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Gestures, grammar and global issues

Photo courtesy of Tulane University Public Relations with Creative Commons license

Claudia Civinini presents a round-up of the latest ELT and applied linguistics research.


Has English removed all barriers to the global sharing of knowledge? A paper published in PLOS Biology, ‘Languages are still a major barrier to global science’, thinks otherwise. Using Google Scholar in sixteen languages, researchers surveyed 75,513 scientific documents on biodiversity conservation published in 2014 and found that 35 per cent of them were not in English, with most of these providing neither an abstract nor a title in English.

This means that most of those documents cannot be fully understood without appropriate foreign language skills, and cannot be found using English keywords. This lack of access to non-English knowledge can cause gaps and biases in the understanding of global issues – and the paper explains that systematic reviews, for example, could be biased, as positive or statistically significant results are more likely to be published in high-impact English language journals. Also, some local and indigenous knowledge could be underrepresented in English, as field practitioners, the paper reports, often find it challenging to have their work published in English if this is not their first language. Conversely, the over-representation of English as the lingua franca of science has made scientific knowledge unavailable in local languages, as more and more researchers aim to publish in English. A survey of 44 protected areas in Spain revealed that half of their directors identified languages as a barrier to using scientific knowledge as a source of information for management.

The paper puts forward some solutions to these issues: multilingual panels conducting systematic reviews; use of non-English search terms; developing a database of non-English literature relevant to each field; and translation of paper summaries in multiple languages. The authors also suggest that institutions should invest more in outreach activities aimed at overcoming language barriers.

See http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933 



What is the best way to ensure that an L2 (second language) speaker is capable of thinking in their L2? They have the moves of a native speaker of that language.Languages conceptualise the world in different ways, and often the lexico-semantic and morpho-syntactic structures of the L1 are difficult to completely leave behind when speaking an L2. In this study, carried out at the University of Copenhagen, the ability of a small group of highly advanced Danish learners of Italian to reproduce L2 semantic representation and gesture patterns was tested. One may argue that it is impossible to speak Italian without using gestures, but there is a science to gesture patterns as well. The main concept analysed was that of motion: in verb-framed languages (such as Romance languages) the path is expressed in the verb (think of ascend, or enter) and the manner in other parts of the sentence such as adverbs. In satellite-framed languages (such as English or Danish), the path is usually expressed outside the main verb (such as in phrasal verbs) and the manner in the main verb. Even though Italian does not always strictly follow this classification, recent studies observed that when Italian speakers divide path and manner in speech (for example, the ball entered the room rolling), they also produce two separate gestures. When they express both path and manner in the main verb and particle construction (the ball rolled into the room), then they produce one gesture. The research question was: can Danish speakers, who normally express path in a verb particle and manner in the main verb, adapt to the Italian conceptualisation of motion and reflect this in their hand gestures?

The answer is yes – their gestures while recounting short cartoon videos showed that they mastered the underlying Italian conceptualisation of motion. But this may apply only to very advanced learners like the ones in this group, who also spent on average about two years in Italy.

Wessel-Tolvig, B. (2016). ‘Getting it Right: Advanced Danish Learners of Italian Acquire Speech and Gesture L2 Forms’, Linköping University Electronic Press, (105), 75-81.  



We already know that musical ability and language skills are related: a number of studies have suggested that in the past. However, a study published at the end of 2014 sheds some light on which specific aspect of language is correlated to musical ability. And no, phonological awareness (the ability to distinguish sounds) is not top of the list. A sample of 25 typically developing children aged five-to-seven years old performed four standardised tests: rhythm perception, phonological awareness, morpho-syntactic competence (grammar) and non-verbal cognitive ability. After controlling for non-verbal IQ (reasoning based on visual rather than verbal cues), socioeconomic status and prior musical activities, rhythm perception ‘accounted for 48 per cent of the variance in morpho-syntactic competence’. Phonological awareness was also related to rhythm perception, but not so evidently after controlling for IQ. The authors comment in the discussion that children with higher rhythm discrimination skills may be more sensitive to those variations in speech rhythm that mark ‘grammatical events’.

Reyna L. Gordon, Carolyn M. Shivers, Elizabeth A. Wieland, Sonja A. Kotz, Paul J. Yoder, J. Devin McAuley. ‘Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children,’ Developmental Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/desc.12230 

Pic courtesy: Tulane University Public Relations with Creative Commons license