Monday, 29 July 2013

“You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only 55…”

Dance is a medium that is strongly associated with youth.  When we speak of professional ballet dancers we tend to think of young people with strong and supple bodies, whose movement makes them very watchable.  However, professional dancers often retire from the stage in their mid-30s and the process of ageing is commonly believed to make bodies ‘unwatchable’.  Age and dancing (unless it’s tea dances at the top of Blackpool Tower) just seem incongruous in our society.  We are constantly bombarded with young and agile bodies in popular culture and older bodies are considered ‘unsuitable’ for public viewing. 

Justine Coupland decided to explore this further in a very interesting and unique investigation in which she joined a contemporary dance class comprising fifteen females, aged between 42 and 74 (average age 55).  She was keen to find out whether dance could somehow help people to escape from socially imposed negative ideas about ageing and attempted to answer this through studying the language that they used to talk about their classes. During the series of lessons, Coupland collected data through interviews conducted with the class members and their teacher and ‘dance diaries’ that the participants wrote.

Coupland also participated herself, building up a relationship of trust with the women which enabled her to prompt certain discussions. One of these invited the class members to write diary entries about the use of the mirror in class.  During the first lesson, the teacher had closed the curtains over the mirror, causing much audible relief.  Coupland felt that this indicated that the students were accepting their own ‘unwatchability’.  On analysing their written language, she found that this seemed to be true.  For example, one participant, Sarah, disowned her own reflection by using definite articles (the) instead of possessive pronouns (my), writing All I see are the lines, the ageing face and it gets me down.  Another, Linda, objectified her age-stigmatizing hands: I find I am hiding my hands – they look so old! 

However, it seems that not all the participants feel this self-conscious.  Jude felt quite cross about not being able to see her body in the mirror.  She used the first person I many times in her writing and clearly shows a strong sense of self: When I was young I used to look at myself in windows and outside (I was gorgeous).  I hardly look at myself in shop windows anymore, not that I have a problem with the way I look, but I don’t feel the need to continually check.  I feel more secure in who I am…

Coupland then asked the dancers to sum up how they felt after a class.  One dancer, Nia, volunteered the adjective elevated and continued this metaphor explaining that dance builds you up and has an emotional and spiritual side.  Analysing this, Coupland surmises that the movement of dance somehow seems to ‘remove’ these women from their bodies and embue them with a sense of empowerment that they do not experience in other aspects of their lives.  This sense is also reflected in the metaphor and following adjective used here by Susan, when I’m dancing I feel I’m in my own little bubble, invincible.

Coupland concludes that whatever culture we’re part of, we live in and through our bodies.  Our society is prejudiced against the ageing body but, as Coupland found in her data, dance can be a way for women to reformulate how they think about themselves in the midst of such prejudice.   There is no denying that the women in her study still regret the passing of their youth and feel unwatchable at times.  However, they also seem to be able to contrast the ‘look’ of ageing with deeper feelings that dance gives them.  It is fascinating and enlightening to consider not only the fact that dance offers a way of escaping from the restrictive sense of ageing in an increasingly young society but also that it is the dancers’ language that reveals their true, often subconscious feelings.

Coupland, Justine (2013) Dance, ageing and the mirror: Negotiating watchability. Discourse and Communication 7(1): 3-24.

Doi. 10.1177/1750481312466477

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Monday, 22 July 2013

‘Throve’ and ‘dove’ or ‘thrived’ and ‘dived’? Let’s call the whole thing off!

At first, trying to explain the formation of the past tense in English may seem simple – you just add –-ed, don’t you? So that walk becomes walked and help becomes helped, right?  Correct! ... for ‘regular’ verbs.  Unfortunately, there are also many ‘irregular’ verbs like eat (ate) and stand (stood) that do not easily fit into this pattern.  In a logical world, we would expect language to regularize over time and this is true of some verbs – helped was hulpon in Old English. However, some regular past tense forms have actually become irregular – for example, mean > meant.

Lieselotte Anderwald investigated this phenomenon in British and American English.  These two varieties have developed their own national features and peculiarities over time and Anderwald was curious to see if this had happened with irregular past tense forms.  She concentrated on three verbs which have been recorded in both regular and irregular forms.  These are throve vs. thrived, dove vs. dived and plead vs. pled.  She searched a digital database or ‘corpus’ of 400 million American English words called Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to find occurrences of these irregular past tense forms from as far back as 1810. She also searched the British National Corpus (BNC), containing over 100 million words from British English so that she could compare her findings. Then, she consulted her own Collection of Nineteenth-Century Grammars (CNG), containing 258 British and North American Grammar Books published during the 19th century, to see if linguists were recommending a particular usage of these verb forms.

Although throve was the main past tense form used during the nineteeth century, it declined rapidly in use from 1910 onwards and seems to have regularized so that American users now only use thrived.  However, British English still uses throve at times.  American English appears to be leading British English by several decades in this regularization process.  In a completely opposite way, the irregular form dove is becoming more irregular in American English.  In fact, dove is used as much as dived in modern American usage today (50% of the time), unlike in British English where it is used just 1% of the time. The irregular form pled also seems to be a new form which has emerged during the twentieth century in American English, although in both varieties it is used very infrequently and mainly in legal contexts.

With this data in mind, Anderwald consulted the CNG.  In the case of thrived vs. throve the American  nineteenth century grammars permitted a lot of variation in usage and started to endorse thrived from the middle of the century, whereas the British Grammars appeared to strongly favour the use of throve. It is hard to know whether these American Grammars were just describing what they observed happening to this verb form or whether their recommendations were in some way influential in the change actually taking place.  Dove was rarely acknowledged as an irregular verb in any of the grammars consulted and dived was the only form accepted.  This is interesting considering how widely used it now is in American English and its lack of acknowledgment in grammars does not seem to have influenced the emergence of this irregular form.  Pled was only mentioned in twelve grammar books, ten of them from America and just two from Britain.  There was a rise in its inclusion in verb tables in  grammars of the 1860s, so that children would have learnt plead-pled-pled by heart.  Looking at her data from COHA, Anderwald noticed that there was a small rise in usage of pled in the 1870s which may have been caused by the generation of 1860 using it in their adult writing: a very small example of prescriptive influence maybe?  If this is so, it is probably because plead was (and is) so infrequent that users needed to consult a grammar book, whereas a more frequently used word is much better entrenched in the memory and therefore perhaps less influenced by grammarians. 

The differences Anderwald found between these changing irregular forms shows how two varieties of the same language can grow, develop and change in different ways. This is what makes language an integral part of a national character and grammarians may only minimally affect this.  Language will develop in its own way and won’t be restrained by rules…in fact sometimes it will even break them – obviously what throve throve to do!

Anderwald, Lieselotte (2013) Natural language change or prescriptive influence? Throve, dove, pled, drug and snuck in 19th-century American English. English World-Wide 34:2 (2013), 146–176.

doi 10.1075/eww.34.2.02

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Monday, 15 July 2013

‘Has anybody seen the, uh, child genius around here?’

 Children use uh and um to help them acquire language.  

A young child’s world is full of obstacles that they need to negotiate, not least in language.  Imagine constantly listening to lots of gobbledegook and having to work out what the speaker is talking about.  There may be some words you recognise, or even lots, depending on your age, but there are many others that you don’t.  A child will use many different clues to help them understand what the speaker is referring to, including watching to see where a speaker is looking or where they are pointing, and checking to see what objects are in the vicinity to work out if any of them are what is being referred to.

Celeste Kidd, Katherine White and Richard Aslin believe that children call on an additional resource..  They investigated what children infer from speech ‘disfluencies’, which are the uh and um sounds speakers use to fill pauses in speech.  

These often occur before unfamiliar or infrequent words, often those that have not been mentioned before in the conversation, as in this example:

CHILD:                     Telephone?
MOTHER:                  No, that wasn’t the telephone, honey. 
                              That was the, uh, timer.

Here the mother fills a pause with uh as she has difficulty trying to remember an infrequently used word that is, in addition, a new topic in this conversation with her child. 

The researchers decided to find out just how far children used these speech disfluencies to predict that  a new, unfamiliar word was about to occur in conversation.  They did this by ‘eye-tracking’ the children to see where they looked when they were shown pictures of two objects on a screen, one familiar such as a ball and one unfamiliar, totally made up object with an invented name[1].  They showed the children both objects whilst they listened to three different phrases. Firstly, they heard I see the ball, next ooh what a nice ball and lastly, either look at the ball/wug or look at the, uh, ball/wug! Each time they watched to see where the child’s eyes looked in the moment before they heard the name of the object.  This experiment was conducted on three different age-groups of children spanning from 16 months to 2 ½ years old.

Their results show that children do indeed use the speech disfluencies uh and um to predict that a new or unfamiliar word is about to be heard for a new or unfamiliar object.  The children consistently looked at the unfamiliar object when the word referring to the object was preceded by uh and um, even when it was in fact a familiar object that was subsequently named, suggesting that they were anticipating hearing a word they were unfamiliar with.  Even more interestingly, this ability seems to be learned through experience as the incidence of it happening increased with the age of the child.  So, children may be subconsciously learning that often disfluencies in speech (like uh and um) signal that the speaker is having difficulties and they therefore look for the object that is causing the difficulties, usually an object that seems new and different.

This is a fascinating discovery and one that again proves the sophisticated and astoundingly intelligent way that children learn and use language.   
Kidd, Celeste, White, Katherine and Aslin, Richard (2011) Toddlers use speech disfluencies to predict speakers’ referential intentions. Developmental Science 14 (4): 925-934

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01049.x
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

[1] For a list of these objects and the pictures that the children were shown visit

Monday, 8 July 2013

Do children hearing two languages acquire language at a slower rate?

It is often assumed that children who are exposed to two languages from birth will acquire language at a slower rate compared to children who only hear one language. But is there any evidence to confirm that this is actually the case?

Annick de Houwer, Marc Bornstein and Diane Putnick have investigated this topic and have compared the comprehension and production vocabularies of bilingual and monolingual children in their second year of life. They collected data for 31 middle-class bilingual children with Dutch and French input from birth and 30 children from similar backgrounds with only Dutch input from birth. In the bilingual families, all but one family reported that they used the “one person, one language” principle of speaking to the child and that this language pattern started from birth. In 14 of the bilingual families, the mothers spoke Dutch and the fathers spoke French to the child and in 16 families, the mothers spoke French and the fathers spoke Dutch to the child; in all cases both parents knew Dutch and French. Children in the monolingual group heard just Dutch, spoken to them by their parents and other caregivers from birth.  The children were studied at ages 13 months and again at 20 months using research methods that allowed the researchers to examine the children’s vocabulary sizes for both word comprehension and word production.

The comprehension results showed that at 13 months old, the bilingual infants understood as many Dutch words as the monolingual infants. However, the overall word comprehension for the bilinguals (i.e. Dutch and French combined) showed that, on average, the bilinguals understood 71% more words than the monolinguals, a significant difference. At age 20 months, the children were only compared for their Dutch comprehension and the results showed that the monolingual children understood similar numbers of Dutch words as the bilingual children.

As one might expect, the number of words actually produced at age 13 months was low for both the monolingual and bilingual children but nevertheless the number was similar for each group, regardless of whether the words were Dutch only or whether they were French and Dutch combined. The researchers also point out that there was a lot of variation between the individual children in the number of words that each child could produce. When the researchers compared the children at 20 months, they again found that, on average, the bilinguals produced similar numbers of words as the monolinguals, although again there was a great of interindividual variation.

In sum, these separate measures of comprehension and production show that there were no bilingual-monolingual differences for Dutch at ages 13 or 20 months. There was, however, one difference; when the bilinguals’ languages were combined at 13 months, the bilinguals outperformed the monolinguals in terms of word comprehension. The results of the study support the researchers' conclusions that exposing children to two languages from birth does not slow down lexical development. Some of the bilingual children in their study understood and produced more words than some of the best performing monolinguals. The researchers argue that if a bilingual child is showing signs of slow lexical development then parents and speech professionals should try to understand what is causing the delay rather than attribute it to bilingualism.
Houwer, A., Bornstein, M. and Putnick, D. (2013). A bilingual-monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-23.

Doi: 10.1017/S0142716412000744

This summary was written by Sue Fox