At the End of the Day

The Slog.

mesnip30716Exactly 950 years ago today, a crooked monarch with a false claim to the English crown called Harold suffered a Norman arrow through his eye. The missile penetrated his brain and caused almost instant death. William the Conqueror thus won the Battle of Hastings, a town that spent most of the next millennium failing to rise above the level of toilet. It still has 50 years to put this right, and local estate agents tell me it is “on the up”. So by 2066 it may make it to Motorway Service Station. We can but hope.

On a brighter note, the military exchange led to linguistic development and quite a bit of shagging. Today, some 45% of Brits have Norman DNA. This beats the DNA ravishing inputs from Eriks and Hermanns into a poor second place at 30%. But the links between Normande French and Anglo-Saxon language forms far outweigh…

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Weapons of crass construction

Weapons of crass construction

Most swearing is perfectly harmless

AMERICA’S Supreme Court allows them to be banned from public spaces, and permits heavy fines for their improper handling, making rare exceptions to the protections of the constitution’s Bill of Rights. Guns? Only in a saner world. The weapons in question are swear-words, and readers who agree that they are objectively dangerous will want to stop reading at this point, as Johnson does not share the court’s view.

The Federal Communications Commission may warn or even impose six-figure penalties on a broadcaster that allows even a “fleeting” expletive on air, as when Bono, a singer, told an awards-show audience that winning was “fucking brilliant”. A mother in South Carolina was arrested for shouting “Stop squishing the fucking bread!” at her family. (Witnesses said she shouted at her children; she said it was at her husband.) A North Augusta city ordinance includes in its definition of disorderly conduct “any bawdy, lewd or obscene words…while in a state of anger, in the presence of another”.

As with guns, attitudes towards swearing vary widely. Big majorities of New Zealanders rate words like shit and balls as“acceptable”. The French are blasé about their “c-word”, con. Japanese has insults, and of course words for genitalia and excretion. It even has special polite registers that must be mastered to avoid offence. But it has no real taboo words.

This and more is the focus of a delightful new book, “What the F?”, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Despite the regional variation, there are four near-universal sources of swear-words: religion, sex, bodily wastes and slurs. As befits Mr Bergen’s discipline, the core of the book is about swearing in the mind itself. On hearing the bluest of blue words, people’s heart rates speed up, and their palms begin to sweat. Their concentration on tricky tasks can be severely disrupted. Merely being told to free-associate with the word faggot (frocio in Italian) made experimental subjects less willing to allocate funds for an HIV centre in a subsequent simulation. But Mr Bergen criticises bans or fines, arguing that education about the harm slurs can do is more effective.

Some swearing is hard to stop. Automatic swearing—the kind that happens when your hammer meets your thumb—seems to have its own brain circuitry: Mr Bergen tells the tale of the French priest who lost all language ability but the words je (I) and foutre (fuck). Reflexive swearing seems to be routed through a part of the brain that is evolutionarily older, and may be analogous to the circuitry that causes calls of fear or surprise in other animals. Swearing can increase pain tolerance.

Though taboos are everywhere, they change over time. English law forbade swearing by the deity in plays in 1606; this means that Shakespeare’s later plays see the drop-off of “zounds” (“by His wounds”) and the like. The Victorian era was notorious for sexual prudery. Today, it is slurs that pack by far the biggest punch. A survey in 2000 found that British respondents rated wanker as more unacceptable than nigger, but a 2016 study found the reverse. And words like cripple and retarded, formerly unimpeachable medical terms, have become unusable in polite company.

Swear-words in English tend to be short with hard-sounding consonants, especially k and g. But there is nothing strictly taboo about curse-words’ sounds; truck and punt are not taboo. Nor do the referents alone make a word taboo: copulate and vulva aren’t unmentionable to little ears. But when children see their parents cringe at the use of their sweary synonyms, they quickly pick up how powerful they are. Taboo words, ultimately, are those that people treat as taboo, the treatment itself giving them their force.

It would be better to take a more lighthearted view. Cuss-words can no more be wished or censored out of existence than colour-terms or animal words. A widely reported article in 2011 in Pediatrics, a medical journal, claimed that merely hearing swear-words made children aggressive, but this conclusion was based on a long string of debatable assumptions that Mr Bergen unpicks with gusto. Studying swearing is a way of studying human nature itself. “Strong Language”, a group blog by language experts, “Holy Sh*t”, Melissa Mohr’s book on the history of profanity, “In Praise of Profanity” by Michael Adams of Indiana University, or Mr Bergen’s own fine book would all be good places to start.

Alzheimer’s Early Tell

Alzheimer’s Early Tell

The language of authors who suffered from dementia has a story for the rest of us.

In the early 1990s, Iris Murdoch was writing a new novel, as she’d done 25 times before in her life. But this time something was terribly off. Her protagonist, Jackson, an English manservant who has a mysterious effect on a circle of friends, once meticulously realized in her head, had become a stranger to her. As Murdoch later told Joanna Coles, a Guardian journalist who visited her in her house in North Oxford in 1996, a year after the publication of the book, Jackson’s Dilemma, she was suffering from a bad writer’s block. It began with Jackson and now the shadows had suffused her life. “At the moment I’m just falling, falling … just falling as it were,” Murdoch told Coles. “I think of things and then they go away forever.”

Jackson’s Dilemma was a flop. Some reviewers were respectful, if confused, calling it “an Indian Rope Trick, in which all the people … have no selves,” and “like the work of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who doesn’t get out enough.” Compared to her earlier works, which showcase a rich command of vocabulary and a keen grasp of grammar, Jackson’s Dilemma is rife with sentences that forge blindly ahead, lacking delicate shifts in structure, the language repetitious and deadened by indefinite nouns. In the book’s final chapter, Jackson sits sprawled on grass, thinking that he has “come to a place where there is no road,” as lost as Lear wandering on the heath after the storm.


THE NOVELIST’S GAZE: Iris Murdoch in 1966, the year her tenth novel, The Time of the Angels, an inquiry into the existence of God, was published. At the time, decades before scholars saw a decline in her vocabulary, literary critic Denis Donoghue wrote that Murdoch’s “imagination is a Gothic energy.”Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two years after Jackson’s Dilemma was published, Murdoch saw a neurologist who diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease. That discovery brought about a small supernova of media attention, spurred the next year by the United Kingdom publication of Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (called Elegy for Iris in the United States), an incisive and haunting memoir by her husband John Bayley, and a subsequent film adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. “She is not sailing into the dark,” Bayley writes toward the end of the book. “The voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer’s, she has arrived somewhere.”

In 2003, Peter Garrard, a professor of neurology, with an expertise in dementia, took a unique interest in the novelist’s work. He had studied for his Ph.D. under John Hodges, the neurologist who had diagnosed Murdoch with Alzheimer’s. One day Garrard’s wife handed him her copy of Jackson’s Dilemma, commenting, “You’re interested in language and Alzheimer’s; why don’t you analyze this?” He resolved he would do just that: analyze the language in Murdoch’s fiction for signs of the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers believe cognitive impairment begins well before signs of dementia are obvious to outsiders.

Prior to his interest in medicine, Garrard had studied ancient literature at Oxford, at a time when the discipline of computational language analysis, or computational linguistics, was taking root. Devotees of the field had developed something they called the Oxford Concordance Program—a computer program that created lists of all of the word types and word tokens in a text. (Token refers to the total number of words in a given text, and the type is the number of different words that appear in that text.) Garrard was intrigued by the idea that such lists could give ancient literature scholars insight into texts whose authorship was in dispute. Much as a Rembrandt expert might examine paint layers in order to assign a painting to a forger or to the Old Master himself, a computational linguist might count word types and tokens in a text and use that information to identify a work of ambiguous authorship.

Garrard had the idea to apply a similar computational technique to books by Murdoch. Alzheimer’s researchers believe cognitive impairment begins well before signs of dementia are obvious to outsiders. Garrard thought it might be possible to sift through three of Murdoch’s novels, written at different points in her life, to see if signs of dementia could be read between the lines.

Scientists believe Alzheimer’s disease is caused by cell death and tissue loss as a result of abnormal build up of plaques and tangles of protein in the brain. Language is impacted when the brain’s Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, responsible for language comprehension and production, are affected by the spread of disease. Language, therefore, provides an exceptional window on the onset and development of pathology. And a masterful writer like Murdoch puts bountiful language in high relief, offering a particularly rich field of study.

The artist, in fact, could serve science. If computer analysis could help pinpoint the earliest signs of mild cognitive impairment, before the onset of obvious symptoms, this might be valuable information for researchers looking to diagnose the disease before too much damage has been done to the brain.

Barbara Lust, a professor of human development, linguistics, and cognitive science at Cornell University, who researches topics in language acquisition and early Alzheimer’s, explains that understanding changes in language patterns could be a boon to Alzheimer’s therapies. “Caregivers don’t usually notice very early changes in language, but this could be critically important both for early diagnosis and also in terms of basic research,” Lust says. “A lot of researchers are trying to develop drugs to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s, and they need to know what the stages are in order to halt them.”

Before Garrard and his colleagues published their Murdoch paper in 2005, researchers had identified language as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. As Garrard explains, a patient’s vocabulary becomes restricted, and they use fewer words that are specific labels and more words that are general labels. For example, it’s not incorrect to call a golden retriever an “animal,” though it is less accurate than calling it a retriever or even a dog. Alzheimer’s patients would be far more likely to call a retriever a “dog” or an “animal” than “retriever” or “Fred.” In addition, Garrard adds, the words Alzheimer’s patients lose tend to appear less frequently in everyday English than words they keep—an abstract noun like “metamorphosis” might be replaced by “change” or “go.”

Researchers also found the use of specific words decreases and the noun-to-verb ratio changes as more “low image” verbs (be, come, do, get, give, go, have) and indefinite nouns (thing, something, anything, nothing) are used in place of their more unusual brethren. The use of the passive voice falls off markedly as well. People also use more pauses, Garrard says, as “they fish around for words.”

In their 2005 paper, Garrard and colleagues point out that the assessment of language changes in Alzheimer’s patients was based in many cases on standardized tasks such as word fluency and picture naming, the kind of tests criticized for lacking a “real-world validity.” But writing novels is a more naturalistic activity, one done voluntarily and without knowledge of the disease. That eliminates any negative or compensatory response that a standardized test might induce in a patient. With Murdoch, he and his colleagues could analyze language, “the products of cognitive operations,” over the natural course of her novel-writing life, which stretched from her 30s to 70s. “I thought it would be fascinating to be able to show that language could be affected before the patient or anyone else was aware of symptoms,” Garrard says.

For his analysis of Murdoch, Garrard used a program called Concordance to count word tokens and types in samples of text from three of her novels: her first published effort, Under the Net; a mid-career highlight, The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978; and her final effort, Jackson’s Dilemma. He found that Murdoch’s vocabulary was significantly reduced in her last book—“it had become very generic,” he says—as compared to the samples from her two earlier books.

The Murdoch paper by Garrard and his colleagues proved influential. In Canada, Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, was conducting his own version of textual analysis. Though he’d long toiled in the fields of Renaissance drama, Lancashire had been inspired by the emergence of a field called corpus linguistics, which involves the study of language though specialized software. In 1985, he founded the Center for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto. (Today Lancashire is an emeritus professor, though he maintains a lab at the University of Toronto.)

What he discovered astounded him: Agatha Christie’s use of vocabulary had “completely tanked.”

In trying to determine some sort of overarching theory on the genesis of creativity, Lancashire had directed the development of software for the purpose of studying language through the analysis of text. The software was called TACT, short for Textual Analysis Computing Tools. The software created an interactive concordance and allowed Lancashire to count types and tokens in books by several of his favorite writers, including Shakespeare and Milton.

Lancashire had been an Agatha Christie fan in his youth, and decided to apply the same treatment to two of Christie’s early books, as well as Elephants Can Remember, her second-to-last novel. What he discovered astounded him: Christie’s use of vocabulary had “completely tanked” at the end of her career, by an order of about 20 percent. “I was shocked, because it was so obvious,” he says. Even though the length of Elephants was comparable to her other works, there was a marked decrease in the variety of words she used in it, and a good deal more phrasal repetition. “It was as if she had given up trying to find le mot juste, exactly the right word,” he says.

Lancashire presented his findings at a talk at the University of Toronto in 2008. Graeme Hirst, a computational linguist in Toronto’s computer science department, was in the audience. He suggested to Lancashire that they collaborate on statistical analysis of texts. The team employed a wider array of variables and much larger samples of text from Christie and Murdoch, searching for linguistic markers for Alzheimer’s disease. (Unlike Murdoch, Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.)

The Toronto team, which included Regina Jokel, an assistant professor in the department of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto, and Xuan Le, at the time one of Hirst’s graduate students, settled on P.D. James—a writer who would die with her cognitive powers seemingly intact—as their control subject. Using a program called Stanford Parser, they fed books by all three writers through the algorithm, focusing on things like vocabulary size, the ratio of the size of the vocabulary to the total number of words used, repetition, word specificity, fillers, grammatical complexity, and the use of the passive voice.

“Each type of dementia has its own language pattern, so if someone has vascular dementia, their pattern would look different than someone who has progressive aphasia or Alzheimer’s,” says Jokel. “Dementia of any kind permeates all modalities, so if someone has problems expressing themselves, they will have trouble expressing themselves both orally and in writing.”

To the researchers, evidence of Murdoch’s decline was apparent in Jackson’s Dilemma. A passage from The Sea, The Sea illustrates her rich language:

The chagrin, the ferocious ambition which James, I am sure quite unconsciously, prompted in me was something which came about gradually and raged intermittently.

In Jackson’s Dilemma, her vocabulary seems stunted:

He got out of bed and pulled back the curtains. The sun blazed in. He did not look out of the window. He opened one of the cases, then closed it again. He had been wearing his clothes in bed, except for his jacket and his shoes.

It seems that after conceiving of her character, Murdoch had trouble climbing back inside of his head. According to Lancashire, this was likely an early sign of dementia. “Alzheimer’s disease … damages our ability to see identity in both ourselves and other people, including imagined characters,” Lancashire later wrote. “Professional novelists with encroaching Alzheimer’s disease will forget what their characters look like, what they have done, and what qualities they exhibit.”


DEBATE OF ERRORS: A professor of cognitive neuropsychology says Ronald Reagan, during his 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, showed signs of Alzheimer’s in his language, as he was “making mistakes of all sorts, minor slips, long pauses, and confusional errors.”Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

The Toronto team’s “Three British Novelists” paper, as it came to be called, influenced a number of other studies, including one at Arizona State University. Using similar software, researchers examined non-scripted news conferences of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. President Reagan, they wrote, showed “a significant reduction in the number of unique words over time and a significant increase in conversational fillers and non-specific nouns over time,” while there was no such pattern for Bush. The researchers conclude that during his presidency, Reagan was showing a reduction in linguistic complexity consistent with what others have found in patients with dementia.

Brian Butterworth, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University College London, also “diagnosed” Reagan in the mid ’80s, years before Reagan was clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Butterworth wrote a report comparing Reagan’s 1980 debate performance with then-President Jimmy Carter, with that of his debate performance with democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale four years later.

“With Carter, Reagan was more or less flawless, but in 1984, he was making mistakes of all sorts, minor slips, long pauses, and confusional errors,” Butterworth says. “He referred to the wrong year in one instance.” If one forgets a lot of facts, as Reagan did, Butterworth says, that might be an effect of damage to the frontal lobes; damage to the temporal lobes and Broca’s area affects speech. “The change from 1980 to 1984 was not stylistic, in my opinion,” Butterworth says. Reagan “got much worse, probably because his brain had changed in a significant way. He had been shot. He had been heavily rehearsed. Even with all that, he was making a lot of mistakes.”

Thanks in part to the literary studies, the idea of language as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s has continued to gain credibility. In 2009, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association charged a group of prominent neurologists with revising the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease, previously updated in 1984. The group sought to include criteria that general healthcare providers, who might not have access to diagnostic tools like neuropsychological testing, advanced imaging, and cerebrospinal fluid measures, could use to diagnose dementia. Part of their criteria included impaired language functions in speaking, reading, and writing; a difficulty in thinking of common words while speaking; hesitations; and speech, spelling, and writing errors.

The embrace of language as a diagnostic strategy has spurred a host of diagnostic tools. Hirst has begun working on programs that use speech by real patients in real time. Based on Hirst’s work, Kathleen Fraser, a Ph.D. student, and Frank Rudzicz, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, and a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, who focuses on machine learning and natural language processing in healthcare settings, have developed software that analyzes short samples of speech, 1 to 5 minutes in length, to see if an individual might be showing signs of cognitive impairment. They are looking at 400 or so variables right now, says Rudzicz, such as pitch variance, pitch emphasis, pauses or “jitters,” and other qualitative aspects of speech.

Few of us are prolific novelists, but most of us are leaving behind large datasets of language, courtesy of email and social media.

Rudzicz and Fraser have co-founded a startup called Winterlight Labs, and they are working on similar software to be used by clinicians. Some organizations are already piloting their technology. They hope to capture the attention of pharmaceutical companies regarding using their program to help quickly identify the best individuals to be part of clinical trials—which tends to be a very expensive and laborious process—or to help track people’s cognitive states once they’ve been clinically diagnosed. They also hope one day to be able to use language as a lens to peer into people’s general cognitive states, so that researchers might gain a clearer understanding of everything from depression to autism.

Lust and other researchers agree, however, that the idea of using language as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment is still in its early stages. “We ultimately need some kind of low-cost, easy-to-use and noninvasive tool that can identify someone who should go on for more intensive follow-up, such as a cup on your arm can detect high-blood pressure that could indicative of heart disease,” says Heather Snyder, a molecular biologist and Senior Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “At this point we don’t have that validated tool that tells us that something is predictive, at least to my knowledge.”

Howard Fillit, the founding executive editor and chief scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, says language is a valid way to test for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. “If someone comes in complaining of cognitive impairment, and you want to do a diagnostic evaluation and see how serious their language problem is, I can see that [such software] would be useful,” he says. But he says the language analysis would have to be performed with other tests that measure cognitive function. “Otherwise,” Fillit says, “you might end up scaring a lot of people unnecessarily.”

One of the main reasons Garrard undertook the Murdoch study in the early 2000s was he saw her novels as a kind of large, unstructured dataset of language. He loved working with datasets, he says, “to see whether they tell a story or otherwise support a hypothesis.” Now, with computer programs that analyze language for cognitive deficits on the horizon, the future of Alzheimer’s diagnosis looks both beneficial and unnerving. Few of us are prolific novelists, but most of us are leaving behind large, unstructured datasets of language, courtesy of email, social media, and the like. There are such large volumes of data in that trail, Garrard says, “that it’s going to be usable in predicting all sorts of things, possibly including dementia.”

Garrard agrees a computer program that aids medical scientists in diagnosing cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s holds great promise. “It’s like screening people for diabetes,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to have the condition, but better to know and treat it than not.”

Adrienne Day is a Bay Area-based writer and editor. She covers issues in science, culture, and social innovation.

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

The building blocks of understanding are memorization and repetition.

I was a wayward kid who grew up on the literary side of life, treating math and science as if they were pustules from the plague. So it’s a little strange how I’ve ended up now—someone who dances daily with triple integrals, Fourier transforms, and that crown jewel of mathematics, Euler’s equation. It’s hard to believe I’ve flipped from a virtually congenital math-phobe to a professor of engineering.

One day, one of my students asked me how I did it—how I changed my brain. I wanted to answer Hell—with lots of difficulty! After all, I’d flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. In fact, I didn’t start studying remedial math until I left the Army at age 26. If there were a textbook example of the potential for adult neural plasticity, I’d be Exhibit A.

Learning math and then science as an adult gave me passage into the empowering world of engineering. But these hard-won, adult-age changes in my brain have also given me an insider’s perspective on the neuroplasticity that underlies adult learning. Fortunately, my doctoral training in systems engineering—tying together the big picture of different STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines—and then my later research and writing focusing on how humans think have helped me make sense of recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology related to learning.

In the years since I received my doctorate, thousands of students have swept through my classrooms—students who have been reared in elementary school and high school to believe that understanding math through active discussion is the talisman of learning. If you can explain what you’ve learned to others, perhaps drawing them a picture, the thinking goes, you must
understand it.

Japan has become seen as a much-admired and emulated exemplar of these active, “understanding-centered” teaching methods. But what’s often missing from the discussion is the rest of the story: Japan is also home of the Kumon method of teaching mathematics, which emphasizes memorization, repetition, and rote learning hand-in-hand with developing the child’s mastery over the material. This intense afterschool program, and others like it, is embraced by millions of parents in Japan and around the world who supplement their child’s participatory education with plenty of practice, repetition, and yes, intelligently designed rote learning, to allow them to gain hard-won fluency with the material.

Fooled By Your Own Brain

Your powers of attention: fooled!Attention is, by definition, limited. And that’s usually a good thing. If you’re searching for a lost earring on the floor, you want to ignore anything that’s not small and shiny. When talking to someone at…READ MORE

Teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence.

In the United States, the emphasis on understanding sometimes seems to have replaced rather than complemented older teaching methods that scientists are—and have been—telling us work with the brain’s natural process to learn complex subjects like math and science.

The latest wave in educational reform in mathematics involves the Common Core—an attempt to set strong, uniform standards across the U.S., although critics are weighing in to say the standards fail by comparison with high-achieving countries. At least superficially, the standards seem to show a sensible perspective. They propose that in mathematics, students should gain equal facility in conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.

The devil, of course, lies in the details of implementation. In the current educational climate, memorization and repetition in the STEM disciplines (as opposed to in the study of language or music), are often seen as demeaning and a waste of time for students and teachers alike. Many teachers have long been taught that conceptual understanding in STEM trumps everything else. And indeed, it’s easier for teachers to induce students to discuss a mathematical subject (which, if done properly, can do much to help promote understanding) than it is for that teacher to tediously grade math homework. What this all means is that, despite the fact that procedural skills and fluency, along with application, are supposed to be given equal emphasis with conceptual understanding, all too often it doesn’t happen. Imparting a conceptual understanding reigns supreme—especially during precious class time.

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t. By championing the importance of understanding, teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence. As one (failing) engineering student recently told me: “I just don’t see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class.” My student may have thought he’d understood it at the time, and perhaps he did, but he’d never practiced using the concept to truly internalize it. He had not developed any kind of procedural fluency or ability to apply what he thought he understood.

There is an interesting connection between learning math and science, and learning a sport. When you learn how to swing a golf club, you perfect that swing from lots of repetition over a period of years. Your body knows what to do from a single thought—one chunk—instead of having to recall all the complex steps involved in hitting a ball.

In the same way, once you understand why you do something in math and science, you don’t have to keep re-explaining the how to yourself every time you do it. It’s not necessary to go around with 25 marbles in your pocket and lay out 5 rows of 5 marbles again and again so that you get that 5 x 5 = 25. At some point, you just know it fluently from memory. You memorize the idea that you simply add exponents—those little superscript numbers—when multiplying numbers that have the same base (104 x 105 = 109). If you use the procedure a lot, by doing many different types of problems, you will find that you understand both the why and the how behind the procedure very well indeed. The greater understanding results from the fact that your mind constructed the patterns of meaning. Continually focusing on understanding itself actually gets in the way.


I learned these things about math and the process of learning not in the K-12 classroom but in the course of my life, as a kid who grew up reading Madeleine L’Engle and Dostoyevsky, who went on to study language at one of the world’s leading language institutes, and then to make the dramatic shift to become a professor of engineering.

As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?

After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year. There was pretty much only one other alternative for a Russian language speaker—working for the National Security Agency. (My Army contacts kept pointing me that way, but it wasn’t for me.)

I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea. I couldn’t help but reflect back on the West Point-trained engineers I’d worked with in the Army. Their mathematically and scientifically based approach to problem-solving was clearly useful for the real world—far more useful than my youthful misadventures with math had been able to imagine.

So, at age 26, as I was leaving the Army and casting about for fresh opportunities, it occurred to me: If I really wanted to try something new, why not tackle something that could open a whole world of new perspectives for me? Something like engineering? That meant I would be trying to learn another very different language—the language of calculus.

You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over.

With my poor understanding of even the simplest math, my post-Army retraining efforts began with not-for-credit remedial algebra and trigonometry. This was way below mathematical ground zero for most college students. Trying to reprogram my brain sometimes seemed like a ridiculous idea—especially when I looked at the fresh young faces of my younger classmates and realized that many of them had already dropped their hard math and science classes—and here I was heading right for them. But in my case, from my experience becoming fluent in Russian as an adult, I suspected—or maybe I just hoped—that there might be aspects to language learning that I might apply to learning in math and science.

What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.

This approach—which focused on fluency instead of simple understanding—put me at the top of the class. And I didn’t realize it then, but this approach to learning language had given me an intuitive understanding of a fundamental core of learning and the development of expertise—chunking.

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

As studies of chess masters, emergency room physicians, and fighter pilots have shown, in times of critical stress, conscious analysis of a situation is replaced by quick, subconscious processing as these experts rapidly draw on their deeply ingrained repertoire of neural subroutines—chunks. At some point, self-consciously “understanding” why you do what you do just slows you down and interrupts flow, resulting in worse decisions. When I felt intuitively that there might be a connection between learning a new language and learning mathematics, I was right. Day-by-day, sustained practice of Russian fired and wired together my neural circuits, and I gradually began to knit together chunks of Slavic insight that I could call into working memory with ease. By interleaving my learning—in other words, practicing so that I knew not only when to use that word, but when not to use it, or to use a different variant of it—I was actually using the same approaches that expert practitioners use to learn in math and science.

When learning math and engineering as an adult, I began by using the same strategy I’d used to learn language. I’d look at an equation, to take a very simple example, Newton’s second law of f = ma. I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant—f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration. (The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.) I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and a were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and a was small, what did that do to m? How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb. I was beginning to intuit that the sparse outlines of the equation were like a metaphorical poem, with all sorts of beautiful symbolic representations embedded within it. Although I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, the truth was that to learn math and science well, I had to slowly, day by day, build solid neural “chunked” subroutines—such as surrounding the simple equation f = ma—that I could easily call to mind from long term memory, much as I’d done with Russian.

Time after time, professors in mathematics and the sciences have told me that building well-ingrained chunks of expertise through practice and repetition was absolutely vital to their success. Understanding doesn’t build fluency; instead, fluency builds understanding. In fact, I believe that true understanding of a complex subject comes only from fluency.

In other words, in science and math education in particular, it’s easy to slip into teaching methods that emphasize understanding and that avoid the sometimes painful repetition and practice that underlie fluency. I learned Russian not just by understanding it—understanding, after all, is facile, and can easily slip away. (What did that word понимать mean?) I learned Russian by gaining fluency through practice, repetition, and rote learning—but rote learning that emphasized the ability to think flexibly and quickly. I learned math and science by applying precisely those same ideas. Language, math, and science, as with almost all areas of human expertise, draw on the same reservoir of brain mechanisms.

As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?

Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.

Underneath it all, when it was needed, the fluency was there—and it quickly got us out of trouble (and into another taxi). Fluency allows understanding to become embedded, emerging when needed.

As I look today at the shortage of science and math majors in this country, and our current trend in how we teach people to learn, and as I reflect on my own pathway, knowing what I know now about the brain, it occurs to me that we can do better. As parents and teachers, we can use simple, accessible methods for deepening understanding and making it useful and flexible. We can encourage others and ourselves to try new disciplines that we thought were too hard—math, dance, physics, language, chemistry, music—opening new worlds for ourselves and others.

As I discovered, having a basic, deep-seated fluency in math and science—not just an “understanding,” is critical. It opens doors for many of life’s most intriguing jobs. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have to just blindly follow my initial inclinations and passions. The “fluency” part of me that loved literature and language was also the same part of me that ultimately fell in love with math and science—and transformed and enriched my life.

Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, and the author of, most recently, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If
 You Flunked Algebra). She is also co-instructor, with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, of one of the world’s largest online courses, “Learning How to Learn,” with Coursera.

Talking in the real world

Talking in the real world

JÂNIO QUADROS was president of Brazil for just seven months in 1961. An eccentric, he suddenly resigned, hinting at “terrible forces”. He was known for other memorable, if sometimes bizarre, quotes. In a debate, an opponent said Jânio’s words were going in one of his ears and out of the other. Jânio retorted, “A lie! Sound doesn’t travel through a vacuum!” And asked once why he drank liquor, he said, “I drink it because it’s liquid. If it were solid, I’d eat it.”

All this is delightfully weird enough, but the way he said the last one in Portuguese is even weirder. Bebo-o porque é liquido. Se fosse sólido, comê-lo-ia. This is an ornate, traditional European Portuguese of the kind that nobody in Brazil uses spontaneously. Most people would instead say something like Bebo porque é liquido. Se fosse sólido, comeria. Traditional Portuguese has complex rules for direct and indirect objects, even allowing them to come between a verb stem and the conjugational ending, as in comê-lo-ia, something like “eat-it-I-would”. But in spoken Brazilian, objects are usually just put before the verb, or left out if they are clear from context.

I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.

All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.

This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. Blackboard drills meant to shame pupils out of supposedly bad habits foment anxiety, and give grammar a bad name. This case was made clearly in Lingua Portuguesa, a magazine I was delighted to find at an ordinary Rio kiosk during last week’s holiday. (Try to imagine an American or British newsagent carrying the thougthful likes of Babel or a printed Schwa Fire next to the lads’ mags and gossip rags.)

Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.

What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.

Most textbooks are not good at conveying this stuff. But two series stand out. Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide”, with books on nine languages, is good for reference; Cambridge University Press’s approachable series, “Using [Spanish, German, etc]”, is better for a read-through. Both offer detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.

Teaching genuine spoken language is a tricky task requiring subtlety. It is also done surprisingly rarely, because too often teaching actual speech is conflated with dignifying slang or mistakes. A good book like the ones above will simply note how (mostly educated) speakers actually use their native language. This kind of real-world knowledge gives the foreigner’s attempts a certain je ne sais quoi, and helps assure that that first conversation doesn’t die in a vacuum of incomprehension.

Think you know the rules of English? These talks will change your mind.


Erin McKean

How much do you know about the right and wrong ways to use words? You know that usage and grammar rules in English are complicated and often counterintuitive, and it can be surprisingly easy to make a mistake. You know it’s important to learn these rules, both so you’ll appear intelligent and well-educated and also because there’s a right way and a wrong way to use words, and you want to do it the right way.

Only, it turns out, there isn’t. Yes, it’s important to know all the rules governing English usage (including the stupid ones). But don’t think of English, or any language, as having definite, unchangeable right-and-wrong rules. The language and rules that govern it are constantly changing–because all of us are changing them together, all the time.

You can learn a lot more about how the language is changing–and other fascinating things that may make you rethink most of what you learned in high school–from a new TED Talks playlist that is all about words. Enjoy these fascinating talks. And forward them on next time someone criticizes you for using words wrong.

1. Ever wonder who wrote the dictionary?

English professor and language historian Anne Curzan poses this simple question to the audience and, predictably, few hands go up. In this lively talk she explains how words become legitimate, who decides what goes in dictionaries (she’s one of the people who does), and why words like “hangry” and “adorkable” really do belong in them.


2. Why do we use ‘x’ to represent the unknown?

It will take you less than four minutes to find out. And if you don’t already know, you will never, ever be able to guess.


3. No, texting is not ruining the English language.

If you have teenagers at home, or even know any, texting and its odd code words and abbreviations are likely the bane of your existence. They may also lead you to lament the decline of the proper use of English. But in a thought-provoking talk, linguist John McWhorter argues the opposite is true. Far from ruining English, today’s texters are creating a new form of our language, one that is written but happens at the speed of speech.

4. How–and why–you should make up new words.

Ever wonder if something you want to use “really is a word?” If it isn’t, maybe you should make it one. That advice comes from lexicographer Erin McKean who advises, “Words are great. We should have more of them. I want you to make as many new words as possible.” And then, in this fast and fun talk, she suggests six different ways you can create new words.


5. Is proper verb usage making you poorer?

It sounds crazy, but the answer to that question is probably yes. Behavioral economist Keith Chen explains his intriguing study of how the way we speak influences what we do. Not all languages have a future tense. In some, there is no difference at all between “I go” and “I will go.” Surprisingly, people who speak such futureless languages are better at doing things today, such as saving money or avoiding cigarettes and unhealthy food, that will make things worse for them in the future. This talk explains why, and it will leave you wondering how else the language we speak shapes the things we do.


What makes a language difficult?

The Economist explains

What makes a language difficult?

EVERYONE has the intuition that some languages are more difficult than others. For the native English-speaker, professional agencies that teach foreign languages have made it quite clear. America’s state department reckons that Spanish, Swedish or French can be learned in 575-600 class hours (“Category 1”). Russian, Hebrew and Icelandic are more difficult (1100 class hours, “Category 2”). And Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and a few others are in the hardest group, Category 3, requiring 2200 class hours. But what makes a language difficult?

How long it takes to learn a language does not answer which ones are hard independent of the learner’s first language (nor the related question “How hard is English?”) Ranking languages on a universal scale of difficulty is itself difficult and controversial. Some languages proliferate endings on verbs and nouns, like Latin and Russian. Such inflection can be hard for learners who are not used to it. Several years ago, two scholars found that smaller languages (those with less contact with other languages) tended to have more inflection than big ones. By contrast, creole languages—which arise between groups that do not share a common language—are thought by scholars to be systematically simpler than other languages, even after they become “normal” languages with native speakers. They typically lack heavy inflection.

But inflection is only one element of “hardness”. Some languages have simple sound systems (such as the Polynesian languages). Others have a wide variety of sounds, including rare ones that outsiders find hard to learn (like the languages of the Caucasus). Some languages (like English) lack or mostly lack grammatical gender. Some have dozens of genders (also known as “noun classes”) that must be learned for each noun. Languages can have rigidly fixed or flexible word order. They can put verbs before objects or even objects before subjects. Yet it is not clear how to rank the relative difficulty of exotic consonants, dozens of genders or heavy inflection. Another recent approach sought to go around the problem by finding languages that had the most unusual features, skirting the question of whether those features were “hard”. Comparing 21 feature parameters across hundreds of languages, they ranked 239 languages. Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Mexico, was the weirdest. English came in place number 33. Basque, Hungarian, Hindi and Cantonese ranked as among the most “normal”. The researchers did not find any larger similarities between “weird” and “normal” languages. (For example, they do not claim that smaller or bigger languages tend to be “weirder”.) But again, the caveat is that this only compares which languages are unusual in a global context, not which are hard.

So the two most robust findings seem to be that smaller languages are more heavily inflected, and that languages farther from your own in the linguistic family tree will be harder for you to learn. If you want a challenge, a good bet is to pick a tiny language from halfway around the world.

Pronouns: It’s not you

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Johnson: Pronouns

It’s not you

IT’S time for a breakup. The person you have been seeing is lovely, but a relationship is not what you want right now. How do you break the news gently?

If you say “It’s not you, it’s me,” you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say “It’s not you—it’s I,” you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of the New Yorker would have you speak.

This little conundrum illustrates a great deal of confusion about English grammar. Mr Heller was reviewing Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” (which The Economist reviewed here). Mr Pinker writes that it is normal informal English style to use the accusative pronouns—me, him, her, us or them—in a predicate after forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were and so on). In other words, it is natural and correct to say It is me as opposed to It is I. A granny facing a police line-up, jangled by her recent mugging, will point to the perpetrator and naturally shout, “That’s him, officer!” And as Geoffrey Pullum, a syntactician at the University of Edinburgh, points out, there are many cases where the nominative pronoun—I, he, she, we, they—in predicate position is so weird as to be unacceptable. He gives the example of looking at an old photograph, pointing to oneself and saying This one here is I at the age of 12.


But of course many traditional grammars do prescribe it is he and so on. It is the preferred form for formal usage, and Google’s Ngram-viewer tool (which allows searches of books)finds “it was him who…” to be almost non-existent in books.

What’s correct? Writers like Mr Heller offer two principles: that language should be consistent, and that it should be logical. Mr Heller here is explicit, in a passage worth quoting at length:

It’s for grammatical consistency, not beauty or gentilesse, for example, that correct English has us say “It was he” instead of “It was him.” Pinker calls this offense “a schoolteacher rule” that is “a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar, and syntax with semantics.” He’s done crucial research on language acquisition, and he offers an admirable account of syntax in his book, but it is unclear what he’s talking about here. As he knows, the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!” No idea is more basic to English syntax and grammar. In the phrase “It was he,” “it” and “he” are the same thing: they’re both the subject, and thus nominative. This is not “Latin.” (Our modern cases had their roots in tribal Germanic.)

Logic and consistency are, of course, good things. But both words mean different things to different people, and sometimes the goals conflict. For Mr Heller, it is “logical” that “was” should be like a grammatical equals sign. So if the subject of the sentence It was he is nominative, so should the pronoun in the predicate be: it = he. But case systems don’t care about invisible equals signs. In French, this construction is forbidden: the French say c’est moi, not c’est je, using a special set of pronouns (usually called “emphatic”) rather than the nominative ones. Nobody accuses the language of Pascal and Descartes of being any less logical than English. In Danish, it is det er mig (“it is me”), using the accusative pronoun, notdet er jeg (”it is I”). And yet no one says the language of Kirkegaard is a confusing mess. And it just so happens that the ancestors of the Danes and the French conquered England, contributing to the language’s mixed nature. It is me didn’t show up in writing until the 15th century, and so may not come directly from those languages. But contact between speakers of different languages did give English a habit of accepting different ways of saying things, such as both the king’s son (typically Germanic) and the son of the king(typically French).

In any case, variety is not the same thing as the “complexity, ambiguity and doubt” Mr Heller fears. The situation is fairly simple. Mr Pinker argues that the accusative me in it’s me is in fact the default case, and can be used anywhere except as the subject of a tensed verb. In other words, in the absence of any reason to use the nominative, the accusative is natural:

Who ate the last piece of cake? Him.

What, me worry?

Me, I prefer skiing to surfing

“Me” in predicate position even appears in traditional places like the King James Bible’s “woe is me”. Where did the confusion come from, then? When grammarians first sat down to write the rules of English, they made certain mistakes that have had long-lasting consequences. Before the first grammars of English, the word “grammar” could only have meant the formal systems of Greek and Latin that they had learned. And so while few scholars announced their intention to press English into a classical mould, they were inevitably influenced by what seemed like the elegant rules of the classical languages. (It was tempting to assume Latin and Greek were superior languages. The first English grammarians never had to hear an inarticulate Roman teenager butcher his cases; they had only the works of great writers to judge by.)

As it happens, the rule “use the nominative case in the predicate nominative position” (It is I) is not just Greco-Latin. It is akin to the German (Das bin ich, which is the equivalent of what English speakers used to say: It am I, with both pronouns in the nominative case). English is descended from an old form of German, namely Anglo-Saxon. So It is I is not quite a foreign import. It is an alternative. The key is that there is nothing wrong with alternatives, which allow a writer or speaker to pick a level of formality. This is obviously the case for vocabulary (acquire is more formal than get, and therefore is smarter than so). But—though many people want there always to be only one right answer—it also applies to grammar. It is I is more formal than It is me in much the same way that it is is more formal than it’s.

Style variation is not only possible; it is desirable, allowing a speaker or writer to communicate not only content but meta-content—how the speaker or writer feels about the content and how it should be taken. We can be both logical and consistent without straitjacketing the language so tightly as to make its native speakers writhe in discomfort. If you think yourself articulate and care about English, yet can’t force yourself to speak as Mr Heller of the prestigious New Yorker would have you do, don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s him.

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT
By Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Ju-min Park

Filed July 25, 2016, 2:35 p.m. GMT
Part Four: The Global Assessment Certificate program is designed to give foreign students the skills to succeed at U.S. universities. Reuters found it sometimes offers those students much more – including a sneak peek at the ACT itself.

SHANGHAI, SEOUL and IOWA CITY – For many Chinese high school students hoping to get into a U.S. university, the pitch is hard to resist.

Take English-language courses in China in a program recognized by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States – including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Prepare for the ACT, America’s most popular college entrance exam. And take it in mainland China, instead of traveling elsewhere as other Chinese students must.

The program, known as the Global Assessment Certificate, also offers some students an advantage that isn’t advertised: At three different GAC centers, school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in student cheating on the ACT, according to seven students interviewed by Reuters.

The GAC program, which can cost students $10,000 a year or more, has emerged as one of many avenues in Asia used to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. college admissions process.

But the most remarkable aspect of this program is that the ACT itself owns and oversees it.

The GAC program is operated by a foreign subsidiary of ACT Inc, the Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the crucial college entrance exam. The subsidiary, ACT Education Solutions Ltd, is headquartered in Hong Kong.
Map: A look at GAC centers that give the ACT in East Asia

Part One: College Board gave SATs it knew were “compromised”

Part Two: Despite tighter security, new SAT gets hacked

Part Three: Chinese cheating rings penetrate U.S. colleges
The curriculum at GAC centers is designed to teach non-native English speakers reading, writing and other skills for college. The program has about 5,000 students in 11 countries at 197 centers. Three-quarters of the centers are in mainland China. The vast majority of GAC students take the ACT, which American colleges use to assess applicants.

Some GAC centers advertise their students’ high ACT scores and success getting into U.S. colleges. The website for one center – Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Zhengzhou, China – features pictures of accomplished graduates alongside their near-perfect test scores and the U.S. schools that accepted them.

The website for the GAC program promises universities “highly skilled international students,” and some schools award college credit for classes taken at GAC centers.

But interviews with some students who attended GAC centers call the program’s integrity into question. One now attending the University of California, Los Angeles, said a GAC administrator in China let him practice answering almost half the questions that would appear on the actual ACT about a week before the exam was given. Another student, now at a major university in the Midwest, said his Chinese center provided students with two articles that appeared on an ACT he later took there.

What’s more, eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centers described cheating in program courses. Some said it was widespread. They said students turned in assignments that were plagiarized. At two different centers, former teachers said, officials encouraged them to give students exam questions and sometimes even answers in advance to ensure that they passed.

Jason Thieman resigned in January after nearly five months as a teacher at the GAC center at Jimei University in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He said he left after students complained that he was cracking down on cheating and plagiarism.

“If every university admissions office that accepted GAC students knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore,” Thieman said. “It’s outrageous.”

A spokesman for the GAC center said the program would never condone cheating and that students simply didn’t like Thieman’s teaching style.

Thieman is now in the United States, pursuing a doctorate in physics. “The situation’s not fair to anybody,” he said of the GAC program. “It’s not fair to the universities that admit” the students, and “it’s not fair to American students who actually have the proper standards in place when they take” the ACT.

Christopher Bogen, director of studies at a GAC center in Zhuhai from 2011 to 2014, said some of his students repeatedly engaged in “intentional, flagrant cheating.” Some submitted essays that were supposed to be written in English; instead, the essays had been translated using the Google Translate web tool, he said. The GAC curriculum made cheating easier because the same tests were given “over and over again,” Bogen said. Some of those tests and other GAC assignments were available for sale online in China, Reuters found.

No one from the GAC center where Bogen taught could be reached for comment.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said its Hong Kong subsidiary is responsible for handling cases of alleged cheating in GAC courses. He declined to make managers there available to speak for this article.

Colby said the subsidiary thoroughly vets GAC operators and monitors their work. ACT’s head of test security, Rachel Schoenig, said the organization had cancelled suspicious ACT scores of GAC students.
INSTRUCTING STUDENTS: Jason Thieman at the GAC center in China where he once taught. He left the center after several months, concerned about what he considered widespread cheating there. REUTERS/Handout
“If every university admissions office … knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore.”

Jason Thieman, former GAC teacher in China
“From a test security perspective … we have taken many, many steps to address the ACT testing activities of the GAC centers,” Schoenig said.

To guard against test leaks more broadly, she said, the organization has begun shipping the ACT in lock boxes to some overseas test centers. This month, ACT Inc announced that, to combat cheating, it planned to introduce a computerized version of the ACT for overseas test-takers in the fall of 2017.

Like other standardized testing companies, ACT Inc is battling an “emerging trend of organized fraud rings … who, for a lot of money, a lot of their own personal gain, are seeking to undermine the system for honest test-takers,” Schoenig said.

The problems with the GAC program are not the work of outsiders, however. They are occurring within a system controlled and policed by the ACT organization itself.

Reuters identified six GAC centers that violate the ACT’s own conflict-of-interest policy. The six centers administered the ACT while also offering commercial test-prep classes aimed at helping students score well on the college entrance exam. ACT policy prohibits test-prep businesses from administering the exam because doing so would give them an unparalleled ability to help their clients by leaking them the test.

At those locations – five in mainland China and one in South Korea – GAC operators had access to exam booklets days or weeks before the ACT was given.

Several U.S. colleges said they were alarmed by what Reuters discovered. They are among the 60-plus “pathway” schools that consider completion of the GAC program in their admissions decisions and sometimes award college credit for courses taken at GAC centers.

The reports of cheating are “very disconcerting,” said Timothy Tesar, assistant director of international admissions at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The university has enrolled 132 GAC students since 2009.

The cheating allegations are “shocking to me,” said Jonnathan De La Fuente, international admissions counselor at University of Michigan-Flint. De La Fuente estimated that the university has enrolled 15 to 20 GAC students to date, almost all from South Korea. Michigan-Flint gives college credit for GAC coursework.

“If those reports are true, we have to, as a university, look into it,” he said. “I’m wondering if those grades are even legitimate.”
ACT CEO: Marten Roorda leads the Iowa City-based ACT Inc. REUTERS/Handout
ACT chief executive Marten Roorda was unavailable to answer questions for this article, spokesman Colby said.

Evidence of academic fraud among foreign students is mounting as American colleges enroll record numbers of applicants from abroad. Foreign students typically pay full tuition, a boon for U.S. schools. These applicants also are emerging as sources of profit for the testing companies whose exams help determine who gets into American universities.

A series of Reuters reports this year has revealed how foreign students are increasingly exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. college entrance exams and other parts of the admissions process.

In March, Reuters reported that test-prep operations in East Asia were taking advantage of security flaws in the SAT, which – like its rival ACT – reuses exams. Those cram school operations harvest items from past exams, enabling students to practice on questions they may see on test day.

Reuters also found companies in China that fabricate entire college applications for students seeking to study in America. Some companies even offer to do coursework for students attending U.S. colleges.


In 2005, ACT Inc acquired a company that had developed the GAC curriculum and had an agreement to offer the ACT as part of the program. After the takeover, ACT Inc formed ACT Education Solutions to run it.

The GAC program operates like a franchise: Local operators pay the ACT subsidiary for the right to offer the curriculum at local schools or educational centers. The GAC centers are not run by ACT staff but rather by employees hired by the local operators. The program has been particularly popular in China, where 149 of the 197 centers are located.

It’s also lucrative for ACT Inc. GAC centers each pay the ACT subsidiary a licensing fee totaling thousands of dollars plus additional fees for each student enrolled. According to ACT Inc’s most recent U.S. federal tax return, the foreign entities that run the program generated $4.8 million in net revenue in the year ended August 31, 2015.

GAC operators undergo rigorous vetting, said ACT spokesman Colby. In China, people interested in operating a GAC center must complete a four-page application and demonstrate they can run the center effectively. ACT Education Solutions then inspects the site. If there are no concerns, the ACT organization enters into licensing agreements with the center. ACT Education Solutions audits the GAC centers, but Colby declined to say how often.
As for the ACT test, the organization won’t disclose figures, but people familiar with the matter estimate the exam drew about 60,000 foreign test-takers last year. That’s up sharply from a few thousand per year about a decade ago, according to a former ACT employee. The SAT retains a big edge overseas, with about three times as many test takers.

Much of the ACT’s growth abroad has come in the past two years, though not by design. Convinced that the SAT had an insurmountable lead, ACT executives decided to invest little in marketing their exam overseas, former employees said.

They attribute the recent gains mostly to security problems with the rival SAT, owned by the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit. Since May 2013, concerns about cheating have led the College Board to delay or cancel scores or to scrap tests for students taking the SAT in Asia. More test-takers turned to the ACT.

Cheating in Asia caused concerns inside ACT’s own test security unit, too. ACT has an internal staff of 14 people handling security for thousands of test centers in 177 countries. In 2015, the security unit repeatedly recommended shoring up security for the ACT overseas by increasing personnel and improving the vetting of international test centers, said a person familiar with the matter. Executives at ACT headquarters rejected the recommendations, this person said.

ACT spokesman Colby declined to comment.

ACT faced a major security breach of its own on the morning of June 10. Just hours before about 5,500 students in South Korea and Hong Kong were to take the ACT, officials in Iowa learned the test had leaked. They canceled the exam at the last minute. Officials won’t say how security was breached, or if they know.

The June incident wasn’t the first time the ACT has leaked in Asia, say people in the test-prep industry.

Businesses in China and South Korea regularly advertise ACT exam questions and answers just before test day. One Chinese company, Huafu Education, offered to provide test items to a Reuters reporter three days prior to an exam for $762.

“What we’re offering is exactly what you’ll see on test day,” a Huafu representative said in an online chat.


Former GAC students say some of the centers themselves have enabled cheating on the exam.
ACT AFFILIATE: The website for the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in China makes its affiliation with the ACT clear, even for those who don’t read Chinese.
The GAC graduate now attending UCLA said that a week or two before he was to take the ACT in December 2014, an administrator from his GAC center in China invited him to her office. There, he said, the administrator gave him a photocopy of an ACT booklet.

“She said these questions may be on the exam,” the student said. He estimated that about 40 percent of the questions on the ACT he later took were on the photocopied test.

“It helped,” he said. “It saved me time.” He scored 33 out of 36, he said, putting him among the top 1 percent of all test-takers.

The GAC graduate now attending the Midwestern university studied at the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Henan Province. In May 2014, he said, Zhengzhou Cornerstone provided students with a practice exam booklet. It contained scans and photographs of sections of the ACT, the student said. He said two articles in the booklet appeared on an exam he took at the center that fall. Another time he took the ACT at the center, he said, he witnessed three or four students discussing answers during a break.

In a statement to Reuters, an administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone called the accusations “ridiculous.”

Wenyue Li graduated from Zhengzhou Cornerstone in 2015 and just completed her freshman year at McGill University in Montreal. The night before she took the ACT at the GAC center in December 2014, she said, several classmates asked if she would be willing to help them answer math questions during a test break. In exchange, she said, they offered to share some answers to the reading section. She said she refused, but another student agreed.

She also said cheating in GAC classes at her school was “even more common” than cheating on the ACT.

The administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone disputed Li’s account. “We firmly resist any shortcuts or cheating,” the administrator said in the statement to Reuters. “We take every opportunity and use every means to emphasize to parents and students the importance of test security.”

A Chinese student now attending a university in Washington state provided a similar account about a different GAC center. She said she witnessed cheating on the ACT when she took it in September 2014 at a GAC center at Yantai Number One High School in Yantai, Shandong Province.
UNIQUE POSITION: This test-prep center in Seoul, STEPEDU, used to offer the ACT onsite. After Reuters reporters visited the cram school, the ACT ended that arrangement. REUTERS/Steve Stecklow
“I heard people asking, ‘What does this word mean, and what kind of preposition should I use?’” she said. The students spoke in English, which she said the teacher overseeing the exam didn’t understand.

“The teacher just pretended that she didn’t see that we are doing these bad things,” she said.

The Yantai GAC center didn’t reply to requests for comment.


The GAC program is also popular in South Korea, where six centers operate.

One is run at a Seoul test-prep center – known in Korean as a hagwon – called STEPEDU. Like many cram schools, STEPEDU offers classes to prepare for the ACT. Until last month, it also offered a bonus: the opportunity to take the ACT on site.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector,” STEPEDU’s president, Sam Han, said at a May 28 conference for students interested in applying to U.S. colleges. “Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

According to Bryan Maach, an ACT vice president who oversees international markets, a hagwon shouldn’t have been permitted to give the exam. He told Reuters that places “engaged in commercial test prep are not allowed to be testing sites for us. And that’s been very consistent for many years.”

Maach said he couldn’t explain how STEPEDU was able to administer the ACT.

Han said he previously operated a GAC center at a university in Seoul. In 2012, South Korea’s Education Ministry ordered universities to shut down study-abroad programs, declaring them an illegal threat to the country’s higher-education system.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector. Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

Sam Han, who served as president of South Korean cram school STEPEDU
The decree forced Han to move his GAC center and left him with 130 students who hadn’t completed the program. So, he said, he shifted his GAC operation to STEPEDU, the cram school where he served as president.

At the time, according to a person familiar with the matter, ACT’s test security unit recommended that the center not be allowed to administer the college entrance exam.

The advice went unheeded. STEPEDU began giving the ACT in April 2013, Han said. In English-language job postings, STEPEDU described itself as a partner of ACT Inc and “the official ACT Test provider in South Korea.”

ACT later received another warning about STEPEDU. Emails reviewed by Reuters show that Cody Shultz, a senior investigator with ACT in Iowa, was contacted by an informant last year. In one of the emails, from June 2015, the tipster states that the GAC center “is a testing center and a hagwon.”

Shultz assured the informant that ACT was examining the matter. “We did make some movement on the investigation,” Shultz wrote to the tipster. “We are looking at other strategies to address the larger issue of cheating in Korea.”

Even so, the organization let STEPEDU continue to operate as an ACT test center. ACT Inc finally ended the arrangement just before a reporter interviewed ACT officials about the matter on June 9. Han said he had told ACT that Reuters had recently visited STEPEDU.

“The GAC Korea Center was closed as an ACT test center shortly before your visit to ACT” in Iowa, ACT spokesman Colby said in an email. “I can provide no other details on this, as the matter is still under investigation.” He declined to make Shultz available for an interview.

Some GAC centers play the same conflicted role in China as well. Reuters identified five centers in China that administer the ACT and, contrary to ACT Inc’s policy, are run by organizations that also offer ACT test-prep classes.

One of them is a GAC center at Zhejiang University in eastern China. The center declined to comment. But its website recently advertised a summer test-prep class with “real ACT questions.”

The potential reward for students? “Perfect scores” on sections of the ACT.

Reporting by Steve Stecklow in Iowa City and Seoul, Alexandra Harney in Shanghai and Ju-min Park in Seoul. Additional reporting by the Shanghai newsroom.

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