Language & Literacy


linguistic distance

There is a concept termed diglossia worth exploring in relation to dialects of African American English used in the United States.

What is diglossia?

Diglossia can be defined as “the coexistence of two varieties of the same language throughout a speech community. Often, one form is the literary or prestige dialect, and the other is a common dialect spoken by most of the population.”

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. diglossia. Encyclopedia Britannica.


brain fuse

Gaining a clear picture of a student’s language and literacy abilities in both English and their home language is critically important in two scenarios:

  • the student has just entered your school and speaks another language at home (whether because he is entering the school system in kindergarten or is newly arrived from another country and entering in a later grade)
  • the student is in a bilingual program

Gaining information in both languages for bilingual students in these situations can portray a completely different spectrum of profiles than when assessing in English only.


Ontogenesis model

A recent paper caught my eye, Ontogenesis Model of the L2 Lexical Representation, and despite the immediate mind glazing effect of the word “ontogenesis,” I found the model well worth digging into and sharing here—and it may bear relevance to conversations on orthographic mapping.

How we learn words and all their phonological, morphological, orthographic, and semantic characteristics is a fascinating topic of research—most especially in the areas of written word recognition and in the learning of a new language.


The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.

—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight

What is (un)natural about learning to read and write? We began our quest with this question, prompted by two references in a line in a David Share paper.

Like learning to read (English) which Gough famously dubbed “unnatural” [43], see also [3], becoming aware of the constituent phonemes in spoken words does not come “naturally”.

—Share, D. L. (2021). Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia. Brain Sciences, 11(11), 1510.

This led us to unpack three foundational papers from 1976 to 1992 that have provided us with some surprising twists and turns and even moments, dare I say, of clarity.


OK, we’re here, at our third paper in our series examining the naturalness, or not, of gaining literacy.

  • Liberman, A. M. (1992). Chapter 9 The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing. In R. Frost & L. Katz (Eds.), Advances in Psychology (Vol. 94, pp. 167–178). North-Holland. Liberman comes strong out the gate with seven claims on why speech* is “more natural” than written language:

In my last post, we reviewed a round up of some research on phonology, with clarifications around what we know and what we do not yet know regarding the relation of advanced phonemic awareness training and phonemic proficiency to outcomes for struggling readers.

One piece I briefly mentioned in that post and which I’d like to dig further into is from David Share, Is the Science of Reading Just the Science of Reading English?

This is an important question to ask, because while research into how children who speak English learn to read in English has become quite substantive (even if still mostly unknown in too many classrooms), there is still quite a bit we don’t know about learning to read in English if you don’t speak English as your first language, and there’s even more we don’t yet know about learning to read in languages other than English.


Sharing a fun paper to geek out on with my fellow language nerds, How children learn to communicate discriminatively by Michael Ramscar. In this paper, the author makes an argument that the contrasting forces of “discriminability” and “regularity” both serve to make language something we pick up pretty much naturally, even if we don’t know all the words in the language.

“…the existence of regular and irregular forms represents a trade-off that balances the opposing communicative pressures of discriminability and learnability in the evolution of communicative codes. From this perspective, the existence of frequent, well-discriminated irregular forms serves to make important communicative contrasts more discriminable and thus also more learnable. By contrast, because regularity entails less discriminability, learners’ representations of lexico-morphological neighbourhoods will tend to be more generic, which causes the forms of large numbers of less frequent items to be learned implicitly, compensating for the incompleteness of individual experience.”

The language of this paper is, as you can see, a bit opaque, so much of this went just a bit over my head, but I found the arguments fascinating given the debates that happen about how to teach the “irregular” spelling of so many words in the English language. Here, the author seems to suggest (I may be over-extrapolating as I often tend to do, but this is what got me geeking out on it) that in fact there is some level of constructive tension between language forms that show up again and again, and the language forms that are more infrequent, but thus inherently gain more of our attention. This relates to the theory of “statistical learning” with which we not only learn language, but also when we map a language to its written form.

The author later provides what I thought was a very concrete thought experiment that demonstrates this principle when he moved from morphology to names:

Imagine that 33% of males are called John, and only 1% Cornelius. In this scenario, learning someone is named Cornelius is more informative than learning their name is John (Corneliuses are better discriminated by their names than Johns). On the other hand, Johns will be easier to remember (guessing ‘John’ will be correct 1/3 of the time). Further, although the memory advantage of John relies on its frequency, the memorability of Cornelius also benefits from this: Cornelius is easier to remember if the system contains fewer names (also, as discussed earlier, if John is easier to say than Cornelius, this will reduce the average effort of name articulation).

What is also interesting about the author’s argument in this paper connecting information theory to language learning is that these assertions are empirically testable:

“Whether these mathematical points about sampling and learning actually apply to human learners are empirical questions. This account makes clear predictions in regard to them: if learners are exposed to sets of geometrically distributed forms, they should acquire models of their probabilities that better approximate one another than when learning from other distributions. Conversely, if learning from geometric distributions does not produce convergence, it would suggest the probabilistic account of communication described here (indeed, any probabilistic account of communication) is false.”

There’s a lot more in the paper to nerd out on–I found the section on verbs especially interesting, for example, given that it connects to some other tidbits on the power and challenge of verbs I’ve come across before:

I’ll leave the rest to you!

#verbs #regularity #irregularity #learning #language #statisticallearning #probability #discriminability #informationtheory #form

As I was preparing for a session I was facilitating, I went down a rabbit hole on language use and cognition. I know saying “went down the rabbit hole” typically bears a negative connotation, but I gotta say, I love me some getting lost in meandering exploratory nerdy byalleyways. While rabbit holes may oft lead nowhere but to wasteful skimming of social news feeds, I believe that they can also lead to fortuitous and deeper connections that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

Case in point: whilst engaged in aforementioned spelunking, I discovered an absolutely wonderful paper synthesizing various theories of language, and I say wonderful because it manages to thread together varying theoretical perspectives from a stance of learning and curiosity, rather than pitting them against one another, as is so often the case. The paper is Essentials of a Theory of Language Cognition by Nick Ellis, and while it may be heady and academic, there’s something playful, even poetic, in the author’s use of language (so meta!).

By example, here’s a couple of gems:

“Language and usage are like the shoreline and the sea. Usage affects learning and it affects languages too. So, our understanding of language learning requires the detailed investigation of usage, its content, its participants, and its contexts—the micro level of human social action, interaction, and conversation; the meso level of sociocultural and educational institutions and communities; and the macro level of ideological structures.”

“Language is the quintessence of distributed cognition. Language is ever situated, either in the moment and the concrete context or by various means of mental extension to reflect prior or imaginary moments.”

Dear reader, you may or may not be aware that I have another (not updated any more) blog entitled, Schools & Ecosystems, wherein I geeked out about complex adaptive systems and how ecological concepts relate to the physical and social environment of schools. So you can imagine my nerdy delight when I discovered a connection in this paper between complex adaptive systems thinking and LANGUAGE! Oh my. It was like two previously schizophrenically disparate selves suddenly merged into one.

Here’s a couple of quotes regarding language as a complex adaptive system:

Language as a CAS [complex adaptive system] involves the following key features: The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another. The system is adaptive; that is, speakers’ behavior is based on their past interactions, and current and past interactions together feed forward into future behavior.

De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor (DBL&V) present a persuasive case for language as a complex dynamic system where cognitive, social, and environmental factors continuously interact, where creative communicative behaviors emerge from socially co-regulated interactions, where there is little by way of linguistic universals as a starting point in the mind of ab initio language learners or discernable end state, where flux and individual variation abound, where cause-effect relationships are nonlinear, multivariate and interactive, and where language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes.

In a previous post, we looked at some interesting findings from neuroscience that suggested language in the brain is mostly associated with parts for communication, rather than thinking. So this idea of language as a complex adaptive system that emerges based on social use within a particular community makes quite a bit of sense.

One of the other things that jumped out at me as a theme emerging from these various theories of language was the idea of language as an ecology: something dynamic and situated within a particular time, place, and community of relationships. It’s a beautiful — and more accurate — way to think of language that allows us to acknowledge the unique language ecologies we can each have as individuals and as members of communities — most especially for multilinguals who bring a rich repertoire of linguistic experiences and cultural knowledge.

This paper is also a wonderful companion to Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Extended Mind, which isn’t focused on language per se, but connects to many of the theories in this paper and also has some Easter eggs for language focused nerds, such as an exploration of the use of gestures as a precursor and accelerator of language.

Somehow I had not stumbled across “usage-based” linguistic research or theory previously, so I’m excited to dig more into this realm. Seems like it has a lot to offer, especially as the reading research crowd begins to unpack more the language connection to reading (importance of phonology, morphology, incidental learning, statistical learning, etc).

#linguistics #language #ecology #complexadaptivesystem #interaction


I have somewhat eclectic book reading habits, and I take pleasure in reading haphazardly (i.e. whatever I happen to come across). After growing bored with Moby Dick recently, I happened across a copy of Siddhartha Mukerjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

The book is compellingly written, narrating an expansive overview of the history of the treatment of cancer, while at the same time painting portraits of individual researchers, clinicians, and patients that draws the reader in. It makes oncology research and clinical practice sound exciting, which is no small feat.


I recently came across this fascinating study in which the researchers used social network analysis and found:

  • Children’s language skills were significantly associated with friendship centrality and reciprocity
  • In kindergarten, kids who enter school with lower language skills have fewer peers who nominate them as their friend
  • Children at risk for specific language impairment (SLI)/developmental language disorder (DLD) were less central to their classroom networks
  • The odds of a reciprocal friendship tie was more than 50% lower than peers not classified at risk
  • And of children with or at risk for SLI/DLD, girls were significantly more central than boys, suggesting gender may play a role in friendship development in early elementary school, especially for children with lower communication skills

It really got me thinking, and also reminded me of a recent article on NPR about the experiences of students learning English during remote learning, in which a quote from a researcher caught my attention:

“Having one friend who speaks English well is a very, very good predictor of your grades,” says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who has spent years researching immigrant youth. Now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Suarez-Orozco previously co-authored a study with his wife about the process of learning English.

“Very few youth in our study could say they had one friend who was an English dominant speaker.”

“Millions Of Kids Learn English At School. Teaching Them Remotely Hasn’t Been Easy” by Kavitha Cardoza

Now, as to WHAT study exactly it was that provided this data point is completely unclear, as apparently some articles don’t feel the need to provide citations, and I couldn’t figure out which of Suárez-Orozco’s many writings might have provided it. But if accurate, this seems like a highly critical point to consider alongside of the findings of that paper, both in terms of the needs of students learning a new language, as well as for students who may struggle with language due to a disability.

As a former special education teacher I well know how important relationships are for students, and furthermore, how central relationships are to the culture of a school, and this all brought me back to that.

For students who are developing language skills, having dynamic discussions and peer interactions is so powerful, and it makes complete sense that social relationships are interconnected there. Some of this includes not only knowing the language of academic discourse and the language of written texts, but furthermore the language that names emotions and identity. There is a “hidden curriculum” of school that relates to social norms, and all students benefit from explicit naming–and active co-construction of–those norms.

What can schools do to foster positive peer interaction and friendship for those students who need it the most?

#language #friendship #socialnetworks #peers #interaction #disability #socialemotional #relationships #culture