Why English Matters: What the Science Says (Boak Ferris)Posted: March 1, 2014
By popular demand, Boak Ferris’ revised and expanded version (with footnotes and references) of “Why English Matters…”
Why English Matters: WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS —
ON REPLACING STEM WITH M-METALS
By Boak Ferris
English matters, but only under one condition: if America wants successful professionals and teachers who can innovate ethical advancements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Otherwise, English doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter at all. We can always watch TV, push buttons, and play media devices instead.
Cart Before the Horse?
Do not view this thesis as a gripe over the diminishment of English and related fields as worthy disciplines—frankly, because it’s obvious and confirmed in the news that employers prefer applicants with strong liberal-arts skills.[i] Nation-wide, employers know that strong language, writing, reading, analytical, and interpersonal skills serve as baselines in any STEM FIELD, especially since STEM professionals must rigorously document and publish every valid breakthrough, innovation, advance, and service.[ii]
So how have our influential educational policymakers and STEM monomaniacs missed it, and gotten so completely backward? They don’t know the science! Clearly, they have no background in, nor current knowledge about, the neuroscience of learning, nor in the common-sense developmental psychologies of child, juvenile, and adult learners. Starting at three to six months of age,[iii] in what’s called the critical period, human beings begin acquiring language, and are genetically programmed to learn language first, before they develop the physiomotor skills to articulate the new words they learn and before they develop the skeletal-muscular skills to manipulate concrete objects in their environment, (let alone mentally manipulate abstract objects or actions). Language-acquisition precedes arithmetic and mathematic and science literacy. At the same time as infants learn language, their mirror neurons initiate the connections among the neural nets responsible for knowing and reproducing sounds.[iv] Babies, in other words, maybe even neonates, are programmed to be enchanted by words and actions and must imitate adults’ words and actions.[v]
What these discoveries mean is that educators and their administrators need to understand that these innate mental learning neural pathways are devoted to mastering language and action—FIRST, if they wish to accelerate learning in other subjects for infants and children. Those authorities who urge more and more sole STEM education, training, and testing for our children, prior to addressing the state of our children’s (and young adults’) literacy skills, risk disenfranchising entire generations of students. And equally uninformed legislators, enchanted with the woefully inadequate acronym STEM, are climbing on board, but ignoring the science they advocate.
How, when, and where are our students and eventual citizens supposed to acquire rigorous fluency, literacy, and documentation skills, especially if students have undiagnosed reading, language-processing, or fluency “disabilities”? According to government statistics, America loses more than 20 percent of a viable white-collar professional workforce to high-school attrition, dropout, disappointment, discouragement, and disillusionment[vi]—all emotional factors caused by understandable frustration over enjoyably and easily attaining reading-skills, language-processing skills, aural-comprehension skills, abstract-symbol-interpreting skills, and other language-development skills. Perhaps M-METALS serves as a better acronym, (Movement/Motion, Math, Engineering, Technology, Art, Language, and Science).
Furthermore, America, finishing last among countries tracked by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), loses 46% of its potential college graduates to dropout[vii] as well, all likely because students find it painful and laborious and time-consuming to read quickly with high comprehension.[viii] Another statistic that hasn’t changed in 60 years involves remediation: 30 % of High School graduates, otherwise qualified for college entry, need remediation for College English, Math, or both[ix]—a fact that can’t be fixed by eliminating remedial classes as a result of nationwide university budget cuts—or rushing to improve graduation rates by relaxing standards.
In other words, high-school students historically prepared for and competent at college-level math are often not competent at college-level English, and vice-versa, an educational fact that can be fixed by implementing the simple curricular solutions proposed in this article. Meanwhile, note that eliminating remediation is sometimes university-speak for preventing access to college for disenfranchised and underserved students who have been failed by purveyors of curriculums who don’t or can’t address linguistic and literacy competencies.
How ironic it is, then, that monomaniacal curriculum programmers and designers engage in magical thinking by believing the myth: scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical skills can somehow, through magic transference of knowledge produced by endless testing, talking-at, and tsunamis of homework,[x] be bored or forced into young learners’ brains, regardless of the initial state of learners’ verbal and linguistic competencies—the domain of English (read Language) teachers.
Pedagogical Brutality—or Ignorance?
The idea that STEM content can be forced into students prior to assessing and improving the state of children’s pre-existing English verbal, speaking, reading, and associative-thinking skills (the primary neuro-linguistic skills) amounts to irresponsible and unconscionable pedagogical practices.
And, when these practices are accompanied by the aforementioned persistent and emotionally abusive testing, America should not be so surprised that hatred for school and education and teachers arises, evincing clear signs of “educational trauma,” in schoolchildren. The losses of students from high schools, who never graduate, and later as potential graduates from college, run too high. Naturally unknowing and ignorant of their bullying, principals, teachers, legislators, curriculum designers—and parents—fuss and wring their hands, when students develop antipathies toward anything mathematical or scientific—and toward the purveyors of such disciplines. “These kids don’t get it! We’re not testing them enough! Let’s test them some more!!” And next, “Let’s teach to the tests!!” all despite the fact that the average STEM textbook has upwards of 100 factual errors,[xi] and that the average test reflects more the prejudices of the test-makers[xii] than it does the actual “facts” students need to assess for truth or falsehood (an overlooked critical concept absent in K-12, except by gifted teachers). When critical skills remain undernourished, the nation churns out masses of passive, unengaged, and unmotivated readers, as university faculty have observed over the last five years.
With a little reminding, perhaps educational policymakers and legislators can shift their perspectives slightly to one that’s first and foremost language-centered: children need to understand the specialized and embedded definitions and nomenclatures common to the varied pre-STEM fields. Science and Math mastery start with Science and Math literacy. Literacy as defined herein means 1) early vocabulary-acquisition, from day 1 of infancy; 2) early reading and decoding of abstract symbols called letters and numerals, from as early as possible, for most capable children without disabilities, by nine to eighteen months of age; 3) swift comprehension of read-concepts, which depends on accelerating non-phonetic word- and phrase-recognition; and 4) experiencing enjoyment at improving and honing these skills.
Naming Comes First[xiii]
Success in STEM fields rests on acquiring, and recognizing, specialized nomenclature, the words and their etymological building blocks which are language-based. The definitions required for mastery of STEM fields, in turn, derive from well-taught language expertise combined with later hands-on experimentation and activities with concrete and (next) abstract objects. These concrete and abstract objects, (number concepts, for example, or principles of gravitation or protein synthesis), derive their initial meanings and applications from naming.
Naming comes first; before STEM prowess, and naming is the very first psycholinguistic activity in infants’ brains,[xiv] before they have the motor skills to experiment, or before they can correlate named objects with numbers. The neuroscience proves that language-acquisition and literacy precede number literacy as well as precede arithmetic mastery.[xv] In other words, language is the first engine of all thinking, (excepting, perhaps, sensorimotor experiencing), and in America the primary language is English. Like it or hate it, English is also the predominant language of international business; while being the predominant medium of science,[xvi] math, and engineering official publication, documentation, and/or translation. Straight up, if children can’t logically sequence their English language skills, and if they can’t understand easily what they read, they won’t wish to endure to logically understand cause and effect in the most advanced mathematic or scientific concepts (i.e., textbooks?) published in English. Modern educators must recalibrate their teaching to leverage these existing linguistic neural pathways to accelerate fun learning.
Moreover, rapid word learning and mastery are not produced by throwing typed or written text at infants and children. The fastest learning of words and language occurs when infants, children, and young adults see and hear a live adult speak and form and appropriately gesture those words in a genuine 3-D space[xvii]—not on video or online, as has been proven and demonstrated in very current research.[xviii] Yet, forty-five of our misinformed United States, climbing on a “Technology-first” bandwagon, have ludicrously assumed that “Technology” means making children “use computers”—and thus, teaching children to use ‘keyboards’ to assemble words, in order to make children “technology-proficient,” but to the loss of literacy and critical-thinking skills. The states do this despite repeated research in the neuroscience of learning that early literacy is fundamentally gesture-based, and that early literacy depends on prioritizing children first witnessing and then modeling the “making of gestures” in a 3-D learning space with an adult role-model present. That implies mastering cursive.[xix]
How Infants Learn their Native Language
Recent modern linguistic research suggests that human language acquisition is serial and modular.[xx] Infants generate their first language attempts much the way ducks imprint (within a very early critical period of time) onto the first living moving object as “mother.”[xxi] Some geneticists believe that “gene initiators” triggered by visual and auditory inputs motivate neurons in the duck’s brain to aggregate and “direct” the duck’s instinctual survival-oriented motor behavior. For humans, the cognitive science research indicates that the imprinting is primed before day one of age and is aimed (instead) at instant and early language-hearing, acquisition, and development.
Next, in humans, in response to rich and varied sensory auditory and visual input, (m)RNA causes neurogenesis, and initiates neural aggregates to connect for the purposes of storing, recognizing, associating, and reinforcing perceived visual- and auditory-associations to objects and actions, a bio-electric mechanical process mediated by releasing neurotransmitters into synapses.[xxii] These neurons also integrate with other neurons—such as mirror neurons—in the motor centers to evolve and involve the physiological processes that imitate adults’ pronunciation of sounds associated with the object or action recognition.[xxiii] Neurolinguists have known for thirty years that language and motor neural pathways are identical, that language-production shares the neural connectomes-pathways that human motor-skills use. These pathways, because they lead to the generation of ideas (language and verbal thinking) as well as the expression of will, are based on the action-motor system acquisition of language.
Evolutionary biologists see some explanation for this in the evolution of the human species. The strong hypothesis indicates that the first human languages were not sound-based, but rather sign- and gesture-based. Then making sound-associations evolved. Since humans first used gestures to evolve their dominant skill, would it not make sense pedagogically to exploit that existing and innate biology, and design curriculums around such genetic strengths? Consider how the handwritten-formation of letters in either block form or cursive represents an extension of the innate human physiomotor pathways revealed in the neuroscientific research. Furthermore, direct recent research proves that exercise and motion are essential for perception, learning, and brain health, adding an “M” (for Movement/Motion/Memory) to the acronym METALS. Exercise and motion produce the peptide hormone Irisin which accelerates the encoding of memory in the hippocampus, a master-memory node in the brain. Making block or cursive letters is developing a complex motor activity and skill, contrasted with pushing a button, while the research correlates poor motor skills with poor academic performance.[xxiv]
What this research implies is that children must continue to learn “cursive” in order to accelerate their literacy, and yet states are moving away because some “technology-maven” somewhere who has curricular power thinks pressing a button that has a squiggle on it represents linguistic learning and/or technology expertise. . . .[xxv] What it may be doing instead is creating a nation of passive button-pushers who become uncritical consumers of products—and ideas. Note how corporations like consumers who are indiscriminate button-pushers—they sell products and brands. (Like! Don’t Like! Such a process inculcates a false sense of fluctuating self-worth dependent on how others rank you.) (And please don’t forget that the “qwerty” layout of the keys was originally organized to slow typists down. If educators must add keyboard skills in K-6, then they should at least teach one of the more expedient and programmable alphanumeric layouts.)
In this direction, while misguided curricular designers in the US eliminate cursive for the sake of “keyboarding,” Canadian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Hindi students all require cursive in their native languages as part of their educational, curricular, and cognitive development. Many such students also learn to write English as a second-language in cursive! How or why is it that our science-obsessed curricular designers don’t know the science? Is it possible that certain big corporations and their lobbyists who influence national policy and education legislation are pushing such an irrational curricular plan because they secretly prefer a nation of ignorant American consumers, along with a cheaper STEM workforce? Note how the infusion of more uncritical STEM graduates may mean lower wages for those specialists. And national educators can’t overlook the recent research suggesting that the STEM crisis is largely a myth,[xxvi] what with unemployed engineers out of work. Perhaps they’re out of work because no STEM crisis exists; or perhaps they’re out of work because their literacy skills do not suffice. Either way, take note of how much research in science and technology arenas is being accomplished and published by foreign nationals, working abroad or for American companies.
America is Losing its Place as a Leader in Science Research and Development[xxvii]
This article analyzes reasons for the pattern. America has lost its focus on literacy and cognitive child development, and so if it wishes to maintain its place as a leader of R & D, its policymakers need to implement the correctives suggested by the science referenced in this article.
When Human Interest Trumps Pedagogical Ignorance
It’s kind of ironic that the research in the neuroscience of learning above proves that language acquisition is a predictive-bedrock of math and science skill, and yet our misguided curriculum designers prove through their actions that they disdain the actual science they revere. Therefore, to give the science underpinning and serving as references to this article a bit more “heart,” allow me to support it professionally, albeit anecdotally.
To earn extra money in the early days I was a State University Reading/Writing and ESL “specialist,” I found part-time employment as an eighth-grade English and Social Studies teacher at the Woodcrest School, in Tarzana, a school designated for K-9 advanced students. While I had only a Master’s Degree in English (Reading/Writing Specialist), my principal noted “You have a knack for explaining texts,” and so he asked me to consider the case of his six-year-old son, Scott: “Scott’s a good reader, but he’s having a lot of trouble in arithmetic. Maybe you can help him?” I couldn’t make any promises, but I sat down with Scott in the school’s “game room,” simply to interview him, and to try and analyze why he couldn’t add or subtract numbers. As he reported his experiences to me in pretty good English, I realized that his failure wasn’t mathematic, but probably motor–linguistic, based on some independent scholarship I had pursued for his case. As it turned out, his arithmetic teacher had not explained the concepts of arithmetic well verbally nor alphanumerically, but had simply transcribed the numeral-based problems on the board, over-relying on the “visual power” of the numerals “to teach,” and next, writing equations on the board, hoping students would “get doing operations” by absorption and/or osmosis. Unfortunately, in Scott’s case, the numerals 3, 4, 17, etc. looked like “squiggles,” and he had no linguistic interpretations of their alphanumeric meaning. I asked Scott to count, and he did so, in English. He knew his numbers. So I, knowing that improving some reading and language problems involved trying some different hand-gesture-based activities in real space, decided to switch subjects and teach Scott backgammon. Within five minutes he was throwing dice, adding the dots on the dice, and moving his pieces appropriately. He became especially interested in adding correctly when he could find and “knock” my pieces off the board. I said, “Scott! You can add!” “What?” “You’re adding! When you add three dots to six dots you know they’re nine dots. Let me show you something. Get a piece of paper and do as I do.” Three dots can mean this squiggle or letter: 3.” I drew it, and had him copy me. “Four dots can mean this different squiggle: 4. Draw them with me.” “You mean that those shapes are “letters” that say how many dots I have?!” “Exactly!” “Oh wow! I get it!” I found an educational pack of cards in the game room, “domino-styled” cards that had numerals on them instead of dots, with addition and subtraction problems on the front, and answers on the back. Within two days, Scott advanced up to speed with his class in arithmetic. But note, his dyscalculia proved not to be arithmetic nor mathematic nor a disability. It was a pedagogical error of omission in understanding a child’s cognitive and educational development: which is initially motor-linguistic.
The Elephant (s) Not in the Room
Since neuroscience and linguistics have proven that language-acquisition represents the very first thinking skill humans acquire—and must master in order to advance academically, professionally, and intellectually—in order to attain sophisticated solid math and science fluency, the question now becomes, how early do human children acquire their native language(s)? Lay people, parents, and educators outside the domain of neuro- and cognitive-linguistics expertise may believe the following falsehood: “humans begin to master verbal concepts around the first year and a half of life”—and they’re wrong.
Some research demonstrates that neonates can associate sounds to objects as early as a few hours old. Neuroscientific research has also proven that newborns recognize lullabies they heard in the womb.[xxviii] Linguistic research also shows that one-month-old infants can differentiate the patterns of their native grammars from nonsense patterns.[xxix] The most amazing research from just last year contradicts the following long-held but false stereotype endemic to the field of child-development: “Babbling is nonsense sound.” Not so: babbling occurs as infants practice the sounds of words they have learned as well as the rhythms of the syntax and grammar they are hearing from adults and siblings as their ideomotors are expanding connections and engaging physiomotor processes for controlling the tongue and pharynx.[xxx] In other words, babbling is infantile speaking-practice with learned linguistic content.
What is the point? Early language development is everything to a high-functioning human being. The point is this: schools and teachers do not have the opportunity or authority to influence infantile verbal development: so that responsibility must fall to the parents. By the time a 5- or 6-year old gets to school, it is too late to give the child the perfectly timed impetus needed for success in verbal and numeric literacies. Responsible parents must expose children, no, infants, to language, to vocabulary, to reading, to talk, to numbers and counting,[xxxi] and to writing and cursive long before three years old, all while using vivid hand gesturing.[xxxii] Infants deserve every early chance to become the Einsteins and Madame Curies America seeks. Otherwise, the task for K-6 teachers becomes remedial work to help children form new ideomotor pathways, which consumes a great deal of time, causes frustration for teachers, children, and parents, when the parents could have prevented remedial work in the first place—barring cognitive disabilities in their infants. A certain percentage of parents will naturally blame teachers for their children’s failures, not recognizing their own omissions in their children’s upbringing, because they aren’t current with the science of infant development.
What is America to do about its missing parents, the elephants not in the room when infants are developing their first cognitive and literacy skills? Perhaps becoming a parent should require a license earned after taking a series of classes in infantile physical and cognitive development? A very interesting and relevant study has shown that the earlier infants receive experience with language, the more able children become at managing frustration and anger.[xxxiii]
Arguably, the most dangerous thing in a civilized world is an ignorant human being who cannot manage frustration, or who cannot tell the difference between good and evil, and one who cannot select good when presented with a moral choice. When such people achieve political power, the damages can become enormous to the point of an international plague of global proportions. Such sociopathic or psychopathic human beings exist largely because their parents emotionally or physically abused or neglected them—and neglected their cognitive and linguistic development when they were infants and children, though some very rare children can survive and overcome a history of neglect or abuse.
Criminal scientists and forensic linguists have known these truths above about the etiology of criminal and pathological human behaviors for more than a century, while recidivism remains a statistical inevitability caused by so many family nuclear tragedies. Yet teachers are supposed to provide a magic fix when abused, neglected, brainwashed, and intellectually under-developed children arrive to their pre-schools and first-grade classrooms—unable to write, read, count, and do basic arithmetic. Frustration must arise in such underprepared students, unable to cope with a linguistic world, and this frustration escalates to become displaced psycholinguistically into anger. And anger, as the Buddha observed, is a poison, because it is an inappropriate response (ignorant of cause and effect) to the circumstances that engender it.
A Negligible Human Interest Story
My mother, a pediatrician and medical researcher attached to UCLA, had postulated a theory of early child-language development—as early as the 1940’s. She had observed that very young infants in her care focused their attention on the appropriate objects when she and their parents uttered the sounds representing those objects, especially when the objects were family members or family pets—objects of fascination to infants. She thus believed that as early as four months of age, infants knew words, as exhibited by their quickly associated gazes and attention. With that in mind, she embarked on an experiment with me when I “arrived later” as an infant: she decided to teach me to master as many words as possible before I reached age one. We used to play a game where she would utter the word, point to the object or touch the object, and then form her lips so I could watch. Later, she sat me in her lap and read books to me, pointing to the letters and words on the page, helping me draw the letters, and later, we used to play a game, where I had to remember, name, and spell all words rhyming with a word she chose at random. “Tall.” “OK, all, ball, call, crawl, doll, fall, hall. . . .” “You forgot “gall.” “What is ‘gall’, mom?” Her favorite experiment involved teaching me all the words involved in human anatomy and the sciences—while pointing to the pictures in the anatomy texts. She claims I was reading first-grade level books before age two, although I don’t remember reading that young, but I do know when I started kindergarten (at 3), I was reading books, while the other kids were learning their numbers and alphabets. I started first grade when I turned four, as did my brother after me. I always earned ‘A’s in English and in science classes, and intended to become an astrophysicist, before I became enchanted with language. My mother also believed that my early exposure to Japanese (we lived in Japan during the first two years of my life) and to Spanish accelerated my linguistic and cognitive development. Throughout the rest of my life, reading and learning new words were easy and fun, continued as joyful games from infancy. Colleagues who have worked with me in testing circles can attest that I have one of the fastest reading speeds they have witnessed—with high comprehension, a skill I owe entirely to my mother’s investment in my development. And fast as I am, I have met faster who have greater comprehension. I was fundamentally no different than any other viable infant out there. Simply, I had an invested teacher who “taught me early enough”—and I enjoyed early opportunities to travel and meet new people and hear new languages. The research now confirms such methods. (By the way, when I asked my mother how she became so good at higher math, she answered, “Simple. My dad gave me a tool kit when I was three, and I accompanied him around the farm, helping him build and repair.” She used tools in a 3-D space, while she was still learning language.)
Conscript the Parents for Initializing Linguistic Training for Their Infants
The research shows that infants start learning language as soon as they hear a lot of it spoken and sung, and see it performed. So, if true, a next hypothesis must be likely true, as well, that the earlier an infant is born, if exposed right away to lots of language, then the sooner a child development specialist might expect that infant to attain language. In other words, a premature or pre-term baby who survives with all faculties intact must have higher cognitive and language skills and score higher than regular-term newborns. The research confirms exactly that conclusion.[xxxiv] Such educated pre-term infants have higher cognitive and language scores “at seven and eighteen months” than full-term ones, when the data are “age-corrected.” This research reinforces the strong premise in this article that neonates are ready for language. Parents must apply this research to their parenting methods to give their infants professional and life-success-momentum right out of the gate.
If the nation refuses to act to influence its parents, the only ones with access to their infants, with public service announcements from our national leaders about the importance of immediate language skills for children, then K-20 teachers should be required to take a course or two in developmental neurolinguistics (and in educational testing) to earn a teacher’s credential or teach in the universities.[xxxv] As alarming as a parenting “license” or “linguistics-certificate” sound, the research points to considering these omissions seriously, and starting a national discussion, before rushing to, “we’ve got to teach our kids science, technology, engineering, and math if we’re going to compete internationally with the boom in science education abroad.” Note how professional white-collar, academic, and research disciplines have a huge linguistic component—or even a linguistic edifice.
And how is America to help its uneducated parents or those from low socioeconomic status raise their infants, America’s future citizens?
The Lost Sex?
The nation wrings its hands because women are not succeeding in equal ratios to men in most math and science fields, in the United States, although women are close to par with men in 12 other countries.[xxxvi]
It’s further puzzling because the cognitive-science research shows that girls are better than boys at arithmetic before age four.[xxxvii] Girls test better at arithmetic earlier than boys because the research has shown that girl infants develop language skills faster than boy infants, a fact long known to cognitive development scientists, while “secondary” math skill is first a linguistic skill as demonstrated above. But between age four and age seven, boys start outpacing girls at math skills, to the puzzlement of many educators. The research suggests very strongly that the attrition of girls in math is due to two primary psycholinguistic causes. The first is that girls’ early and reinforced strength in language skills predisposes them to apply the language (counting) pathways that have been successful for arithmetic to solving mathematical problems, where spatial skills become more important for success at higher math. In countries where girls learn early and apply spatial skills strategies, girls score equal to or better than boys at math.[xxxviii]
The second psycholinguistic cause is very telling, pointing to the failure of educators and policymakers to address embedded assumptions in the way K-20 schools teach and test. Research suggests that the very concept of educational accomplishment as signaled by performance on math tests may be gender-biased: girls may experience cognitive dissociation displaying their math skills and knowledge under such “competitive” circumstances in the presence of boys competing in the same space.[xxxix] Note that teaching and testing proceed by way of language, and that in-class pedagogies proceed by assumed and embedded (verbal) scripts. When educators don’t understand that a simple word like “math” or “test” can produce negative arousal in specific hearers, and when educators can’t recognize the signals of such antipathies, then they are not equipped to successfully educate our children.[xl] If educators remain ignorant of the roles their language and scripts and assumptions play in inspiring achievement and a desire for learning, then America can’t be too surprised if it loses a huge intellectual resource to a (male) idea of assessing the exhibition of skills.
Similarly, America can’t afford to overlook the likely failures and omissions of parents in nurturing their girls before girls arrive to school, too late by age 6. Without knowledge of the research, parents may believe such enculturated stereotypes that girls’ sole purpose is to look cute and not become “scary” and intimidating by knowing more than boys.
The psycholinguistic truths underlying the loss of women from professional STEM fields are too obvious to need warrants here. Parents can be forgiven, perhaps, for not knowing, but it’s not too late for the nation’s parents to benefit by national outreach administered by our nation’s highest authorities. Meanwhile, the nation’s educators and/or intended educational policymakers, from K-20, need to take mandatory classes in the neuroscience of learning, in the linguistic roots of thinking, in the psycholinguistics underpinning pedagogical scripts and exam-construction,[xli] and in the flaws inherent to the linguistic structure of English.
But Why English?
Truths about how literacy fluency precedes math and science fluency above do not represent English elitism. (Twenty percent of Americans are illiterate[xlii]; while only 1% to 2% of Japanese are so.) As a matter of fact, now would be a good time to challenge the perhaps unfortunate predominance of English. Trained linguists know that all languages are flawed, usually for two reasons: first, languages are fossilized, because they exhibit embedded historical and cultural flaws, traditions, and prejudices. The English language reflects an Indo-European ancestry and remains primarily subject-oriented, where the subject “controls” the verbs (actions) and objects in the sentence.[xliii] Neurolinguistic theoretical research suggests that this kind of syntactical ordering (subject first, verb second) evolved in some proto-languages because the subject (of a sentence) is always a metaphor for the “I,” or experiencer, who does the action (the experiencer who “verbs”).[xliv] Verbs, in turn, are metaphors for the subject’s primitive and infantile need to grasp, or attain and grip some desired object—be it concrete or abstract.[xlv] In this sense, English seems an egotistical language, preferring the speaker/writer above other ideas in a text.
By contrast, some Asian (and other world) languages are object-oriented, where the object of observation comes first in a sentence, making such languages more “other-oriented,” for lack of a better phrase. It should seem no surprise, for example, that many rice-growing cultures have developed object-verb-subject syntactical orders, where sometimes the subject is omitted entirely, contrary to the common syntactical orders of English. (Arabic and Spanish, for examples, can alternate between subject-verb orders and object-verb orders, unlike English.) Both classifications of syntaxes have their limitations and strengths.[xlvi] (A third classification involves syntaxes where verb-forms come first in the sentence order.)
The second flaw embedded in all languages appears outright: languages must be for the most part irrational, which is why verbal and textual communications require constant clarifying and correction. Languages represent human beings’ attempts to make mental and sound and written analogues for a perceived “external reality,” and as such, they embed all the flaws that analogous-thinking manifests. (For example, arithmetic is rendered and learned as nouns and language first, and as names of modeled operations or verbs second. . . .)[xlvii]
While maturing, a native-speaker of a language also acquires, by nurture, emotional valences and attitudes tied to trigger-words and to words describing experience, and thus these eventual emotional valences will imbue texts with perceived psychological content, be it pleasant or unpleasant, a fact well known to forensic linguists.[xlviii] This truth means any word can produce a positive or negative “affect” for learners, and so educators must remain alert and even prepare for such a reaction, especially when their students next experience possible cognitive paralysis produced by this unexpected “word-affect.”[xlix] The simple word “math” for example, may shut down a child’s (or a college youth’s) cognitive processing of some current lesson, which may not involve any math—causing a delay in aural processing, a feature which can be detected by watching the child’s concentration and focus, or by asking a student about perceived confusion exhibited on the student’s face. (Along these lines, note how poorly articulated assignments, test questions, and writing prompts can also “shut down” an otherwise solid or high performing student—when the linguistic content contains arousal words or embedded biases, or combinations of the two.)
Finally, but not last, languages exhibit flaws reflecting human’s limited sensory capabilities. Language and words likely developed to report human sensory experience, but our world-views, as rendered in language, remain incomplete, due to limited human sensory detection, so words are only an approximation of “reality.” (Human senses are remarkably limited, and require dependency on machines for their extension in to unperceived domains. (We can’t see into deep space, nor UV or X-rays, without special optics; we can’t smell as dogs smell, and detect drugs or explosives; we can’t hear beyond 20 kHz., etc.)
To conclude it all briefly, in only one way can the emotional, irrational, and misperception flaws embedded in English (or in any language) be qualified and rendered rigorous and professionally applicable: students must learn to perfect their thinking in English throughout the range of their academic careers, with an evolving series of courses conducted by informed faculty in all of their courses. And most important of all, students must get a good start on language, ideally, even before they attend school. Parents have the duty to provide deep language hearing, reading, and showing experiences to infants starting from day 1, as argued above. So where are we to find or produce informed faculty and parents, if English doesn’t matter?
The Linguistic Basis of Scientific Analytical Skill
Clearly, faculty intending to teach any subject in English need a solid grounding in the limitations of the local medium of instruction, as do faculty who teach in universities where English represents the primary language of instruction, (or PMI).
Certainly, the arguments above oversimplify the diversities of languages, which are more subtle, and which lead to the next point requiring urgent curricular care: because English is not originally object-oriented, those who learn English as a first language may fail to develop an initial mastery over observation of detail, for psycholinguistic reasons, mainly because the embedded egotistic and psychological flaw in their linguistic thinking values the perceiver over the perceived. (“But that’s my opinion! And I’m entitled to an opinion. The earth is flat! It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong! I have a right to believe that!”) Only a great amount of mentored and monitored practice thinking and planning, then writing, then reflecting on writing, and rewriting can help students correct the egotistic prejudices embedded in thinking in English—as the great scientists and writers have had to do—if combined with fiction and nonfiction texts that introduce humanism. Truly egoistic professionals who desire unchallenged success would not want to think wrongly anyway, so it behooves them to acquire this training.
As an experienced linguist (and writing-assessment officer) who has spent thirty-plus years teaching English to—and assessing the English writing of—first-language speakers and second- and third-language speakers, I have noticed a general artifact in student populations at the first-year university level: English-as-a-first-language learners require up to two semesters to learn how to adequately observe and render objective details in writing. This lack of developed observational skills may reflect a lack of training in K-12 and omissions in our pedagogies, as much as reflect flaws inherent in English. Such learners tend “on average” to express much more emotional investment in reporting their un-based opinions and impressions than they do in observing and reporting “external detail,” a psycholinguistic predilection that requires much work by informed faculty to dilute and diminish. This predilection persists in students through the third and fourth years of undergraduate careers, and remains largely unobserved by specialist/disciplinary faculty outside Linguistics.
The farming of writing skills to faculty without linguistics training cannot help students become more objective about their observational predilections—habits that may lead to subjective and unfounded reasoning. Please note the correlation of high accuracy and investment in reporting objective details skill to candidates’ maturation in applying science in specialized disciplines, where objective-details-mastery and accuracy may mean professional life or death for a scientist or number theorist or technician or engineer.
By contrast, first-language Spanish speakers, Arabic speakers, and Asian language speakers professionally master details-observation-and-rendering within three to four weeks of training, despite forgivable grammatical flaws that may appear in their English sentences. Accepting such stereotypes, few curricular designers and educational testing officials deny the power over detail Asian students and similar professionals attain, while not understanding the linguistic and cultural roots of these important pre-analytical skills. But, deserving special awards, Hispanic students also demonstrate that they can learn to render accurate detail quickly, because as a language, classical Spanish underwent a different evolution[l] than did English.
Our Intellectual National Engine Drops Hispanics
Recent statistics available from reliable national sources (a quick Internet search reveals numerous such sources) show that Hispanic students are apparently suffering a so-called achievement gap,[li] which should alarm everybody, if only because the specific Hispanic students identified who come from Spanish-speaking households will number one in four students throughout the United States. And their numbers are growing. So how is America losing this precious intellectual resource? It’s simple: the teachers (and their principals and superintendents who construct local school policies) who teach and serve this group in English as the PMI, may not understand, because they have not been trained to understand, the fundamental syntactical and linguistic—and ultimately cultural—differences between Spanish and English. Both European Spanish and Mexican Spanish diverged from their Indo-European roots, and have undergone mini-evolutions, probably due to the strong historic influences Arabic and Latinate linguistic cultures played in Spain—influences which transferred to Mexico.
While English became a logically-sequenced and almost linear, non-repetitive syntactic domain, following its Germanic and Northern European roots, Spanish[lii] adapted a stylistic recursiveness from Arabic[liii] and Latin. Recursive languages, along with the preferred grammatical structures inherent in recursive writing[liv], tend to revisit and re-characterize observed details in multiple ways, leading to the production of multiple viewpoints and to a progressive reconsideration of observed details as a specific language tract evolves. With more viewpoints comes the possibility of deeper and more thorough analysis—the ultimate goal of professionals advancing in STEM fields. Spanish speakers and readers reveal a great tolerance and appreciation and respect for divergent viewpoints and details-interpretation. These are well-known cultural artifacts among the populations of Spain and Mexico—and others, which makes them such a joy to be around. Note that Spanish is a much less Subject-Verb-ordered language than English.
Unlike English, for example, Spanish has syntactical conventions that allow for object-verb- sans-apparent-subject sentence structures. Consider the common syntactical form of Lo tengo, for example, which means, “It” (the object, lo) have (the verb tener), I, where this subject I is embedded in the conjugated verb form ‘tengo,’ a Latinate conjugation, and not stated overtly as a pronoun Yo. Such syntactical forms psycholinguistically favor objects and also actions, analogized by emphasis on the verb, while embedding the personal pronoun indicator in the verb. Contrastive linguistics points to Spanish as an action, object-concerned language. In short, the Spanish language is ideally constituted to pursue action via research and experimentation, and to manage and render observations objectively.
Give me a university student who comes from a Spanish-language family background, and I can transmit highly professional details-observation and rendering skill in about four weeks. These students also become excellent writers, because writing is a motor activity, and Spanish as a language favors actions, as noted. Once these students glom onto the necessity to render accurate detail, they find it natural—almost innate—to master the skill in a short time, because both their language and culture have those skills already deeply embedded as cultural imperatives. Subsequently, the potential for such students from Spanish language backgrounds to become top-notch researchers and experimenters pre-exists within their cultural traditions. Researchers working in Spain, for example, today work at the forefront of studies of evolutionary anthropology,[lv] in tracing the history of the human species—contradicting the populist stereotype that if someone comes from a predominantly Catholic country—or speaks Spanish, then that person cannot become an objective scientist.
To the degree that these culturally linguistic features are proven, or under investigation, is less important than my main concern: we are losing an unacceptably large Hispanic population early, in K-12, because curriculum designers, public-policy administrators, principals, teachers, and yes, parents, have no training in or even clues about the deeply baseline and contrastive roles English studies play in preparing such students for academic and professional success in the United States.[lvi] Alarmed authorities rush to STEM curricula before assessing and managing students’ linguistic competencies and cultural roots.
Leveraging Existing Linguistic Neural Pathways to Accelerate Attainment of M-METALS Skills
Not only does language come first, in preparing students for any kind of ideological progress and analytical success, as evidenced by the construction of ideomotors, in the brain,[lvii] but language is also the medium by which all the more sophisticated kinds of analysis and thinking (science/math leading to technology/ engineering) are eventually conducted. That’s why a superior education in English and its vocabulary must precede, prior to elementary school, and continue through the college years, while the brain is still young, along with hands-on experimentation, if America wants to make it easy for young people to transform into consummate trained and innovative professionals in STEM fields. Vocabulary mastery leads to faster reading and comprehension, as busy or lazy readers won’t need to skip or omit unfamiliar words and concepts. Art classes are also necessary so students can work with objects in a shared 3D space; and music classes are necessary, because music, rhythm, and movement are an innate part of language learning[lviii], a fact unknown to most current curriculum authorities. Otherwise, ignore continued language and reading development, make learning harder and unpleasant, and lose 70 % of our intellectual potential by ages 16-18, or earlier.
Learning nomenclature doesn’t stop in high school. And furthermore, curriculum designers commit the gravest error, when they abandon liberal arts, literature, fine arts, and language courses in the universities for another reason. The sole two differences between high-school students and college graduates involve two fundamentals: sophistication/evolution of vocabulary and literacy skills as covered above—and attaining mastery over a highly complex new and required professional concept, the Theory of Mind, which also has its underpinnings in high-school language and literature courses (these latter usually placed under the common umbrella of “English”).
Omissions in the Core Standards
A visit to the nationally-recommended core standards can be quite discouraging, because the standards list what students should be able to do, but give no indication about how teachers are supposed to move students to those skills. Research has shown, however, when early child educators acquire strategies, and receive linguistics coaching about how to teach English to pre-school language learners, the learning-playing field between native speakers and second-language learners can be leveled.[lix]
Toward “Building” an Ethical Humane M-METALS Professional: the THEORY of MIND
The term Theory of Mind, AKA ToM,[lx] may sound dramatic and specialized or even artificial, but it is very real, and highly applicable and necessary to the 21st century professional. While a complete definition of ToM remains complex, consider its usual applications. Someone with a well-trained ToM enjoys multiple professional and competitive advantages in STEM fields over those without:
She understands the limitations of languages; she can predict others’ behavior; she can read others’ verbal and non-verbal cues; she can differentiate between a psychopath and a sociopath, or between a civilized or uncivilized colleague; she can decide on a future program that’s ethical and best based on the limitations within set cultural and behavioral and technological limitations; she can render fair judgments objectively and impartially. She understands the moral and ethical approaches of those belonging to different religions. She can enter an international world composed of those with different belief systems.
These represent some damn fine skills—non-STEM skills. And for those policymakers interested in bioethics, biomedical ethics, or in the ethics of applied sciences, or in geoethics, she is exactly the kind of trained specialist modern employers seek.
These cross-cultural ToM skills, paramount and essential to the humane and global applications of STEM innovations, are not attained by learning solely Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They are acquired by reading in the so-called Liberal Arts, literature[lxi]—fiction and non-fiction, philosophy, religion, mythology, and history; by creating art and music; by learning languages; by traveling and studying abroad; and by socializing in shared learning in mentor-monitored public spaces. It’s difficult enough to “create” adults who are good at and who love their STEM professions; it’s quite a bit more difficult to transform young people into adults who can generate service-oriented, ethical, and far-sighted humane applications of their professional STEM work. ToM began with the transcribed dreams of young humanity, preserved in its myths and legends, and indeed in its sacred literatures, and was sustained in the dreams of history’s writers and artists. Mythology and religion represented human beings’ first attempts at understanding the cause and effect of their perceived realities, and thus represented the first Sciences, but through the power of analogies manifested in the fantasized powers of legendary and mythic Gods and Goddesses, human beings developed the associated ideas to try and build and attain these “powers” for themselves. With the advent of humanism and rationalism, human beings gained increasing understanding over the Laws of Nature, and gained increasing dominion over natural processes, as they continue to do. The Gods and Goddesses were immortal in the human imagination, and humans now leverage science to close in on that fantasy.
The visions thus manifested and recorded inspired advances in science and technology. Icarus wanted to fly, as did the first human beings who imagined adapting the skills of birds. Later, authors and science fiction writers imagined space elevators and invisibility cloaks and teleportation. So where do students currently immerse themselves in the welcoming, inspiring, and provocative atmosphere of these fantasies, if “English” and its related media become trivialized or marginalized, perceived as non-technological or “unrealistic”? Arguably, in two hundred years our current “science” will look like “mythology” anyway. Right now, current science represents “place-holder” nomenclature (“dark matter” “Higgs” ‘particle’/’field’?) for that which we do not yet understand. We must maintain the interflow between language/movement and science and literature and the arts, mighty recursive engines of innovation and creativity.
The Elephants Not in the Room Push an Elephant into the Room
Because uneducated parents have no knowledge of the infantile critical period and about how infants learn concepts, they remain ignorant about how to prepare their children to learn ideas (language) quickly and enjoyably, as covered partly above. But parents in the United States do even worse by their children.
Parents continue to disserve their children’s eventual success in the sciences, engineering, technology, and math fields in a much more imposing and intimidating way, as well—when they indoctrinate their children with outmoded and fundamentalist religious stereotypes that inhibit their children’s learning of science and math, and thereby of engineering and applied technology. Unlike their European and Asian counterparts, a possible majority of American children enter elementary school with unsophisticated and backward literalist stereotypes about the nature of God, and children later bring these inculcated and unchallenged stereotypes with them into college, believing for example, that fundamentalist literal English interpretations of words from the Old Testament Hebrew Bible which are based on earlier (perhaps faulty) translations into first Greek, then Latin, then German, and finally into English (languages, again!) “prove” somehow that God is a “spot-creator,” rather than, say, a creator by evolutionary or other undisclosed principles. How else are we to explain that “ . . .70% of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times”?[lxii]
These parochial, misinformed, and unscientific attitudes, indoctrinated by well-meaning but ill-informed parents, create in children predictable and insurmountable cognitive and affective blocks to concepts like evolutionary biology, genetic engineering, exo-planet investigation, and modern applied cosmology. Note that these failures of progress in science education are due to children not understanding that the linguistic content and meaning of sacred texts is altered by translation practices and agendas. When linguistic blocks and ignorance are allowed by parents, educators, and authorities to become psychological and cognitive barriers to education in science, then clearly adults have failed their children’s chances for economic success, creativity, innovation, and modernity. Recent surveys revealed that 1 in 4 Americans are not aware that the earth revolves around the sun; and 46% are not aware that human beings evolved from earlier mammals and life-forms.[lxiii]
Note that the cognitive blocks to science may associate and extend to learning math, also, when the parents’ fears have transferred to children in such a way that learning math is perceived as dangerous, because math is objective and may implicitly challenge the realm of God’s perceived ongoing control of the universe. The misconception that God needs to or must control the universe is so old, it is medieval, whereas modern scientists who are deists believe the deity simply allows the universe to operate under discoverable laws that the deity established to be autonomous and develop evolutionarily. In other words, literalist parents teach fear of science and math, through both believing and indoctrinating their children with permanent scripts, scripts containing long outmoded stereotypes about the nature of god or of god’s activities: such parents fear thusly, “ Since science and math seem to introduce laws understandable by humans without a need for worshipping god, then we parents cannot encourage or condone scientific thinking and literacy nor even math in our children, for fear that they will become godless or lose their faith.”
Such poorly-substantiated and unchallenged, untested familial beliefs receive reinforcement when legislators and principals and school officials embark on policies of “religious accommodationism,”[lxiv] in order not to face a parental or House of Representatives or Senate riot. And so these authorities are forced to ignore the cognitive paralysis that inhibits or prevents young people’s full-scale immersion into the scientific fields while trying to ignite a STEM crisis. And those same authorities insist on a purely STEM curriculum. Note that among nations that are scientifically literate, the U.S. ranks 29th![lxv]
Without confronting this large-scale issue of impedimental religiosity in the public schools, and perhaps in the private religious schools as well, curricular designers should not be surprised to learn recent reports chronicling the lessening of science papers published by Americans, and the increase of such papers published by nationals of other countries like China, India, and Japan.
To “negotiate” with such parochialism, a strong and brave public liberal arts 6-12 curriculum should include introductions to foreign languages and cultures, readings in fiction and non-fiction in English and in translation, comparative religious studies, all of which come under the umbrella of English and the so-called Liberal Arts. Our public students become our public and global citizens, so they indeed deserve to develop multi-cultural understanding and sensitivities. Educators must not fail them.
Donald Prothero, well-published science-literacy author, has analyzed the issue, and states, “The single biggest predictor of national success in science literacy is the degree to which a country is not dominated by dogmatic religious beliefs, whether it is fundamentalist Christianity or conservative Islam.”[lxvi] His article notes that the least scientifically literate countries are indeed among those so described, Turkey, Cyprus, and the United States. He has fully illustrated how America’s institutionalized and outmoded religious ideas have created a self-defeating drag on intellectual advancement in the United States, and he has a point.
Yet, our current curricular designers expect to push and sell STEM without addressing ingrained and anti-scientific religious attitudes—and without proposing remedies. One of the major failures of the CORE standards, for example, recognized by teachers throughout the country, is how the standards insist on outcomes, but have no recommendations on how those outcomes are to be achieved, and so there is no national direction in educational pedagogy and leadership—precisely because our leaders have no training in the neuroscience of learning and about literacy and about contrastive linguistics. Accommodationism means stepping aside, at the necessary moral moment of decision, whereas humanism means having the courage to raise the issues honestly and to propose civilized remedies.
Note that in most universities, faculty consider it bad taste to include assignments assessing how beliefs in God can affect objective critical and scientific thinking. And note that concepts like “god” and “faith” are definite trigger-words, activating strong embedded affects for hearers and readers. Still, a direction appears. Faculty who offer options for such assignments can introduce how and why words produce such “affects,” and how such words, associating to stereotyped literalist content, interfere with objective listening and perception, because, according to this remedy, faculty will have already received training in psycholinguistics. Next, faculty can add a pedagogical script suggesting something along these lines: “When the evolution of faith is revealed by reading the history of science, by practicing critical thinking, by writing, and by revision, modern faith becomes better-informed. A person with a better-informed faith can more compassionately enter the service of a diverse humanity, one composed of respectable and moral, but highly differing, beliefs.” For adults, attaining both ToM and literacy implies mastering the ability to tolerate increased cognitive dissonance, without lapsing into moral relativity, while maintaining healthy skepticism, when negotiating with moral and ethical human beings whose background otherwise differs—all while being sensitive to language. “English” matters.
Education, (which must never be personified, because it requires informed human beings to act as its agents), makes a big stride toward “building” an ethical professional in high-school English class, when the “kids” read appropriate diverse secular and religious literatures in translation; when they take band; or when they have art class or when they take a foreign language, and as a result, when they develop greater sensitivity toward the cultural and philosophical—and prejudicial—limitations inherent in the English language and its cultural and psycholinguistic roots. And we make an even bigger stride toward building this evolved professional, when more mature versions of these experiences become mandated in the General Education spectrum ranging throughout lower-division to upper-division course offerings in the university setting. Please don’t think that a single writing course in a specific discipline suffices to accomplish this necessary adjusted vision: students need to write and construct arguments and projects in all of their courses, if they are to develop superior critical thinking skills, rigorous document-construction ability, and cross-associative thinking.
Evolving Thinking in any discipline requires organized reflection, which guided, mentored, coached, and evaluated writing accomplishes—through the process and practice of local and/or national publication. Hopeful professionals need to practice evolving their thinking. They do this by seeing their thinking published to paper. Rarely do specialists outside the fields of English and linguistics and the liberal arts understand how to teach professional fluency requirements and revision to developing professionals from multicultural backgrounds.
Only by reflecting on one’s thinking, by seeing it in writing, as a document, can professionals “correct” their thinking, as Galileo, Euler, Madame Curie, Einstein, and other geniuses understood. Einstein, for example, who was multilingual and played the violin, searched for linguistic analogues in order to more clearly explain the consequences of his general and special theories of relativity to people who lacked math mastery and knowledge of physics. All specialists, sooner or later, must serve user groups outside their specialty areas, which requires exactly the kind of literacy advocated herein.
But note, however, that rarely, if ever, do upper-division instructors in specific disciplines have the deep linguistic training necessary to help their students become the different kinds of Einsteins America seeks. And rarely, if ever, do curricular designers and public-policy makers receive an overview about the flaws inherent in languages, read and written and spoken, and thus, thought. So we can’t be too surprised when such authorities falsely believe that STEM skills exist magically independently of languages, the media of transmittal and investigation.
To give up, or marginalize, or sub-specialize “English,” or, in other words, to obscure, to ignore, or to mystify STEM content dependent on “English,” (read language), happens at America’s peril. Make no mistake, this article became necessary because a (mal-informed) curricular subtractive cascade has begun. Let’s act quickly to correct the cart-before-the-horse STEM monomania, which must be recognized as temporary, misguided, abusive, and cross-culturally suicidal.
Best Solutions: A New Acronym, Hiring Only Informed and Current Educators and Public Policy Officials, Plus a National Executive Stance on M-METALS
The solutions in the title are self-explanatory. Our authorities, educators, and public policy administrators need to learn the principles of the neuroscience of human learning and advocate and model these. They need to understand the basics of both psycholinguistics and psychometrics, the science of testing. Our president and his advisors can leave a lasting impact on our nation’s CORE standards, and also take a public stand on literacy leading to M-METALS success, and also take a stand on influencing parenting—via public service announcements and infomercials. Our children deserve the momentum their compassionate inspired parents and educators can give them. Our children are more important than we are. Our Executives need to advertise to parents that the science supports it.
Boak Ferris is a linguist, author, and former test officer at CSULB. The ideas herein may or may not reflect the opinions of other faculty and administrators at CSULB.
[i] Millennial Branding.com/2012. This white paper surveyed 225 employers with a data pool of over 100,000 US companies.
[ii] NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) Jobs Outlook report 2012.
[iii] Modern child development research has identified the critical period for human early language acquisition to be around three to six months of age. E.g., Northwestern University, (2010), “Words influence cognition from the first months of life,” ScienceDaily. Vouloumanos, A. & Gelfand, H., (2012), “Infant perception of atypical speech signals,” Developmental Psychology. Bergelson, E., Swingley, D., (2012), “At 6-9 months, human infants know the meaning of many common nouns,” PNAS, 2/28/12. Cohen, L.B., & Cashon, C.H., (2003), “Infant Perception and Cognition,” in Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology, Vol. 6, Wiley, NY. See also note 17.
[v] Saby & Meltzoff, (2013), “Baby brains respond to actions,” PLoS ONE, 10/2013.
[vi] See nces.ed.gov/pubs/2013. Note the difference between status dropout rates and overall dropout rates. Status dropout refers to 16- to 24-year-olds who never enrolled.
[vii] Harvard (2011), Pathways to Prosperity, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
[viii] Some analyses point to the prohibitive costs of a secondary education, but as a reading specialist I can vouch for the pains public university students articulate regarding having to do and complete reading assignments—in any discipline.
[ix] Department of Education, (2013) NCES statistics.
[x] Horsley, M & Walker, R., (2012), Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies. Palgrave Macmillan.
[xi]AAAS, Science, Mathematics, Technology, and Education Seminar Report, (6/23/2007): archives.aaas.org/ publications.
[xii] As a testing expert I can vouch for how valid multiple-choice tests, in any subject, require a multi-cultural team of faculty and experts to construct, in order to discover and eliminate as many linguistic and cultural biases that arise as possible. Without training in contrastive linguistics, however, most national K-12, or university, standardized-test-makers have no idea how their test questions may induce cognitive dissonance or worse—cognitive paralysis—in their brightest candidates. See endnotes 48 and 49 below. The Educational Testing Service, for example, which constructs most of the national testing that advances American (and indeed International) students, expertly researches its own tests every year to insure generalizability, validity, and reliability, through a statistical science applied to educational-testing assessments called psychometrics. Psychometrics are not voodoo: they are necessary to ensure that a test, any test, embeds as little tester-generated bias as possible.
[xiii] Modern neuroscientific and linguistic research on infantile language acquisition trends toward two baseline concepts: first, infants learn nouns before verbs and actions, because the most emotionally important objects in the infantile environment are kin and family members, necessary to survival, which are capable of being touched or grasped. Second, most Subject-Verb-Object based grammars may represent physiological metaphors for the Infant’s need (I) to grasp (Verb). For an introduction to these ideas see Glenberg, Gallese, “Action-Based Language” at Cogsci.ucsd.edu.
[xiv] The old linguistic theory once called ideomotors led to research that demonstrated how language acquisition starts with infantile sensorimotor observation and subsequent sensorimotor imitation via mirror neurons in the infant’s brain: Pulvermuller, F, Fadiga, L (2010): “Active Perception: sensorimotor circuits as a cortical basis for language.” National Review of Neuroscience.
[xv]See Vukovic & Lesaux, (2010), “The relationship between linguistic skill and arithmetic performance,” Learning and individual Differences, Elsevier. On the necessity of language literacy as a predictor of math performance see LeFevre, J., Fast, L., Skwarchuk, S., Smith-Chant, B. L., Bisanz, J., Kamawar, D., et al., (2010), “Pathways to mathematics: Longitudinal predictors of performance,” Child Development, 81, 1753–1767. See also Kyttälä , M and Björn, P, (2014). “The role of literacy skills in adolescents’ mathematics word problem performance: Controlling for visuo-spatial ability and mathematics anxiety,” Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 29. Some linguists view math as a second language, while some view it as a co-incidental first language, based mainly on the parents’ approach (teach or ignore) to coaching infants about number and arithmetic concepts. Math skill starts out as a linguistic skill. For another recent study seeZhang, Xiao; Koponen, Tuire; Räsänen, Pekka; Aunola, Kaisa; Lerkkanen, Marja-Kristiina; Nurmi, Jari-Erik; (2013), “Linguistic and Spatial Skills Predict Early Arithmetic Development via Counting Sequence Knowledge,” Child Development, 2013.
[xvii] Lopez-Barroso, Catani, Ripolles, Dell’Acqua, Rodriguez-Fornells (2012), “Word learning is mediated by the left arcuate fasciculus.” PNAS. This portion of the brain is a collection of nerve fibers connecting the auditory regions to and from the motor areas of the frontal lobe and is activated by seeing adult motions and gestures.
[xviii] On the failure of showing videoed adults to toddlers to transfer language skills successfully, see Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, Golikoff, (2013), “Skype Me,” Child Development. The system called Responsive Interactions requires the presence of a live teacher in the 3D learning space. On the failure of online learning as a tool for improving the brain’s performance for adults, see Royal Institute of Technology, (2013), “Online Time Hobbles Brain’s Performance and Work,” September 20, ScienceDaily.
[xix] For modern research (ca. 2011 and 2012), on the necessity to teach cursive to children, see David Kysilko’s references at nasbe.org. For some research more formal and scientific regarding children’s neurological health and accelerated learning via learning cursive early, see also note 25.
[xx] Frank, Bod, Christiansen, (2012), “How Hierarchical is Language Use?” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
[xxi] A discussion suggesting human imprinting during the critical period driving language acquisition appears in: Kisilevsky, B, et al. 2003. “Effects of Experience in Fetal Voice Recognition,” Psychological Science, Vol. 14 (3).
[xxii] Peter S. Eriksson, Ekaterina Perfilieva, Thomas Björk-Eriksson, Ann-Marie Alborn, Claes Nordborg, Daniel A. Peterson, & Fred H. Gage (1998), “Neurogenesis in the adult human hippocampus,” Nature Medicine 4, 1313 – 1317 doi:10.1038/3305. Anna M. Krichevsky, Kai-C. Sonntag, Ole Isacson, Kenneth S. Kosik 2 (2006), “Specific MicroRNAs Modulate Embryonic Stem Cell–Derived Neurogenesis,” STEM CELLS Volume 24, Issue 4, pages 857–864, April 2006. Neural aggregates become the connectomes neuroscientists discuss in brain mapping, linking the sensorimotor systems and hippocampus to developing nouns, verbs and their associated content.
[xxiii]Rizzolati, G. and L. Craighero. (2004), “The Mirror Neuron System.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, Vol. 27. Controversy once existed over human beings having mirror neurons as were discovered in primate animal species. For years now, however, researchers have leveraged experiments on the human mirror-neuronal system. Mukamel, Roy; Ekstrom, Arne D.; Kaplan, Jonas,; Iacoboni, M.; and Fried, Itzhak, (2010), “Single neuron responses in humans during execution and observation of actions.” Current Biology, April 27; 20(8): 750–756., Published online 2010 April 8. Iacoboni, M; Dapretto, M,. (2006), “The mirror neuron system and the consequences of its dysfunction,” Nat. Rev. Neuroscience. 7:942–51. Iacoboni, M., (2009), “Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons,” Annual Review of Psychology Contents, Volume 60.
[xxiv] Regarding the necessity of children to experience motion and exercise so that their brains produce the necessary peptide hormone Irisin which works to promote brain health and establish memory, see Christiane D. Wrann, James P. White, John Salogiannnis, Dina Laznik-Bogoslavski, Jun Wu, Di Ma, Jiandie D. Lin, Michael E. Greenberg, Bruce M. Spiegelman, (2013), “Exercise Induces Hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 Pathway,” Cell Metabolism, 2013. For the correlation between strong early motor-skills and learning with memory see Eero A. Haapala, Anna-Maija Poikkeus, Tuomo Tompuri, Katriina Kukkonen-Harjula, Paavo H.T. Leppänen, Virpi Lindi, Timo A. Lakka, (2013), “Associations of Motor and Cardiovascular Performance with Academic Skills in Children,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
[xxv] For an introduction to the pedagogical necessity to maintain cursive as an instructional mode for both accelerated literacy and neurological health of children, see Feder, Katya P., & Majnemer, Annette, Ph.D.’s, (2007), “Handwriting Development, competency, and intervention,” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, Volume 49, Issue 4, 312-317. See also The University of Stavanger, (2011), “Better Learning through Handwriting,” sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/1101190955458.htm. See Also James, Karin H. an Atwood, Thea P. (2009). “The role of sensorimotor learning in the perception of letter-like forms: Tracking the causes of neural specialization for letters,” Cognitive Neuropsychology, 26 (1), 91-100. James, K.H. and Engelhardt, L. (2013), “The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children,” Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Marie-France Morin, Natalie Lavoie, Isabelle Montésinos-Gelet, (2012), “The Effects of Manuscript, Cursive or Manuscript/Cursive Styles on Writing Development in Grade 2,” Language and Literacy, 2012; 14 (1): 110-124. ETC.!
[xxvi] Charette, Robert E., (2013), “Stem Crisis a Myth,” http://spectrum.ieee.org/static/the-stem-crisis-is-a-myth-an-ongoing-discussion.
[xxvii] As an introduction to these continuing patterns, see http:/www.nsf.gov.statistics/nsb0803/start.htm.
[xxviii] Partanen & Kijala, (2013), “Infants recognize lullabies heard in the womb,” PLoS ONE.
[xxix] Association for Psychological Science (2008), “Baby Talk: The Roots of Early Vocabulary in Infants’ Learning from Speech,” ScienceDaily/releases.
[xxx] Educational neuroscientists have known for some time, that babbling is not nonsense: it is language practice: See Petitto, L-A., & Marentette, P., (1991), “Babbling in the manual mode: Evidence for the ontogeny of language,” Science, 251, 1483-1496. This research and its authors specifically collect the three strong warrants in this article, 1) Language is gesture-based; 2) Babbling is not nonsense, but rather infantile language practice; 3) infants know word meanings or are significantly inspired to prioritize language acquisition—earlier than anyone thinks—by three to six months.
[xxxi] That parents must use numbers (words and counting) with infants during the critical period see research at the University of California San Diego, (2013), “One-two language = math learning,” UCSD.
[xxxii] Yu, Chen, Smith, Linda B., (2013), “Joint Attention without Gaze Following: Human Infants and Their Parents Coordinate Visual Attention to Objects Through Eye-Hand Coordination,” PLoS ONE; 8 (11), e79659.
[xxxiii] Roben, Caroline K.P., Cole, Pamela M., and Armstrong, Laura Marie, (2012), “Longitudinal Relations Among Language Skills, Anger Expression, and Regulatory Strategies in Early Childhood,” Childhood Development, 20 December 2012.
[xxxiv]M. Caskey, B. Stephens, R. Tucker, B. Vohr, (2014), “Adult Talk in the NICU With Preterm Infants and Developmental Outcomes,” PEDIATRICS.
[xxxv] See notes 41 and 48.
[xxxvi] Seymour, Elaine, (2002), “Tracking the Process of Change in US Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology,” Science Education, Vol. 79, pp. 79-104. Aspiring Minds Report, (2013), “Women in Engineering: A comparative study of barriers across Nations,” http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/cwsem/PGA_369-375.
[xxxvii] Association for Psychological Science, (2012), “Girls’ Verbal Skills Make Them Better at Arithmetic,” February 22, 2012: https://www.psychologiclscience.org. Xinlin Zhou, Wei Wei, Hao Lu, Qi Dong, Chuansheng Chen, (2012), “Gender differences in children’s arithmetic performance are accounted for by gender differences in language abilities,” Psychological Science. Though arithmetic teachers have recognized this artifact for decades: see Wozencraft, Marian, (1963), “Are boys better than girls at arithmetic?” The Arithmetic Teacher, Vol. 10, No. 8 (December), pp. 486-490.
[xxxviii] Elida V. Laski, Beth M. Casey, Qingyi Yu, Alana Dulaney, Miriam Heyman, Eric Dearing, (2013), “Spatial skills as a predictor of first grade girls’ use of higher level arithmetic strategies,” Learning and Individual Differences, 23, 123-130.
[xxxix] Muriel Niederle and lise Vesterlund (2010), “Explaining the Gender Gap in Math Test Scores: The Role of Competition,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol., 24, No. 2, pp. 129-144.
[xl] See the next section of this article for the role psycholinguistics plays on both sides (learners/educators) of literacy. See notes 47 & 48.
[xli] A class in psychometrics, the science of constructing valid, unbiased examinations, should be mandatory for all teachers or anyone who enters the business of public or private education, at whatever level. Psychometrics may include tests about personality, but is as much, or more, concerned with ensuring validity during educational testing. Regarding the science behind psychometrics, see American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME), (1999), The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Much of educational testing involves wording and phrasing of test questions to remove arousal and bias, which is a cornerstone argument for this current article about why English matters.
[xlii] U.S. Department of Education, (2013), National Institute of Literacy, 4/28/13.
[xliii] For one foundational analysis of the linearity of English see Kaplan, R.B., (1966), “Cultural thought patterns,” Language Learning, 16 (1), 1-20. See also, Kaplan, R.B., (1987), “Cultural thought patterns revisited. In Connor, U. & Kaplan, R.B. (Eds.), Writing Across Languages: Analysis of L2 Texts (pp. 9-21), Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
[xliv] For an introduction to the “I grasp” theory of native world grammars and human-language-generation see Arbib, Michael A., (2008), “From grasp to language,” Journal of Psychology, Paris.
[xlv] The Subject as I, the Verb as grasps: these fundamental human motor motions of infants may serve as the cornerstones of all learning skills, and may analogously represent the basic grammar unit of languages: part of the Action-Based-Language Theory of language acquisition in the brain. See note 13.
[xlvi] On object-verb-subject syntax in rice-growing cultural languages, a misapprehension exists about Japanese, for example, that it is essentially a Subject-Object-Verb language: not true. It is as much, if not more, an Object-Verb- (optional subject) language. Lay people are confused about Japanese syntax, because Japanese has topic-indicator particle words that tell a listener or reader which word is the object, usually the first noun. English-speaking lay people confuse the idea of the first “topic” noun of a sentence with their cultural idea of “the subject of a sentence.” “Eggs ate” might look like a weird raw transliteration from Japanese to English, while the context and particles would tell you that “eggs” is the object of the verb: “The eggs . . ., eat did (I)” (the I—and past tense—implied by particle words).
[xlvii] All languages are metaphoric and analogous—and entirely associative. Empirical observation confirms that a sound and/or a written text is/are not the real object(s) or action(s) they signify.
[xlviii] For a good start on psycholinguistics, which includes investigations into how a hidden emotional negative and positive reactive valence (an affect called arousal) can become embedded in or triggered by (any kind of) words, see Pulvermüller, Friedemann, “Words in the brain’s language,” 1999), Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1999) 22, 253–336. The bibliography in this source is excellent.
[xlix] Psycholinguists and forensic linguists take very seriously the strong hypothesis that human memories and words are inextricably fused with ambiguous emotional content, some pleasant, some unpleasant. Any word for a native speaker of a language can produce an unexpected emotional response [arousal] in a perceiver—the affect mentioned in note 47. Similarly, second-language words for second-language learners can produce an affect. SeeWarriner, Amy Beth; Kuperman, Victor; Brysbaert, Marc, (2013), “Norms of valence, arousal, and dominance for 13,915 English lemmas,” Behavior Research Methods, December, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 1191-1207, published online. See Lewis, P. A.; Critchley, H. D.; Rotshtein, P.; & Dolan, R. J. (2007), “Neural correlates of processing valence and arousal in affective words,” Cerebral Cortex, 17, 742-748. The ANEW project addresses exactly this very concern—which should alarm teachers everywhere: http://csea.phhp.ufl.edu/.
[l] SeeLathrop, Thomas A. (2003), The Evolution of Spanish, Fourth Edition, Newark, Delaware: Juan de la Cuesta, 1986. Or see Lapesa, Rafael (1942/1981), Historia de la Lengua Española (9th ed.), Madrid: Gredos.
[li] U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 6/2013. Nces.ed.gov.
[lii] Consult Candau, M, (1985), “Historia de La Lengua Espanola,” Scripta Humanistica, Potomac, Maryland. See alsonote 49 above.
[liii] See Aoun, Benmamoun, Choueiri, (2010), The Syntax of Arabic, Cambridge University Press. See also Ostler, Nicholas, (2005), Empires of the World: A Language History of the World,” Harper Collins.
[liv] Simpson, Joellen, (2000), “Topical structure analysis of academic paragraphs in English and Spanish,” Journal of Second Language Writing, 9 (3), 293-309. Montaňo-Harmon, M.R. (1991), “Discourse features of written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in contrastive rhetoric and its implications,” Hispania, 74, 417-425. Please note the difference between recursion in composition pedagogy, which refers to a writers’ revision and editing technique, and recursiveness in ESL education, which refers to the amount of repetitive and/or recast clauses and grammatical structures (iterations) ‘endemic’ to syntaxes of specific languages.
[lv] Note how the following scientists from the Spanish National Research Centre for Human Evolution have contributed to the advancement of knowledge in the discipline of evolutionary anthropology: J.M. Parés, L. Arnold, M. Duval, M. Demuro, A. Pérez-González, J.M. Bermúdez de Castro, E. Carbonell, J.L. Arsuaga (2013), “Reassessing the age of Atapuerca-TD6 (Spain): new paleomagnetic results.” Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (12): 4586 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.013
[lvi] For a good start reviewing the complexities along with a helpful bibliography, visit: Pavlenko, Aneta (2012): “Affective processing in bilingual speakers: Disembodied cognition?” International Journal of Psychology, 47:6, 405-428.
[lvii] See note 14.
[lviii] See Brandt, Gebrian, Slevc, (2012): “Music and Early Language Acquisition,” Frontiers in Psychology, 2012. See also Tierney & Kraus, (2013), “The Ability to Move to a Beat is Linked to the Consistency of Neural Responses to Sound,” The Journal of Neuroscience, (9/18/13). See Anvari, S. H., Trainor, L. J., Woodside, J., & Levy, B.A. (2002), “Relation among musical skills, phonological processing and early reading ability in preschool children.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 83, 111-130. Many cultures have linked music to accelerated verbal and reading and literacy skills, and these studies confirm the practice. Could English learners benefit by a number song? Evidence exists that the dependence of learning a second language is also highly dependent on (both music/speech) rhythms: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, (2011): “Crossing Borders in language science: What bilinguals tell us about mind and brain,” online.
[lix] Wilson, Sandra jp, Dickinson, David K., Rowe, Deborah Wells, (2013), “Impact of Early Reading First program on the language and literacy achievement of children from diverse language backgrounds,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (3): 578.
[lx] For an introduction to the history of this concept and its associated methodologies and hypotheses, see Goldman, Alvin I., (2012), “Theory of Mind,” in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Cognitive Science. A print is available at fas-philosophy.rutgers.edu.
[lxi] See Kidd & Castano, (2013), “Reading Literary Fiction improves Theory of Mind,” Science, 10/2013. See Berns, Blaine, Prietula, Pye, (2013), “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” Brain Connectivity.
[lxii] Miller, Jon, (2007), Sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070218134322: credit Dr. Donald Prothero.
[lxiii] National Science Foundation (2014), “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” Presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
[lxiv] Please credit Dr. Donald Prothero with this term, which may have originated elsewhere. See notes 65.
[lxv] Among 15-year-olds, science literacy in the United States ranks 29th among nations of the world: http:/www.csmonitor.com/2007/1205/p02s01-usgn.html. Credit: Dr. Donald Prothero.
[lxvi] Prothero, Donald, Dr., (2013), “The Rejection of Reality: How the Denial of Science Threatens us All,” SKEPTIC, Vol 18, #3.