Predicting risk for oral and written language learning difficulties in students educated in a second language

Post written by Dr. Caroline Erdos based on an article from Applied Psycholinguistics

Students who struggle with oral language and literacy are at increased risk for dropping out of school. The gap between struggling students and their typically-developing peers is smallest early on and therefore, the chances of bridging that gap are greatest in the early grades. However, more and more students have had little or no exposure to the language of schooling until their first day of school and this makes it difficult for school personnel to disentangle true risk for learning disability from incomplete second language acquisition. The result is that identification and intervention is often delayed in the case of second language learners, even those in immersion classes (ex: native speakers of English attending French immersion school), thus placing them at a significant disadvantage as compared to native speakers of the language of schooling (ex: native speakers of English attending English school) who often begin to receive help with oral language or (pre)literacy as early as kindergarten.

A promising avenue is to use student’s skills in oral language and literacy in their first language to predict how they will eventually perform in these areas in their second language. It is crucial to fully understand the possibilities and limitations of this method, however.

A second related issue is the importance of providing help that is most likely to have the greatest impact on student’s academic success. Numerous studies and clinical experience have shown that the more targeted the help, the more likely students will make gains. Therefore, once a child has been identified as presenting with oral language or literacy difficulties, it is imperative to identify the specific area of difficulty within each domain — in the area of oral language: vocabulary, grammar, phonology, discourse, or pragmatics; and in the area of literacy: phonological processing, letter-sound knowledge, decoding accuracy, decoding speed, lexical knowledge, or reading comprehension. Targeted intervention is key to making gains. For example, a child who struggles to understand what he reads is not likely to benefit from intervention targeting letter-sound knowledge, unless poor letter-sound knowledge was the primary cause of his inability to understand what he reads. Exactly how to provide targeted intervention is better understood for some areas, for example decoding accuracy or decoding speed,  than for others, for example oral language or reading comprehension. However, even in these less understood domains there is a general consensus that intervention that focuses on vocabulary (breadth and depth) and complex language skills would be useful.

Read the full article until July 31, 2014:

“Predicting risk for oral and written language learning difficulties in students educated in a second language” by Caroline Erdos, Fred Genesee, Robert Savage and Corinne Haigh

Reduced auxiliaries in early child language: Converging observational and experimental evidence from French

Post written by Dr. Cristina D. Dye based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

Since the early studies in language acquisition, scholars have noted that certain grammatical elements, among which auxiliaries and verb inflections, often appear to be missing in early child speech, with the result that child utterances sometimes exhibit verb forms with non-finite morphology in seemingly matrix clauses. This observation has led to a deprivationalist conception of child syntax.

In contrast with previous studies, this article explores the possibility that the child’s PHONOLOGY may considerably impact her overt realization of auxiliaries. Specifically, it examines the hypothesis that non-finite verbs in early speech are in fact attempted periphrastics (i.e., auxiliary/modal + non-finite verb) in which the auxiliaries are just reduced phonetically, often to the point where they remain unpronounced.

This study involved 28 normally-developing French-speaking children aged between 23 and 37 months. New observational data revealed a continuum in a given child’s phonetic realizations of auxiliaries. Children showed various levels of auxiliary reduction, suggesting that their non-finite verbs are best analyzed as being part of periphrastics involving an auxiliary form that represents the endpoint on this continuum, i.e. is (completely) deleted. Further examination of these verb forms showed that their semantics corresponds to the semantics of adult periphrastics. Additionally, the results of an experiment where children imitated sentences with either periphrastic or synthetic verbs showed that responses with non-finite verb forms were predominantly produced when the target sentence involved a periphrastic, rather than a synthetic verb.

These findings open the door to investigation of other factors that might affect auxiliary reduction (e.g., memory, sentential complexity, fine-grained syntax problems), other populations (bilingual children, SLI), and other grammatical elements (e.g., determiners, complementizers). They also invite new research into the specific aspect(s) of phonology that might account for child reduced/deleted auxiliaries (e.g., phonological realization processes, phonological representations, prosodic representations, production/articulation difficulties).

Read the entire article from issue 47/2 of Journal of Linguistics here.

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A Language for all the World

Written by John Edwards

Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of  Language Teaching.

In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics.  After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain.  And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters).  Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.

The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden.  Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented.  As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’  Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic?   If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless.  But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden.  So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.

 You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.

Bilingualism Special Issue: Computational Modeling of Bilingualism

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition’s 2013 Special Issue features computational modeling studies of bilingualism and second language acquisition. Seven research papers illustrate seven different but highly related computational models designed to understand the workings of the bilingual mind from a cognitive science perspective. This Special Issue fills a large gap in the literature, in that the specific, algorithmically implemented, models of bilingualism provide a good variety of computational architectures, cover a range of theoretical issues, and analyze both spoken and written languages across different bilingual populations. Moreover, they integrate theories and mechanisms of learning, representation, and development in order to account for a variety of phenomena, in bilingual aphasia, lexical memory, word translation, grammatical acquisition, speech perception, and reading development.

Readers of this Special Issue will be convinced that computational models have much to offer to the understanding of the bilingual mind, over and beyond what general verbal, hypothesis-driven, models can do. Implementation of computational models forces the researcher to be very explicit about their hypotheses, predictions, materials, and testing procedures, and at the same time, gives the flexibility of parameter selection and reliability of testing that are often not found in empirical studies. Indeed, the potential of a bilingual computational model lies in its ability to identify gaps in experimental designs, and in systematic manipulation of variables such as age of acquisition (early vs. late), proficiency (high vs. low), and memory resources (large vs. small), variables that may be naturally confounded in experimental or realistic learning situations.

The seven models presented in this Special Issue demonstrate the advantages and the need for developing more computational models of bilingualism, as they deepen our understanding of the complex interactive mechanisms involved in the acquisition and processing of multiple competing linguistic systems. For example, the effects of dynamic interactions in the competing languages at different times of learning can be clearly simulated, providing alternative accounts of the critical period effects from the perspectives of competition, entrenchment, and plasticity. These models examine the extent to which early learning impacts later learning and the extent later learning can soften or even reverse early-learned structures. In addition to simulating known patterns in the empirical data, the computational models presented here will also inform theories of bilingualism by making distinct predictions under different hypotheses or conditions. In so doing, they will provide a new forum for generating novel ideas, inspiring new experiments, and helping formulate new theories.

Blog post written by Ping Li, Pennsylvania State University, USA

 Read the entire special issue without charge until the 30th April 2013

Englishes in a multilingual South Africa

South Africa is well-known as a country that has undergone enormous political, social, educational and economic change since the days of apartheid.  Independence and democracy can only be said to have arrived as late as 1994, with the negotiated settlement that led to a new non-racial constitution.  The constitution recognises eleven of the country’s languages as official; and multilingualism remains a strong force in South African life.  Yet while indigenous languages like Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho continue to grow as the majority languages of the country, so too has English, as a first language and – to a larger extent – a second language.

A special issue of English Today focuses on the sociolinguistics and linguistic characteristics of the main varieties of English in the country.  The initial article discusses English as a first language offshoot of British English and the role played by the gold-mining city of Johannesburg in the development of a distinct South African English in the late 19th  C.  Subsequent articles focus on the spread of English and its characteristic features in different communities.

Black South African English is the variety that has prospered the most since 1994, being a major variety to be heard in the media, in parliament, at public gatherings and so forth.  The major grammatical characteristics of this variety spoken as a second language are discussed from the vantage point of corpus linguistics in two of the articles.

Social change evident in the deracialising schooling systems has brought about immense changes in young peoples’ speech repertoires. In this regard one article explores the attitudes of young Black students at high school in relation to cultural and linguistic diversity.  Another documents a shift in dominance amongst young Coloured people in the Western Cape from a bilingualism that previously had English as a second language to one that plays down Afrikaans in favour of English.

Two studies focus on Asian migrants in South Africa.  The first discusses lexicographical work pertaining to the country’s Indian community; the second discusses adaptations made by new Chinese migrants in South Africa, showing the importance of Xhosa as well as English in rural Eastern Cape settings.  Other articles examine the nature of literary translation using South African English as a medium.  Three short book notices on varieties of English in South Africa round off the issue.

Follow this link to read the entire special issue of English Today

Blog post written by Rajend Mesthrie.

ReCALL special issue on digital games for language learning

ReCALL special issue Editors Steven L. Thorne, Frederik Cornillie and Piet Desmet explore the use and value of digital games for language learning.

Extending back to the earliest days of computing and the advent of public access to the internet, and over the past decade in particular, there has been an ever steepening trajectory of interest in play environments that take the form of online digital games. Catalyzed by advances in hardware and networking technologies, the maturation of digital games has been accompanied by an exponential growth in the number and diversity of players, has spawned complex and heterogeneous online communities and cultural practices, and increasingly, the use of gaming features and mechanics have been leveraged for educational purposes in what has been termed the serious games movement. In part because some genres of digital games are language intensive, applied linguists and language educators have begun exploring the use of commercial off-the-shelf digital game genres (primarily multiplayer games) for the purpose of learning or teaching a second or foreign language (L2), broadly referred to as digital game-based language learning (DGBLL).

This special issue was designed to advance knowledge in the area of DGBLL, with particular attention to two issues: (1) the recent emergence of digital gaming as a substantive and diverse context for intercultural expression; (2) the pedagogical shift that most current games illustrate, from models of learning based on information presentation and toward theories of human development that emphasize engaged problem solving, collaboration, and social interaction. Each contribution to this special issue focuses on various of these themes, introduces empirical data and analyses, and in some cases proposes innovative theoretical frameworks novel to CALL and SLA, all of which push forward our understanding of game-enabled processes and phenomena that obtain relevance to the project of designed settings for language development.

This special issue features six empirical studies that push forward our understanding of game-enabled processes and communicative phenomena that relate to the project of designed settings for language development. In the first contribution to this ReCALL special issue, Cornillie, Clarebout, and Desmet emphasize the need to consider participants’ perceptions in games designed for language learning purposes, with particular attention to language-focused corrective feedback. The authors present evidence from a mixed-method study which shows that learners have generally favourable perceptions of corrective feedback as a design element in an immersive role playing game. The next article, by Thorne, Fischer, and Lu, provides detailed linguistic complexity analyses of the English language version of the commercial massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) World of Warcraft (WoW) and its attendant online discourse communities and strategy/informational websites. Their research illustrates that the complex semiotic ecology of this popular game constitutes a linguistically and cognitively rich environment for language learners. The following paper, by Sylvén and Sundqvist, presents evidence that recreational gaming by young EFL learners is positively related to their L2 proficiency levels. They note the need for additional research in order to explore whether game playing itself, rather than other factors, might explain this relationship.

The final three contributions explore, and critically analyze, discourse-based and action oriented participation in L2 MMOG settings. Rama, Black, van Es, and Warschauer contrast the experiences of an expert gamer but beginning learner of L2 Spanish with those of an advanced Spanish language learner who is a novice gamer. Through analyses of journal excerpts and chat logs, among other qualitative data, the authors show that players’ engagement in the collaborative space of WoW provides numerous affordances for L2 learning. The contribution by Zheng, Newgarden, and Young opens by introducing a distributed language and values-realizing framework as the theoretical foundation for a multimodal analysis of EFL learners’ game play in WoW.  They document, among other things, communicative activities unlikely to be encountered in L2 classrooms, as well as a co-occurrence of killing actions and caring for other players that constitute quotidian forms of play in this setting. In the article that concludes this special issue, Peterson analyzes the discourse of Japanese learners of EFL in a manga-styled MMOG and documents interactional features that have been associated with the development of sociocultural competence.

This special issue will be of particular relevance to linguists, applied linguists, Internet Studies researchers, educational technologists, language educators aspiring to use games in instructed L2 contexts, and scholars with an interest in game studies.

Access the entire special issue here, without charge until 30th April 2013

Journal of Child Language Special Issue on Atypical Language Development

Based on the introduction to the JCL’s Special Issue on Atypical Language Development

Written by Letitia R. Naigles and Edith L. Bavin

The Journal of Child Language’s recent special issue on atypical language development includes 11 excellent papers on a range of disorders (Down syndrome (DS), Williams syndrome (WS), Fragile X syndrome (FXS), dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Pre/perinatal brain injury (BI)) manifested by children learning a range of languages (English, British Sign Language (BSL), Dutch, German, Hebrew, Kuwaiti Arabic).

To the extent that child language acquisition relies on the neural substrate of the brain, then children with specific kinds of atypical neural substrates should show atypical processes and/or products of language development. Investigations of atypical language development in children, can help reveal which underlying (nonlinguistic) components are required and what they are required for, which processes are resilient or robust, and the degree to which language representations break down in graded or absolute fashion within a given disorder.

Papers in this issue provide compelling evidence that grammar is impaired in both toddlers and school age children with DS or WS (both of whom display lower general cognitive functioning) compared with children with FXS or typical development (TD). Yet a phonological system is clearly available to children with DS even when their articulation is problematic.  In other papers, the extent to which social abilities contribute to acquisition is investigated with children with ASD, who show marked restrictions in social interaction, and WS, who are highly social. The research reported shows that removing social engagement from the toolkit of children with ASD impacts on their word learning; however, the presence of social engagement in children with WS does not guarantee intact language development, neither within the pragmatics realm nor with respect to the timing of grammatical development.

Some aspects of language development seem to proceed typically in children with disorders: In the lexical domain, the content and organization of vocabularies encompassing the first 50 words were strikingly similar for children with ASD’s and children with TD; and for children acquiring BSL (TD and those with SLI), semantic clustering effects were found.  In the grammatical realm, similarly to children with TD, children with BI produced gesture-speech combinations encompassing simple propositions several months before they produced those propositions entirely in speech; additionally, children with WS and DS learning Hebrew produced many grammatical elements in the same developmental order (i.e., synchronously) as children with TD, suggesting that these elements cohered as a system for these groups.  But not all early language development processes show resilience:  the research reported showed no evidence of learning non-adjacent dependencies in an artificial language for toddlers at familial risk for dyslexia and, hence, no evidence for sensitivity to regularities when processing such utterances. These findings suggest that language development that appears to be typical at specific points in time may be proceeding via different underlying routes/processes.

For a given disorder and/or across disorders systematic graded or partial impairments may be observed within a given area or subarea of language.  Evidence of rule use in German- or Arabic-speaking preschoolers with SLI is reported: Children inflected novel verb or noun stimuli appropriately and produced overgeneralizations at levels comparable to children with TD matched on language-level.  However, performance by children with SLI was consistently poorer. Such findings pose a theoretical challenge:  how can a given area of language appear to be rule-governed to some extent but not in total?

 Explore the entire Atypical Language Development special issue of Journal of Child Language without charge until the 31st March 2013


Free access to all 2012 content on Cambridge Journals Online






We’re giving away free access to our entire 2012 journal content for 6 weeks!

From 22nd January – 5th March, all Cambridge Journals content published in 2012 will be available for free on CJO. All you have to do is register.

There’s a lot you can do in 6 weeks; it’s long enough to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy 88 times, and for Usain Bolt to win 378,789 100m sprints. You could train to be a ski instructor, or take 117 trips to the moon on a NASA probe. Or, you could read the 100,000 articles that were published in Cambridge Journals in 2012…

To gain access to all this free content, you simply need to fill in the online registration form, using the following offer code:


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Access free articles to celebrate 15 years of CJO



Cambridge Journals Online launched in 1997, and one and a half decades later continues to evolve. At Cambridge Journals, we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved over the past fifteen years. CJO is arguably as close to a tailor-made resource as you’ll find in academic publishing. Developed, built and maintained by a crack team of software developers based in Manila. Nurtured and specified by in-house editors, marketers and production staff. Informed by consultation with journal editors, societies, academics and librarians. CJO is loaded with fresh new features three times a year, available on all platforms (including mobile), twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

For the next fifteen days (until the 3rd October) we’ve decided to make a birthday gift. Go to any journal homepage, and you’ll find a new, golden tab. There, the fifteen most-downloaded papers from that journal are available to read for free. We’ve done this for every single journal we publish. Make your way there by browsing our full list of Language and Linguistics journals. As well as being able to download papers to your desktop, or read them on your phone or tablet, you’ll be able to send papers to your Kindle to read at your leisure. Just look for the Send to Kindle links in the left hand article menu and in the headers.

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English Language and Linguistics Celebrates Variation and Change in English

English Language & Linguistics, from Cambridge University Press

Professor Bas Aarts, University College London, UK
Professor April McMahon, University of Edinburgh, UK
Dr Wim van der Wurff, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

English Language & Linguistics is, according to its editorial policy, ‘an international journal which focuses on the description of the English language within the framework of contemporary linguistics.’ What makes ELL fairly unusual is that it ‘is concerned equally with the synchronic and the diachronic aspects of English language studies’; and it takes an equally liberal approach to ‘the English language’, bringing together work on variation and change. There is a particular (though not exclusive) emphasis on using data from varieties of English, both in the present day and in the past, to propose, test and refine theoretical claims in linguistics. Variation and change are closely interlinked, but so often journals consider them separately, while ELL is special in recognising and celebrating the links between them, and in exploring the application of the most up-to-date linguistic methods to data from different periods and varieties.

It is straightforward to find examples of papers which illustrate these trends from recent issues of the journal. For instance, Julie van Bogaert offers a new perspective on the use of what she calls Complement-Taking Mental Predicates (CMTPs) such as I think, I believe, I guess, and so on, which often perform an interpersonal function by modifying the meaning of another clause. Using authentic data from corpora, she argues that CMTPs have reached different levels of entrenchment and schematicity in English, and that the mostly deeply entrenched exemplars have the highest number of variant forms. Thus, I think, which is the most widely used CMTP in the author’s corpus data, has nine variant forms (I was thinking, I’m thinking, I thought, I should think, etc.), whereas the least widely used I realize has only one other variant form (I do realize). CMTPs are regarded as constructions in their own right, which are part of a constructional network that displays various levels of schematicity.
(Van Bogaert, ELL 14.3 ‘A constructional taxonomy of I think and related expressions: accounting for the variability of complement-taking mental predicates’)

Stefan Gries and Martin Hilpert also take a corpus-based approach, this time applied to the change of the English third-person singular present tense suffix from dental fricative (giveth) to alveolar fricative (gives). Working with over 20,000 examples from 1417-1681, Gries and Hilpert aim to determine the salient temporal stages for this development, and the main factors correlated with the change. Rather than dividing their data into pre-determined time periods, they apply a bottom-up clustering method, Variability-Based Neighbor Clustering, which groups the data into temporal sets characterised by high levels of within-group similarity. The groupings are therefore data-driven rather than externally imposed. Gries and Hilpert then argue that different factors matter during different stages of the change: in the periods when the most rapid and dramatic changes are taking place, relevant factors are phonological, syntactic and sociolinguistic (for example, writers begin to use the new gives form to addressees of the opposite sex). Their aim is not simply to cast light on this particular change, but to extend and test the methods available within diachronic corpus research.
(Gries and Hilpert, ELL 14.3 ‘Modeling diachronic change in the third person singular: a multifactorial, verb- and author-specific exploratory approach’)

Further corpus work shedding light on variation is found in Rhona Alcorn’s article ‘Grammatical person and the variable syntax of Old English personal pronouns’ (ELL 13:3)  - a revised version of an essay that in 2008 was awarded the Richard M. Hogg prize for work by an early-career scholar in English language and linguistics. The article addresses the variability in Old English between P + pronoun and pronoun + P word orders (e.g. to him vs. him to). In earlier work, based on a limited amount of data, it had been proposed that the latter order was frequent in particular with 3rd person pronouns. Using the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose, Alcorn establishes that 3rd person indeed significantly promotes pronoun + P ordering. She goes on to show that this effect cannot be reduced to other factors, such as [± human reference], [± occurrence in direct speech], [± occurrence in translations] or the position of P relative to the verb. Two of these factors do have an independent effect: direct speech and V (…) P order both disfavour use of the pronoun + P variant.

Moving back to data from present-day English, Mark Jones and Carmen Llamas undertake detailed acoustic analysis of fricated examples of the voiceless plosives /p t k/ from speakers of Dublin and Middlesbrough English. While frication of /t/ has been reported regularly in both varieties, Jones and Llamas demonstrate that it is by no means the only plosive to undergo frication. It does, however, behave differently from /p/ and /k/, since /t/ is much more regularly subject to frication; indeed, fricative realisations of /t/ are categorical and nonvariable for at least some of the speakers investigated. While these findings are interesting and relevant in their own right for our understanding of variation and change in progress in modern English, Jones and Llamas also apply their instrumental investigations to older historical questions. In particular, they argue that the realisations of fricated /t/ in Dublin and Middlesbrough are sufficiently distinct to cast doubt on any hypothesis of direct transfer from Irish to English varieties through migration. Instead, Jones and Llamas suggest that the weight of evidence is in favour of parallel processes of lenition operating independently in these varieties.
(Jones and Llamas, ELL 12.3 ‘Fricated realisations of /t/ in Dublin and Middlesbrough English: an acoustic analysis of plosive frication and surface fricative contrasts’)

The variability investigated by Lieselotte Anderwald is located in the past tense of the verbs begin, drink, ring, shrink, sing, sink, spring, stink and swim. Is that past tense began etc. or begun etc.? Anderwald demonstrates that non-standard speakers of present-day English use high proportions of the latter form and argues that this is a case not of innovation but of retention. She shows that in a corpus of 70 nineteenth-century grammars of English, a movement can be observed over the course of the century from the listing of variable <a/u> or exclusive <u> forms for the past tense of the relevant verbs towards the listing of <a> forms only. This is sometimes explicitly motivated by grammarians pointing to the usefulness of having distinct past tense and past participle markers, i.e. <a> vs <u> for these verbs. However, non-standard speakers seem quite unreceptive to such Latin or logic-inspired ideas, instead opting to retain the formal identity of past tense and past participle that is also found in a set of phonologically similar irregular verbs (cling, dig, fling, sling, slink, spin etc., which uniformly have <u> for both) and in fact in the entire set of regular verbs of English. In this case, then, what at first sight may look like lawlessness is shown to be an example of motivated synchronic variation, having traceable roots in earlier periods of the language.
(Anderwald, ELL 15.1 ‘Norm vs variation in British English irregular verbs: the case of past tense sang vs sung’)