The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 870 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.
I wish you happiness, warmth, hope and light in the darkness no matter which midwinter festival you celebrate.
And hope you have an inspiring and successful 2013!
Life piled on life were all too much… (Tennyson)
There has been a continuing series of reports in the various news media about the link between reduced risk of developing dementia and the benefits of learning a second or further language, whether in childhood or later life.
For example, Richard Alleyne, reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph about the work of Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Canada. She and her colleagues looked at the medical records of 228 patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s and compared them to their language abilities, noting an apparent delay of onset of up to 5 years among those who had learned foreign languages.
But, delightful though that may be for those of us who promote foreign language learning (see HELLO English), a moment’s thought would cause one to ask questions.
For example, we know that the people who learn second and further languages are relatively better educated and more affluent than society as a whole. This group is also generally more healthy, better fed and exercised than the mainstream. It might be reasonable to assume, therefore, that while there is a correlation between language learning and degenerative delay, there is also likely to be a similar connection with affluence and a generally healthy lifestyle.
While this is hardly a randomised controlled trial, it is a substantial piece of work and it has been widely reported following its presentation in the 2011 Washington conference. So, although the text is not yet available online, we must assume that such simplistic concerns have been addressed. However, they are nowhere reported, even in the supposedly informed professional press.
Whilst we are on the subject, shouldn’t we also look for a gender element here too? There is a body of evidence that girls are better language learners than boys in the UK. I do not have figures for the Canadian school system – from which Dr Bialystok drew her sample – but I would guess that this is a pretty stable relationship: across countries and over time. And, as reports indicate that extra language learning and reduced dementia appear to be linked to an increased capacity to multi-task – an attribute most often associated with women – we would have to question why issues of gender have not been discussed.
But, wait a moment, aren’t we misunderstanding this somewhat? Surely, at present, the trend noted by Bialystok and her colleagues may be no more an apparent population characteristic which disguises quite complex social features among those of us who suffer with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But complex social and medical issues are not good copy, although they are what the experts in the field identify as important.
The Alzheimer’s Society, for example, calls for research into possible causal links between dementia and medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity) or lifestyle factors (including exercise, diet, toxic metals and stress). They are also particularly interested in the possible genetic origins of the condition and its relationship with vascular disease. Nowhere among all these important areas for further research is there any mention of language learning or, indeed, the many and various patent quackeries for brain training sold to stave-off old age.
So, in spite of all the research and reporting, learning another language will not definitively prevent you as an individual from getting dementia, but, as work by Tan (Tan et al 2011) has shown, it can strengthen alternative neural pathways in the fusiform and caudate regions of the brain which, should the need arise, will give your brain more options to cope with degenerative impairments.
Tan’s work appears to show that learning a second language requires an alternate path through the brain, correlating only with that second language, not with the primary language, and this is what may be giving some language learners an advantage. It would be interesting to see how brain activation changed as people become fluent in their second language. Does it always take this different processing path through the brain? Or as you become fluent, do the two paths begin to appear more similar?
For a slightly different take on this subject, an excellent paper by Daniel George calls for a re-framing to learn new languages for dementia. In an elegantly argued monograph, he asks whether we might not be able to postpone and ameliorate the impact of aging by revising the language we have learned to use to describe Alzheimer’s and those with dementia? “Choosing new language patterns can reshape our thoughts, attitudes, and actions towards our ageing neighbours and our own ageing brains, giving rise to a slightly different and more life-affirming reality that connects us to those who are ageing instead of hastening their social death.”
So, although learning a foreign language isn’t the silver bullet after all, sadly. It can’t definitively prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s, but it can be part of a healthy lifestyle, which might. It is hard to learn a foreign language, if you are not that way inclined. Perhaps it is easier and better for all of us if we could learn a new language to describe those around us who are getting older and who may have dementia.
And, for those who hate learning languages, this may be one case at least where what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Alleyne R (2011); Learn a second language to delay dementia by five years; The Daily Telegraph; p.13; 19.02.11
Bialystok E (2011); Protective Effects of Bilingualism for Cognitive Aging and Dementia; 2011 Meeting of the AAAS; Washington; Friday, February 18, 2011: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Bialystok, E., et al. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia 45: 459-464.
Bialystok, E. & Shapero, D. (2005). Ambiguous benefits: the effect of bilingualism on reversing ambiguous figures. Developmental Science 8: 595-604.
George DR (2010); Overcoming the social death of dementia through language; The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9741, pp.586 – 587, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61286-X
Tan LH, Chen L, Yip V, Chan AH, Yang J, Gao JH, & Siok WT (2011). Activity levels in the left hemisphere caudate-fusiform circuit predict how well a second language will be learned. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (6), 2540-4 PMID: 21262807
After a weekend of FA Cup fifth round matches, which saw lowly Crawley Town put-up heroic resistance before losing 1-0 to Manchester United and, last night, Leyton Orient draw 1-1 with Arsenal, I am left wondering why we are all so fascinated by these unequal struggles. Could it be that, as neutral fans we enjoy seeing the over-paid elite – the Andrex Athletes* – having one put over on them?
We all like the idea of ‘Sport for All’ but – in these days of uber-commercialism, increasing obesity and declining physical activity – it is pretty clear that sport just ain’t. So, it is good to think that those whose sporting prowess has more in common with our amateur kickabout can beat the galacticos.
In 1922, in God’s chosen sport (cricket), for reasons known only to themselves, the eternal enemy (the Australians) decided to count eight balls to an over (balls bowled from one end) even though there had been universal agreement since 1900 that there would only be six. Clearly, it would have created problems if each cricket-playing country had adopted its own system of counting, and numerous attempts were made to agree on this rule. With cricket world cup currently underway on the sub-continent, it is obvious to anyone watching that only six balls are bowled in cricket – a rule that has been fully adopted worldwide since 1979.
In order for sport to make sense, you need to operate under the same rules worldwide: it is as simple as that.
This was nowhere more clear than in last year’s autumn rugby internationals. The different interpretations put on the rules by Southern Hemisphere referees made a mockery of one of the defining characteristics of the game of rugby union football. Only five scrummages were given in the course of England’s match against Australia and none of them was allowed to run its course, thus depriving players and spectators of an important part of the rugby contest. It may be true that Australia and New Zealand want to play running rugby, but if that is all you want to do, you should take-up basketball.
The issue of a historical mismatch between two or more parts of the same sport need not be a cause for misery, though. There are several instances of re-unification title fights in the history of boxing – especially in the heavyweight division. These come about because of the existence of several different international boxing associations – most notably the WBA (World Boxing Association) and the WBC (World Boxing Council). Each have their version of world championship and so you risk having three different boxers all claiming to be heavyweight champion of the world at the same time.
The problem is that each sporting committee has its own vested interests in remaining separate. Empire-building is alive and kicking in the land of the stuffed shirt and, although rugby is no longer administered by Will Carling‘s ’57 old farts’, it is still run very slowly by the elite for the elite.
So what have the rabbonim and priesthood got to do with the sweaty world of professional sport? Well, perhaps more than you might think.
The social elites of organised religion operate to exclude just as do the committees at Twickenham or Lords.
There is still a premier league of Christian churches that leave their Christian poorer relations excluded from the fold. In Islam and Judaism, likewise, there are orthodox elites holding-on to power, privilege and prestige while smaller, more moderate and inclusive progressive co-religionists are kept outside. No-one wants to be the one remembered for letting the true faith be diluted by making peace with dissenters. Each, of course, believes that they have sole patent on the right way of doing things.
Isn’t it time that they took a leaf out of the book of the cricketers and heavyweight boxers and looked to create a common set of rules? Wouldn’t a re-unified broad church of tolerant believers working to enhance society be better for for everyone?
*Andrex Athletes – Former England Rugby captain Laurence Dallaglio alluded to this popular brand of toilet tissue when describing Premier League footballers as ‘Andrex Athletes – very soft and incredibly expensive’.
So important that he had to say it three times. Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, made education the key focus for his premiership. He asked the voters to judge his government by the success of his education policies.
There were lots of them. One thing you can always be sure of and that is that governments, especially new ones, will want to bugger about with the education. And didn’t they just? Re-branded ministries, new targets, revolutionary initiatives on literacy and numeracy, new exams and exam boards, changes to university funding, changes to admission processes both to schools and unis… the whole nine yards.
So, after 13 years, what has been the nett benefit?
It seems to me that you measure the success of any social policy by the degree to which it has helped the most vulnerable. In education terms, that means the ill-educated, especially those who cannot read or count. On this measure, Blair & Co failed, failed, failed.
OECD figures released last week (see Shepherd 2010) show that the UK ranks ranked 25th for reading and 28th for maths out of a study of 15 year olds in 65 developed countries. This continues a slide in our relative performance and was in spite of the fact that only 7 of our competitors spend more per capita than the UK on their children’s education.
The frankly dismal levels of illiteracy in this country have failed to respond to more than a decade of dedicated primary teaching, while employers and universities continue to complain that we may have produced the least numerate generation of school-leavers in history.
Clearly something isn’t working.
There seem to be two explanations. One that these special interventions were wrong-headed from the start. Or, more probably, that there is a dynamic which discourages the universal acquisition of basic skills at a faster rate than they can be learned.
The problem with ‘education, education, education’ is that education has never been only about school. It has always been about respecting and valuing learning.
If, as a society, we have lost all respect for learning, discovery, creativity and wisdom, then, no matter how many squeaky new initiatives are introduced, there is not a snowflake in hell’s chance that good, ordinary kids will get the education they deserve. The extra-systemic, anti-educational forces of instantaneous celebrity culture are simply too powerful to resist.
Do we need to radically re-structure education, again? Probably not. Do we need to re-prioritise the value of learning and education in and of themselves. Yes.
Time for a rethink, methinks.
Shepherd J; UK Slips Down World Rankings; The Guardian; 07.112.10; http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/07/uk-schools-slip-world-rankings