Checking in on grammar checking

shutterstock_384737923 Grammar Letters‘Checking in on Grammar Checking’ by Robert Dale is the latest Industry Watch column to be published in the journal Natural Language Engineering.

Reflecting back to 2004, industry expert Robert Dale reminds us of a time when Microsoft Word was the dominant software used for grammar checking. Bringing us up-to-date in 2016, Dale discusses the evolution, capabilities and current marketplace for grammar checking and its diverse range of users: from academics, men on dating websites to the fifty top celebrities on Twitter.

Below is an extract from the article, which is available to read in full here.

An appropriate time to reflect
I am writing this piece on a very special day. It’s National Grammar Day, ‘observed’ (to use Wikipedia’s crowdsourced choice of words) in the US on March 4th. The word ‘observed’ makes me think of citizens across the land going about their business throughout the day quietly and with a certain reverence; determined, on this day of all days, to ensure that their subjects agree with their verbs, to not their infinitives split, and to avoid using prepositions to end their sentences with. I can’t see it, really. I suspect that, for most people, National Grammar Day ranks some distance behind National Hug Day (January 21st) and National Cat Day (October 29th). And, at least in Poland and Lithuania, it has to compete with St Casimir’s Day, also celebrated on March 4th. I suppose we could do a study to see whether Polish and Lithuanian speakers have poorer grammar than Americans on that day, but I doubt we’d find a significant difference. So National Grammar Day might not mean all that much to most people, but it does feel like an appropriate time to take stock of where the grammar checking industry has got to. I last wrote a piece on commercial grammar checkers for the Industry Watch column over 10 years ago (Dale 2004). At the time, there really was no alternative to the grammar checker in Microsoft Word. What’s changed in the interim? And does anyone really need a grammar checker when so much content these days consists of generated-on-a-whim tweets and SMS messages?

The evolution of grammar checking
Grammar checking software has evolved through three distinct paradigms. First-generation tools were based on simple pattern matching and string replacement, using tables of suspect strings and their corresponding corrections. For example, we might search a text for any occurrences of the string isnt and suggest replacing them by isn’t. The basic technology here was pioneered by Bell Labs in the UNIX Writer’s Workbench tools (Macdonald 1983) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was widely used in a range of more or less derivative commercial software products that appeared on the market in the early ’80s. Anyone who can remember that far back might dimly recall using programs like RightWriter on the PC and Grammatik on the Mac. Second-generation tools embodied real syntactic processing. IBM’s Epistle (Heidorn et al. 1982) was the first really visible foray into this space, and key members of the team that built that application went on to develop the grammar checker that, to this day, resides inside Microsoft Word (Heidorn 2000). These systems rely on large rule-based descriptions of permissible syntax, in combination with a variety of techniques for detecting ungrammatical elements and posing potential corrections for those errors. Perhaps not surprisingly, the third generation of grammar-checking software is represented by solutions that make use of statistical language models in one way or another. The most impressive of these is Google’s context-aware spell checker (Whitelaw et al. 2009)—when you start taking context into account, the boundary between spell checking and grammar checking gets a bit fuzzy. Google’s entrance into a marketplace is enough to make anyone go weak at the knees, but there are other third-party developers brave enough to explore what’s possible in this space. A recent attempt that looks interesting is Deep Grammar ( We might expect to find that modern grammar checkers draw on techniques from each of these three paradigms. You can get a long way using simple table lookup for common errors, so it would be daft to ignore that fact, but each generation adds the potential for further coverage and capability.

The remainder of the article discusses the following:

  • Today’s grammar-checking marketplace
  • Capabilities
  • Who needs a grammar checker?

‘Checking in on grammar checking’ is an Open Access article. You may also be interested in complimentary access to a collection of related articles about grammar published in Natural Language Engineering. These papers are fully available until 30th June 2016.

Other recent Industry Watch articles by Robert Dale:

Text Messaging and the Downfall of Civilization

By Abby Kaplan author of Women Talk More Than Men and Other Myths about Language Explained

For years now, observers have been alert to a growing social menace. Like Harold Hill, they warn that there’s trouble in River City — with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Phone.

Mobile phones are a multifaceted scourge; they’ve been blamed for everything from poor social skills to short attention spans. As a linguist, I’m intrigued by one particular claim: that texting makes people illiterate. Not only are text messages short (and thus unsuited for complex ideas), they’re riddled with near-uninterpretable abbreviations: idk, pls, gr8. Young people are especially vulnerable to these altered forms; critics frequently raise the specter of future students studying a Hamlet who texts 2B or not 2B.

The puzzling thing is that none of these abominable abbreviations are unique to text messaging, or even to electronic communication more generally. There’s nothing inherently wrong with acronyms and initialisms like idk; similar abbreviations like RSVP are perfectly acceptable, even in formal writing. The only difference is that idk, lol, and other ‘textisms’ don’t happen to be on the list of abbreviations that are widely accepted in formal contexts. Non-acronym shortenings like pls for please are similarly unremarkable; they’re no different in kind from appt for appointment.

Less obvious is the status of abbreviations like gr8, which use the rebus principle: 8 is supposed to be read, not as the number between 7 and 9, but as the sound of the English word that it stands for. The conventions for formal written English don’t have anything similar. But just because a technique isn’t used in formal English writing doesn’t mean that technique is linguistically suspect; in fact, there are other written traditions that use exactly this principle. In Ancient Egyptian, for example, the following hieroglyph was used to represent the word ḥr ‘face’:Language Myths Blog

It’s not a coincidence, of course, that the symbol for the word meaning ‘face’ looks like a face. But the same symbol could also be used to represent the sound of that word embedded inside a larger word. For example, the word ḥryt ‘terror’ could be written as follows:Language Myths Blog

Here, the symbol has nothing to do with faces, just as the 8 in gr8 has nothing to do with numbers. The rebus principle was an important part of hieroglpyhic writing, and I’ve never heard anyone argue that this practice led to the downfall of ancient Egyptian civilization. So why do we think textisms are so dangerous?

Even if there’s nothing wrong with these abbreviations in principle, it could still be that using them interferes with your ability to read and write the standard language. If you see idk and pls on a daily basis, maybe you’ll have a hard time remembering that they’re informal (as opposed to RSVP and appt). But on the other hand, all these abbreviations require considerable linguistic sophistication — maybe texting actually improves your literacy by encouraging you to play with language. We all command a range of styles in spoken language, from formal to informal, and we’re very good at adjusting our speech to the situation; why couldn’t we do the same thing in writing?

At the end of the day, the only way to find out what texting really does is to go out and study it in the real world. And that’s exactly what research teams in the UK, the US, and Australia have done. The research in this area has found no consistent negative effect of texting; in fact, a few studies have even suggested that texting might have a modest benefit. It seems that all the weeping and gnashing of teeth about the end of literacy as we know it was premature: the apocalypse is not nigh.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should all spend every spare minute texting. (I’m a reluctant texter myself, and I have zero interest in related services like Twitter.) There are plenty of reasons to be thoughtful about how we use any technology, mobile phones included. What we’ve seen here is just that the linguistic argument against texting doesn’t hold water.

View the Women Talk More Than Men…and Other Language Myths Explained Book Trailer or by clicking on the image below…

Book Trailer

SSLA Announces the 2016 Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition are pleased to announce that the recipients of the 2016 Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication in 2015 are Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski for their March 2015 article, “Experimental designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide”, Volume 37, Issue 1.  Please join us in congratulating these authors on their contribution to the journal and to the field.

Post written by Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski

We wish to express our utmost thanks and gratitude to the editorial and review boards at SSLA for selecting our article, ‘Research designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide,’ (March, 2015) for the Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication. The two of us first became research collaborators several years ago as a result of our mutual interests in sentence processing, research methods, research design, and statistics. With each project that we have undertaken, we’ve had many fruitful and engaging conversations about best practices in experimental design and data analysis for sentence processing research. This article is the product of many of our own questions, which led us to conduct extensive reviews of existing processing studies. Our recommendations are culled from and informed by the body of work we reviewed, as well as our own experiences conducting sentence processing research. Stimulus development and data analysis can pose great challenges. It is our hope that the information provided in our paper will be a useful resource to researchers and students who wish to incorporate psycholinguistic methods into their research agenda and that the study of second language processing will continue to flourish in the future.

Why We Gesture: The surprising role of hand movements in communication

Blog post by David McNeill author of Why We Gesture: The Surprising role of the hands in communication

Why do we gesture? Many would say it brings emphasis, energy and ornamentation to speech (which is assumed to be the core of what is taking place); in short, gesture is an “add-on.” (as Adam Kendon, who also rejects the idea, phrases it). However,the evidence is against this. The lay view of gesture is that one “talks with one’s hands.” You can’t find a word so you resort to gesture. Marianne Gullberg debunks this ancient idea. As she succinctly puts it, rather than gesture starting when words stop,gesture stops as well.  So if, contrary to lay belief, we don’t “talk with our hands”, why do we gesture? This book offers an answer.

The reasons we gesture are more profound. Language itself is inseparable from it. While gestures enhance the material carriers of meaning, the core is gesture and speech together. They are bound more tightly than saying the gesture is an“add-on” or “ornament” implies. They are united as a matter of thought itself. Thought with language is actually thought with language and gesture indissolubly tied. Even if the hands are restrained for some reason and a gesture is not externalized, the imagery it embodies can still be present, hidden but integrated with speech (and may surface in some other part of the body, the feet for example).

The book’s answer to the question, why we gesture is not that speech triggers gesture but that gesture orchestrates speech; we speak because we gesture, not we gesture because we speak. In bald terms, to orchestrate speech is why we gesture. This is the “surprise” of the subtitle—“The surprising role of the hands in communication.”

To present this hypothesis is the purpose of the current book. The book is the capstone of three previous books—an inadvertent trilogy over 20 years—“How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution,” “Gesture and Thought,” and “Hand and Mind: What Gestures reveal about Thought.” It merges them in to one multifaceted hypothesis. The integration itself—that it is possible—is part of the hypothesis. Integration is possible because of its central idea—implicit in the trilogy, explicit here—that gestures orchestrate speech.

A gesture automatically orchestrates speech when it and speech co-express the same meaning; then the gesture dominates the speech; syntax is subordinate and breaks apart or interrupts to preserve the integrity of the gesture–speech unit.Orchestration is the action of the vocal tract organized around a manual gesture. The gesture sets its parameters, the order of events within it, and the content of the speech with which it works. The amount of time speakers take to utter sentences is remarkably constant, between 1 and 2 seconds regardless of the number of embedded sentences. It is also the duration of a gesture. All of this is experienced by the speaker as the two awarenesses of the sentence that Wundt in the 19th C. distinguished.The “simultaneous” is awareness of the whole gesture–speech unit. It begins with the first stirrings of gesture preparation and ends with the last motion of gesture retraction. The “successive” is awareness of “…individual constituents moving into the focus of attention and out again,” and includes the gesture–speech unit as it and its gesture come to surface and then sink again beneath it.

The gesture in the first illustration, synchronized with “it down”, is a gesture–speech unit, and using the Wundt concepts we have:

“and Tweety Bird runs and gets a bowling ba simultaneous awareness of gesture–speech unity

starts[ll and ∅tw  drops gesture–speech unity enters successive awareness it down gesture–speech unity

leaves successive awareness the drainpipe]simultaneous awareness of  gesture–speech unity  ends.”

The transcript [1] shows the speech the gesture orchestrated and when – the entire stretch, from “ball” to “drainpipe” is the core meaning of “it down” plus the image of thrusting the bowling ball into the drainpipe in simultaneous awareness. The same meaning appeared in successive awareness, the gesture stroke in the position the construction provided, there orchestrating “it” and “down”together.

Why We Gesture

The “drops” construction provides the unpacking template and adds linguistic values. Its job is to present the gesture–speech unit, including Tweety’s agent-power in the unit. Gesture–speech unity is alive and not effaced by constructions. To the contrary,Sylvester-up/Tweety-down conflict in socially accessible form. This unit must be kept intact in the speech flow. What is striking and why the example is illustrative, is that “it down” was divided by the construction into different syntactic constituents (“it”the direct object, “down” a locative complement), yet the word pair remained a unit orchestrated by the gesture. In other examples, speech stops when continuing would break up a gesture–speech

it controls them.  A gesture–speech unity dominates.

How did it all come about? It occurred because “it down,” plus the co-expressive thrusting gesture, was the source (the “growth point”) of the sentence. The growth point came about as the differentiation of a field of equivalents having to do with HOWTO  THWART  SYLVESTER: THE  BOWLING  BALL DOWN.   It unpacked itself into shareable form by “summoning” the causative construction (possible because a causative

Why We Gesture 2 meaning was in the gesture–speech unit from the start of the preparation – the speaker’s hands already in the shape of Tweety’s “hands” as the agent of thrusting). Thus “it down”and its stroke were inviolate from the start: the stroke orchestrated the two words as a unit, and the gesture phrase the construction as a whole. I believe the situation illustrated with “it down” permeates the production of speech in all conditions and different languages.


1 Participants retell an 8-minute Tweety and Sylvester classic they have just watched from memory to a listener (a friend, not the experimenter). Using Kendon’s terminology and our notation, the gesturephrase is marked by “[” and “]”.  The stroke, the image-bearing phase and only obligatory phase of the

gesture, is marked in boldface (“it down”). Preparation is the hand getting into position to makethestrokeandisindicatedbythespanfromtheleftbrackettothestartofboldface(“ba[lland∅twdrops”).Preparation shows that the gesture, with all its significance, is coming into being – there is n oreasonthe hands move into position and take on form than to perform the stroke. Holds are cessations of movement, either prestroke (“drops”), the hand frozen awaiting co-expressive speech, or poststroke

(“down”), the hand frozen in the stroke’s ending position and hand shape after movement has ceased until co-expressive speech ends. Holds of either kind are indicated with underlining. They provide a precise synchrony of gesture-orchestrated speech in successive awareness. Retraction is also an active phase, the gesture not simply abandoned but closing down ( “the drainpipe,” movement ending as the last syllable ended – in some gestures, though not here, the fingers creep along the chair arm rest until this point is reached). In writing growth points – a field of equivalents being differentiated and the psychological predicate differentiating it–we use FIELD OF EQUIVALENTS:PSYCHOLOGICAL PREDICATE (“HOW TO THWART SYLVESTER: THE BOWLING BALLDOWN”).


A “strong prediction.” Our arguments predict that GPs in successive awareness remain intact no matter the constructions that unpack them. This follows from the expectation that unpacking will not disrupt a field of equivalents or its differentiation. Belonging to different syntactic constituents – the “it” with “drops” and the“down” with “the drainpipe” – did not break apart the “it down” GP. Instead, syntactic form adapted to gesture. The example shows that gesture is a force shaping speech not speech shaping gesture. Gesture–speech unity means that speech and gesture are equals, and in gesture-orchestrated speech the dynamic dimension enters from the growth point. In a second version of the “strong prediction,” speech stops if continuing would break the GP apart. The absolute need to preserve the GP in successive awareness then puts a brake on speech flow, even when it means restarting with a less cohesive gesture–speech match up that doesn’t break apart the GP.

Gestures of course do not always occur. This is itself an aspect of gesture. There is a natural variation of gesture occurrence. Apart from forced suppressions (as informal contexts), gestures fall on an elaboration continuum, their position an aspect of the gesture itself. The reality is imagery with speech ranging over the entire continuum.It is visuoactional imagery, not a photo. Gesture imagery linked to speech is what natural selection chose, acting on gesture–speech units free to vary in elaboration. As what Jan Firbas called communicative dynamism varies, the gesture–speech unit moves from elaborate movement to no movement at all. To speak of gesture–speech unity we include gestures at all levels of elaboration, including micro-level steps.

An example of the difference it makes is a word-finding study by Sahin et al of conscious patients about to undergo open-skull surgery, from which the authors conclude that lexical, grammatical and phonological steps occur with distinctive delays of about 200 ms, 320 ms and 450 ms, respectively. We hypothesize that gesture should affect this timing for the 1~2 seconds the orchestration lasts(no gestures were recorded in the Sahin study). If the idea unit differentiating a past time in a field of meaningful equivalents begins with an inflected verb plus imagery,does the GP’s on flashing wait 320 or 450 ms? Delay seems unlikely (although would be fascinating to find). It may be no faster (and perhaps slower) to say “bounced” in an experiment where a subject is told to make the root word into a past tense than to differentiate a field of equivalents with past time gesturally spatialized and the gesture in this space.

To see gesture as orchestrating speech opens many windows—how language is a dynamic process; a glimpse of how language possibly began; that children do not acquire one language but two or three in succession; that gestures are unique forms of human action; that a specific memory evolved just for gesture–speech unity; and how speech works so swiftly, everything (word-finding, unpacking, gesture–speech unity, gesture-placement, and context-absorption) done in a couple of seconds with workable (not necessarily complete)accuracy.

Mouse tracking reveals that bilinguals behave like experts

 BIL Blog image - Apr 16Blog post written by Sara Incera and Conor T. McLennan based on an article in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

We analyzed how participants moved a computer mouse in order to compare the performance of bilinguals and monolinguals in a Stroop task. Participants were instructed to respond to the color of the words by clicking on response options on the screen.  For example, if the word blue appeared in the center of the screen and was presented in the color yellow, he or she was supposed to click on the response option containing yellow, which appeared in one of the top corners of the screen, and not on the response option containing blue, which appeared in the opposite corner. The ability to inhibit the blue response in this example is one measure of executive control. The bilingual advantage hypothesis states that lifelong bilingualism enhances executive control (e.g., Bialystok, 1999). Nevertheless, there is a debate in the literature regarding these effects. A number of studies have reported null effects of bilingualism across different executive control tasks (e.g., De Bruin, Traccani, & Della Sala, 2014).

We recorded when participants started moving the mouse (initiation times), and how fast they moved toward the correct response (x-coordinates over time). We compared two bilingual groups and one monolingual group. There were two bilingual groups to measure how different levels of conflict monitoring (having both or one language active) influences performance. Initiation times were longer for bilinguals than monolinguals; however, bilinguals moved faster toward the correct response. Taken together, these results indicate that bilinguals behave qualitatively differently from monolinguals; bilinguals are “experts” at managing conflicting information. Experts across many different domains take longer to initiate a response, but then outperform novices. These qualitative differences in performance could be at the root of apparently contradictory findings in the bilingual literature. The bilingual expertise hypothesis may be one way to account for these conflicting results.

In conclusion, bilinguals performed differently (started later but then moved faster toward the correct response) than monolinguals. These effects were maximized in the incongruent condition and in the bilingual group that had both languages active. One possible explanation for the conflicting findings in the literature related to the bilingual advantage is that bilinguals have a qualitatively different processing style that can elude detection by traditional reaction time measures. Bilinguals wait longer to initiate a response and then respond faster; therefore, an advantage would only be detected using reaction time measures when the benefits of faster responding outweigh the delay in initiating a response.

Read the full article ‘Mouse tracking reveals that bilinguals behave like experts’ here


English and international students in China today

ENG 2016Blog post written by Werner Botha based on an article in English Today 

Between 2009 and 2010, and again between 2012 and 2014, I visited a number of higher education institutes in China in order to research the role of English in the Chinese higher education system. One interesting finding from this research was that China has evidently started promoting itself as a hub for international education. Although the largest proportion of foreign students in China today are attracted by Chinese language programmes, an increasing number of such students are signing up for full degree courses in subjects such as medicine and engineering. An interesting phenomenon is that some university degree programmes in the country are being offered as English-medium degrees to foreign students, from undergraduate to postgraduate levels. So far, very little research has been carried out on how these programmess are being conducted, the reception of these programs by foreign students in China, and the impact this is having on the use of languages on China’s university campuses. It certainly is the impression that the attraction of international students to China’s higher education institutions would no doubt alter the dynamics of language use on these university campuses. In order to investigate this, I set out to study the reception and use of English by foreign university students in an international degree program: the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in the School of Medicine of one of China’s leading universities.

My case study provides an example of how English-medium instruction programmes are currently being used to attract foreign students to China’s universities, partly in order for these universities to promote themselves as ‘international’ institutions. This case study also shows that the most of the international students were recruited from the Asian region and almost all of these students speak English only as a second or additional language. Although many of these students indicated that they value the opportunity to study medicine in China in the English language, some felt that there was still room for improvement in how these courses were being delivered, especially in terms using English as a medium of teaching. Furthermore,  it is my impression from this research that the language ecologies on Chinese university campuses are in fact often quite diverse, with students (both foreign and local) using a number of languages and language varieties in their extra-curricular lives, while using English and Putonghua (or Mandarin) in their formal education. One other interesting finding from this study is that the international students I surveyed were required to graduate from their medical degree programme with a certain level of proficiency in Putonghua. This requirement appears to provide additional opportunities for these international students to expand their already multilingual repertoires even further, thus adding to the linguistic diversity in their lives. I believe that much more sociolinguistic fieldwork is required in order to further understand and explain the dynamics of language use and the role of English (and other languages and language varieties) on China’s university campuses today.

Read the full article ‘English and international students in China today’ here 


Figurative and non-figurative motion in the expression of result in English

LCO 2015 coverBlog post written by Francisco Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez and Alba Luzondo Oyón based on and article in the journal Language and Cognition 

There is a variety of ways in which English can express resulting events. Some take the form of non-figurative changes of state, as in Cold temperatures froze the river solid, which is an example of the intransitive resultative constructions. Others, like the intransitive motion syntactic frame (e.g. The horse jumped over the fence) and the caused-motion configuration (e.g. Tom kicked the ball into the net) depict literal changes of location. Interestingly enough, many outcome events require a figurative interpretation. Some cases in point are the following: changes of state expressed in terms of figurative motion (e.g. Miners drank themselves into oblivion); self-instigated change of location figuratively expressed as the result of caused motion (e.g. They laughed me out of the studio); self-instigated changes of location re-construed as externally caused events (e.g. Sheena walked me to the library), etc. In the context of this varied array of realizations codifying change, this paper provides readers with a qualitative cognitive-constructionist approach of the role played by motion in the conceptualization of result in English.

To this end, our analysis discusses three related aspects of the motional component of result events. First, it explores the nature of some of the constructions exemplified above. These are labeled Adjectival Phrase (AP) resultatives (e.g. The joggers ran their Nikes threadbare) and Prepositional Phrase (PP) resultatives (e.g. Steven worked himself to exhaustion), both of which express changes of state. The crucial feature setting apart these two types of resultative constructions is that only the latter builds on the high-level metaphor CHANGES OF STATE ARE CHANGES OF LOCATION. For example, in Steven worked himself to exhaustion, the change of state (i.e. become exhausted) is understood in terms of the destination of metaphorical motion. But, what lies behind the choice of one structure over the other? What are the differences between pairs employing an AP and those adding motion to the state of affairs, as in He hammered the metal flat/He hammered hot iron into knives? These are some of the questions that this paper explores. A second important aspect that we address is the relation between the prototypical AP resultative (e.g. He hammered the metal flat) and the literal caused-motion construction (e.g. Pat threw the book off the table). The connection between these two constructions has been the object of some debate. Thus, given the relevance of this issue in the context of a paper which revolves around the connection between motion and result, an entire section is devoted to revisiting the hypothesis that AP resultatives are a metaphorical extension of caused-motion configurations. This claim is based on the idea that the resultative element in AP resultatives codes a metaphorical type of goal (i.e. metaphorical change of location) by virtue of the ubiquitous metaphor CHANGES OF STATE ARE CHANGES OF LOCATION.

Third, because our study is additionally concerned with specifying the underlying mechanisms that motivate lexical-constructional integration in expressions involving change with some kind of motion ingredient, the remainder of our paper examines the role of high-level metaphors and metonymies such as AN ACTIVITY IS AN EFFECTUAL ACTION and A CAUSED EVENT FOR AN ACTIVITY, which, like CHANGES OF STATE ARE CHANGES OF LOCATION, are vital licensing cognitive mechanisms in the conceptualization of result events.

Read the full article ‘Figurative and non-figurative motion in the expression of result in English’ here.




Who could have imagined this kind of success for a scientific blog on bilingualism?

t1main.mind.tsFrançois Grosjean is interviewed about his Psychology Today blog, “Life as a bilingual”, by Ewa Haman, Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw.

The Polish translation appeared under the title, “Nie mógłbym nawet marzyć o takiej liczbie czytelników” on dwujęzyczność.info.

 Why did you choose to write a blog for Psychology Today?

When Carlin Flora, Editor at Psychology Today, wrote to me in the summer of 2010 to ask me if I would be willing to have a blog on bilingualism, I asked for a few weeks to think about it. The reason was that as an academic I mainly write scholarly papers, chapters, and books. Blog posts seemed a bit short at first (800-1000 words per post as compared to tens of pages for papers!) and maybe a bit too personal (I am more used to using the passive voice in my academic writing than the active voice). But then I looked around and saw, among others, David Crystal’s very successful blog on English linguistics. Here was a well-known academic, author and lecturer, who had been blogging for several years and doing so most successfully.

I also asked colleagues and friends what they thought and received many supportive messages. For example, Aneta Pavlenko, professor at Temple University, wrote to me that it would be a great way to popularize bilingualism as an interesting and important topic relevant to many lives in today’s globalized world. (It should be noted that Aneta joined me on the blog three and half years later and we are now both writing posts for it).

Since I was no longer teaching and I missed it, I thought it would be enjoyable to write introductory posts about various aspects of bilingualism for a general audience. So I accepted Carlin Flora’s offer and became a member of the Psychology Today blogger group. We were some 500 bloggers back then and are currently more than 750 writing about all kinds of topics in the many areas of psychology.

Is there room for a scientific blog on bilingualism?

There are numerous blogs on bilingualism, many of them written by parents of bilingual children,  and they are important for families who wish to follow in their footsteps and who are looking for support. But often parents are not themselves researchers in the field of bilingualism and do not always fully understand scientific papers. Those involved directly in that scholarly work can therefore play a crucial role in getting that knowledge out and explaining their own studies, and those of their colleagues.

I have worked in the field of bilingualism for many years – I started off with a Master’s thesis on bilingualism – and I have always wanted to put to rest the many myths that surround bilingualism as well as tell the general public about findings in our field. There is also the need to reassure bilinguals about their own bilingualism and to give those involved with children (parents, educators, speech / language pathologists, etc.) some basic knowledge about growing up with two or more languages. Hopefully, it will help them understand why and how bilingual children behave the way they do, e.g. develop a dominant language, show a language-person bond, refuse to speak a particular language at some point, mix their languages in certain situations, etc. I used books at first to inform those interested in the topic ­- I have written five books on the subject – but a blog can reach so many more people. After five years, more than 900,000 readers have come to the “Life as a bilingual” site, a number I could never have dreamed of with my books.

Finally, there is the need to constitute a small on-line resource on the bilingual person, adult and child, that people can come back to at any time. So far, “Life as a bilingual” has more than a 100 posts that can be consulted by anyone throughout the world (see here for a list by content).

What is the most difficult thing when writing a post for a popular science blog?

I love the challenge of having only 800-1000 words to present, as clearly as possible, the very essence of a topic and I thank belatedly my English teachers during my youth in England who made us do “précis” exercises each week. I didn’t like them at the time but they have proved to be extremely useful when you have to summarize two or three scholarly papers in such a small space.

This said, since the blog concerns every aspect of the bilingual adult and child, I often have to work hard to prepare a post that does not touch on my areas of expertise directly. This requires reading several articles, contacting one or two researchers, and then writing the post so that it tells an interesting story. It is far more work than appears at first.

There is also the question of finding a photo that fits the post since Psychology Today requires that posts be accompanied by photos. Not only must the photo be adequate but one must obtain permission to reproduce it – not always an easy task!

What are your private criteria for successful posts?

Successful posts are those that cover a particular topic well, where the message is clear, the data is clean, and our knowledge of the bilingual person, adult or child, has moved forward a bit because of it. They are not necessarily the ones that obtain the most hits though. For example, in a post entitled, Perceptual insensibility in a second language, I show how certain processing mechanisms in a second language may not be acquired (or only partly acquired) if the language is learned later in life. Of course, other processing routes will be used by late bilinguals, and they will process their second language well, but it won’t be the ones found in early bilinguals. This particular post, based on hard evidence, did fairly well but not as well as expected.

On the other hand, posts that I would characterize as simply satisfactory have done extremely well. One example is Those incredible interpreterswhich has proved to be the most successful post on the blog with close to 90,000 readers. Clearly interpreters feel encouraged by it and pass it on to others.

Some of the posts I really enjoyed writing are those which deal in a more personal way with actual people: one is on an outstanding bilingual academic couple I knew (The rose), another is on a person I would have loved to have met when she lived in Paris with her husband (Falling in love with a culture and a language), and finally there is the letter I wrote to my first grandchild when he was born (Born to be bilingual).

 Why do you think the general public should be informed about scientific findings on bilingualism?

 First, language is part of our everyday life and we need to inform the general public about findings in the language sciences. Then, since about half of the world is bilingual, and studies on bilinguals have been far less numerous than those on monolinguals until recently, we have the added duty of communicating our results on bilinguals not only to our colleagues but also to people who might be interested in them.

I am also convinced that some findings can change our attitudes towards those who live with two or more languages and the way we nurture bilingual children and educate them. Let me give one example. We have known for some time that bilingual children have as many words as their monolingual counterparts when both languages are taken into account but maybe not so when one examines each of their languages separately. Why is that? Quite simply because they are exposed to their languages in different environments and with different people – what I have called the Complementarity Principle. They will often encounter specific items in a context where only one language is used and this decreases the number of words they finally acquire in each language (see a post on this here).

The Complementarity Principle, a notion I developed more than twenty years ago, accounts for many other phenomena in bilingualism such as the ultimate fluency one attains in a language (at least at the lexical level), automatic language behaviors such as counting and praying (often done in just one language), the need to switch languages when the “wrong language” is used, the difficulty bilinguals have with translating, and so on.

 What advice would you give to researchers who strive to translate basic research into interesting and readable posts?

 Not all research has a direct impact on everyday life and one must accept that. But some findings can play a role in our lives as bilinguals, or in the lives of bilingual children, whilst others can change our attitudes towards bilingualism. We should then try to communicate them to a general public.

The person who writes about a finding must understand it fully and must be able to replace it in its context. He or she must also describe it clearly, without too much jargon, and show the impact it has on our everyday life. It is no simple task but if the researcher is also a good teacher, and enjoys explaining things to students, then there is a good chance that he or she will be able to write a clear and informative post.

 Would you consider popularizing research to be a kind of duty of every researcher?

 I strongly believe that as active researchers we should inform the general public of our research. For too long this has been left to specialized journalists who simply cannot understand the field they are reporting on as well as those involved in it directly. Some journalists may even hype up the story which in the end does more harm than good to our science. I give an example of this in the post, Does processing differently mean more efficiently? It is the duty of researchers, therefore, to communicate with the outside world in a clear, comprehensible, and balanced manner, so that their findings, at least the more important ones, become part of common  knowledge.

 Could you give some examples of how findings in research on bilingualism have influenced everyday practice?

 There are many but let me just take one. When I started working on the sign language of the Deaf, I realized that many signing Deaf were in fact bilingual, in sign language and in an oral language, usually in its written modality. I investigated this further and quickly came to the conclusion that the education of deaf children should be bilingual. It is the optimal combination of a sign and an oral language that will allow these children to meet their many needs, that is, communicate early with their parents (first in sign and then, with time, also in the oral language), develop their cognitive abilities, acquire knowledge of the world, communicate fully with the surrounding world, and acculturate into their two worlds. This led me to write a short text, “The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual”, which since then has travelled around the world and has been translated into 35 different languages! It has also encouraged the bilingual education of deaf children. I talk about this in a post on my blog (see here).

François Grosjean is Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. He was a cofounding editor of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.



Infant engagement and early vocabulary development: a naturalistic observation study of Mozambican infants from 1;1 to 2;1

JCL Cover - March 2016Blog post written by J. Douglas Mastin and Paul Vogt based on an article in Journal of Child Language 

This study analyzes how individuals in rural and urban Mozambican engage with infants during naturalistic observations. We assess how the proportion of time spent at 13-months in different types of engagement (i.e., being alone, observing others, interacting with and without goals) relates to infants’ language development over the second year of life. We created an extended version of Bakeman and Adamson’s (1984) categorization of infant engagement, and investigated how a more detailed analysis of infant engagement can contribute to our understanding of vocabulary development in natural settings.

In addition, we explored how different engagements relate to vocabulary size, and how these differ between the rural and urban communities. Results show that rural infants spend significantly more time in forms of solitary engagement, whereas urban infants spend more time in forms of triadic joint engagement (e.g., involving another person and a shared object or event). In regard to correlations with reported productive vocabulary, we find that dyadic PERSONS engagement (i.e. interactions not about concrete objects) have positive correlations with vocabulary measures in both rural and urban communities. In addition, we find that triadic COORDINATED JOINT ATTENTION has a positive relationship with vocabulary in the urban community, but a contrasting negative correlation with vocabulary in the rural community.

These similarities and differences are explained, based upon the parenting beliefs and socialization practices of different prototypical learning environments. Specifically, we assess how views on child-centered activities differ between rural and urban populations in traditional cultures. Overall, this study concludes that the extended categorization of engagement provides a valuable contribution to the analysis of infant engagement and their relation to language acquisition, especially for analyzing naturalistic observations as compared to semi-structured studies. Moreover, with respect to vocabulary development, Mozambican infants appear to benefit strongest from dyadic engagements without object, while they do not necessarily benefit from joint attention, as tends to more often be the case for children from industrial, developed communities.

Read the full article ‘Infant engagement and early vocabulary development: a naturalistic observation study of Mozambican infants from 1;1 to 2;1’ here

A deserted desert

ENG 2016Blog post written by Michael Bulley based on an article in the journal English Today 

Why that title? Well, desert is one of those spellings, like defect, where a change of stress-pattern alters the meaning, the quality of one of the vowels and the grammatical category. Also, desert, the noun, has the same etymological origin as desert, the verb, though we do not nowadays think of a desert as a place people have deserted. Those two words also belong to a smallish group in English that begin with the prefix <de-> followed by <s> and a vowel. That group is the topic of my article.

Leaving out rare words and obvious derivations, the list I came up with is this:

desalinate, desaturate, desecrate, desegregate, deselect, desensitise, desert, deserve, desiccate, design, designate, desire, desist, desolate, desuetude, desultory

There are several ways you can group them. The one I fixed on was the pronunciation of the prefix. There are three possibilities: [dɪ], as in deserve, [di], as in deselect, and [dɛ], as in designate. Having established those three groups, I then look at what the similarities and differences are within and across them according to three other criteria. These are:

1) The pronunciation of the <s>, whether unvoiced, as in desecrate, or voiced as in designate.

2) The sense of the prefix. Sometimes it implies separation or privation, as in desalinate, and sometimes not. The <de-> of desiccate, for example, just seems to reinforce the sense of the root, as the word does not mean to remove dryness.

3) The independence or not of the root. In deselect, it is independent. In desist, it is not. In design, it is and it isn’t. For, although sign exists by itself, there is a change of sense from that in the compound and the <s> is unvoiced, whereas in the compound it is voiced.

What prompted me to think of this topic? It was an oddity of French orthography, where the prefix <dé->, added to a root beginning <s> plus vowel, becomes <des->, the double <s> ensuring an unvoiced pronunciation. So, French has dessiccation, with a double <s>, whereas English has desiccation, with only one.

I finish the article with dessert. That’s another French word with the precautionary, but slightly illogical, double <s>. We anglophones have to spell it that way, because it comes directly from French, but we cock a snook. For how do we pronounce that double <s>? As a  /z/!

Read the full article ‘A deserted desert, Various ways of looking at a small group of words