Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

The learning paradox

Posted on April 30th, 2012by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

It’s incredibly frustrating when you grasp for a word or phrase in your target language but it’s just out of reach. Your teacher won’t help, your classmates look blank, and you’re slowly getting more red in the face as your mind struggles to find those elusive words.

Don’t worry though – it’s good for you! Researchers at the National Institute of Education of Singapore found that struggling to learn new information leads to better recall later. Traditionally teachers will guide students and support them in their learning. The learning paradox shows that when this support is taken away, students may not be able to come up with the correct solution, but have learned more in the process.

The apparent struggles of the floundering group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise. (Source: Time)

So what does this mean for language learners? Well, perhaps next time you’re cursing your teacher for setting you some difficult homework, consider the longer term benefits – they’re probably doing it to help you become more comfortable with your target language.

Irish third most used language

Posted on April 15th, 2012by Michelle
In French, Irish, Polish, Research | Leave a Comment »

In the first report to be published from last year’s Census, it has been revealed that Irish is the third most spoken language in Ireland.

Census figures show that more people speak Polish (119,526) at home than speak Irish (almost 82,600). French is spoken by 56,430 people. The number of people who answered “yes” to the question “Can you speak Irish?” increased from 2006, to 1.77 million in April 2011. More women identify themselves as Irish speakers than men.

Interestingly, Irish doesn’t seem to be catching on with young people, with one in three 10 -19 year olds answering “no” to the question “Can you speak Irish?” Just over 12% of the population speak Irish on a daily basis in the education system only though. It seems as if Irish is seen as a language for school use only – what can be done to combat this?

(Sources: RTE and Central Statistics Office report)

English is a positive language

Posted on January 31st, 2012by Michelle
In English, Research | Leave a Comment »

Reading or watching the news may make it hard to believe, but new research shows that English is biased towards being positive.

Researchers from the University of Vermont gathered billions of words from sources including Google Books and looked at the top 5,000 words from each source. They found that happier words cropped up more frequently.

Why is this? “It’s not to say that everything is fine and happy,” Dodds says. “It’s just that language is social.”

In contrast to traditional economic theory, which suggests people are inherently and rationally selfish, a wave of new social science and neuroscience data shows something quite different: that we are a pro-social storytelling species. As language emerged and evolved over the last million years, positive words, it seems, have been more widely and deeply engrained into our communications than negative ones.

“If you want to remain in a social contract with other people, you can’t be a…,” well, Dodds here used a word that is rather too negative to be fit to print — which makes the point. (Source: Science Daily)

I wonder what other languages are as ‘happy’ as English?

Science of sarcasm

Posted on December 20th, 2011by Michelle
In Research, Speech, Words | Leave a Comment »

Scientists have found that the ability to detect sarcasm is a really useful skill.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have found that exposure to sarcasm increases creative problem solving; brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm, possibly increasing our mental abilities; and children understand and use sarcasm by the time they start attending playschool.

There’s also a geographic divide between those who find sarcasm funny and those who don’t.

A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.

Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny: 56 percent of Northerners found sarcasm humorous while only 35 percent of Southerners did. The New Yorkers and male students from either location were more likely to describe themselves as sarcastic. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)

For more fascinating insights into sarcasm, take a look at the full article from Smithsonian Magazine.

Language in our genes?

Posted on October 20th, 2011by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

A fascinating article in Discovery Magazine looks at into the discovery of the FOXP2 gene, which may shed light on the origins of language.

First discovered in a family in London, the gene came to light because some members of the family had an unusual difficulty with words. Some of the children were attending a special speech and language school and had difficulty interpreting the meaning of sentences, as well as with speech. The example given in the article is “The girl is chased by the horse” may be misunderstood by family members as “The girl is chasing the horse.”

The difficulty was not limited to children in the family – some of the parents as well as the children’s cousins had the condition too. Geneticists eventually traced it to the grandmother, and concluded that she had a rare mutation she must have passed along. This came to the attention of researchers in Oxford, who with the help of an unrelated five year old boy, discovered the gene link to language.

So far, so fascinating. Researchers are now looking at the gene’s proteins and links to other species. Take a look at the article and prepare to be amazed!

Is Danish too difficult?

Posted on June 12th, 2011by Michelle
In Culture, Danish, Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

According to a new study, Danish is more difficult for children to learn than languages such as Croatian, American English and Galician.

Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark, found that because of the high number of vowels in spoken Danish, it is more difficult for children to pick up. Danish babies at 15 months old have on average a vocabulary of 84 words, compared to 150 for a Croatian child of the same age.

“The number of vowels has big significance for how difficult it is to learn a language. Many vowels makes a difficult language,” Bleses told Weekendavisen newspaper recently.

The official number of vowels in Danish is nine: a, e, i, o, u, æ, ø, å and y.

“‘Y’ isn’t a vowel,” you say? Well, in Danish it is. In Danish, even consonants are vowels.

But written Danish is not the issue. The problems start when Danes speak. In spoken speech, Danish actually has some 40 vowel sounds, says Bleses, depending upon where the vowels are placed in words and sentence strings.

To make matters worse, modern Danes ‘swallow’ lots of the remaining consonants that would create more audible definition, or annunciation, between words. Linguists call it ‘reduction’ or ‘ellision’. It is how ‘probably’ becomes ‘probly’ in American English. In Danish, it is how ‘spændende’ becomes ‘spen-nă’, and how a simple, little sentence like ‘Det er det’ becomes ‘dā-ă-dā’. (Source: Copenhagen Post)

But there is good news for Danish parents – the difference doesn’t persist and children ‘crack the code’ of the Danish language by the time they are nine or ten.

Neanderthals were right-handed

Posted on May 8th, 2011by Michelle
In Historic, Research | Leave a Comment »

In news to confirm the superiority of us right-handers (joke!), a new study says that our Neanderthal ancestors were “mostly right-handed”.

According to an article on MSNBC:

The trait of right-handedness is commonly believed to be a sign of the development of another uniquely human trait — language.

“We are right-handed because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the left side of brain is where language is processed,” study researcher David Frayer, of the University of Kansas, told LiveScience. “This is important because it tells us that they were brain lateralized just like we are, and they probably had a language capacity.”

The conclusion was reached after looking at an odd place – front teeth. Apparently ancient homo sapiens used their front teeth to help process animal hides, with their hands stretching out the hides and using tools to work it. The tool would accidentally scratch the front tooth, and the marks this made can show which hand was used to hold the tool (thus showing which hand was preferred).

According to some researchers, the discovery shows that language probably existed more than 500,000 years ago.

Yes you can!

Posted on May 7th, 2011by Michelle
In Language acquisition, Research | Leave a Comment »

Are you struggling to learn a second language? Does “I can’t” feature in your excuses for not learning something new?

Well, your excuses are no longer valid, because according to a new study, you can learn a new language! Cambridge neuroscientists have found it takes just 15 minutes to learn a new word -all you need to do is listen to the word 160 times in that period. The brain will form new networks for that word which are tasked with remembering it.

The research was conducted not to help people learn a language, but to assist stroke patients in recovering their language skills. The study has been completed with healthy volunteers but the researchers hope to move on to test the theory in stroke patients also.

Dr Yury Shtyrov and his team made the discovery after placing electrodes on the heads of 16 healthy volunteers to monitor their brain activity.

First they recorded the pulses generated when they listened to a familiar word. Then the volunteers were made to listen to a made-up word, over and over again.

Initially the brain had to work hard to recognise the new word. But after 160 repetitions over 14 minutes, the new memory traces were “virtually indistinguishable” from those of the already familiar word, said Dr Shtyrov.

He said: “What this suggests is that practising language is important. Every little helps.

“Just perception – listening – is helpful. Our volunteers didn’t repeat the words.”

Getting them to repeat the words would “probably extend the new neural networks” to the part of the brain tasked with speech, he said. (Source: The Telegraph)

Scandinavians – the best at English?

Posted on April 10th, 2011by Michelle
In Education, English, Research | Leave a Comment »

A new study has found that Scandinavians have the best command of English among countries where it is not the native language.

The research also found that there are large gaps in English skills around the world, with Russia, Turkey and South American countries coming near the bottom of the list. With English seen as the lingua franca for business, this could put developing countries at a disadvantage.

Interesting, the study also found that China ranked 29th out of the 44 countries surveyed. This is despite the large investment Chinese people are making in private English language tuition. The research compared the test results of more than 2.3 million adults in the 44 countries.

From my own experience, a number of Scandinavians I have met have excellent, almost native English skills. This seems to be more true among the younger generations. Perhaps their proximity to the UK and being part of the European Union is some incentive to learn English?

(Source: Reuters)

Language the key to military success?

Posted on March 26th, 2011by Michelle
In Research, Translation | Leave a Comment »

Interesting new research from The University of Reading shows that poorly organised language provision can “have a major effect on the success of military intervention”.

Languages at War examined two conflicts, Western Europe in 1944-1947 and Bosnia 1995-1998, and found that language was essential to how effective ground troops are. The researchers discovered that being able to understand local people and get accurate translations was vital and depended on properly trained and professionally respected interpreters. Often interpreters are used in other capacities and not seen as professionals with an essential skill.

Professor Hilary Footitt from the University of Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies led the project. She said: “From the First World War, on to the liberation of Europe in 1944, in Korea, in Afghanistan, soldiers have needed to talk to foreign allies and foreign civilians. Indeed General David Petraeus, Commander of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan has said the ‘human terrain is decisive’.

“Our research project has highlighted the need for the military to see languages as a vital part of their operations, and to plan for them accordingly. They need to respect locally recruited translators/interpreters, and make sure that these men and women have the professional structures to do their jobs properly. Languages are not an optional ‘add on’. They’re essential to winning hearts and minds.” (Source: University of Reading)

Language learners have long known that being able to communicate in another language is a great way of connecting with people – hopefully this research will help the military realise it also.