The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Recommended Brain Workout: Flex Your Multilingual “Muscles”

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¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français? 你会说中文吗?
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If you answered, “sí,” “oui,” or “会” and you’re watching this in English,
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chances are you belong to the world’s bilingual and multilingual majority.
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And besides having an easier time traveling
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or watching movies without subtitles,
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knowing two or more languages means that your brain
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may actually look and work differently than those of your monolingual friends.
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So what does it really mean to know a language?
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Language ability is typically measured in two active parts, speaking and writing,
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and two passive parts, listening and reading.
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While a balanced bilingual has near equal
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abilities across the board in two languages,
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most bilinguals around the world know and use their languages
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in varying proportions.
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And depending on their situation and how they acquired each language,
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they can be classified into three general types.
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For example, let’s take Gabriella,
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whose family immigrates to the US from Peru when she’s two-years old.
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As a compound bilingual,
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Gabriella develops two linguistic codes simultaneously,
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with a single set of concepts,
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learning both English and Spanish
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as she begins to process the world around her.
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Her teenage brother, on the other hand, might be a coordinate bilingual,
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working with two sets of concepts,
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learning English in school,
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while continuing to speak Spanish at home and with friends.
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Finally, Gabriella’s parents are likely to be subordinate bilinguals
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who learn a secondary language
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by filtering it through their primary language.
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Because all types of bilingual people can become fully proficient in a language
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regardless of accent or pronunciation,
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the difference may not be apparent to a casual observer.
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But recent advances in brain imaging technology
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have given neurolinguists a glimpse
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into how specific aspects of language learning affect the bilingual brain.
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It’s well known that the brain’s left hemisphere is more dominant
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and analytical in logical processes,
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while the right hemisphere is more active in emotional and social ones,
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though this is a matter of degree, not an absolute split.
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The fact that language involves both types of functions
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while lateralization develops gradually with age,
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has lead to the critical period hypothesis.
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According to this theory,
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children learn languages more easily
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because the plasticity of their developing brains
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lets them use both hemispheres in language acquisition,
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while in most adults, language is lateralized to one hemisphere,
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usually the left.
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If this is true, learning a language in childhood
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may give you a more holistic grasp of its social and emotional contexts.
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Conversely, recent research showed
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that people who learned a second language in adulthood
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exhibit less emotional bias and a more rational approach
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when confronting problems in the second language
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than in their native one.
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But regardless of when you acquire additional languages,
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being multilingual gives your brain some remarkable advantages.
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Some of these are even visible,
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such as higher density of the grey matter
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that contains most of your brain’s neurons and synapses,
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and more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language.
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The heightened workout a bilingual brain receives throughout its life
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can also help delay the onset of diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia
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by as much as five years.
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The idea of major cognitive benefits to bilingualism
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may seem intuitive now,
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but it would have surprised earlier experts.
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Before the 1960s, bilingualism was considered a handicap
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that slowed a child’s development
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by forcing them to spend too much energy distinguishing between languages,
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a view based largely on flawed studies.
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And while a more recent study did show
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that reaction times and errors increase for some bilingual students
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in cross-language tests,
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it also showed that the effort and attention needed
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to switch between languages triggered more activity in,
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and potentially strengthened, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
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This is the part of the brain that plays a large role
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in executive function, problem solving, switching between tasks,
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and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information.
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So, while bilingualism may not necessarily make you smarter,
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it does make your brain more healthy, complex and actively engaged,
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and even if you didn’t have the good fortune
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of learning a second language as a child,
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it’s never too late to do yourself a favor
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and make the linguistic leap from, “Hello,”
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to, “Hola,” “Bonjour” or “你好’s”
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because when it comes to our brains a little exercise can go a long way.

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►WRITE

Breaking the language barrier | Tim Doner | TEDxTeen 2014

Laguage in its sense, in essence, represents a cultural world view. And if I can impart you with anything today […] it’s this:

you can translate words easily but you can’t quite translate meaning.

Illustration by Dawn Kim/TED | ideas.ted.com

Featured illustration by Dawn Kim/TED

 

During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.

But while it’s true that I can speak in 20 different languages, including English, it took me a while to understand that there’s more to language than bartering over kebabs in Arabic or ordering from a menu in Hindi. Fluency is another craft altogether.

I began my language education at age thirteen. I became interested in the Middle East and started studying Hebrew on my own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was soon hooked on the Israeli funk group Hadag Nachash, and would listen to the same album every single morning. At the end of a month, I had memorized about twenty of their songs by heart — even though I had no clue what they meant. But once I learned the translations it was almost as if I had downloaded a dictionary into my head; I now knew several hundred Hebrew words and phrases — and I’d never had to open a textbook.

I decided to experiment. I spent hours walking around my New York City neighborhood, visiting Israeli cafés to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Sometimes, I would even get up the courage to introduce myself, rearranging all of the song lyrics in my head into new, awkward and occasionally correct sentences. As it turned out, I was on to something.

IF THE STANDARD OF SPEAKING A LANGUAGE IS TO KNOW EVERY WORD — TO FEEL EQUALLY AT HOME DEBATING NUCLEAR FISSION AND CLASSICAL MUSIC — THEN HARDLY ANYONE IS FLUENT IN THEIR OWN NATIVE TONGUES.

I moved on to Arabic, which I’d study every morning by reading news headlines with a dictionary and by talking to street vendors. After that it was Persian, then Russian, then Mandarin … and about fifteen others. On an average day, I’d Skype with friends in French and Turkish, listen to Hindi pop music for an hour and eat dinner with a Greek or Latin book on my lap. Language became an obsession, one that I pursued in summer classes, school, web forums and language meet-ups around the city.

By March of 2012, media outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times featured stories about me, “The Teen Who Speaks 20 Languages!” For a while, it was a fantasy; it made what many thought of as a bizarre hobby seem (almost) mainstream, and gave me a perfect opportunity to promote language learning.

After a while, though, my media “moments” felt more like gruesome chores than opportunities to spread the word. Most news shows were interested only in the “dancing bear” act (“You wanna learn more about the Middle East? Cool… Say ‘you’re watching Channel 2’ in Arabic!”) As lighthearted as that might have been, it left me with an uncomfortably personal lesson in modern media: when the goal is simply to get the viewers’ attention, the real importance of a story often gets lost in translation.

When I was beginning to discover languages, I had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. But then I realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. English is my first language, but what I really spoke was a hybrid of teenage slang and Manhattan-ese. When I listen to my father, a lawyer, talk to other lawyers, his words sound as foreign to me as Finnish. I certainly couldn’t read Shakespeare without a dictionary, and I’d be equally helpless in a room with Jamaicans or Cajuns. Yet all of us “speak English.”

My linguistics teacher, a native of Poland, speaks better English than I do and seems right at home peppering his speech with terms like “epenthetic schwa” and “voiceless alveolar stops”. Yet the other day, it came up that he’d never heard the word “tethered”. Does that mean he doesn’t “speak” English? If the standard of speaking a language is to know every word — to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music — then hardly anyone is fluent in their own native tongues.

Reducing someone to the number of languages he or she speaks trivializes the immense power that language imparts. After all, language is the living testament to a culture’s history and world view, not a shiny trophy to be dusted off for someone’s self-aggrandizement.

Language is a complex tapestry of trade, conquest and culture to which we each add our own unique piece — whether that be a Shakespearean sonnet or “Lol bae g2g ttyl.” As my time in the media spotlight made me realize, saying you “speak” a language can mean a lot of different things: it can mean memorizing verb charts, knowing the slang, even passing for a native. But while I’ve come to realize I’ll never be fluent in 20 languages, I’ve also understood that language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. And that’s a lesson well worth learning.

Watch Breaking the language barrier, Timothy Doner’s talk at TEDxTeen 2014.

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 3►SPEAK▼, ■ How to Learn Languages

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2014 !!!

Alina AlensThank you for your support and suggestions over the three years of ELB! Counting on you in the future, so do let your thoughts unravel freely our way. Here are the most popular posts of 2013 in review. May each and every one of you have a great New Year ahead, with many reasons to celebrate living, learning and growing!!! 

All the best,

Alina Alens

Filed under: 0►TRUST, ■ The Path of Metaphor, ►META PHORS▼

Last Classes, New Ideas :)

Happy summer holiday 2013!!!

Happy summer holiday 2013!!!

Hello!

This school year is rapidly drawing to a close, so I will take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful summer and to reassure you that the ELB is going to still benefit from new thoughts in the summer, just like before. After all, life’s lessons never seem to go on holiday like we do. They are always there, for us to take our pick and share. 🙂

I am writing this post below, to share some thoughts with you, yes, as I have been known to do,  on prejudice and intolerance, the lack of which will help us maintain and cultivate broad-mindedness. Or open-mindedness, if you will. 🙂 Now, what is different about this post is that, in truth, it hasn’t happened yet, by which I mean that the activities I will describe and the links I am about to recommend below are going to be put to work with the students in one of my adult learners groups later today for the first time. Imagine their surprise when I will disclose to them the existence of this article at the end of the class. 🙂 I will be back with impressions in a little while, so hang on.

“Things Should Be as I Think

or

I Know Best About This (Whatever This Might Be)”

 

The first two activities I have come up with sprang from a dialog I witnessed at a class one week ago between two of my students. The general topic of the dialogue was good manners around the world, and the more specific aspect discussed was ways of spending Christmas in Poland. I was surprised to discover how certain one of these students was about THE way of spending Christmas in Poland, the one and only PROPER way. The discussion turned out to be very insightful, as it showed that even open-minded people can have strict ideas and views on certain topics. There is, or there may be prejudice, my dears, even in areas we least expect it to appear. The good part is that once exposed hovering around some ideas in our minds, it can easily go out in a splash, like a candle blown out by a kid at bedtime.

ACTIVITY 1

Imagine:

– that you were offered an all-inclusive opportunity to travel to an area in your country or to an area that you have never visited beforein a poor country. What would you choose and why? 

– that you were living in a slum (a poor urban area in a big city, sometimes found in  developing countries). How would you feel? What would your celebrations/ anniversaries look like? Would you miss anything?

– that you are a CNN reporter who is given an assignment to interview one of the following people: a trainer from India, an Australian writer or a famous person in your country. Who would you choose to interview and why?

ACTIVITY 2

Use the words below to frame or express your own idea about your outlook on the world, on personal success, values and lifestyle:

passion           (a sense of)  purpose             humour              the voice within                   generations                

inhibitions                failures                 disabilities                         problems                          

(passing on) legacies                  (ways of )speaking                  sensitivity (to various issues)                   

Would you cross out any of these words as unnecessary? How about adding anything else to the ones you selected? Explain.

ACTIVITY 3

Watch the recently published TED video below (one of the 29,409 vids currently on the TEDx Youtube channel), in which the stand-up Indian comedian from Bangalore, Sandeep Rao, uses the concepts in Activity 2 above, to shape his own view of life and living. 

Do his views differ from yours? In what ways?

ACTIVITY 4

This is another video to watch and analyse, which is the second part in a CNN series called Talk Asia. It is a very special video to me, because it is a brief, 9-minute guided tour of the Indian universe described in one of my favourite books, Shantaram, a tour given by the author himself, the Australian-born,  controversial and very charming Gregory David Roberts.

There are a zillion questions I could think of asking after watching this video, but the ones that I would probably go for at my class, a few hours from now, are:

  • Can Christians, Muslims and Hindus celebrate together? Can people, in other words, celebrate together if their beliefs, background, and outlooks are very different?
  • Would you like to be able to be “adopted” by a society that is very different from the one you were born in?
  • Do you think you would be able to “adopt” someone who comes from a society very different from yours? How would you welcome them into your world as you know it?
  • How long do you think a society can last? Can societies disappear completely or do they change into something else? What can they change into, if they do and how are these changes possible?

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Enjoy and be back for extras!

Good day to you all!

 Alina Alens

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, 2►READ, 3►SPEAK▼, 4►LIFE, ■ Celebrations, ■ Christmas, ■ Compassion, ■ Empathy, ■ Gregory David Roberts, ■ Inspiration, ■ Meet my friends, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ The Path of Metaphor, ■ The Voice Within, ■ Travel, ■ Voice Matters, ■ Writers, ►META PHORS▼

Cars, Cars, Cars – A Beginner’s Guide (1)

Who, me?My dears, yours truly (drum roll) is currently studying for her driving license. The theoretical exam is right around the corner, coming up next week as a matter of fact (OMG!!!), so fingers crossed and God bless your English teacher! 🙂

As preparation for the exam, the English version of it, since I am currently stationed in Poland :), I am studying the English version of the Driving manual (which would make a story in itself, and possibly another blog post in the future – oh, and, yes, I haven’t finished reading it yet!!!), as well as investigating the topic of cars on my beloved TED. Feel free to join me in my “car universe discovery”  journey. Playlists on Ted have become increasingly popular, so here’s my very own playlist on cars. Well, I’ve always said I would have loved to work as a curator, so here’s my chance. Hope it brings you as much insight as I hope it has brought to me!

Alina’s TED Playlist:

Cars and their Universe,

a Third Degree Encounter

1. The magic of motion… Let’s start with Newton’s fundamental laws of motion (1687):

The Law of Inertia
Force = Mass x Accelleration
The Action/ Reaction Pair

Here’s the brilliant clip of  Newton’s 3 Laws with a Bicycle, by Joshua Manley:

Tip for teachers: you can use this and other lesson videos like this in class in a variety of ways (do check the activities suggested on TED under these three headings: Watch, Think, Dig Deeper, and investigate the “flipping” function provided).

2. Bill Ford: A future beyond traffic gridlock (2011)

Who is Bill Ford?

Bill Ford is a car guy — his great-grandfather was Henry Ford, and he grew up inside the massive Ford Motor Co. So when he worries about cars’ impact on the environment, and about our growing global gridlock problem, it’s worth a listen. His vision for the future of mobility includes “smart roads,” even smarter public transport and going green like never before. [Read more]

His talk makes you think about:

  1. A change of perspective: What if all we do is sell more cars and trucks?
  2. Passions: automobiles (heritage insights + the belief that with mobility comes freedom and progress) & the environment (literary heritage insights + personal beliefs)
  3. The business world dilemma in the past: Environmental friendliness + technology =”Environmental wackos”. Is there still a conflict? 😀
  4. The origins of what we now call “sustainability“. 
  5. Reducing and one day eliminating CO2 emissions
  6. The freedom of mobility now threatened by the population reaching its highest limits of growth (Today there are about 6.8 billion people; the global population is estimated to go up to 9 billion in our lifetime – by 2044. There are about 800 million cars on the roads worldwide. By 2050 that number is going to grow to about between 2 & 4 billion cars. In the years to come 75% of the population will live in cities,  and 50 of those cities will be of 10 million people or more.)
  7. The result: a global gridlock that will stifle economic growth and our ability to deliver food and health care particularly to people that live in city centres. And our quality of life is going to be severely compromised.
  8. The time we spend stuck in traffick jams & the commuting time will change. 
  9. “The mobility model we have today will not work tomorrow.”
  10. If we make no changes today, what is tomorrow going to look like?
  11. Possible solutions: no silver bullets, but a global network of interconnected solutions; not only building smart cars, but also smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation system and more.
  12. No-compromise sustainable mobility” (“We need an integrated system that uses real-time data to optimise personal mobility on a massive scale without hassle or compromises for travellers.”)
  13. The future: On NY’s 34 street gridlock will soon be replaced with a connected system of vehicle-specific corridors; the system called Octopus in Hong Kong (tying together all the transportation assets into a single payment system).
  14. The idea of “talking cars” that will help create a smart vehicle network. The potential of a connected car network is almost limitless. Just imagine: your car could book you a parking spot before reaching a destination. 
  15. “We need all of you“: people from all walks of life, leading thinkers, not just inventors, we need policy makers, and government officials + an infrastructure that’s designed to support this flexible future.
  16. Bottom line: we need to get going, and we need to get going today
  17. “I believe we’re at our best when we’re confronted with big issues.”

3. Chris Gerdes, The Future Race Car – 150 mph, and no driver (2012)

Who is Chris Gerdes?

It’s 2012. And many of us no doubt imagined that flying cars would be all the rage by now. While that hasn’t happened yet, some major driving innovations are on their way down the pipeline.

In a new TEDTalk, Chris Gerdes of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (awesomely abbreviated as CARS) explains that he and his team are busy at work developing the motor vehicles of the future. One of their starting points? Studying the brainwaves of the best motorists in the world — professional race car drivers. The idea is to combine computer technology with human intuition and skill behind the wheel. [Read more]

His talk makes you think about: 5 fascinating carsFive cars we may be seeing a lot more of in the future. Sure, they don’t fly. But, hey, many allow you to sit back and enjoy the ride without having to do a thing.

  1. Shelley, the autonomous race carShelley, the autonomous race car
    Nascar and Formula One racing are popular for a reason — professional race car drivers are masters at estimating the friction between the tire and the road, and instinctively being able to use the throttle and brakes to steer. Gerdes and his team have created a race car that can do these same things — without a driver. Nicknamed “Shelley,” their race car can drive itself at 150 mph while avoiding every possible accident thanks to an onboard computer. Shelley has taken high-speed spins around Thunderhill Raceway Park and navigated the 153 turns of Pike’s Peak hill climb route. As Gerdes explained to CBS News, Shelley’s algorithms could someday be in your car, helping you avoid collisions.Google's self-driving carGoogle’s self-driving car
    It’s amazing to imagine a car that can make every split-second decision for you, even delivering you home safely when you’re too tired to drive. Google’s DARPA Challenge-winning self-driving car has attracted a lot of attention. Developed by a team led by Google engineer Sebastian Thrun (watch hismoving TEDTalk here), these cars use intelligent driving software, proximity sensors and extensive GPS data to figure out how to get from one point to another. What happens if the driver actually wants to do something? They can just tap the wheel or brakes and take back control. In May, the state of Nevada granted Google the first license for a car that drives itself, reports Time. Meaning that — head to Vegas, and you could potentially see the car being tested on the roads.GM's EN-VGM’s Electric Networked-Vehicle
    This two-person vehicle looks something like a cross between a Mini and a Segway. Why would someone create such a thing? According to GM, by the year 2030, urban areas will house 60 percent of the world’s 8 million people — and standard cars might no longer be an option. The balancing EN-V car could help solve problems like traffic congestion and parking scarcity. Bonus: they are electric, and could also boost air quality while helping to lower oil reliance.P1

    P1, the car that can’t spin out
    Developed by students in Gerdes’ lab, this electric, steer-by-wire vehicle allows for each wheel to be tuned independently, maximizing performance while minimizing wear on tires. “We believe P1 to be the world’s first autonomously drifting car,” says Gerdes, explaining that the vehicle helped develop the racing algorithms used for Shelley. “It’s a concept we call ‘envelope control.’ Under envelope control, the driver can do absolutely anything, including drift — but cannot spin the car.”

    Nissan Pivo 2

    Nissan’s PIVO 2 commuter car
    A three-person commuter car, this Nissan concept looks like something straight out of the Pokémon universe with its bubble-like body. The small car uses a robotic interface, reminiscent of a video game, that both interacts with the driver and scans the environment for information. But the best part? This car spins and can drive sideways thanks to “by-wire” technology rather than traditional mechanics.

4. Jennifer Healey: If cars could talk, accidents might be avoidable (2013)

Who is Jeniffer Healey?

Jennifer Healey imagines a future where computers and smartphones are capable of being sensitive to human emotions and where cars are able to talk to each other, and thus keep their drivers away from accidents. A scientist at Intel Corporation Research Labs, she researches devices and systems that would allow for these major innovations. [Read more]

Her talk makes you think about:

  1. Computer vision giving you the bird’s eye view
  2. Position data (GPS) sharing/ cars “talking” (so that we would be surrounded by what she calls “a sea of gossip“, with cars “talking behind your back”)
  3. Adding robots to assist you while driving: stereo cameras, GPS, two-dimensional range finders (common in backup systems),  a discrete short-range communication radio plus many more.
  4. TMI (too much information, or, to quote Jennifer Healey, “too much chatter“), hence the Q: How do we prioritise? A: According to her, that is where the predictive model comes to our rescue.
  5. Q: How can we best alert everyone (if there’s a problem, like a driver driving off-course)? A: The combined ability of the car + driver.
  6. Driver state modeling
  7. Being able to calculate the safest route for everyone – is this a dream about to come true?
  8. A question of privacy: to let or not to let your car gossip about you? That is Jennifer Healey’s question. 🙂

5. Elon Musk: The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity … in conversation with Chris Anderson (2013)

Who is Elon Musk?

Entrepreneur Elon Musk is a man with many plans. The founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX sits down with TED curator Chris Anderson to share details about his visionary projects, which include a mass-marketed electric car, a solar energy leasing company and a fully reusable rocket. [Read more]

His talk makes you think about:

  1. Why build an all-electric car?
  2. What is innovative about the process of building the Tesla Model S car?
  3. What is the most surprising thing about the experience of driving the car?
  4. Can the Tesla become a mass-market vehicle?
  5. Will there be a nationwide network of charging stations for the car that would be fast? 
  6. What’s unusual about the company Solar City?
  7. Can you buy/ lease a solar system?
  8. How do you, the company benefit?
  9. How soon will we go solar?
  10. Why on Earth would someone build a space company (SpaceX)?
  11. What is the big innovation lying ahead?
  12. What is it about you, how have you done this?

* * *

Now this is what I call really, really cool. 🙂

A big “Wow!” to end this first part of Cars, Cars, Cars – A Beginner’s Guide. 

So long!

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 5►LEARN MORE FROM:, ■ Driving

Brain Plasticity and Empathy, Dealing With “The Impossible” and Other Thoughts

Imagine  A number of documentaries I watched recently on BBC Knowledge and Discovery have led me to an interesting net-surfing experience, in search of more info on two topics that I, among many others, find absolutely fascinating: the plasticity of the human brain – its causes and effects, as well as its connections with feelings like empathy. Listed below you will find some interesting links and quotes I came across during my search. Feel free to add to it any other sources/ links you consider of relevance.

1.  You can watch a short video on the BBC Virtual Revolution Blog from 2009, in which Baroness Susan Greenfield approaches the question: Is the web changing us? The transcript is available on the site. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the most important issues I think, as well as the good thing about IQ going up, is the issue of risk. Obama said that the current financial crisis is attributable in part to greed and recklessness. Now greed are recklessness occur as part of something called a frontal syndrome, when the frontal part of the brain is less active in various conditions.
Could it be – and also this frontal part of the brain only comes on stream in late teenage years – could it be, given the brain is so obliging in the way it adapts, that if you’re putting it in a situation where you are living for the moment in a rather infant-like way with lots of sensory experiences, that that could be being changed? And I think that’s one of the things that would be very interesting to look at.
My final issue is identity, and it does stun me, Twitter for example, where the banality of some of the things that people feel they need to transmit to other human beings. Now what does this say about how you see yourself? Does this say anything about how secure you feel about yourself? Is it not marginally reminiscent of a small child saying “Look at me, look at me mummy! Now I’ve put my sock on. Now I’ve got my other sock on,” you know? And I’m just being neutral here, I’m just asking questions, right… What does this say about you as a person?

2. On Top Documentary Films you can read about and watch for free brilliant documentaries. Take another great series by the same insightful Susan Greenfield, called Brain Story.

The greatest numbers of documentaries on this site belong to the categories of Science (350) and Society (304). However, these are only 2 of the 25 categories you can browse, so plenty of resources to delve into.

3.  On the topic of visual illusions, I think it is safe to presume that we all prefer and appreciate watching well-produced special effects in pretty much any kind of movie. The quality of the special effects in a science fiction movie is, for instance, what makes the difference between an A and a B movie  for meHollywood award ceremonies never fail to highlight the best special effects in movies on a regular basis. This being said, I was surprised to find out that Harvard University also has an awarding ceremony called: “The Best Illusion of the Year Contest”! 🙂

Here‘s the winning illusion for 2011. The effect is called  “silencing by motion” and its source is Professor Michael Bach’s “Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena”.  

Click this link to visit Professor Bach’s site and get access to 101 such illusions and phenomena. 

4. The link up next leads to a 2012 scientific research study from the biannual journal Essays in Philosophy  whose intriguing title instantly caught my eye: “On Being Stereoblind in an Era of 3D Movies”, by Cynthia Freeland. Put on a scientist’s hat, or any other kind that is comfortable and feel free to investigate its content.

5.  Can we adapt to unimaginable situations? How does our brain deal with catastrophes beyond our worst nightmares? The Impossible - UK Poster Such questions are the subject of a movie that reached the Polish cinemas this month and that I warmly recommend, called The Impossible (2102).

You can read about the real story that inspired the movie in this article from The Mirror: “Seemingly impossible: Miracle survival of family who inspired new tsunami movie”.

Last but not least on today’s list, the following article from the Health section of the Times investigating “How Disasters and Trauma Can Affect Children’s Empathy” can be placed in the same category of the effects that surviving catastrophes can have on the human brain and the human behaviour – in this particular case, on kids aged 6, 9, and 12. I selected below some of the findings of the studies discussed in the article. 

“There are developmental differences in empathy,[…] and younger children may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as older ones because the prefrontal regions in the brain responsible for such control are less mature. Faced with extreme stress, their self-regulation capacities regress even further. “Adverse events appear to cause six-year-olds to revert back to selfish ways typical of early childhood,” the authors write. Even in situations with less tragic consequences, but which are nonetheless stressful, such as living through a divorce, or getting lost in a public place, many children may resort to more immature tendencies.

By age nine, however, most youngsters have mature enough brains to not only recognize the feelings of others, but to try to mitigate bad ones. Their increased altruism during distress reflects what has been seen in many disasters, from man-made ones such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to natural catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. […]

While the results support the intuitive sense that the personal experience of pain can increase compassion, there are cases when it can have the opposite effect. Indeed, research shows that if suffering occurs too early in life, when young brains are not equipped to process the experience, or if the pain is too overwhelming, it can make people less sensitive and more focused on self-preservation, such as often occurs in cases of child abuse and neglect. “Painful experiences may increase empathy and care, provided that one can regulate one’s own emotion,” Decety says. The findings suggest that our social and biological structures may be biased toward cooperation and empathy for others: “Without caring for others, we would not survive as a species,” he says.

It would be interesting to compare the findings of this article with the development of Lucas, one of the heroes in The Impossible, who is only 10, in the face of the sixth deadliest natural disaster in recorded history, the 2004 tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean, affecting Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives and killing nearly 300 000 people. The earthquake which caused the tsunami was the 3rd largest in recorded history measuring a magnitude of 9.19.3

Compared to being caught right in the middle of it,  it is much easier to make sense of “the impossible” from a desk in the living-room or from a cinema seat, which is why I wish you all safe trips to the cinema :),  tsunami-free vacations and peaceful school experiences, no guns involved… 

May you be safe, show empathy, and, regardless of situation, always navigate through unpredictable changes with fresh new breaths of faith!

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 9►EXTRA, ■ BBC: The Virtual Revolution Blog, ■ Books, ■ Brain Plasticity, ■ China, ■ Empathy, ■ Movies, ■ News, ■ The Mirror, ■ TIME, ■ TOP Documentary Films

ELT Workshops to Remember – Whether in English or a Language You Do Not Yet Master

Teachers of English anywhere in the world are fortunate to have access to many training sessions, conferences and workshops. They may be organised and supported by renowned ELT publishing houses, by local training institutions and sometimes by local schools and centres. In this post I would like to focus on answering the question: what makes a good ELT workshop?, and challenge other ELT professionals to join the discussion.

Two things that first come to mind are the applicability of the content presented and the trainers’ charismatic presence, both of which have managed, time and time again, to anchor relevant pieces of information to my long-term memory.

Let’s look at some examples.  Earlier this year, close to 6 months ago, to be precise, I attended coursebook writer Leslie Anne Hendra’s workshop, Shaking Up Grammar – A Goals- and Context-based Approach.  The quality that I noticed and appreciated about her right away was her ability to deliver a wide range of ELT ideas in a very natural, logical, and, for this very reason, a very accessible way. Listening to her was entertaining, yet not overbearing, and the pacing of her discourse was very well-timed. I still remember tidbits from her speech like:

“context is king, queen, and the whole royal family”, “the importance of re-contextualising” into pretty much anything you want (as long as these re-contextualisations serve the purpose of what you planned to teach), some examples of “voice savers”, the idea that “not every use is functional” and that we should strive to look for what is “real” when teaching, because what is real always has the strongest impact. I also enjoyed hearing her say something along the lines of: “I’d like to see the passive return to conversation.” I see the passive here as only one possible example of many others it could be replaced by. It is all up to the teacher or the aware English language speakers to decide. 

Whenever I have the opportunity to attend workshops like Ms Leslie Anne Hendra’s, I am reminded of the worthiness of learning from people who have decided not only to constantly turn their experience into an advantage at their jobs on a daily basis,  but who are also willing to share their knowledge with others and take the time to record the best of that experience in writing, in the form of articles, coursebooks or other ELT materials for future use. In an era in which the future of English language bears the brunt of so much misuse and linguistic over- and under-evaluation in the street as well as in the classroom, I read such fortunate encounters like the one provided by Mrs Hendra’s workshop as a positive sign that things are heading toward a bright rather than a dark future for language teaching in general and for English language in particular.

A more recent example is the series of 3 workshops organised in Krakow on November 17 by PASE under the heading of   Kapelusze Lektora, for teachers of English and other subjects. I decided to attend these workshops in spite of the fact that they were going to be delivered in Polish, a language I do understand, but am, however, far from having mastered yet.

During the talk I had with the two trainers at the end of the workshops – which was in English, by the way -, they were curious to know how much I did understand of what they conveyed and which language I took notes in. To their surprise (and my own, truth be told), I confirmed that I did, in fact understand the gist of each of their workshops. I answered that I took notes in English for the most part, while also jotting down words that I wasn’t sure about or wanted to remember – thanks to the colleague next to me, kind enough to help me with their translation (like “nawyki”, “namowic/przekonac”, “moje przekonania”, “mozliwe do osiegniecia”, “miec wyplyw”, “zdolny” and a few others like “haki” 🙂 – the Polish version of the English “hooks”).

Obviously, I attributed my general understanding of the workshop content to that instinctive type of linguistic understanding that anyone aware of the language of his/her community can develop – after a long-enough time, but, apart from that, I had to reaffirm my belief that people who share similar values, guidelines and views on at least a few topics – like certain psychological approaches to teaching in the case of these workshops, are able to communicate and will reach common ground regardless of linguistic differences. Non-verbal language, the attitude and the “vibe” of the trainer may seem to be the main resorts in such cases, but, fortunately for me, they weren’t the only ones.

I enjoyed the two workshops led by Ms Magda Kidybinska. 

The content of the first reminded me of concepts like celebrating success (which was also discussed at the last workshop led by Ms Aldona Serewa), making the best of the student’s potential, activating leadership, demonstrating integrity, embracing  diversity, enjoying participation, striving for excellence, as well as learning from mistakes and acting in a sustainable manner, concepts I came across in the NGO called AIESEC, 

 which is the organisation that had originally sent me to Poland back in 2006, when I started my cooperation with the Jagiellonian Language Centre.

At the second workshop led by the same trainer I enjoyed the most the resources, tips and activities meant to involve our right brain hemisphere, the discussion on the meanings and understanding of naivete, and the borderline differences between extroverts and introverts or between objectivity and extreme creativity. Throughout the two workshops, the trainer won us over with her charisma and energy. I particularly appreciated her use  of intonation and voice dynamics when addressing us. These are two qualities that I have always appreciated in speakers – trainers and teachers included. 

 Impressive results can be achieved through big, as well as small steps. Kaizen, the Japanese technique of achieving great and lasting success through small, steady steps, inspired the first part of Ms Aldona Serewa’s workshop and led to a very enjoyable and relaxed delivery pace, that allowed for questions to be asked and discussed at any point for the duration of the workshop.

I appreciated the visual aids, case studies and references the trainer included in her workshop, that concluded the Kapelusze Lektora series of the day. I was particularly pleased with her comments on the issue of trust in language learning, and felt that they complemented the previous trainer’s ideas on the topic expressed earlier that day.

 The issue of trust is one of utmost importance, that needs to be approached by any teacher interested in creating a suitable rapport with his students, namely a rapport that fosters and encourages the students’ freedom of expressing ideas in a new language past mistakes and linguistic inaccuracies, or in simpler terms, past the fear of “getting it wrong”. 

Establishing trust, along with establishing mutual respect, should be one of the goals teachers set from the very beginning of the learning process. All the more so if the teacher is interested in pursuing creative paths like what I like to call the metaphor path and try to push the learning towards “aha” moments and long-term language acquisition.

To give an example mentioned by one of the speakers, there are situations in which a creative teacher may start working with a group of students who are not particularly creative and/or not particularly interested in any creative approaches to teaching, who rely mostly on structures and rules, and have a more or less difficult time accepting linguistic exceptions, not to mention anything else that falls out of the strict outlines of their books or courses.

With such students, who may even happen to be adults in positions of authority, CEOs and the like, who rely on their analytical, left brain hemisphere rather than the more creative right brain hemisphere, the teacher has to gradually build up a creativity platform for the students to use during classes, so that they gain a sense of comfort in being creative instead of being frustrated at not coming up with ideas or not really understanding what is expecting from them on a creative level.

The progression may involve strategies like a gradual change from closed, yes/no questions to more open ones, with suggested answers at first. The teacher may choose any strategy he or she considers suitable, including switching roles or hats – to use the workshop headline and inspiration 🙂 – from a facilitator or the students’ “best friend” to a more authoritarian figure of the person in the know, able, knowledgeable and competent to share knowledge in areas uncovered or less known by the students.

With practice, the search for the best teaching strategies as they pertain to individual groups will become shorter and easier. A useful piece of advice here may be: keep changing roles, robes or hats until you get the winning outfit. 🙂

All in all, the pairing of the two trainers was a very good choice, so I feel that congratulations are in order at this point. Apart from the ideas, theories and resources presented, the underlying concept guiding and motivating each of the three workshops was the basic idea of giving, the sharing of knowledge and the expectation of positive outcomes to the benefit of both teachers and students. Last but not least, my thanks go out to the Kliny English Courses director for supporting my, and two other colleagues’ participation in this workshop.  

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 1►LISTEN▼, 1►TO DO, ■ Conference Speakers, ■ Giving, ■ Inspiration, ■ Kapelusze Lektora, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ The Path of Metaphor, ►META PHORS▼

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