Children and language learning

What’s the best way to teach children a second language? New research produces surprising results

It doesn’t have to be all fun and games. Shutterstock

Karen Roehr-Brackin, University of Essex and Angela Tellier, University of Essex

People often assume that children learn new languages easily and without effort, regardless of the situation they find themselves in. But is it really true that children soak up language like sponges?

Research has shown that children are highly successful learners if they have a lot of exposure to a new language over a long time, such as in the case of child immigrants who are surrounded by the new language all day, every day. In such a scenario, children become much more proficient in the new language over the long term than adults.

But if the amount of language children are exposed to is limited, as in classroom language learning, children are slow learners and overall less successful than teenagers or adults. How can we explain this apparent contrast?

Researchers have argued that children learn implicitly, that is, without conscious thought, reflection or effort. And implicit learning requires a large amount of language input over a long period of time.

As we get older, we develop the ability to learn explicitly – that is, analytically and with deliberate effort. Put differently, adults approach the learning task like scientists. This explains why more mature classroom learners have greater success: they can draw on more highly developed, efficient, explicit learning processes which also require more effort.

Which is best?

When it comes to learning a language, however, it is not a question of either implicit or explicit learning. They can coexist, so it is more often a question of how much of each approach is used.

In our new study, we asked whether younger children who are generally thought to learn implicitly had already developed some ability to learn explicitly as well. What’s more, we looked at whether the ability to analyse language can predict foreign language learning success in the classroom.

We worked with over 100 Year 4 children, aged eight to nine, in five primary schools in England. The children took a number of tests, including a measure of their language learning aptitude, which assessed their ability to analyse language (language-analytic ability), to memorise language material (memory ability) and to handle language sounds (phonological awareness).

Over one school year, the children participated in language classes for 75 minutes per week. For this purpose, they were divided into four groups.

In the first half of the school year, each group was taught, respectively, German, Italian, Esperanto or Esperanto with a “focus-on-form method”. This method involved the teacher drawing the children’s attention to regular patterns in the language, asked them to think about what particular parts of words might mean or how sentences are put together in the language, for example. In other words, the children were encouraged to use their language-analytic ability, taking an explicit approach.

In the other groups, language was taught in a way that is typically used at primary school, that is, entirely playfully with games, songs and worksheets. This method is more likely to result in implicit learning.

How important is memory to a child’s ability to learn a second language? Shutterstock

In the second half of the school year, all groups experienced the same type of language class: they all learned French, taught with a focus-on-form method. For our study, we assessed the children’s progress in French over the second half of the school year and then looked at whether any components of their aptitude – language-analytic ability, memory ability, phonological awareness – would predict their success in learning French.

If children learn implicitly, we would expect that memory ability would be most important. In other words, the ability to pick up language material as you hear and see it is most relevant. If children learn above all explicitly, we would expect that language-analytic ability would be most important.

The results

Differently to what people might expect, we found that the children’s language-analytic ability was most important, followed by phonological awareness. These two abilities contributed to predicting the children’s achievement in French, while memory ability was only marginally relevant. This suggests that children as young as eight or nine years can indeed learn explicitly to some extent, if the teaching method they experience encourages them to engage in analysis of the language to be learned.

Our results are in line with a previous study which directly compared children and adults experiencing different teaching methods. Here the researcher also found that learners’ use of an explicit approach in the foreign language classroom did not exclusively depend on age, but on how learners were taught. This means that even younger children can approach a learning task like scientists.

Of course, it is important to note that children of primary school age are still developing their ability to learn explicitly. Therefore, we cannot expect to teach them languages in exactly the same way as we would teach teenagers or adults. But some activities that encourage children to consciously reflect on and analyse the language material to be learned can be introduced to make best use of the limited class time that is available for foreign language teaching.

Karen Roehr-Brackin, Reader, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex and Angela Tellier, Associate Fellow, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Like it or not!

‘Like’ isn’t a lazy linguistic filler – the English language snobs need to, like, pipe down

Use it at your peril. Shutterstock

Rebecca Woods, University of Huddersfield

The latest series of the television show Love Island is over, with Amber and Greg now snuggling up as the most recent winners – at least until the winter version starts in January 2020.

As well as bringing us a fresh group of islanders and a new villa to admire, the January series is likely to throw up many of the same linguistic debates as previous series.

Yes, you read that right – linguistics. For nary a season of Love Island, or any programme predominantly aimed at young people, may pass without a flurry of grumpy think pieces on the protagonists’ language habits. And few linguistic habits cause as much ranting from those seeking to protect the fair English tongue as use of the word like.

After several decades of like-bashing, which long predate Love Island’s arrival on our screens, commentators, headteachers and professors all continue to denounce the “excessive” use of the word like among “the young”.

But seeking to protect English grammar from like is misguided for one crucial reason: like has a grammar, too. And by understanding the grammar of like, we can learn a lot about what it means and what it contributes to someone’s speech.

Like it or not

To shed light on like’s grammar, I’ve built what is known in linguistics as a corpus. A corpus is a representative sample of language as used by certain speakers. We can then examine this corpus to understand how language is used – rather than relying on our perceptions, opinions and memories.

My corpus is not based on Love Island, but on a programme with similarly young participants – and audience members – that has also attracted much criticism for its participants’ language use: the BBC’s make-up competition Glow Up.

After transcribing the show and removing the kinds of like that are broadly “accepted” – that is the verbs, nouns, quotatives and those used for comparisons – I found that participants used like 229 times in eight episodes. That’s about 29 uses of like per episode, or one every two minutes.

First, it was notable that like was rarely either preceded or followed by a pause. So even though this use of like is regularly dismissed as a meaningless, lazy filler, it doesn’t, in fact, behave like um or er. In the programme, the participants knew what they wanted to say, and using like was part of that.

We can further understand the meaning of like by noticing that there are places in an utterance where like can appear and places where it sounds really unnatural. According to the Glow Up corpus, here’s where like might appear in an utterance such as “I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes”:

Like, I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am like going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going to like create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going to create like a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going to create a like beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going to create a beautiful look in like 15 minutes.

And here are the places where like never, or very rarely, appears:

I like am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going like to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.

I am going to create a beautiful like look in 15 minutes.

I am going to create a beautiful look like in 15 minutes.

I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 like minutes.

I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes like.

Of course, we can’t assume that this kind of like never appears in the positions marked in the second set of examples. But a large scale study of North American English speakers also found that speakers regularly produced utterances like the first set of examples but didn’t produce utterances like the second set, making my finding somewhat stronger.

Like, then, can’t just be used anywhere, but it can still appear in about six different places in our example sentence – so what is it doing?

The meaning of like

The corpus shows us that an utterance that starts with like always follows on from another utterance. The speaker who starts an utterance with like in this way might be adding their support to what someone else has just said, or emphasising that they really believe something that they have just said themselves. For example:

Dom: This is bloody marvellous. Like this is really beautiful. You have won me over 100%.

Or:

Leomie: Nah well done, Nikki. Like the eye, the colour, like it proper worked.

Screenshot from BBC’s Glow Up. BBC

Like in the middle of an utterance is similar, but subtly different. It may be used to highlight the part of the utterance that’s telling us something new and relevant, or that the speaker thinks is most interesting or important. You might think that this would mean that like could highlight any and every part of a sentence but, as we’ve already seen, like can highlight certain types of constituents (combinations of words and phrases), but not others.

Ellis: I’m layering up the powder to kind of get, like, this velvety finish

Stacey: Is Ellis putting, like, a gluestick on his eyebrows?

Screenshot from BBC’s Glow UP. BBC

In both cases, then, speakers use like to make sure that their message is properly understood by the person they’re speaking to, both in terms of its content and how it fits into the conversation.

We can make an analogy between like and how intonation is used in English. We could remove it from an utterance and that utterance would still be grammatical, but it wouldn’t convey its message in the same way. It could also sound really odd in the context of a conversation.

English speakers use and interpret both like and intonation without thinking about it consciously. Intonation has also been a target for language commentators who decry, for example, “uptalk”, when a speaker uses rising intonation at the end of their utterance.

But why do like and uptalk annoy people so much? Alexandra D’Arcy at the University of Victoria in Canada argues that the multi-purpose nature of like might be part of its downfall. Because all of the uses of like are pronounced in the same way, its apparent repetition makes it stand out.

More generally, though, these language gripes just seem to be a proxy for demeaning certain groups that share characteristics other than their (perceived) language use – they tend to be young, female and not in positions of power.

If we criticise a person or group based on how we think they speak, we not only draw attention away from what they’re saying, but we’re likely to stop them from wanting to speak (up) at all. Language prejudice is real and needs to be called out.

Rebecca Woods, Senior Lecturer in Language Acquisition, University of Huddersfield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The gig economy, not all bad.

How gig economy gives a mental health boost to workers – new research

Mark Stabile, INSEAD

The general picture of gig economy work and mental wellbeing is not a pretty one. Around the world, Uber drivers face wage and security worries. Deliveroo workers have too much competition. Airbnb owners face legal problems in Paris and other cities.

But while these headlines suggest a dark cloud over the heads of gig economy workers, recent data I’ve looked at unexpectedly shows that they are about 33% more likely to self-report positive mental health traits.

It may seem like a counterintuitive result but, in new research with Bénédicte Apouey, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, I found that self-employed gig economy workers in the UK score higher across a range of psychological wellbeing measures than workers in the mainstream economy.

Meanwhile, gig work in the UK is surging, with unemployment at a record low and demand rocketing for sharing-economy services. Deliveroo, for example, was named the UK’s fastest growing tech firm for 2018 by Deloitte. Uber, although facing regulatory issues in the UK, still posted a huge increase in profit last year. Airbnb’s market in London has increased fourfold since 2015.

Self-employment and self-worth

To find out how the gig economy is affecting people, we matched data from the Understanding Society study (the biggest long-term study of household attitudes in the UK) and Google Trends, which shows the popularity of different search terms at different times and places. Understanding Society has information about people’s health and demographics, and tracks their employment type.

The Google search terms we analysed were primarily words associated with gig economy work in a given area. This served as a predictor for where people had gig employment at Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb. Cross-referencing this data with the Understanding Society study, enabled us to analyse the mental health of people working in the gig economy.

We found that self-employed workers reported improved ability to concentrate and self-confidence, which are both important to mental health. These workers also reported a boost to self-worth and happiness.


Read more: Zero-hour contracts take a huge mental and physical toll – poor eating habits, lack of sleep and relationship problems


The boost in self-confidence and concentration fits with benefits some workers in the sharing economy receive from not needing to adhere to certain restrictions found in traditional paid work, such as working schedules set by a boss or having long commutes. Other research indicates that Uber drivers in London, although they make less than most Londoners, have greater life satisfaction.

For employees in the mainstream economy, heavy job requirements plus low autonomy lead to stress. Employees with zero hours contracts – whose hours fluctuate from week to week but who lack control over their schedules – may be under even more stress than those with regular jobs. In contrast, gig workers decide when to work and make their own decisions about customers, leading to a greater sense of control.

Health kick

Our health and wellbeing measures are from the General Health Questionnaire of the Understanding Society study, which evaluates the current state of mind of respondents and asks if it is different from their usual state. Some of the questions relate to concentration, loss of sleep due to worry, and feelings that they play a useful role or can face up to problems. Other questions ask if the subject is unhappy, depressed or lacking confidence.

The scores for our measures run from lowest mental health at 0 to the best psychological health at 36. The mean is around 24. We found that self-employment increases a subject’s score by eight points – an improvement of roughly one third.

One very large change in the factors we examined was money spent on alcoholic drinks. For gig workers, it dropped by a breath-taking 200%. This isn’t necessarily a reduction in consumption of alcohol, but in spending. Uber and Deliveroo drivers are often at work when people are down the pub or at meal times, when money is often spent on drink. These are peak hours for gig workers, who need to be sober on the job. It nonetheless results in a remarkable difference for mental health, especially in the UK, where alcohol misuse is the biggest factor for death and ill-health among those aged 15 to 49.

Our results also show that women, those without a university degree and older workers – groups that are often overlooked in the regular economy – fare particularly well in terms of mental health. The sharing economy offers not only flexibility but a direct connection that allows these workers to feel that they are making a real and immediate contribution.

For women especially, self-employment gives a level of flexibility to part-time work that isn’t possible in the mainstream workforce. As women often bear the brunt of care responsibilities, this autonomy is vital to their mental health.

Lessons for all

Our preliminary conclusions point to the importance of autonomy in the workplace. The gig economy offers workers the opportunity for more control in their jobs, which may lead to more self-worth, more confidence, less strain.

It’s clear that workers who have this control, as well as flexibility and the idea that they’re making a difference, are more mentally healthy. Managers can weave flexibility into office life, empowering and engaging workers to be responsible for and confident in their decision making abilities.

Poor mental health is expensive for employers. In fact, it is estimated to cause 91m lost working days each year in the UK, costing the economy US$37.5 billion. This is, of course, not limited to the UK. In the US, it’s estimated that US$193 billion in earnings is lost each year due to serious mental illness.

Past the dramatic articles about the perils of the gig economy, the changing nature of work needs more attention. Self-employment has a positive impact on mental health, even with some insecurity. In contrast, the precariousness of zero hours contracts, where workers often learn their schedule just a few days in advance, should not be associated with gains in wellbeing found among gig workers.

Mark Stabile, Professor of Economics, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.