Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness

LTA classroom - Feb 15Blog post written by Will Baker based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

It is commonly claimed that the main goal of learning and teaching a second language is for communication.  While this would seem both appropriate and beneficial, the goal and associated processes for learning are most accurately described as intercultural communication rather than just communication.   One of the consequences of this lack of interest in the intercultural in L2 teaching (or L3, L4 etc…), is that too often teaching and learning has focused on a fixed code or set of linguistic structures with little consideration of the wider intercultural communicative practices they are part of. This has been addressed in recent decades, in part, by the increasing interest in the cultural dimensions of language teaching and learning and in particular the notion of intercultural communicative competence.   The key to intercultural communicative competence is cultural or intercultural awareness.

In this article I examine the role of cultural awareness (CA) and intercultural awareness (ICA) in classroom theory and practice. CA and ICA can be roughly characterised as an awareness of the role of culture in communication with CA focused on national cultures and ICA on more dynamic and flexible relationships between languages and cultures. I consider the findings from CA and ICA research that have not been well applied those that have been well applied and those that have been over-applied to classrooms. In particular, I argue that CA and ICA are more prevalent in pedagogic theory, and to a lesser extent policy, than they are in practice. While the cultural dimension to language learning is now fairly mainstream, where elements of CA and ICA are applied or translated into the classroom they typically take the form of comparisons between national cultures, often in essentialist forms. There is still little evidence of classroom practice that relates to the fluid ways cultures and languages are related in intercultural communication, especially for English as a lingua franca or other languages used on a global scale.

Such an evaluation will necessarily be subjective, and I draw on my own experiences of teaching masters level courses in the UK to language teachers from around the world, as well as my experiences of and continued interest in English language teaching (ELT) in Thailand. At the same time though, I relate these experiences to what we currently understand through research about the role of cultural and intercultural awareness in L2 use and learning. Given my experiences of ELT, the discussion mainly focuses on English language teaching and English as a lingua franca; however, many of the issues are relevant to teaching other languages.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness’ here

Durational properties of emphatically lengthened consonants in Japanese

IPA Cover 2015Blog post written by Shigeto Kawahara based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of the International Phonetic Association

When sounds are “different”, such that swapping one sound for the other changes a word’s meaning  (for example, “pat” vs. “bat”), this difference is usually *binary*.  In other words, the sounds can easily be classified into *two* distinct categories, rather than belonging to a continuum from one sound to the other.

In the case of “pat” and “bat”, the first consonants of each word differ in terms of their “voicing”: whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating.  (Try it: if you put your hand on your throat, you can feel your vocal cords vibrate when you say “zzzzz”, but not when you say “ssssss”.)  The vocal cords vibrate during the <b> in “bat”, but don’t during the <p> in pat.

Interestingly, no language in the world makes distinctions based on the *degree* of vocal cord vibration.  Languages care whether the vocal cords are vibrating, or not—but never base distinctions on whether the vocal folds are vibrating *slightly* vs. *medium* vs. *vigorously* vs. *extremely vigorously*. In technical terms, the voicing distinction, like almost all phonological distinctions, is binary.

However, when we look at actual language use, the theoretical ideal of binarity breaks down. In English, for example, we can say: (a) “thank you so much”, or (b) “thank you sooo much” or even (c) “thank you sooooo much”.  The length of the vowel in “so” determines the degree to which we express our gratitude—(c) expresses a greater degree of gratitude than (a) or (b).

This study investigates a similar phenomenon of consonant lengthening found in Japanese, and shows that Japanese speakers can distinguish up to 6 different levels of consonant duration to express emphasis.  For example, “katai” means “hard”, “katttai” means “very hard”, and “katttttai” means “extremely hard”.

This result suggests that Japanese speakers do, in fact, have the articulatory ability to make many fine grained distinctions along a continuum of duration—going against the hypothesis that all distinctions should be binary.

Read the entire article ‘Durational properties of emphatically lengthened consonants in Japanese’ here.

The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition

JCL 2015 CoverBlog post written by Ben Ambridge based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language 

Pretty much every kind of human (and, for that matter, animal) learning shows frequency effects: the more we hear or see something, the better we learn it, remember it, and even like it. But in the domain of children’s language acquisition, both the existence and meaningfulness of frequency effects have proved controversial, particularly because they have implications for the (in)famous nature-nurture debate. In this target article, we argue that frequency effects can be found absolutely everywhere in language acquisition, from the level of abstract strings to the level of abstract syntactic cues. In fact, high frequency items are not only early-acquired and resistant to errors (when children are attempting to produce them), but also cause errors, when children use them in place of lower-frequency targets.

What does all this mean in terms of theory? Well, we argue that while frequency effects are often taken as evidence for constructivist/usage-based accounts, they are not necessarily incompatible with nativist/UG accounts in principle. However, because these accounts draw a sharp distinction between the lexicon and grammar, for instance assuming that even infants’ grammatical rules are formulated in terms of syntactic categories and phrases rather than individual lexical items, they do not straightforwardly explain frequency effects that cut across these levels of representation.

There are commentaries too; nine of them, in fact. While most of them are generally supportive, many point out that the real trick is going to be disentangling the effects of frequency from those of other factors (e.g., serial position, communicative intent) with which frequency frequently interacts. In our response, we acknowledge that this disentangling work has only just begun, but conclude that – nevertheless – frequency effects are real, and are therefore something that any serious theory of language acquisition – of whatever theoretical stripe – must explain.

We invite you to read the entire article ‘The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language acquisition’ and the commentaries that follow here.

He drug the box to the door before he snuck into the room…or he dragged the box to the door before he sneaked into the room?

ENG 2015Post written by Camilla Søballe Horslund based on an article in English Today 

What is the past tense form of the verb to sneak? Some say snuck and others say sneaked. According to dictionaries, sneaked is the more formal form. Likewise the past tense form of the verb to drag varies between the forms drug and dragged, but while snuck is considered acceptable in informal speech, drug is described as non-standard and is generally not accepted by people with high socio-economic status. Despite the apparent similarity with former forms like holp and clomb, snuck and drug are newer than their regular counterparts sneaked and dragged. In fact, sneak and drag were originally regular verbs with the past tense forms sneaked and dragged but have recently developed the irregular past tense forms snuck and drug. Interestingly, this is a development in the reverse direction from the typical trend of irregular (strong) verbs turning regular (weak), as for instance in the cases of holp/helped and clomb/climbed.

This study investigates the historical development of the neologisms snuck and drug in American English as well as their current distribution across both spoken and written registers in British and American English with data from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC).

Snuck and drug are first attested in American English in the 1880s, but while the occurrences of snuck increase over time, reaching a proportion of 48% of the past tense forms of the verb to sneak in present day English, drug remains a minority form over time only taking up a mere 1% of the past tense forms of the verb to drag in present day English, and there is no evidence that the form is becoming common. Both irregular past tense forms are more frequent in American English than in British English; no occurrences of drug are attested in the BNC.  With respect to register, the irregular form of both verbs is most common in the spoken register for both American and British English and least common in the academic and newspaper registers.

Explore the full article ‘How snuck sneaked into English and drug is still dragging behind: A corpus study on the usage of new past tense forms for sneak and drag in British and American English’ here

Are Idioms Metaphorical?

LCO 2015 coverBlog Post Written by Daniel Sanford, based on an article in Language and Cognition

Idiom is so interesting to linguists because it exists at the intersection of the study of figurative language and of syntax effects, and has proven a singularly problematic issue in both areas of inquiry. For syntacticians who have challenged the Chomskyan model of language that’s been dominant since the 1960s, idiom has demonstrated the impossibility of drawing a clear distinction between lexical items and rules which operate upon them. Cognitive linguists and student of figurative language, meanwhile, have asked about the relationship between idiom and metaphor: Are idioms processed, on the fly, as metaphors? Or is the role of metaphor purely historical, with idiomatic meaning accessed simply as lexical entry?

These questions are related, and considered together, they point to a resolution shy of Lakoff’s claim that conceptual metaphors are as active in idioms as in novel metaphors, but well beyond the traditional view that idioms as a class are non-metaphorical, their meanings retrieved as an irreducible whole from the lexicon: idioms can be a little bit metaphorical. The extent to which an idiom is metaphorical is a function of the extent of its autonomy from a sanctioning metaphorical schema. Idioms are ready-made metaphors: their meaning can, in many cases, be analyzed out on the basis of reference to existing forms, but the idiom itself, with a set metaphorical interpretation, is entrenched discretely from an overall metaphorical mapping. Metaphorical idioms cannot be wholly understood as highly entrenched instances of metaphorical mappings, nor can they be analyzed entirely as syntactic constructions: it is out of the interaction of these two types of schemas that the rich properties of idioms emerge, and a complete understanding of figurative idioms is possible only when this dual nature is embraced.

We invite you to read the full article, Idiom as the Intersection of Conceptual and Syntactic Schemas, here.

The Acquisition of Syntactic Structure: Animacy and Thematic Alignment

The Acquisition of Syntactic StructurePost written by author Misha Becker discussing her recently published book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘.

Young children are fascinated by animals and captivated when inanimate things are made to come alive. Is there some way their understanding of the difference between “alive” and “not alive” can help them learn language?

In this book I explain a well-known puzzle in linguistic theory by arguing just that. Children expect the sentence subject (often the “do-er” of an action) to be animate, alive. So when they encounter a sentence where the subject is the rock or the house they are led to revise their understanding of the sentence to create a more complex underlying structure. This is what helps them understand the difference between a sentence like The house is easy to see, where the house is the thing being seen, and The girl is eager to see, where the girl is (or will be) doing the seeing. If you didn’t know the meaning of easy or eager, as very young children will not, how would you interpret these sentences? Imagine you hear a sentence like The girl/house is daxy to see. Does it matter whether the subject is girl or house in your guess about what daxy means, and in your interpretation of the seeing event?

I came to the idea for this book when I noticed how strongly adult speakers were influenced by animacy when I tried to make them think of certain abstract structures. When presented with “The girl ____ to be tall” people were more likely to write a verb like want or claim in the blank, but presented with “The mountain ____ to be tall” they were more likely to write seem or appear. Yet the underlying structure of the sentence differs, depending on whether the sentence contains want/claim or seem/appear. In linguistic parliance, the subject of seem/appear is “derived”–it doesn’t really belong, thematically, to the verb, and in this sense the structure is more abstract and complex. It occurred to me that if adults were so strongly influenced by animate vs. inanimate subjects, then children might be as well.

This book describes numerous studies with children showing how the fundamental distinction between alive and not-alive interacts with their understanding of language and the world around them. But it also examines other facets of the animacy distinction with regard to language: how languages around the world place restrictions on animate and inanimate sentence subjects, how adults use animacy in their understanding of sentence structure, how and when babies first begin to represent the concept of animacy, and how computational models can be developed to simulate the use of a distinction like animacy in language learning. The final chapter of the book address the timeless question of where this understanding comes from–is the concept of animacy innate or learned, or both?

Find out more on Misha Becker’s new book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘. published by Cambridge University Press.

The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy

The Rise of Writing, Deborah BrandtPost written by author Deborah Brandt discussing her recently published book The Rise of Writing 

The belief that writing ability is a subsidiary of reading ability runs deep in society and schooling. You can only write as well as you can read. The best way to learn how to write is to read, read, and read some more. Commonplaces like these are easy to find in the advice of teachers and often well-known authors as well. Reading is considered the fundamental skill, the prior skill, the formative skill, the gateway to writing. At minimum, reading is thought to teach the techniques of textuality, the vocabulary, diction, spelling, punctuation, and syntax that any aspiring writer must master. Even more profound, reading is thought to shape character and intellect and provide the wisdom and worldliness that make one worthy to write. In every way reading is treated as the well from which writing springs. We need only try to reverse the commonplace advice to appreciate the superior position that reading holds. How many would readily agree that you can only read as well as you can write? Or that the best way to learn how to read is to write, write, and write some more? Writing has never attained the same formative and morally wholesome status as reading. Indeed, writing unmoored from the instructiveness of reading is often considered solipsistic and socially dangerous.

But in the wider society and over the last fifty years or more, writing has ascended as the main basis of many people’s daily literacy experiences and the main platform for their literacy development. Millions of working adults now spend four hours or more each day (sometimes, a lot more) with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences, writing so much, in fact, that they have little time or appetite for reading. In the so-called information economy writing has become a dominant form of labor and production. As a result, writing is eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence.   Spurred on especially by digital technologies, writing is crowding out reading and subordinating reading to its needs. The rise of writing over reading represents a new chapter—and a new challenge– in the history of mass literacy, a challenge especially for the school, which from its founding has been much more organized around a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few.

But now writers are becoming many. What are some of the changes that we need to pay attention to? Increasingly, people read from inside acts of writing, as they respond to others; research, edit or review other people’s writing; or search for styles or approaches to use in their own writing.  “Reading to write” in school has usually meant using reading to stimulate ideas or generate content, but in the wider world reading to write actually stands for a broader, more diverse, more diffused, more sustained and more comprehensive set of practices. Increasingly, how and why we write conditions how and why we read. Relatedly, we write among other people who also write. Learning to write along with other people who write (rather than from authors who address us abstractly) is a new aspect of mass literacy development. Audiences are made up not merely (or mostly) of receptive readers but also responsive writers; increasingly people write to catalyze or anticipate other people’s writing and people read with the aim of writing back.

Further, in an information society, writing is consequential. The kind of writing done by everyday people turns the wheels of finance, law, health care, government, commerce. As the power and consequence of writing courses through the consciousness of everyday people, their acts of writing are often sites of intellectual, moral, and civic reflection- but not necessarily in the same ways as acts of reading. Reading is an internalizing process. That is why the effects of literacy have been sought mostly on the inside: in the formation of character or the quality of inner life or intellectual growth.  But writing is a relentlessly externalizing process. Because writing unleashes language into the world, it engages people’s sense of power and responsibility.  It can be expected to bring more wear and tear, potentially more trouble. Writing risks social exposure, blame, even, in some cases, retaliation. It requires a level of courage and ethical conviction rarely cultivated in school-based literacy and rarely measured in standard assessments of writing ability.

We are at a critical crossroad in the history of mass literacy in which relationships between writing and reading are undergoing profound change. Writing is overtaking reading as the skill of critical consequence. Until only recently writing was a minor strain in the history of mass literacy, playing second fiddle to reading. But it is surging into prominence, bringing with it a cultural history, a set of cognitive dispositions, and a developmental arc that stand in contrast to reading. As an educational community, we have been slow to incorporate these shifting relationships into the questions we ask and the perspectives that we take. That writing remains so under-studied and under-articulated in comparison to reading is perhaps our greatest challenge.

To find out more about Deborah Brandt’s new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Co-editor Françoise Blin reflects on the changes at ReCALL

REC 2015Co-editor Françoise Blin reflects on the changes at ReCALL during 2014. As the last issue of 2014 goes to Press, long-serving Editor June Thompson prepares to retire. June has tirelessly managed submissions and reviews, edited and copy-edited issues of the journal. In particular, ReCALL authors have greatly benefited from her careful editing. We wish her well with all her future plans.

With receipt of an average of 100 submissions per year, ReCALL now benefits from the services of two Editors (Blin and Alex Boulton), journal administrator Sylvie Thouësny, and an online submission system. The pool of reviewers is also steadily increasing. Blind peer-reviewing is a time consuming activity that usually remains invisible, yet is a fundamental principle governing scientific publication today. Reviewers play an essential role in ensuring that ReCALL remains one of the top CALL journals, as evidenced by our latest Impact Factor and ranking in Scopus. Warmest thanks to all of you!

This latest issue comprises five regular papers and one selected paper from the EUROCALL 2013 conference held in Évora, Portugal. Jack Burston provides a critical analysis of published MALL studies. David Neville then reports on a mixed-methods study that evaluates the use of such an environment designed to teach German two-way prepositions and specialised vocabulary in the area of recycling and waste management systems.

Continuing with digital game-based learning, Hayo Reinders and Sorada Wattana investigate students’ experience in the context of a game-based learning programme at a Thai university and focus more particularly on the impact of gameplay on their willingness to communicate in English.

The next two articles report on the development and evaluation of systems developed by the authors with a view to enhancing EFL learners’ pronunciation and listening comprehension skills respectively. Hiroshi Kibishi, Kuniaki Hirabayashi, and Seiichi Nakagawa propose a statistical method for estimating the pronunciation and intelligibility scores of Japanese speakers of English, using an online real-time score estimation system developed by the authors.

Ching-Kun Hsu reports on the development and evaluation of an adaptive video caption filtering system for mobile devices designed to support the development of listening skills in EFL among Taiwanese learners, with a particular focus on learning motivation, satisfaction, and enjoyment.

Finally, Fiona Farr and Elaine Riordan expand on their presentation at the EUROCALL 2013 conference. The authors examine communication technologies in terms of their suitability and affordances as reflective media in a language teacher education context.

Access the entire issue here

W(h)ither the /r/ in Britain?

Weighing up a new style of pronunciation

ENG-Dec-14-pronunciationPost written by Michael Bulley, based on an article in the latest issue of English Today 

In this article, I express my disapproval of a recent development in pronunciation found in an increasing proportion of native speakers of British English. I thereby run the risk not only of offending those who have the feature I criticize but also of being frowned upon by linguistics professionals who think aesthetic judgements have no place in the discipline.

The sound in question is a pronunciation of the letter ‘r’, in words like ring, bread and around, that is closer to a /w/ than to a ‘traditional’ /r/. The BBC television news contains many presenters and reporters who exhibit this feature. Academic studies, sound archives and my memory confirm that this style of /r/ was rare until the 1970s. In fact, until quite late into the last century, it might well have been diagnosed for adults as a speech defect needing treatment.

My criticism is on two fronts: first, that it narrows the distinction between /r/ and /w/ with no apparent compensatory benefit to the language and, secondly, that it can sound childish, inappropriately so in a serious context. The origins and cause of this ‘w-for-r’ are not clear. I speculate that children’s television may have had an influence, with adult presenters imitating the pronunciation of their audience.

The controversial aspect of the article is my suggestion that this topic should become a public issue, so that people may choose how to pronounce this phoneme. As examples of the influence of social factors on pronunciation change, I point to the demise of the old RP [æ] and the rise and fall of upspeak in Britain. To counter a possible accusation of ‘prescriptivism’, that is, of promoting certain usages as inherently superior to others, I propose that language should be considered as ‘man-made’, in the same way as many other features of our environment, and thus open to aesthetic judgement. I argue that the wish to speak and write well remains valid, even if there may be no objective criteria to judge one usage against another. I invoke the concept of ‘responsibility towards the language’.

This leads on to a more general consideration of the nature of language study. I argue that the view of language as qualitatively neutral is mistaken and has wrongly persuaded many university professionals to assert that linguistics should be regarded as a science. It seems to me more appropriate to treat most language study, especially where meaning is involved, as a humanity. Objectivity must still be paramount, but where the topic lends itself to it, judgements, including aesthetic ones, can properly be made.

Read the full article ‘W(h)ither the /r/ in Britain?’ here



English in rural Bangladesh

Blog piece by Elizabeth J. Erling based on an article written by Elizabeth J. Erling, Philip Seargeant and Mike Solly in the latest issue of English Today

Having worked in an educational project that sought to enhance English language teaching across Bangladesh brought me to visit schools in rural areas. Once there, I sometimes wondered: what is the value of English learning for these communities? The schools often didn’t have electricity, the villages were difficult to access, or even impossible during certain parts of the year. Literacy rates in the country still hover around 55 per cent, and 30 per cent of the population live below the international poverty line. Surely there were more pressing development needs than English language learning?

With this in mind, this research project set how to examine how English is perceived in rural Bangladesh and whether people in these communities viewed English language learning as a positive and, in some sense, necessary resource for development. The article investigates what it is that these communities feel that English can offer both in practical and in socio-cultural terms for the developmental challenges they face. In order to examine these questions the article draws on results from an ethnographical survey of two rural areas in Bangladesh which investigated the attitudes and aspirations of local community members to the potential impact of English-language education on their social prospects and cultural identities.

The research found that, overall, there is a strong belief in the power of English and a desire to be one of the many who speak the language for reasons of practicality and prestige. Knowledge of English was associated with education in general, and often a good education, with higher level professions, and with providing a service to the community. English was also found to provide access to privileged information and resources that were beneficial to individuals and the community. In some cases, however, knowledge of English was unrealistically perceived as a general panacea. Because of this, some people appear to be willing to invest significantly in English language education, making sacrifices for their children’s education and putting it before other resources, which may also be (more) needed in such contexts.

These findings therefore suggest a need for development programmes in contexts such as this to be aware of these strong beliefs in the power of English, so that they can both manage expectations and focus on providing English language learning for specific, local purposes that enhance opportunities for economic and social development, while providing the circumstances for people to sustain and promote local concerns and values.

Read the full article English in rural Bangladesh: How is language education perceived as a resource for development in rural communities? here