Archive for January, 2011

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!

Shakespeare goes multilingual for 2012

Posted on January 29th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Words | Leave a Comment »

The Globe Theatre will be staging all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays in a different language in 2012.

Part of the wider celebrations in the UK to mark the 2012 London Olympics, the plays will help mark the Cultural Olympiad. Theatre companies from around the world will be asked to participate, and confirmed productions include King Lear in Aboriginal languages, The Tempest in Arabic, Julius Caesar in Italian and The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu as well as a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost in British sign language.

The artistic director of the Globe, Dominic Dromgoole said:

“It has long been recognised that Shakespeare, as well as a great playwright, has become an international language and has proved one of the most life-affirming and barrier-transcending ways that people can speak to one another.

“His plays have been translated into every major living language and there is a long tradition of Shakespeare performances around the world in people’s own vernacular.

“During the course of these six weeks, the Globe will create an international Shakespeare community in the heart of London.” (Source: Telegraph)

What a fantastic project!

Language GCSE to become compulsory?

Posted on January 23rd, 2011by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the Ofsted report that highlighted the limits of language teaching in secondary schools in Britain. Now the Education Secretary has indicated that a modern foreign language may once again become compulsory at GCSE level.

A national curriculum review has just been launched in England, with Education Secretary Michael Gove stating that English, maths and science should be the core subjects pupils should study up to 16. From the BBC News article:

When asked whether he was “leaving the door open” to making modern foreign languages compulsory at GCSE, Mr Gove responded with an emphatic “yes”.

He added: “We have given people a nudge with the English Baccalaureate towards a certain set of academic subjects.”
“Beyond that we want to have an informed debate.”

To gain the English Baccalaureate pupils need good GCSEs in English, maths, science, a modern foreign language, and either history or geography.

Studying for a language GCSE was no longer compulsory after 2004, and the years following saw a large drop in numbers of pupils taking a language, to the dismay of many. The debate will surely continue.

Language learning laziness?

Posted on January 21st, 2011by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Translation | Leave a Comment »

I don’t mind admitting I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to things I should do, but don’t have a strict deadline for. This even extends to language learning – if I hadn’t signed up for a class (which I feel obliged to go to), then my intention to learn Spanish would never come to anything.

So when I came across the Me No Speak series of books, it struck me as a great idea – but also one that means my latent lazy tendencies would come to the fore.

The Me No Speak books are filled with pictures and phrases that travellers can point to instead of trying to find the word in the local language. Their tagline is “When you can’t say it, point to it.” They cover a range of destinations, from France to China and Turkey to Thailand.

I’m glad to see that the creators of this series still think people should attempt the local language, but it seems to me that people would be more likely to put this in their bag and use it as a replacement for the local language. One of the things I enjoy overseas is all the nodding and smiling that happens when two people don’t speak each other’s language but are trying to communicate anyway. The surprise element also makes for good stories – you think you ask for a plate of noodles and instead a plate of something else appears, that turns out to be delicious anyway (or not).

Has anyone used one of these books? Did you find it helpful?

Favourite anti-tech words

Posted on January 16th, 2011by Michelle
In English, Translation, Words | Leave a Comment »

New tech words are always in the news, but what about anti-tech words?

BBC News asked for submissions, and I really like some of the words the contributors came up with. Here’s the list:

1. Plugthug: someone who’d kill for access to recharging facilities.
Paul, Chester

2. Game-shame: The feeling of slight embarrassment that occurs when you realise what you thought was about half an hour of game play was actually about five hours, especially when you have inadvertently missed an event to which, under normal circumstances, you would have assigned a higher priority than game play.
Ray D, Turku, Finland

3. Spamnesia: failing to reply to e-mails from friends, because your computer thinks they’re spam.
Rob, Australia

4. Meanderthal: someone who tries to drive or walk while using a mobile phone.
Dave Case, Wokingham

5. Sheeple: people who have to go out and buy the latest gadget (usually one whose name starts with an “i”) just because they believe that everyone else is getting one, and they can’t bear the thought of being left out.
Mike Plunkett, Fleet, Hampshire

6. Memail: e-mail I send to myself to remind me to do things. Everyone else spends all day reading and sending e-mail to each other, I prefer mine to be private.
John Dolan, Cambridge

7. Nerds-nest: the tangle of cables behind your TV or desk.
John, Wellington

8. Faceless: what happens when you get either vindictive or drunk and post on Facebook, someone finds it offensive and your account is suspended.
Tim Ellam, Ashburton

9. Dot con: the process of making money from the internet.
Robert, Rochester

…and, to end on a more uplifting note…

10. My word isn’t exactly anti-tech, but it does fill a gap in the language. When I have a friendly conversation by e-mail with a new acquaintance, I finish the e-mail with “nice to have intermet you.” A smiley emoticon is optional. If the Oxford English Dictionary is interested, please give them my number.
Kaylie, Runcorn

My favourite of these is memail – I’m always sending myself reminder emails! I also mail myself interesting news items that could interesting for this blog (I emailed this story to myself for instance!). Can you think of any other anti-tech words?

Languages “weak” in British secondary schools

Posted on January 12th, 2011by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | 1 Comment »

A new Ofsted report has highlighted the limits of language teaching in secondary schools, according to a BBC News article.

Whilst the report said the initiative to introduce modern languages to primary level pupils was doing well, language lessons in secondary schools were described as “weak”. It further stated:

“Reading was not taught beyond exercises in course books or previous examination papers and teachers made insufficient use of the wealth of authentic material that is available to develop students’ speaking, listening, writing, knowledge about language, language learning strategies and intercultural awareness.”

From 2004 languages were no longer required at GCSE level. Since then the number of students taking a modern language GCSE has fallen from 61% in 2005 to 44% in 2010. This is unsurprising to me – I took GCSE French and was in the top class. My teacher made the effort to engage pupils, particularly in speaking exercises, but my fellow pupils rarely spoke up. French was seen as something to be endured rather than an enjoyable way to get to know another culture.

It seems the current crop of students feel the same way. There is hope though:

[Inspectors] also said pupils’ enjoyment of language learning in primaries was “clear”.

“They were usually very enthusiastic, looked forward to lessons, understood why it was important to learn another language and were developing a good awareness of other cultures,” the report said.

I wonder what is different between the way languages are taught in primary and secondary schools? From my experience I would say that a GCSE class is focussed more on learning from a textbook, with not so much emphasis on interacting with others and learning about culture. Language classes I’ve enjoyed in the past (outside of school) have engaged students through exercises such as singing and sharing food – perhaps this is something for secondary school language teachers to consider?

Banished words list

Posted on January 7th, 2011by Michelle
In English, Words | Leave a Comment »

I’ve managed to avoid posting about any ‘word of the year’ lists, so this is a nice alternative: Lake Superior State University has come up with a list of words it would like banished in 2011.

Officially known as the “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness”, the list is now in its 36th year and received over 1,000 nominations for words to ban. The number one word? Viral. As one nominator eloquently put it: “This linguistic disease of a term must be quarantined.”

Take a look at the Huffington Post’s slideshow of some of the other words that made the list.

New Year: New Goals

Posted on January 4th, 2011by Michelle
In Education, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2011: The holiday’s over and now is the time to set yourself some language learning goals for the year ahead.

These goals don’t have to be your typical New Year’s resolutions – let’s face it, those never last anyway. That’s because New Year’s resolutions tend to be fairly general (“I’m going to eat healthier” or “I’m going to learn French”. To make sure you achieve your goal, it needs to be smart.

I don’t mean your goal has to be clever, SMART is an acronym – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. Take for example the goal “I’m going to learn French” – this is not specific (it doesn’t state how you will learn or where you will learn). It’s not measurable – what do you mean by ‘learn French’? It’s possibly achievable – but only when you’ve defined what level of French you want to achieve, making it not realistic. And it’s not timely as there is no specified period in which to learn.

A better goal would be “I will sign up for beginners Spanish classes by the end of January”. This is a specific goal – to enroll in a class. It is measurable – by the end of the month have you signed up for the class? It is achievable – you can find a class that fits around your schedule and sign up for it. It is realistic – aiming to sign up by the end of January gives you time to find a suitable class, which also makes it timely.

Once this goal has been achieved, you can set further goals for yourself. “I will attend my class every week until the end of the semester”, for example. Or “I will complete my Spanish homework every Saturday afternoon”.

Give it a try – what are your goals for the year ahead?