The English language is the world’s Achilles heel



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Filtering information.
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Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University

English has achieved prime status by becoming the most widely spoken language in the world – if one disregards proficiency – ahead of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is spoken in 101 countries, while Arabic is spoken in 60, French in 51, Chinese in 33, and Spanish in 31. From one small island, English has gone on to acquire lingua franca status in international business, worldwide diplomacy, and science.

But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

When someone uses their second language, they seem to operate slightly differently than when they function in their native language. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “foreign language effect”. Research from our group has shown that native speakers of Chinese, for example, tended to take more risks in a gambling game when they received positive feedback in their native language (wins), when compared to negative feedback (losses). But this trend disappeared – that is, they became less impulsive – when the same positive feedback was given to them in English. It was as if they are more rational in their second language.

While reduced impulsiveness when dealing in a second language can be seen as a positive thing, the picture is potentially much darker when it comes to human interactions. In a second language, research has found that speakers are also likely to be less emotional and show less empathy and consideration for the emotional state of others.

For instance, we showed that Chinese-English bilinguals exposed to negative words in English unconsciously filtered out the mental impact of these words. And Polish-English bilinguals who are normally affected by sad statements in their native Polish appeared to be much less disturbed by the same statements in English.

In another recent study by our group, we found that second language use can even affect one’s inclination to believe the truth. Especially when conversations touch on culture and intimate beliefs.

English is one of the most studied languages in the world.
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Since second language speakers of English are a huge majority in the world today, native English speakers will frequently interact with non-native speakers in English, more so than any other language. And in an exchange between a native and a foreign speaker, the research suggests that the foreign speaker is more likely to be emotionally detached and can even show different moral judgements.




Read more:
Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English – and lose out in global business


And there is more. While English provides a phenomenal opportunity for global communication, its prominence means that native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity. This is a problem because there is good evidence that differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in conceptualisation of the world and even perception of it.

In 2009, we were able to show that native speakers of Greek, who have two words for dark blue and light blue in their language, see the contrast between light and dark blue as more salient than native speakers of English. This effect was not simply due to the different environment in which people are brought up in either, because the native speakers of English showed similar sensitivity to blue contrasts and green contrasts, the latter being very common in the UK.

On the one hand, operating in a second language is not the same as operating in a native language. But, on the other, language diversity has a big impact on perception and conceptions. This is bound to have implications on how information is accessed, how it is interpreted, and how it is used by second language speakers when they interact with others.

We can come to the conclusion that a balanced exchange of ideas, as well as consideration for others’ emotional states and beliefs, requires a proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. In other words, we need truly bilingual exchanges, in which all involved know the language of the other. So, it is just as important for English native speakers to be able to converse with others in their languages.

The US and the UK could do much more to engage in rectifying the world’s language balance, and foster mass learning of foreign languages. Unfortunately, the best way to achieve near-native foreign language proficiency is through immersion, by visiting other countries and interacting with local speakers of the language. Doing so might also have the effect of bridging some current political divides.


The Conversation


Read more:
What will the English language be like in 100 years?


Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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English swearing’s European origins



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Science Oxford

Emily Reed, University of Sheffield

When learning a new language, what’s the first thing most of us do? If you are like me, you flick through the dictionary to find all the naughty words. And a quick glance on Amazon will reveal a veritable library dedicated to the rigorous pursuit of insulting around the world. We seem to be just a little obsessed – and why the hell not?

But we actually don’t need to reach for the nearest Collins dictionary to pick up some polyglot profanities. Many English swear words have come from different languages over the centuries. For example, the classics – “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” – are words the language shares with older Germanic and Scandinavian languages. Fuck is likely to be cognate with the Dutch “fokken”, which in the 15th century meant “to mock” – and may also be related to Middle High German “ficken”, meaning “to rub”’. Both words began to be related to sexual intercourse in the 16th century.

The earliest mention we have in English for fuck (in the sense of copulation) is in a Latin-English sermon from 1500. That’s right, a sermon (find it here on page 91). What is particularly fascinating here is the encryption – with each letter representing the one before it in the alphabet, suggesting some level of aversion to the word:

Non sunt in cœli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.

Decrypting the last four rather incriminating words gives us: “fvccant vvjvys of heli” – which, when translated means: “They [monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.”. To decipher the code, we have to bear in mind the differences in both the alphabet and spelling between then and now: the letter “w” did not exist, instead, one could use “vv” to represent this sound. You could also use “j” in the place of “i”, and “v” in the place of “u”.

Fuck also appears in Middle English names and place names, often meaning “to strike”. Hence Henry Fuckebegger (on the record in 1286) most likely beat the poor, rather than shagging them. Shit and cunt, which both have cognates in earlier Germanic and Scandinavian languages, have also been used in placenames from the Middle Ages. Skidbrooke in Lincolnshire, for example, appears in the Domesday book as “Schitebroc” – that is: “Shit-brook”. In fact, if you ever walk down a Grape or Grove Lane, chances are it used to be one of the many “Gropecuntlanes”, denoting a medieval red-light district.

Cleaned up its act: Grope Lane in Shrewsbury.
Dpaajones via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Mind your language

So we know that a lot of our favourite swears are loans from the Germanic and Scandinavian language families. Well, yes and no. The words may come from these origins, but where their use comes from is where it can get interesting. I’m about to make the case that one of the most quintessentially British swear words is, in fact, kind of French. The word I’m talking about is “bloody”, as in, every time Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley exclaims “Bloody hell, Harry!”

The origins of this one seem consistent with the rest of the swear words – it’s a Germanic word that appears in Old and Middle English as an adjective meaning “bloodthirsty”, “cruel” and “murderous” alongside the more obvious “bloodstained” sense. But nowhere is it used as a swear word. One could make the case that the swear use comes from contact with Anglo Norman, which was a variety of French that came with the Normans in 1066. This is because it is in Anglo Norman that we find the French word “sanglant” (meaning “bloody”) being used as a swear word.

Sanglant appears twice in a 1396 version of a conversation manual called the Manières de langage, which was essentially the textbook for learning French at the turn of the 15th century. It appears in insults such as “senglant merdous garcion” (“bloody filthy rogue”), and “senglent filz de putaigne” (“bloody son of a whore”). Indeed, sanglant as a swear word seems to have enjoyed a particularly Anglo-Norman flavour.

Pour épater les Anglais

In the continental French farce Pathelin (1457), the eponymous character attempts to avoid repaying a debt by babbling in various French dialects in an attempt to appear mad. He utters the words “sanglant paillart” (“bloody bastard”) while speaking in the Norman dialect. Moreover, in the Chronique de Charles VII, the French call the “Angloiz et Normans” (Angles and Normans) by the insult “senglans puans mezeaulx porriz” (“bloody putrid rotting lepers”). Here, the French are ironically insulting the English in one of their own tongues, which was at that time a dialect of French.

Not that kind of swearing, silly! Although the Norman Conquest give English people a whole new set of naughty words.
Myrabella, CC BY

It is only after the appearance of “sanglant” that we then get “bloody” as a swear word – which means that it is very likely that this seemingly Germanic word has assumed a Francophone character.

Research into the English language reveals that the UK shares more with Europe than many realise. The language contact situation is particularly diverse for Britain, with heavy influence from Germanic/Scandinavian languages. As the evolution of the word “bloody” suggests, Anglo Norman also played a fundamental role in how English speakers use words.

The ConversationBut for Anglo Norman, the key message is that this was a variety of French that was viewed in the Middle Ages as a British language. Hence, English has evolved from a background of significant linguistic diversity that has formed part of the country’s identity for centuries. And the traces of that are sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Emily Reed, Doctoral Researcher in Late-Medieval Linguistics and Literature, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The slippery grammar of spoken vs written English



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We use different grammar when speaking or writing, but the difference is so subtle that linguists were blind to it for centuries.
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Andreea S. Calude, University of Waikato

My grammar checker and I are on a break. Due to irreconcilable differences, we are no longer on speaking terms.

It all started when it became dead set on putting commas before every single “which”. Despite all the angry underlining, “this is a habit which seems prevalent” does not need a comma before “which”. Take it from me, I am a linguist.

This is just one of many challenging cases where grammar is slippery and hard to pin down. To make matters worse, it appears that the grammar we use while speaking is slightly different to the grammar we use while writing. Speech and writing seem similar enough – so much so that for centuries, people (linguists included) were blind to the differences.




Read more:
How students from non-English-speaking backgrounds learn to read and write in different ways


There’s issues to consider

Let me give you an example. Take sentences like “there is X” and “there are X”. You may have been taught that “there is” occurs with singular entities because “is” is the present singular form of “to be” – as in “there is milk in the fridge” or “there is a storm coming”.

Conversely, “there are” is used with plural entities: “there are twelve months in a year” or “there are lots of idiots on the road”.

What about “there’s X”? Well, “there’s” is the abbreviated version of “there is”. That makes it the verb form of choice when followed by singular entities.

Nice theory. It works for standard, written language, formal academic writing, and legal documents. But in speech, things are very different.

It turns out that spoken English favours “there is” and “there’s” over “there are”, regardless of what follows the verb: “there is five bucks on the counter” or “there’s five cars all fighting for that Number 10 spot”.

A question of planning

This is not because English is going to hell in a hand basket, nor because young people can’t speak “proper” English anymore.

Linguists Jen Hay and Daniel Schreier scrutinised examples of old recordings of New Zealand English to see what happens in cases where you might expect “there” followed by plural, (or “there are” or “there were” for past events) but where you find “there” followed by singular (“there is”, “there’s”, “there was”).

They found that the contracted form “there’s” is a go-to form which seems prevalent with both singular and plural entities. But there’s more. The greater the distance between “be” and the entity following it, the more likely speakers are to ignore the plural rule.

“There is great vast fields of corn” is likely to be produced because the plural entity “fields” comes so far down the expression, that speakers do not plan for it in advance with a plural form “are”.

Even more surprisingly, the use of the singular may not always necessarily have much to do with what follows “there is/are”. It can simply be about the timing of the event described. With past events, the singular form is even more acceptable. “There was dogs in the yard” seems to raise fewer eyebrows than “there is dogs in the yard”.




Read more:
How students from non-English-speaking backgrounds learn to read and write in different ways


Nothing new here

The disregard for the plural form is not a new thing (darn, we can’t even blame it on texting). According to an article published last year by Norwegian linguist Dania Bonneess, the change towards the singular form “there is” has been with us in New Zealand English ever since the 19th century. Its history can be traced at least as far back as the second generation of the Ulster family of Irish emigrants.

Editors, language commissions and prescriptivists aside, everyday New Zealand speech has a life of its own, governed not so much by style guides and grammar rules, but by living and breathing individuals.

It should be no surprise that spoken language is different to written language. The most spoken-like form of speech (conversation) is very unlike the most written-like version of language (academic or other formal or technical writing) for good reason.

Speech and writing

In conversation, there is no time for planning. Expressions come out more or less off the cuff (depending on the individual), with no ability to edit, and with immediate need for processing. We hear a chunk of language and at the same time as parsing it, we are already putting together a response to it – in real time.

This speed has consequences for the kind of language we use and hear. When speaking, we rely on recycled expressions, formulae we use over and over again, and less complex structures.

For example, we are happy enough writing and reading a sentence like:

That the human brain can use language is amazing.

But in speech, we prefer:

It is amazing that the human brain can use language.

Both are grammatical, yet one is simpler and quicker for the brain to decode.

And sometimes, in speech we use grammatical crutches to help the brain get the message quicker. A phrase like “the boxes I put the files into” is readily encountered in writing, but in speech we often say and hear “the boxes I put the files into them”.

We call these seemingly unnecessary pronouns (“them” in the previous example) “shadow pronouns”. Even linguistics professors use these latter expressions no matter how much they might deny it.

Speech: a faster ride

There is another interesting difference between speech and writing: speech is not held up on the same rigid prescriptive pedestal as writing, nor is it as heavily regulated in the same way that writing is scrutinised by editors, critics, examiners and teachers.

This allows room in speech for more creativity and more language play, and with it, faster change. Speech is known to evolve faster than writing, even though writing will eventually catch up (at least for some changes).

The ConversationI would guess that by now, most editors are happy enough to let the old “whom” form rest and “who” take over (“who did you give that book to?”).

Andreea S. Calude, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Get yer hand off it, mate, Australian slang is not dying



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Aussie slang such as ‘budgie’, ‘greenie’, ‘pollie’, ‘surfie’, and even ‘mozzie’ are now also making appearances in global English.
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Kate Burridge, Monash University and Howard Manns, Monash University

As the debate continues over whether Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, this series looks at the politics of some unresolved issues swirling around Australia Day – namely, the republic and reconciliation. And just for good measure, we’ll check the health of Australian slang along the way.


The Australian attachment to slanguage (slang language) goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers in Australia. As Edward Gibbon Wakefield noted in his 1829 Letter from Sydney:

The base language of English thieves is becoming the established language of the colony … No doubt [terms of slang and flash] will be reckoned quite parliamentary, as soon as we obtain a parliament.

Wakefield’s observation was spot-on. The cant of the underworld (so-called “flash” or “kiddy” language) flourished in these early days. Slang had become an important way of fitting in and avoiding the label “stranger” (or “new chum”) – and, as linguist Evan Kidd confirms, it still is.

Yet, every few years there’s a furphy that our beloved “Strine” slang is doing a Harold Holt.

Reports of the death of slang downunder are total bulldust

Early in 2017, the Australian pie company Four’N Twenty expressed its concern that Australians hadn’t been “slinging slang” enough, and so launched its “Save Our Slang” campaign, aimed at promoting some 70 you-beaut, dinky-di, true-blue Aussie-isms (bloke, bogan, grouse, straya, you bewdy, and so on).

A few years earlier, in 2014, the appearance of Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang sparked a series of articles heralding the end of the golden era of Australian slang, prompted by the fact that the work had added only three new (not terribly usual, to our mind) Australian terms: tockley “penis”, ort “buttocks” and unit “bogan”).

We commonly pin the blame for the death of Aussie slang on our anklebiters-cum-adolescents and their love of seppo (short for “septic tank”, rhyming slang for Yank) slang. But it’s worth noting seppo influence has been a lexical and moral concern at least since the introduction of American “talkies” in the 1920s, as documented by historian Joy Damousi:

… that influx of nauseous American slang and vile English which regularly appears upon the screen, and threatens to reduce the Australian vernacular to the level of the New York gutter-snipe.

It’s also worth noting that some of what we consider to be true-blue slang in fact finds its origins in – hold onto your Akubra – early contact with American English.

There was an influx of Americans to the goldfields from the 1850s, and they brought with them a bunch of American colloquialisms. These included bonza/bonzer, which is probably from American English bonanza (originally from Spanish and used in the US in the 1840s for a successful gold mine).

Even waltzing – “carrying” – is probably from American slang, or at least was used at the same time and in the same way. Sure, we have records of Australians “waltzing Matilda” in 1890, but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were “waltzing” with this same meaning (albeit sans Matilda) in 1884.

Australian slang: like the eggs of the codfish

Some align the disappearance of Aussie slang with Australia’s maturing as a nation.

Certainly words, more than other aspects of language, are linked to life and culture, and perhaps the changes in Australian society are such that the days of the chiacking larrikin (or cheeky lovable prankster) have passed?

But it is the nature of slang that there will always be a turnover of terms – today’s cobber is tomorrow’s mate, ranga for a redhead replaces blue/bluey, bogan replaces ocker and so on.

As American writer Gelett Burgess put it in his 1902 essay, In Defence of Slang:

Like the eggs of the codfish, one survives and matures, while a million perish.

An expression that fills a need becomes accepted but, as Burgess describes:

… it is a frothy compound, and the bubbles break when the necessity of the hour is past, so that much of it is evanescent.

His own brilliant creation blurb for “a short publicity notice” was clearly one of the eggs that survived – and thrived.

We are continuing to sling slang

It seems we get so obsessed with the death of Australian English that we miss those many great terms that are being created beneath our very eyes in Australia and by Australians. Just look at the slew of recent additions to the Australian National Dictionary (most stemming from the 1980s and 90s):

hornbag, snot block, checkout chick, houso, reg grundies, ambo, rurosexual, seppo, spunk rat (previously also spunk bubble), chateau cardboard, firie, tradie, trackie daks

And we continue to play with these terms – goon has been around for a while, but it keeps on inspiring new creations, including goon bag (1998), goon juice (2000), goon of fortune (2004), goon sack (2009), and so on.

The rhyming hoon is another great example of how language is always on the move. It’s attested as a noun in 1938 (“lout”, “exhibitionist”), but with the shift to “young hooligan, especially as a driver” in the late 80s, we see a rich proliferation of changes, including hoon as a verb (1988), and nouns denoting the act of being a hoon, including hoonery (1987), hoonishness (1993), hoondom (1998) and their weapon of choice, the hoonmobile (1994), with which they could be adjectives hooney or hoonish.

The other interesting thing about hoon is that it illustrates how one meaning can oust another. The driver sense of hoon has pushed out the pimp sense that existed alongside it from the 1950s to the turn of the century (a very rare case where a risqué meaning hasn’t won out).

So, slang continues to flourish. It’s also clear there’s no sign that we’re about to give up our shortenings – as seppo, firie and trackie daks attest, Australians still love abbreviations. And we are exporting them it seems.

Aussie contributions to world lexicon

Australian selfie was the Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” for 2013 (the frequency of the word had increased by a whopping 17,000% since the previous year). Its success was astonishing – in the same year it was even crowned Dutch Word of the Year (no squeamishness about loanwords in the Netherlands).

But there are plenty of other success stories too: budgie, greenie, pollie, surfie, even mozzie are now also making appearances in global English, as are demo, preggo and muso. These join many other exports – no worries, like a rat up a drainpipe, to put the boot in, to rubbish (someone) to name a few.

Australia recently scored another global hit with Macquarie’s Word of the Year 2017, milkshake duck, “a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but is then discovered to have something questionable about them, which causes a sharp decline in their popularity”.

It’s a “patriotic pick”, as Tiger Webb points out. Coined by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, milkshake duck not only marks an Australian contribution to the global lexicon, but also carries shades of an Australian cultural contribution: the tall poppy.

So, let’s not milkshake duck (verb) Australian slang by focusing too much on the past cultural cringe and underplaying the evolving nature of slang.

After all, it’s funny to think that at the same time as we’re complaining about Australian slang dying, the Brits are complaining about Australian language features slipping into their kids’ repertoires.


The ConversationCatch up on others in the series here.

Kate Burridge, Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Linguistics, Monash University and Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In defence of grammar pedantry



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It’s really ok to be a grammar pedant.
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Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

This week, the financial press reported the downfall of a high-profile grammar pedant, Professor Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist, who was hoist(ed) on his own pedantic petard.

He is being replaced as head of the bank’s research arm after he demanded that his colleagues write succinct, clear, direct emails, presentations and reports in the active voice with a low proportion of “and’s”. Romer will remain the bank’s chief economist.

In fact, he had threatened not to publish the bank’s central publication, World Development Report, “if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6 per cent”. He had also cancelled a regular publication that he believed had no clear purpose.

Why, you may ask, did the economists who work in the World Bank’s research department take exception to these strictures? Who wouldn’t want the corporate report that was a flagship publication of the bank to be narrow and “penetrate deeply like a knife”? Romer’s 600 colleagues, that’s who. But why?

It seems that, while he was encouraging his staff to avoid their customary convoluted “bankspeak” and consider their readers, he failed to follow his own advice. He was apparently curt, abrasive and combative. The troops refused to fall into line and he was ousted.

Such a shame, Professor Romer, because we need more pruning of the muddy prose that is endemic in so many institutions, particularly banks. We can only imagine how Australia’s four big banks are readying themselves to obfuscate their documents in response to the recent budget measures.

The various shades of pedantry

There are two kinds of people in this world: pedants and everybody else. Pedantry isn’t confined to grammar, of course. Pedantry can be found in architecture, cooking (for example, Julian Barnes’s lovely little book The Pedant in the Kitchen), geometry, music, philosophy, politics and science. Think Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the most popular show on American television.

Romer’s case, however, highlights the key dilemma of grammar pedants: how do you handle your pedantry so that you don’t lose your job? It depends on what kind of pedant you are.

Do you practise your pedantry privately by just “thinking” corrections at other people when they write “bunker” instead of “hunker” down? Or do you practise your pedantry publicly and thereby subject yourself to taunts of “peevish prescriptivist”, “nit-picking, hair-splitting pedant”, or the more arcane and colourful “pettifogging pedant”?

This sort of abuse rained on Bryan Henderson, the American software engineer who had removed 47,000 instances of “comprised of” from Wikipedia by the end of 2015.

BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman was quoted in The Guardian in 2014 as saying:

People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.

Pedants anonymous

I am a fervent believer that grammar provides writers with analytical tools to choose and combine words felicitously into English sentences to a set of professional standards that serve utilitarian needs and provide intellectual pleasure.

However, aware from long experience that it’s rare to be thanked for pointing out a solecism that has made me wince, I attempt to shield the newly minted graduates of my grammar course at The University of Queensland from the potential consequences of sharing their knowledge with those less grammatically alert. To this end, I lead a discussion about their stance on grammar in the final class of the semester.

To counter the negative connotations evoked by the term “grammar pedant” and to celebrate their pleasure in language, they invent playful monikers such as “grammartiste”, “grammagician”, “grammardian angel”, “grammar groover”, “grammartuoso” and “grammasseur”.

Anne Curzan, a grammar maven who contributes to the Lingua Franca blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education, favours “grammando”; I prefer the much less warlike “grammond” (modelled on gourmand, “one who has a refined palate for grammar and savours it at its best”).

That “linguifier” Stephen Fry begs us to abandon our pedantry, but he confines his admonition to non-professional contexts and admits: “It’s hard not to wince when someone aspirates the word ‘aitch’ and uses the genteelism of yourself and myself instead of you and me.”

Fry says that “context, convention and circumstance are all”. And this is what Professor Romer forgot. What we need to abandon is not pedantry. After all, its etymological origins are in teaching.

It is peevish, condescending and competitive pedantry that is the culprit. We could take a lesson from the Bristol engineer who has for 13 years used his specially designed long-handled apostrophiser and step-ladder to remove aberrant apostrophes and plant missing ones on buildings in Bristol and managed to remain anonymous.

The wonderful parodist Craig Brown’s solution may be an even better choice:

It’s always pleasant to go carol-singing, or carols-singing, with the Pedants’ Association, formerly the Pedants Association, originally the Pedant’s Association. I first joined ten years ago with the long-term aim of attracting the requisite number of votes in order to change its title to The Association of Pedants, thus rendering the apostrophe redundant.

The ConversationI’ll leave the uses and abuses of “and” aside for another day.

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.