in a linear fashion. The processor is driven by
efficiency considerations that are designed to ease the burden on working
memory, but it has no special properties beyond this.
This idea runs against long-standing views within linguistics, calling into
question one of the few points on which there is a (near) consensus—the
existence of grammar. This cannot be taken lightly. After all, grammar—and
especially Universal Grammar—offers powerful explanations for a wide and
varied range of problems that arise in the study of syntax, typology, acquisition,
and other areas central to the field. The remainder of this paper is devoted to a
consideration of these matters.

World's First Free ELT Textbook

World's First Free-to-Share Commercial ELT Textbook

Co-authors Adam Gray and Marcos Benevides have agreed to release their new reading title, Fiction in Action: Whodunit, under a Creative Commons license.

The textbook was inspired by Krashen's "narrow reading" approach.

The Case for Narrow Reading

The Case for Narrow Reading

The Case for Narrow Reading

Stephen Krashen
Language Magazine 3(5):17-19, (2004)

Most foreign and second language classes provide students with exposure to a variety of topics. Beginning level texts typically jump from topic to topic (e.g. "shopping," "ordering food," "families"), "readers" usually include several different kinds of short articles (e.g. "nonverbal communication," "mind, body and health,") and short stories, and introductory courses in literature usually give the student only one short example of each author's work. Only later, in advanced courses, does a second language student "specialize," e.g. by taking classes in "20th century fiction," and only the most advanced students focus on the work of a single author. The assumption behind this is that exposure to different topics, genres, and styles is beneficial.

This may be all wrong. It may be that narrow input is much more efficient for second language acquisition. It may be much better if second language acquirers specialize early rather than late. This means reading several books by one author or about a single topic of interest. (I focus here on reading, but the idea of narrow input has been applied to listening as well; see e.g. Krashen, 1996; Rodrigo and Krashen, 1996; Dupuy, 1999).

The case for narrow reading is based on the idea that the acquisition of both structure and vocabulary comes from many exposures in a comprehensible context, that is, we acquire new structures and words when we understand messages, many messages, that they encode. Narrow reading facilitates this process in several ways.

First, since each writer has favorite expressions and a distinctive style, and each topic has its own vocabulary and discourse, narrow reading provides built- in review.

Second, background knowledge is a tremendous facilitator of comprehension. An acquirer of English reading a John Grisham novel who understands the legal system in the U.S. will understand the book much better than someone unfamiliar with courts and legal procedures in the U.S. The reader with better background will also acquire more English from the novel, because it is more comprehensible. Narrow readers gain more contextual knowledge as they read narrowly: The more one reads in one area, the more one learns about the area, and the easier one finds subsequent reading in the area (and the more one acquires of the language). Reading one John Grisham novel will make subsequent John Grisham novels more comprehensible.

An example of this can be termed "the first few pages" effect (pointed out to me by Mari Wesche; see also Yang, 2001). Intermediate foreign language students, reading a novel in the foreign language, often report that they find the first few pages of a new author's work tough going. After this initial difficulty, the rest of the book goes much easier. This is due to the fact that the context, the story, was new, and, in addition, the reader had not adjusted to the author's style. Providing only short and varied selections never allows language acquirers to get beyond this stage. Instead, it forces them to move from frustration to frustration.

It may be argued that narrow reading produces only the ability to read in one area. This is not true. Deep reading in any topic will provide exposure to a tremendous amount of syntax and vocabulary that is used in other topics. Any technical field, for example, will use "subtechnical" vocabulary, words such as "function," "inference," "isolate," "relation," etc. (Cowan, 1974). Also, readers typically do not read only one author or in one area for the rest of their lives; they gradually expand their reading (for evidence that high school students gradually expand their reading interests as they read more, see LaBrant, 1958).

The clearest advantage of narrow reading, however, is that it is potentially very motivating. In any anthology, it is certain that most topics are not of great interest to most readers. The combination of new vocabulary, unfamiliar style, lack of context, and lack of interest in the subject matter insures that much reading remains an exercise in deliberate decoding. In contrast, narrow reading on a topic of real interest has a chance of resulting in the reader really reading for the message, for meaning, in early stages of language acquisition.

There is some evidence supporting the narrow reading idea. Lamme (1976) found that good readers in English as a first language tended to read more books by a single author and books from a series, a result that many readers of this paper can identify with, former devotees of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Bobsey Twins. More recently, Cho and Krashen (1994, 1995) reported considerable enthusiasm for reading and substantial vocabulary development among adult second language acquirers who read books in the Sweet Valley series; readers rapidly moved from Sweet Valley Kids (second grade level) to Sweet Valley Twins (fourth grade level) to Sweet Valley High (fifth and sixth grade level). Several readers in this study had never read a book in English for pleasure before, but became fanatic Sweet Valley fans.

Here are some suggestions for those who want to see for themselves if this works, who want to try narrow reading in a language they have some competence in, but want to improve in:

Lower your standards. Read only material in the second language that is genuinely fun and interesting, material that is so easy that you probably feel guilty reading it in your primary language. This is your excuse to read comics, magazines, detective stories, romances, etc. There is no shame in reading translations.

Reading at this stage does not have to make you a better person, does not have to give you insight into other cultures, and does not have to improve your knowledge of history or science. But if you do enough narrow reading, you will be much better prepared to read "demanding" texts.

Don't worry about pushing ahead rapidly to harder and to different material. This will happen on its own. The best way to expand might be a gradual movement from one field to a closely related field, taking advantage of the overlap in context and language.

If the book or magazine is too hard, or not really interesting, stop reading and find something else. The goal is to find material that is so engaging, and so easy, that you will forget that it is in another language. You want reading material that requires no self-discipline to read.

Carry the book or magazine with you everywhere. You may feel that you don't have time to read, but if you carry your book with you, the world will conspire to give you time. Take your book out when you are standing in line, waiting for a bus, and when waiting for service. (It may be my imagination, but I have the feeling that waiters, hotel clerks, and other service personnel suddenly recognize your existence and became very eager to help when they see you reading.)

I have been doing this myself. For the last five years, I have been ordering and reading Star Trek novels in French and German from Amazon, translations from English. They are inauthentic, have no cultural information, and make little contribution to my intellectual life. But they are easy to read (I have a great deal of background knowledge in this area), and very pleasurable. Narrow reading works.


Cho, K.S. and Krashen, S. 1994. Acquisition of vocabulary from the Sweet Valley Kids series. Journal of Reading 37: 6620667.

Cho, K.S. and Krashen, S. 1995. From Sweet Valley Kids to Harlequins in one year. California English 1,1: 18-19.

Dupuy, B. 1999. Narrow listening: An alternative way to develop listening comprehension in the foreign language classroom. System 24(1):97-100.

Krashen, S. 1996. The case for narrow listening. System 24(1): 97-100.

LaBrant, L. 1958. An evaluation of free reading. In C. Hunnicutt and W. Iverson (Eds.), Research in the Three R's. New York: Harper and Brothers, pp. 154-161.

Lamme, L. 1976. Are reading habits and abilities related? Reading Teacher 30: 21-27.

Rodrigo, V. and Krashen, S. 1996. La aplicación del argumento de la audición enfocada en el Aula de Clase. Granada English Teaching Assocation, 4:2): 71-75.

Yang, A. 2001. reading and the non-academic learner: A mystery solved. System 29(4):451-466.

The Influence of Frequency and Semantic Similarity on How Children Learn Grammar

The Influence of Frequency and Semantic Similarity on How Children Learn Grammar

Kirsten Abbot-Smith
University of Kent

Michael Tomasello
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Lexically based learning and semantic analogy may both play a role in the learning of grammar. To investigate this, 5-year-old German children were trained on a miniature language (nominally English) involving two grammatical constructions, each of which was associated with a different semantic verb class.Training was followed by elicited production and grammaticality judgement tests with ‘trained verbs’ and a ‘generalization’ test, involving untrained verbs. In the ‘trained verbs’ judgement test the children were above chance at associating particular verbs with the constructions in which they had heard them. They did this significantly more often with verbs which they had heard especially frequently in particular constructions, indicating lexically based learning. There was also an interaction between frequency and semantic class (or the particular verbs). In the generalization judgement test the children were at chance overall. In the elicited production generalization test 75% of the children used the same construction for all items.

First Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, 79-101 (2010)
DOI: 10.1177/0142723709350525

Usage-based and emergentist approaches to language acquisition

Usage-based and emergentist approaches to language acquisition
Heike Behrens

It was long considered to be impossible to learn grammar based on linguistic experience alone. In the past decade, however, advances in usage-based linguistic theory, computational linguistics, and developmental psychology changed the view on this matter. So-called usage-based and emergentist approaches to language acquisition state that language can be learned from language use itself, by means of social skills like joint attention, and by means of powerful generalization mechanisms. This paper first summarizes the assumptions regarding the nature of linguistic representations and processing. Usage-based theories are nonmodular and nonreductionist, i.e., they emphasize the form-function relationships, and deal with all of language, not just selected levels of representations. Furthermore, storage and processing is considered to be analytic as well as holistic, such that there is a continuum between children's unanalyzed chunks and abstract units found in adult language. In the second part, the empirical evidence is reviewed. Children's linguistic competence is shown to be limited initially, and it is demonstrated how children can generalize knowledge based on direct and indirect positive evidence. It is argued that with these general learning mechanisms, the usage-based paradigm can be extended to multilingual language situations and to language acquisition under special circumstances.

Linguistics. Volume 47, Issue 2, Pages 383–411, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/LING.2009.014, /March/2009

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Downfall of Grammar

A good movie, BTW.

Things that make you stoopid

As requested by Keith. Smoking, alcohol, drugs. We know that substance abuse can damage brain cells, I hope. Here are a few other things. To be updated. Duh.

Baby Einstein

Email (haha) - effective IQ (reversible)


Prenatal pollution


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The War Against Grammar

The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy

Book review by Phyllis Morris Lotchin

"Calling chapter one “America the Grammarless,” the author contends that the campaign to de-emphasize grammar became fashionable in the 1960s. Students who have come of age since then have very little grasp of grammar, and now many teachers could not teach grammar even if they chose to. He cites an NCTE report issued in 1963, which stated that teaching formal grammar has a deleterious effect on composition. In 1985 an official resolution adopted by this organization proclaimed that the value of grammar exercises is not supported by theory and research (a claim Prof. Mulroy would refute) and is a “deterrent” to the improvement of speaking and writing (6). The 1991 NCTE-issued Handbook on Research on Teaching the English Language Arts declared that teaching traditional grammar is “not just useless but pernicious” (6). Although a few voices were raised in protest, the NCTE’s views were repeated endlessly without the benefit of research or authority.

The results have been disastrous. American students now test as “mediocre” in reading abilities in relation to other wealthy nations. Prof. Mulroy argues strongly that an understanding of how the language works is necessary to read complex texts with understanding. Verbal SAT scores began to sink in 1963 with fewer students showing outstanding verbal ability. In 1996, the College Board “recentered” the SAT scores to camouflage this trend (10).
In colleges and universities, this lack of grammar instruction has had several unfortunate results. Fewer American students now study a foreign language...

A unique feature of this book grows out of Prof. Mulroy’s training as a classics scholar. A large part of the text traces the history of the study of grammar, beginning with the ancient Greeks, a time in which “grammar entered education in the West as the first and most important of the seven liberal arts” (28). Classical scholars such as Aristotle argued that grammar perfects the understanding of literature and contributes to eloquent self-expression.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a “full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred” (60). It happened under the banner of John Dewey’s “progressive education” (60). With more students entering high school, the progressives thought education should be more “practical”—training young people for vocations and the challenges of adult life (61). Although these educators did not present a unified disregard of “common essentials,” they disliked “formalism.” This included the study of grammar, in which there are definite and predetermined answers for all questions...

Yet times are changing. Happily for those who hold that grammar taught systematically in the early grades is beneficial to students in their later academic careers, both research and practice are coming around to support their view."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Does Puberty Make You Stupid?

Mild stress is advantageous to learning in adolescence

"Actually, mild stress has been shown to improve learning in people; too much does the opposite. Smith wonders whether the discovery may help explain certain learning declines, like the drop-off in the ability to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent, which occurs sometime around puberty."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mark Twain about German

Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe
these examples:


These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.


Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across
the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape but at
the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up
his way; ... "

Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, "That Awful German Language"

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, "That Awful German Language"

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

...mastery of the art and spirit of the Germanic language enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars.

Christian Science

It is easier for a cannibal to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through the eye of a rich man's needle that it is for any other foreigner to read the terrible German script.


A dream...I was trying to explain to St. Peter, and was doing it in the German tongue, because I didn't want to be too explicit.

Mark Twain's speeches

It's awful undermining to the intellect, German is; you want to take it in small doses, or first you know your brains all run together, and you feel them flapping around in your head same as so much drawn butter...

The Germans are exceedingly fond of Rhine wines; they are put up in tall, slender bottles, and are considered a pleasant beverage. One tells them from vinegar by the label...

I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it, but I talk it best through an interpreter.

A Tramp Abroad

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.

Mark Twain's Notebook

In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language.

Notebook #14

Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.


I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can't learn in Berlin except the German language.

Mark Twain's Notebook

...the circumstances and the atmosphere always have so much to do in directing a conversation, especially a German conversation, which is only a kind of an insurrection, anyway.

The American Claimant, Etc., "Meisterschaft: In Three Acts"

I would not rob you of your food or your clothes or your umbrella, but if I caught your German out I would take it. But I don't study any more,- I have given it up.

From a Letter to Mr. Bayard Taylor

By reading keep in a state of excited igorance, like a blind man in a house afire; flounder around, immensely but unintelligently interested; don't know how I got in and can't find the way out, but I'm having a booming time all to myself.
Don't know what a Schelgesetzentwurf is, but I keep as excited over it and as worried about it as if it were my own child. I simply live on the Sch.; it is my daily bread. I wouldn't have the question settled for anything in the world.

Mark Twain, a Biography

It is not like studying German, where you mull along, in a groping, uncertain way, for thirty years; and at last, just as you think you've got it, they spring the subjunctive on you, and there you are. No- and I see now plainly enough, that the great pity about the German language is, that you can't fall off it and hurt yourself. There is nothing like that feature to make you attend strictly to business.

Taming the Bicycle

The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it's all together. It's downright inhuman to split it up. But that's just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.

Disappearance of Literature

I don't speak German well but several experts have assured me that I write it like an angel. Maybe so, maybe so- I don't know. I've not yet made any acquaintances among the angels. That comes later, whenever it please the Deity. I'm not in any hurry.

Concordia speech

How charmed I am when I overhear a German word which I understand!

From a letter to W. D. Howells