Archive for the ‘Research’ Category


Posted on February 17th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Research, Words | Leave a Comment »

A new study of word frequencies has found that certain words can shake the political blogosphere in a similar way to an earthquake.

The study, completed by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, looked at 168 political blogs in the US and tracked spikes in the frequency of individual words. They noticed that some events trigger ‘reverberations’ and can cause social change.

The types of blogosphere responses took two forms, the researchers say. Some words suddenly spiked in popularity in response to a real-world event. Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate was the most dramatic example.

“Indeed, aftershocks of this event are still trembling and quivering through our society,” Klimek and colleagues wrote. Because these events are triggered from outside the blogosphere, the researchers called them “exogenous.”

Other words gradually grew in frequency and then died down, like the use of the word “inauguration” in the days before and after Barack Obama took office. Such events are called “endogenous” because they seem to arise within the blogosphere itself. (Source:

So what does this have to do with earthquakes? Well, apparently the ‘aftershocks’ of the increase in word frequency fit the equation of Omori’s law for the frequency of earthquake aftershocks.

It’s a pretty interesting concept, but as Duncan Watts says in the article, “it sort of can’t be true” as the analogy is between two unrelated phenomena.

What’s your favourite accent?

Posted on February 11th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, dialects, Research | Leave a Comment »

Personally, I have a weakness for the French accent. There’s something about it that really gets me – whether the Frenchman is speaking in his native tongue or in English.

The Japanese, however, prefer the Glaswegian accent, according to new research. A survey by Northumbria University revealed that Japanese people learning English rate the accent tops in terms of social attractiveness.

Participants listened to six different accents and then rated them on a range of personality traits. The accents were from Alabama and Ohio (American), Glaswegian, Scottish standard English, moderately-accented Japanese English and heavily-accented Japanese English. Robert McKenzie, senior lecturer in sociolinguistics at Northumbria said:

“It seems to be that globalisation, and especially the resultant worldwide spread of English-language media, are influencing non-native perceptions of the qualities associated with various forms of spoken English.

“Of course, the findings do not mean that speakers of the Glasgow or Alabama vernaculars are necessarily any more socially attractive or less fluent than speakers of other English varieties.

“It is interesting, however, that English learners from a country as different as Japan should demonstrate such high levels of awareness of variations within the English language.” (Source: Press Association)

I’ve often found that people outside of the UK are unaware of the wide range of dialects we host, so this is heartening research. What’s your favourite accent?

Does your dog understand you?

Posted on January 30th, 2011by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

I couldn’t resist this story of an adorable border collie who can comprehend the names of over 1,000 objects.

The dog’s name is Chaser, and she has been taught by Alliston Reid and John Pilley in a series of experiments which have been published in the journal Behavioural Processes. Chaser learned the names of 1,022 objects before she stopped being trained because of time constraints on the authors. From Science Daily:

This study demonstrates Chaser’s ability to learn the names of proper nouns, and her extensive vocabulary was tested repeatedly under carefully controlled conditions. The authors admitted that she remembered the names of each of her 1022 toys better than they could. Chaser’s ability to learn and remember more than 1000 proper nouns, each mapped to a unique object, revealed clear evidence of several capacities necessary for learning receptive human language: the ability to discriminate between 1,022 different sounds representing names of objects, the ability to discriminate many objects visually, an extensive vocabulary, and a substantial memory system that allowed the mapping of many auditory stimuli to many visual stimuli.

Reid compared Chaser’s language learning ability to that of a child’s:

“This research is important because it demonstrates that dogs, like children, can develop extensive vocabularies and understand that certain words represent individual objects and other words represent categories of objects, independent in meaning of what one is asked to do with those objects.”

Further research is needed to see if the results can be replicated in other breeds of dog, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to use this theory when training your own dog!

Tests are good for your brain!

Posted on November 2nd, 2010by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

Most people dread the moment when they have to do a test to assess what they’ve learned so far. For many the fear of tests and quizzes comes from school, where our abilities are tested from a young age.

Tests are not just a good way of measuring our current ability though; they may help improve learning. A new study by researchers at Kent State University shows that taking practice tests improves memory – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something.
Testing also supports encoding information in a memorable way – particularly useful for foreign language learning, as researcher Dr. Rawson notes:

“Suppose you were trying to learn foreign language vocabulary,” she said. “In our research, we typically use Swahili-English word pairs, such as ‘wingu — cloud.’ To learn this item, you could just repeat it over and over to yourself each time you studied it, but it turns out that’s not a particularly effective strategy for committing something to memory.

“A more effective strategy is to develop a keyword that connects the foreign language word with the English word. ‘Wingu’ sounds like ‘wing,’ birds have wings and fly in the ‘clouds.’ Of course, this works only as well as the keyword you come up with. For a keyword to be any good, you have to be able to remember your keyword when you’re given the foreign word later. Also, for a keyword to be good, you have to be able to remember the English word once you remember the keyword.” (Source: Science Daily)

So next time there’s a quiz in your class, don’t dread it – use it as a way to remember more!

Hard to read fonts make for better learning

Posted on October 23rd, 2010by Michelle
In Education, Hints and Tips, Research | Leave a Comment »

New research appears to show that difficult-to-read fonts make for better learning.

The study at Princeton University employed volunteers to learn made-up information and then try to recall it. The results showed that the volunteers whose information was in harder-to-read fonts were more likely to recall the information when tested 15 minutes later. From BBC News:

Researchers found that, on average, those given the harder-to-read fonts actually recalled 14% more.

They believe that presenting information in a way that is hard to digest means a person has to concentrate more, and this leads to “deeper processing” and then “better retrieval” afterwards.

It is an example of the positive effects of what scientists call “disfluency”.

“Disfluency is just a subjective feeling of difficulty associated with any mental task,” explained psychology Prof Daniel Oppenheimer, one of the co-authors of the study.

“So if something is hard to see or hear, it feels disfluent… We’d found that disfluency led people to think harder about things.

“When we found that in the lab, we were very excited, because it has obvious implications for the classroom.”

The study was repeated on high school students, and the results showed they scored higher in classroom assessments when given learning materials in harder-to-read fonts.

If you find it difficult to concentrate on written language learning materials, perhaps changing the font could help. Has anyone tried this? It sounds quite distracting to me.

Spoken Here

Posted on September 14th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | 1 Comment »

I’ve just finished reading a language book – Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley.

We are frequently told about languages dying, and this book explores some endangered languages and what efforts are being made to preserve them. The languages range from Aboriginal Australia (Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha) to Manx, the language of the Isle of Man located in the Irish Sea.

It’s not too difficult a read, as the focus is on the culture and people who speak the language rather than the technicalities of how it’s constructed. Whilst there is some discussion of grammar, luckily it’s not too technical. Abley’s passion for his subject shines through in the book and the humour he brings to situations is welcome. He doesn’t offer a solution to the ‘problem’ of disappearing languages, but shows what may happen when they are lost.

Has anyone else read the book?

Oranguatan dictionary

Posted on June 30th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Research | Leave a Comment »

Think dictionaries are just for homo sapiens?

Think again.

Researchers from St Andrews University have been hard at work creating a kind of ape dictionary. Orangutans at Durrell Wildlife Trust in Jersey have been the subjects of the research, and have apparently been very useful.

The senior keeper at Durrell, Gordon Hunt, told BBC Jersey the research had proved very helpful as it confirmed what they had already seen happening.

Gordon said: “We see anecdotal stuff every day but it is difficult for us to convince people that they are actually talking to each other.

“This is the start of the ape dictionary, what researchers do is confirm what is seen in a scientific manner.

“We see a lot of actions, a lot of gestures and we are anthropomorphising those into what we think they are
“Researchers are statistically analysing these and coming up with pretty much the same theory.” (Source: BBC News)

You may soon be seeing a new OED (Orangutan English Dictionary) next to the original (Oxford English Dictionary)!

Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge

Posted on May 27th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Research | Leave a Comment »

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a book by Daniel Everett called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Coincidentally I just came across a post on the Omniglot blog sharing a video in which Everett talks about the Pirahã language, amongst other things. It’s called Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge, and can be found below as well as here. Enjoy!

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes!

Posted on May 16th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | 1 Comment »

don't sleepFollowing on from my last post about books on language, I’ve just finished reading Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Everett was a Christian missionary who intended to convert a small tribe of Amazonians called the Pirahã. The book traces a large part of his life as he lives with the Pirahã tribe and learns their language.

The book is split into two sections, with the first half focussing on Pirahã life and Everett’s experiences of living with them, and the second half on linguistic theory. Whilst for me it sometimes got a bit too technical in the second half, it’s well worth the effort to learn about the conclusions Everett has come to about the impact of culture on language, something that is not just applicable to the Pirahã, but all of us.

Has anyone else read the book? What did you think?

Teenage speak

Posted on April 30th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Research, Slang, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Interesting article in the Telegraph with a sub-heading boldly stating that teenagers are creating “a secret language to stop adults knowing what they are up to”.

Reading the rest of the text, it’s hard to grasp what all the fuss is about – surely teenagers have been creating new slang to communicate for a very long time? The only new aspect is the use of social networking sites.

Lisa Whittaker, a postgraduate student at the University of Stirling, who studied teens aged 16-18 on Bebo in Scotland, said the slang had been created to keep their activities private, and cited the example of one young girl who was sacked after bosses found pictures of her drinking on the website.

“Young people often distort the languages they use by making the pages difficult for those unfamiliar with the distortions and colloquialisms.,” she said.

“The language used on Bebo seems to go beyond abbreviations that are commonly used in text messaging, such as removing all the vowels.

“This is not just bad spelling, which would suggest literacy issues, but a deliberate attempt to creatively misspell words.

I guess at least this research puts to rest fears that the internet and texting are producing bad spellers – they’re just being creative!