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Posts Tagged ‘language

When was the first language? When was the first human?

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Reading a new book of mine, Steven Pinker’s The sense of style, 2014, I was bemused by his casual remark on the first page of the first chapter, ‘The spoken word is older than our species…’. Hmmm. As Bill Bryson put it in A short history of nearly everything, ‘How do they know that?’. And maybe I should dispense with ‘they’ here – how does Pinker know that? My previous shallow research has told me that nobody knows when the first full-fledged language was spoken. Furthermore, we’re not sure about the first full-fledged human either. Was it mitochondrial Eve? But what about her mum? And her mum’s great-grandad? Which raises an old conundrum, one that very much exercised Darwin, and which creationists today love to make much of, the conundrum of speciation.

Recently, palaeontologists discovered human-like remains that might be 300,000 years old in a Moroccan cave. Or, that’s the story as I first heard it. Turns out they were discovered decades ago and dated at about 40,000 years, though some of their features didn’t match with that age. They’ve been reanalysed using thermoluminescense dating, a complicated technique involving measuring light emitted from escaping electrons (don’t ask). No doubt the dating findings will be disputed, as well as findings about just how human these early humans – about 100,000 years earlier than the usual Ethiopian suspects – really are. It’s another version of the lumpers/splitters debate, I suspect. It’s generally recognised that the Moroccan specimens have smaller brains than those from Ethiopia, but it’s not necessarily the case that they’re direct ancestors, proof that there was a rapid brain expansion in the intervening period.

Still there’s no doubt that the Moroccan finding, if it holds up, is significant, as at the very least it pushes back findings on the middle Stone Age, when the making of stone blades began, according to Ian Tattersall, the curator emeritus of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History. But as to tracing our ancestry back to ‘the first humans’, we just can’t do this at present, we can’t join the dots because we have far too few dots to join. It’s a question whether we’ll ever have enough. Evolution isn’t just gradual, it’s divergent, bushy. Where does Homo naledi, dated to around 250,000 years ago, fit into the picture? What about the Denisovans?

Meanwhile, new research and technologies continue to complicate the picture of humans and their ancestors. It’s been generally accepted that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived between 5 and 7 million years ago in Africa, but a multinational team of researchers has cast doubt on the assumption of African origin. The research focused on dental structures in two specimens of the fossil hominid Graecopithecus freybergi, found in Greece and Bulgaria. They found that the roots of their premolars were partially fused, making them similar to those of the human lineage, from Ardepithecus and Australopithecus to modern humans. These fossils date to around 7.2 million years ago. It’s conjectured that the possible placing of the divergence further north than has previously been hypothesised has much to do with environmental factors of the time. So, okay, African conditions were more northerly in those days…

So these new findings and new dating techniques are adding to the picture without clarifying it much, as yet. They’re like tiny pieces in a massive jigsaw puzzle, gradually accumulating, sometimes shifted to places of better fit, and so tantalisingly offering new perspectives on what the whole history might look like. I can imagine that in this field, as in so many others, researchers are chafing against their own mortality, as they yearn for a clearer, more comprehensive future view.

Meanwhile, speculations continue. Colin Barras offers his own in a recent New Scientist article, in which he considers the spread of H sapiens in relation to H naledi and H floresiensis. The 1800 or so H naledi fossil bones, discovered in a South African cave four years ago by a team of researchers led by Lee Berger, took a while to be reliably dated to around 250,000 years (give or take some 50,000), just a bit earlier than the most reliably dated H sapiens (though that may change). Getting at a precise age for fossils is often difficult and depends on many variables, in particular the surrounding rock or sediment, and many researchers were opting for a much earlier period on the evidence of the specimens themselves – their small brain size, their curved fingers and other formations. But if the most recent dating figure is correct (and there’s still some doubt) then, according to Barras, it just might be that H sapiens co-existed, in time and place, with these more primitive hominids, and outcompeted them. And more recent dating of H floresiensis, those isolated (so far as we currently know) hominids from the Indonesian island of Flores, has ruled out that they lived less than 50,000 years ago, so their extinction, again, may have coincided with the spread of all-conquering H sapiens. Their remote island location may explain their survival into relatively recent times, but their ancestry is very much in dispute. A recent, apparently comprehensive analysis may have solved the mystery however. It suggests H floresiensis descended from an undiscovered ancestor that left Africa over 2 million years ago. Those who stayed put evolved into H habilis, the first tool makers. Those who left may have reached the Flores region more than 700,000 years ago. The analysis is based on detailed comparisons with many other hominid species and earlier ancestors.

I doubt there will ever be agreement on the first humans, or a very precise date. We’re not so easily defined. But what about the first language? Is it confined to our species?

Much of the speculation on this question focuses on our Neanderthal cousins as the most likely candidates. Researchers have examined the Neanderthal throat structure as far as possible (soft tissue doesn’t fossilise, which is a problem), and have found one intriguing piece of evidence that makes Neanderthal speech plausible. The semi-circular hyoid bone is located high in the human throat, and is found in the same place in the Neanderthal throat. Given that this bone is differently placed in the throat of our common ancestors, this appears to be an example of convergent evolution. We don’t know the precise role of the hyoid in speech, but it certainly affects the space of the throat, and its flexible relationship to other bones and signs of its ‘intense and constant activity’ are suggestive of a role in language. Examination of the hyoids of other hominids suggests that a rudimentary form of language may go back at least 500,000 years, but this is far from confirmed. It’s probable that language underwent a more rapid development between 75,000 and 50,000 years ago. It’s also worth noting that a full-fledged language doesn’t depend on speech, as signing proves. It may be that a more or less sophisticated gestural system preceded spoken language.

a selection of primate hyoid bones

Of course there’s an awful lot more to say on the origin of language, even if much of it’s highly speculative. I plan to watch all the best videos and online lectures on the subject, and I’ll post about it again soon.


Did Neanderthals Speak?

Written by stewart henderson

July 9, 2017 at 11:14 am

good vibes: a conversation about voiced and unvoiced consonants and other speech noises

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“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Canto: Okay, so now we’re getting into phonetics, is it? I’ve heard recently that some consonants are voiced, some unvoiced. Can you tell me what that means?

Jacinta: I think phonemics is the word. Or maybe phonology. Or maybe it is phonetics. Anyway don’t worry about the terminology, let’s look at your question. If I tell you that these five consonants are unvoiced: t, s, f, p, k, and that these five consonants are voiced: d, z, v, b, g, play around with those consonants in your mouth, that magnificent musical instrument, and see if you can work out the difference.

Canto: Okay, wow, I’ve noticed something. When I put my hand in front of my mouth and utter the first five, the unvoiced, I feel a blast of air hitting my hand. It doesn’t happen with the voiced consonants, or not nearly so much. Well, actually, no, ‘s’ isn’t like that, but the other four are. So that’s not it, though it’s an interesting thing to observe. But thinking voiced and unvoiced, that gets me somewhere. The voiced consonants all seem to be louder. Compare ‘z’ to ‘s’ for example. I seem to be forcing a sound out of my  mouth, a kind of vibration, whereas ‘s’ is just a ‘ssss’. A vibration too, of course, but softer. Unvoiced, I get that. ‘t’ seems to be just a mere touching of mouth parts and pushing air past them to make this very soft sound, ‘whereas ‘g’, ‘d’ and ‘b’ are more forceful, louder. And ‘v’, like ‘z’, makes a loud vibration. It’s funny, though – even as I make the sounds, and focus on how they’re made in my mouth, I’m damned if I can work out clearly the mechanics of those sounds. But of course researchers have got them thoroughly sorted out, right?

Jacinta: Well you’ve got the distinction between voiced and unvoiced pretty right. The key is that in a voiced consonant the vocal chords vibrate (actually, they’re vocal folds – they were mis-described way back in the day, actually as vocal cords, and the n
ame has stuck, with a musical embellishment). Here’s a trick: take the pair of consonants you mentioned, ‘s’ and ‘z’, and sound them out, while putting your hand to your throat, where the voice-box is…

Canto: But it’s not really a box?

Jacinta: The larynx, responsible for sound production among other things. A housing for the vocal folds. So what do you fee?

Canto: Yes I feel a strong vibration with ‘z’, and nothing, or the faintest shadow of a vibration with ‘s’.

Jacinta: So now try ‘f’ and ‘v’. Then t/d, p/b and k/g.

Canto: Got it, and never to be forgotten. So that’s all we need to know about voiced and unvoiced consonants?

Jacinta: It’s something that could be done with learners – without overdoing it. I’d only point it out to learners who are having trouble with those consonants. And it’s intrinsically interesting, of course.

Canto: So this raises questions about speech generally, and that great musical instrument you mentioned. Is the regular patterning of sound by our lips, our tongues and so on to make speech, is that very different for different languages, and is this a barrier for some people from different language backgrounds to learning English?

Jacinta: Well you know that there different ways of speaking in English, what we call accents and dialects, so there are different ways of saying English. For L2 learners, especially if they take up their L2 – in this case English – later rather than sooner, it’s unlikely that they’ll lose their L1 accent, but this is unlikely to affect comprehension if they can get the syntax right.

Canto: I’ve noticed that Vietnamese speakers in particular have trouble producing some English word endings. What’s that about?

Jacinta: The Viet language, like a lot of Asian languages, doesn’t have consonantal word endings. So that’s why they ‘miss’ plurals in speech (s,z), as well as saying ‘I lie’ for ‘I like’, and the like. They have the same problem with t, v, j and other consonants. They also have trouble with consonantal combos in the middle of words. And according to the ESLAN website, they ‘struggle greatly with the concept of combining purely alveolar sounds with post palatal ones’.

Canto: Eh?

Jacinta: Okay let’s learn this together. An alveolar consonant is one that employs the tongue against or close to the superior or upper alveolar ridge. That’s on the roof of the mouth getting close to the upper teeth, and it’s called alveolar because this is where the sockets of the teeth – the alveoli – are. You can feel a ridge there. English generally uses the tongue tip to produce apical consonants while French and Spanish, for example, uses the flat or blade of the tongue to produce laminal consonants.

Canto: So can you give me an example of an apical alveolar consonant?

Jacinta: Yes, the letter is called an alveolar nasal consonant. Try it, an
d note that the tongue tip rests on the alveolar ridge and sound is produced largely through the nasal cavity. The letter t is a voiceless alveolar stop consonant. It’s called a stop because it stops the airflow in the oral cavity, and it’s voiceless as there’s no vibration of the vocal folds. On the other hand the letter d is a voiced alveolar stop, differing from in that it involves a vibration of the vocal folds, a ‘voicing’.

Canto: Mmm, but I notice that with the tongue is a little less forward in where it hits the upper palate – behind the alveolar ridge, whereas with you’re almost at the base of the upper teeth.

Jacinta: Well, there are four specific variants of d. Your specific variant is postalveolar, whereas the other three are more forward – dental, denti-alveolar and alveolar.

Canto: So there’s this complex combinations of stops – stopping the airflow – voiced and unvoiced, where the vocal folds come into play (or not), nasalisation and other soundings, all of it pretty well unconscious, and delivered with various levels of stress (in both senses of the term). It’s all pretty amazing, and it’s no wonder that those interested in AI and robotics have realised that embodied consciousness is where it’s at, because we’re surely a long long way from developing a robot that can manage anything equivalent to human speech. And that’s just in terms of phonology, never mind syntax and morphology. But I’ve got a few other ‘sound’ terms knocking around in my head that I’d like explained. Tell me, what are fricatives and plosives?

Jacinta: Okay, well this is all about consonants. The letters p,t,k (unvoiced) and b,d,g (voiced) are all plosives in that ‘air flow from the lungs is interrupted by a complete closure being made in the mouth’. With fricatives – unvoiced f and s, voiced v and z – ‘the air passes through a narrow constriction that causes the air to flow turbulently and thus create a noisy sound’. I’m quoting from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). So for example, the difference between rice and rise is that the former uses an unvoiced fricative and rise uses a voiced one – very peculiar because rise uses ‘s’ which sounds like ‘z’ and ‘rice’ uses ‘c’ which can lead learners astray with the ‘k’ sound. If you’re interested in learning more…

Canto: We both are.

Jacinta: WALS online is a great database with 151 chapters describing the structural features of the world’s languages – phonological, grammatical and lexical. It’s published by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and should be a gr
eat starting place for an all-round knowledge of human language.

Canto: Just another of those must-reads…


Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2017 at 7:09 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – input matters

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“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

So Minna Kirjavainen ended her talk by emphasising the similarities between L1 and L2 learning. It’s a long hard slog, and we all make plenty of embarrassing faux pas along the way. Marjo Mitsutomi then began her elaborations on L2 learning by mentioning in passing the host of theories and approaches to SLA over the past few years – behaviourism, Chomsky’s universal grammar, Krashen’s hypotheses etc – before listing what they all generally agree on, and that is, firstly, that the first stage of L2 is necessarily different from that of L1, due to L1 influence; secondly that L2 learning generally starts later, and the critical period hypothesis might play a role, along with other biological or neurological constraints, and thirdly that there’s generally an issue of ‘interlanguage’, the sort of make-do syntax that’s neither quite L1 or L2.

Mitsutomi then introduced the ‘newest theory’ (and it’s new to me) in the field, chaos theory. As the name suggests, it proposes that language and its acquisition is multi-faceted and enormously complex. She quotes a proponent of the theory, A J van Lier, describing language as a complex adaptive system involving endless and multiform interactions between individual and environment. Another proponent describes it as dynamic, non-linear, adaptive and feedback-sensitive, self-organising and emergent. No doubt each of those terms could be fleshed out at great length, though whether it all amounts to a theory might be questionable. In any case Mitsutoni makes the obviously correct point that there are many many factors, with different loadings for each individual learner, that make SLA a very difficult long-term task. And of course it makes the task of the teacher difficult too, because every learner is in a different place with different issues. Nevertheless Mitsutomi identifies some key concepts:

  • negotiation for meaning – try to get learners to say something original and unrehearsed, to produce language that’s owned by the learner
  • noticing a gap – being aware, as a learner, of the gap between what you want/need to do and what you can do (the next step, which you should be taking in an encouraging environment, with the expectation that mistakes will be made again and again and gently corrected)
  • variables – for the educator, trying to take account of the many variables among learners, such as motivation, anxiety, production experience (many learners come from Asian ‘school English’ backgrounds where their production of English has been very limited, practically non-existent), L1 competence, etc, is a monumental task, and fossilisation is likely to always be a problem
  • rate and type of input, control of learning, and many other internal and external factors contribute to a sense of ‘chaos’ in the class with every learner varying in what they allow in, and what effort they expend.

Control of learning is a key issue Mitsutomi focuses upon, by emphasising how L2 ‘learners’ can control for not learning, in a way that L1 learners can’t, because learning L1 is learning language itself, and without that skill we’d be lost in the human world. So the L2 learner, safely aware of her full humanity as an effective L1 user, can and generally does choose how much effort to put into L2 acquisition.

So how can we motivate them to focus on L2 learning, considering the many distractions they’re dealing with? Mitsutomi  employs a quote from one of the early proposers of chaos theory, Vera Menezes:

… the edge of chaos will be reached if students can get rich input, interact with proficient speakers, and if they can use the second language for social purposes, dealing with different oral, written or digital genres in formal and informal contexts.

So we need to provide learners with rich, stimulating, relevant content in a motivating environment. And the most motivating environment of all is one that’s embodied, that connects with feeling and action. And Mitsutomi emphasises authenticity, the creation of original thoughts in the L2, and the deciphering of meaning in unpredictable contexts – where, again, embodied clues will help.

So what are some examples of embodied teaching? Well one way is to recognise language that’s difficult for students and to see if there’s an embodied way of teaching it, of acting it out. Take the preposition ‘into’. I’ve noticed that EGP and EAPP students almost invariably don’t think of this in tests where prepositions are specifically asked for, they often write ‘in’ and get a half-mark, but ‘into’ is a kind of action preposition, which almost always goes with an action verb, specifically ‘go’ and ‘come’, but also ‘put’, so it’s perfect for a bit of embodied teaching. It’s a word containing two morphemes obviously, and its opposite is two words, ‘out of’, and these opposites might best be taught together. Ask students to take a pencil out of the pencil-case, and then to put the pencil into the case. Go out of the room, through the door, and come into the room, through the door. Ask the students what they’ve just done. Hopefully the actions will reinforce the language. If nothing else, they tend to be more stimulated, more engaged, when combining action with words in this way.

Some expressions used, and often abused, by learners in argument and comparative essays can often benefit from being taught in an embodied way. ‘On the one hand/on the other hand’ is a notorious example. Ask students to put something slightly heavy on one hand, and then to think of something equally heavy that might be put on the other hand to balance the argument. This might work wonders but then again maybe not, no harm in trying. Similar tricks might be tried with ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘on balance’ and any terms which have a physical sense of distance or weight or proportion to them. Of course there are limits, and abstract connecting words (conjunctions) such as ‘although’ and ‘whereas’ and their differentiation are fiendishly difficult to illustrate or adequately explain (though we should always try to have explanations handy). Alternatively, we should be actively discouraging the use of these kinds of terms – ‘whereas’ ‘although, ‘despite’, ‘in spite of’, because these are the sorts of terms that L1 users only get a handle on later. You won’t find too many five or six-year-old L1 speakers using them, yet in EAP classes we cram them in, or try to, when learners are still getting a handle on basic grammar and trying to build their basic vocabulary. In most cases ‘whereas’ can be replaced with ‘but’ in a straight swap. Words like ‘despite’ can be avoided through rearranging the sentence, and then only slightly. Let’s look at an example:

Despite having lived in Norway for ten years, he never got used to the cold.

Change to:

He had lived in Norway for ten years but had never got used to the cold.

The word ‘but’ could be replaced with ‘yet’, but using ‘yet’ in this way is also too abstract, and too confusing. Keep it simple – they will learn this through input in their own time. Advice to learners would be to use the simpler conjunctions, unless they’re quite certain about how to use the more abstract ones.

In the last paragraph I slipped in the word input.  This is a key term in second language acquisition, according to the linguist Bill van Patten of Michigan State University.  In this lecture van Patten claims that ‘after four decades of L2 research what has become crystal clear is language in the mind and brain is not built up from practice but from constant and consistent exposure to input’. He goes on to define input as ‘what readers hear or read in a communicative context’. He then makes a further, perhaps shocking claim that this language that they hear or read in these contexts is responded to ‘for its meaning not for its form or structure’. Meaningful input is essential for SLA, – that’s to say for the language to begin to exist inside the learner, as a mental thing, sensed and felt – and practice is not a substitute. Of course this raises issues for teaching, especially as  van Patten argues that role-playing within class is no substitute for real communication where meaning is negotiated. If it’s all about input and meaning, can L2 be taught in a classroom at all?

This raises questions about whether there is a difference between classroom learning and immersive acquisition, or rather (because there’s obviously a difference) whether classroom learning can ever substitute for the immersive circumstances of L1-type learning. In order to explore this further I want to engage with some of the highly influential ideas of Stephen Krashen, who apparently takes a dim view of much conventional second language teaching. Is what we’re doing a complete waste of time, or can we do it better? How should we be doing our job, considering the constraints and the expectations of ‘English for academic purposes’ in which we’re supposed to be transforming relatively low-level English users into potential university essayists in English?


Written by stewart henderson

February 6, 2017 at 11:33 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – an intro to the usage-based hypothesis of language learning

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don't you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

don’t you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

So now I’m going to describe and reflect on a rather more interesting video by two academics and teachers, Marjo Mitsutomi, a specialist in SLA, and Minna Kirjavainen, who researches first language acquisition. They’re working in the teaching of English in Osaka, and they’re describing the uni course they’ve just set up there. Kirjavainen, the first speaker, describes her research as being on ‘the acquisition of syntax and morphology in monolingual, typically developing children, from about the ages two to six’. So now for some definitions. How does syntax differ from grammar, and what is morphology? A rough answer is that a grammar involves everything about how a language works, which includes syntax, which is essentially about how words are ordered in sentences. Morphology is often described as the corollary of syntax. Grammar can be divided into syntax, the external economy of words (i.e. in sentences), and morphology, the internal economy of words (i.e. from morphemes). For example, ‘robbed’ contains the verb ‘rob’ plus the unit of meaning ‘-ed’, or ‘-bed’, which means ‘in the past’. But presumably ‘went’ is made up of two morphemes, ‘go’ and ‘in the past’, both of which are in a sense hidden in the word?

Kirjavainen describes herself as coming from the ‘usage-based, constructivist view-point’, and says

‘this means that I don’t assume there’s innate syntactic components in the child’s mind like many first language and second language acquisition researchers do. Instead, the usage-based viewpoint assumes that language exposure and general cognitive processes result in language acquisition in children.’

A slide accompanying this anouncement indicated that Michael Tomasello is one of the major developers of this approach. So I’ll need to familiarise myself with Tomasello’s work, especially as I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The language instinct, which appears to be an attempt to popularise Chomsky’s universal grammar theories. Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is something innate about grammar, though just what it is is hard to capture.

Kirjavainen is of the view that a child’s general cognitive processes (e.g. pattern finding, analogy-making and categorisation) together with exposure to language, lead to competent language acquisition. She argues that these processes are effective for non-linguistic tasks, so the same mechanisms are sufficient for decoding the language they hear and want to use. She divides her inquiry into first language acquisition into three questions:

  1. how do children learn to speak their native language?
  2. what kind of things do children pay attention to when they learn their native language?
  3. how do caregivers talk to children? What effect does it have on children’s language development?

Firstly, children pay a lot of attention to language input, and apparently research is starting to show that it’s not just lexical items but grammatical structures that children mirror from caregivers. The most frequently used grammatical structures of caregivers are the ones used earliest by children, and they then become the most used by children. So the ambient language heavily influences the child’s language development. The constructivists also argue that syntactic constructions are built on the language that children already know. So they chunk things together and try them out for effective communication with those around them, they absorb responses and corrections and adjust their language accordingly. Examples are ‘Mummy’, ‘I want mummy’, ‘Mummy do it’ ‘I want mummy do it’, ‘I want mummy to do it’.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me prima facie. Mitsotomi, who next takes up the talk, is of Finnish background like Kirjavainen, but with a more pronounced accent, having learned English later in life. She begins by mentioning the critical period hypothesis for SLA, which might be the subject of a future post. Her concern is in how SLA is affected not only by the towering presence of the learner’s L1, but by many other life experiences. So given these influences and possible constraints how do we create a space and an atmosphere conducive to SLA? Also, what does SLA mean to the identity of learners, and how is it that some acquire an L2 more quickly and effectively than others?

Kirjavainen then continues by introducing what might be seen as the obstacles to a collaboration between first and second language theorists. First, some linguists argue that there are inherent differences between first and second language learning. She lists three (out of many) common assumptions about these differences:

  1. all (typically developing) children learn to speak their L1 natively, whereas most people (with normal cognitive skills) don’t learn their L2 to a native-like standard
  2. children learn their L1 very quickly whereas it takes L2 learners years to master their target language
  3. L1 learners make few errors in comparison to L2 learners, i.e. children find it easier to learn the grammatical rules of their language, whereas L2 learners find it difficult to learn these rules

Kirjavainen questions the first assumption, first on the basis of vocabulary – a child’s L1 vocab will depend on her socio-economic background, the level of education, experience and language competence of those she’s learning from and other such factors. These factors also affect syntax, and she described a study of native speakers’ knowledge of and proficiency in the passive construction. The study compared the proficiency of university teaching staff (academics) with non-teaching staff. They were tested on their understanding of active and passive sentences based on pictures, a fairly easy test, and it was found that while both teaching and non-teaching staff had full understanding of the active constructions, only the academics had full understanding of the passive construction. The non-teaching staff were significantly below full understanding. The general point here is that not all native speakers know all the grammatical rules of their L1, and that it depends more on regular usage than is sometimes admitted.

Next Kirjavainen gets stuck into the claim that children learn their native language quickly. She points out that an average 5 year old is quite a competent L1 user, but far from having adult proficiency. She then does a breakdown of how many hours a day children have spent, up to the age of five, exposed to and using the L1. That’s 5 years@6-14 hours a day of exposure, and about 3.5 years@8-14 hours a day in using the language. Conclusion: it takes children years to reach a relatively high level of L1 proficiency.

All of this strikes me as really thought-provoking stuff, and some of the thoughts provoked in me are memories of my callow youth – for example an occasion when as a 15 year-old or so I found myself at a party full of uni students types, all a few years my senior, and was awed by their vocabulary and language proficiency, and fearful that I’d get roped into conversation and be mocked for my verbal incompetence. So, again, I’m finding Kirjavainen’s arguments persuasive here at first blush.

The third assumption is more or less demolished by Kirjavainen as she cites research by herself and others to show that children make lots of errors, especially between the ages of 18 months and 4 years – these include pronoun errors, omission of infinitival to, agreement errors, subject omissions and verb inflection errors. Even at five and upwards there are mistakes with past tense, relative clauses and complement clause constructions. A complement clause? I’ve only just heard of them, but let me explain.

Here are two examples of complement clauses, taken from Kidd et al, 2007.

(1)  That Rufus was late angered his boss.

(2)  Rufus could see that he had angered his boss.

The complement clauses are underlined. The first here functions as the subject of an ‘argument’ sentence, the second as the object. The second sentence is described as an unmarked case, in which the complementiser that is optional and generally not used in naturalistic speech. There are many other forms of complement clause construction, so I won’t get bogged down by exploring them here.

So this has been an enlightening post for me, and an enlightening view of a new (to me) usage-based constructivist view of language acquisition. Next time I’ll report on the latter part of this talk, which will focus more on the implications for SLA.

just a thought to end with

just a thought to end with

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2017 at 3:25 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – my first gleanings

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Some 35 years ago a new science was born. Now called cognitive science, it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 1994.

The above words, from over 20 years ago, now seem a little overblown. My experience as a general absorber of sciency stuff suggests that it’s still a bit premature to speak of a science of language, but of course we know more about it than ever before. My hope is to bring whatever knowledge I can glean from some of the fields mentioned above to my understanding of language in general, and second language acquisition in particular, with a view to helping others to acquire the English language, which is my job.

My method is to start in medias res, as an innocent little fish dropped into the vast ocean of knowledge about the subject that I hope and expect to find online and elsewhere.

My first encounter as I bob about in this ocean, is this video, which introduces me to what the speaker calls ‘the zone of proximal development’, and the ‘five stages of second language acquisition’. On a slide, the zone of proximal development (ZPD, in case I need to refer to it again) is defined as ‘the difference between what a student can do without help and what a student can do with help’. The speaker, Jane Hill, a Managing Consultant for English Language Learner Effectiveness, starts by telling SLA educators that they would benefit their students by teaching not only content but ‘the academic language of the content’, and presumably this ZPD is part of that academic language, as will be the five stages, not yet enunciated.

I have to say that in my fifteen years or so of teaching ESOL I’ve never mentioned the ZPD, nor any 5 stages, to learners. I do have a vague memory of coming across this ZPD concept years ago, but it obviously didn’t stick particularly well. Not surprisingly, if the definition given above is a generally accepted one, for it makes little sense to me – but I won’t dwell on that for now, except to say that I might look up this ZPG notion elsewhere to see if a better definition or elaboration of it can be found. Hill herself does elaborate further, by saying that we should know ‘where students are, and where they’re capable of working to with the help of a knowledgeable other’, and I find this more comprehensible but still problematic. We try to find out where learners are by listening to and reading (and assessing) their productions, and testing their reception of our productions and the productions of others (e.g. English texts). This isn’t always an easy process as their production and reception can vary from day to day and between tasks. And surely it’s even harder to find out ‘where they’re capable of working to’. This is partly because learners are in our class for only a matter of weeks and it’s hard to measure or even to discern progress. The better students seem uniformly and constantly to be at a higher level than the strugglers who seem constantly and uniformly struggling. Test scores aren’t a straightforward indication of progress as each test is different and some, such as essay tests, have a strong element of subjectivity in assessment. SLA, for most adult learners, is a long, slow and partial process, it seems to me.

So, with these doubts and uncertainties in mind I’ll continue with Hill’s slightly annoying presentation of the five stages of SLA. Annoying because of the condescending infant-teacherly tone and because she’s clearly presenting them as facts to be poured into us rather than as someone’s theory. Anyway, she begins with what she describes as a modelling of good teaching. She introduces the five stages of SLA (concepts which we as learners aren’t aware of) by connecting them to the five stages of first language acquisition, concepts which we are apparently familiar with (though I for one have never heard of this breakdown of my language acquisition into five stages – but I’m keen to learn!).

Hill starts by gushingly asking us to remember how our kids acquire their first language. I’ve never had kids, but I’ve certainly observed them, and with great interest, so I can cheerfully concur with her slide-supported enumeration:

  1. preproduction –  about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
  2. early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
  3. speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
  4. intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
  5. advanced fluency – (near-native usage)

However, no linguistic prizes for guessing this is just a handful of post stages picked out in the continuous process from no language to full language production, with 5 being a more or less arbitrary number. The ZPG seems too vague a concept to be of much practical use, and in all my years of teaching I’ve never heard a colleague fretting over how to get a learner over the early production stage into speech emergence, say. Another problem is that this admittedly bare-bones presentation says nothing about the difference between SLA and learning the L1, except to say that the stages are similar, but not exactly the same. But it seems to me the differences are very significant.

The difficulty I’m becoming aware of here is a very scary one. I don’t think I’ll be able to make much headway in understanding SLA without understanding language itself and how we acquire it. And I suspect that nobody fully understands that.

Pinker has argued that language is an instinct, something innate, which we don’t learn, or not in any straightforward way, from our parents, or by mimesis. Yet it’s surely clear that without an environment of language speakers we’d get nowhere. A child brought up by wolves, if there ever was one, would not be able to speak a language, because she hasn’t had the opportunity  to learn one, and I’ve heard that children deprived of that opportunity during a certain crucial period in childhood are unlikely to become effective language users thereafter. The near-miraculous thing is that children become sophisticated language users very quickly, and I’m interested in the neurological processes involved, as well as whether our understanding of those neurological processes can help with developing effective SLA.

So language is certainly something learned, but there’s something about us that makes us primed, so to speak, to pick up one of the 7000 or so fully grammarised (if there’s such a word) languages. We also learn to walk, but I wonder how we’d go if we weren’t surrounded from earliest childhood by fully adept walkers whose ambulatory achievements and successes we’re naturally keen to emulate. And in a way, I’m answering my own query – we learn language because we hear it all around us, and we want to share in that human experience, to be like them, because we see clearly, though in a sense unconsciously, the obvious advantages of that communication system. It gets us somewhere in the human world.

I’m also interested in this whole concept of grammar. I’ve read, though without quite grasping it, that children can create grammar out of non-grammatical (or perhaps partially grammatical) pidgin, a collection of keywords cobbled together in the intersection of two languages for the purpose of needful communication. ‘Research’ has found that the children of pidgin users are able to create from these fragments a full-blown grammatical creole, as if by magic. This has been cited by Pinker and others as evidence for an innate faculty. I need, obviously, to learn more about such research and the various interpretations of it.

I don’t want to forget embodiment either. I’ve been very encouraged in my practice lately, teaching EGP, the lowest level of academic English (actually pre-pre-academic English),  by responses to certain simple tasks. I’ve asked learners to come out the front and act out simple sentences, with gestures and facial expressions. These are students who generally have difficulty in forming complete grammatical sentences. So they come out and try saying, for example, ‘Hello class, I want to tell you about a really funny movie I saw on the weekend’, accompanied by laughter, hand-on-chest gestures and what-not. Humour, sadness, fear, anger and so on can all be acted out to the accompaniment of a simple sentence, and what I’ve found is that, after a few practice runs, they become more articulate and confident when they express themselves this way. The words come out with less effort, it seems, when they’re concentrating on the emotion, and I get the impression that they’ve taken some sort of ownership of some English speech acts. I’d be interested to find if there is any work being done to confirm these impressions I have of embodied SLA. It’s not much, perhaps, in the mountainous task of facilitating SLA, but it’s something positive.

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2017 at 8:23 am

embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? – part two. language and education

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Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:

Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.

Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?

Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.

Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?

Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.

Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.

Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.

Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?

Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.

Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.

Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.

Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.

Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.

Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?

Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.

Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.

Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.

Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.

Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?

Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…

Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.

Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.

Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….

Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping  language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?

Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently


Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm

movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of his Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 16.04.49

Heigo joins in the song


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm