Gerolinguistics” and text comprehension

The field of “gerolinguistics” is becoming more and more important. The word was first coined by G. Cohen in 1979 and it has been regularly used ever since.

How do older people read ? How do they perform when trying to understand difficult sentences ? It was the idea I was following when I recently decided to read a few papers about linguistic abilities and aging. As I work on different reader profiles I thought it would be an interesting starting point.

The fact is that I did not find what I was looking for, but was not disappointed since the assumption I had made on this matter were proved wrong by recent research. Here is what I learned.

Interindividual variability increases with age

First of all, it is difficult to build a specific profile that would address ‘older people’, as this is a vast category which is merely a subclass of the ‘readers’, and which (as them) contains lots of variable individual evolutions. Very old people (and not necesarily old people) do have more difficulties to read, but this can be caused by very different factors. Most of all, age is not a useful predictor :

Many aspects of language comprehension remain ...

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Microsoft to analyze social networks to determine comprehension level

I recently read that Microsoft was planning to analyze several social networks in order to know more about users, so that the search engine could deliver more appropriate results. See this article on : Microsoft idea: Analyze social networks posts to deduce mood, interests, education.

Among the variables that are considered, the ‘sophistication and education level’ of the posts is mentionned. This is highly interesting, because it assumes a double readability assessment, on the reader’s side and on the side of the search engine. More precisely, this could refer to a classification task.

Here is an extract of a patent describing how this is supposed to work.

[0117] In addition to skewing the search results to the user’s inferred interests, the user-following engine 112 may further tailor the search results to a user’s comprehension level. For example, an intelligent processing module 156 may be directed to discerning the sophistication and education level of the posts of a user 102. Based on that inference, the customization engine may vary the sophistication level of the customized search result 510. The user-following engine 112 is able to make determinations about comprehension level several ways, including from a user’s ...

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Amazon’s readability statistics by example

I already mentioned Amazon’s text stats in a post where I tried to explain why they were far from being useful in every situation : A note on Amazon’s text readability stats, published last December.

I found an example which shows particularly well why you cannot rely on these statistics when it comes to get a precise picture of a text’s readability. Here are the screenshots of text statistics describing two different books (click on them to display a larger view) :

Comparison of two books on Amazon

The two books look quite similar, except for the length of the second one, which seems to contain significantly more words and sentences.

The first book (on the left) is Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, whereas the second is The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner… The writing style could not be more different, however, the text statistics make them appear quite close to each other.

The criteria used by Amazon are too simplistic, even if they usually perform acceptably on all kind of texts. The readability formulas that output the first series of results only take the length of words and sentences into account and their scale is designed for the US school system. In ...

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2nd release of the German Political Speeches Corpus

Last Monday, I released an updated version of both corpus and visualization tool on the occasion of the DGfS-CL Poster-Session in Frankfurt, where I presented a poster (in German).

The first version had been made available last summer and mentioned on this blog, cf this post: Introducing the German Political Speeches Corpus and Visualization Tool.

For stability, the resource is available at this permanent redirect:


In case you don’t remember it or never heard of it, here is a brief description:

The resource presented here consists of speeches by the last German Presidents and Chancellors as well as a few ministers, all gathered from official sources. It provides raw data, metadata and tokenized text with part-of-speech tagging and lemmas in XML TEI format for researchers that are able to use it and a simple visualization interface for those who want to get a glimpse of what is in the corpus before downloading it or thinking about using more complete tools.

The visualization output is in valid CSS/XHTML format, it takes advantage of recent standards. The purpose is to give a sort of Zeitgeist, an insight on the topics developed by a ...

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XML standards for language corpora (review)

Document-driven and data-driven, standoff and inline

First of all, the intention of the encoding can be different. Richard Eckart summarizes two main trends: document-driven XML and data-driven XML. While the first uses an « inline approach » and is « usually easily human-readable and meaningful even without the annotations », the latter is « geared towards machine processing and functions like a database record. […] The order of elements often is meaningless. » (Eckart 2008 p. 3)

In fact, several choices of architecture depend on the goal of an annotation using XML. The main division regards standoff and inline XML (also : stand-off and in-line).

The Paula format (“Potsdamer Austauschformat für linguistische Annotation”, ‘Potsdam Interchange Format for Linguistic Annotation’) chose both approaches. So did Nancy Ide for the ANC Project, a series of tools enable the users to convert the data between well-known formats (GrAF standoff, GrAF inline, GATE or UIMA). This versatility seems to be a good point, since you cannot expect corpus users to change their habits just because of one single corpus. Regarding the way standoff and inline annotation compare, (Dipper et al. 2007) found that the inline format (with pointers) performs better.

A few trends in linguistic research

Speaking about trends in the German ...

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Completing web pages on the fly with JavaScript

As I am working on a new release of the German Political Speeches Corpus, I looked for a way to make web pages lighter. I have lots of repetitive information, so that a little JavaScript is helpful when it comes to save on file size. Provided that the DOM structure is available, there are elements that may be completed on load.

For example, there are span elements which include specific text. By catching them and testing them against a regular expression the script is able to add attributes (like a class) to the right ones. Without activating JavaScript one still sees the contents of the page, and with it the page appears as I intended. In fact, the attributes match properties defined in a separate CSS file.

I had to look for several JavaScript commands across many websites, that’s why I decided to summarize what I found in a post.

First example : append text and a target to a link

These lines of code match all the links that don’t already have a href attribute, and append to them a modified destination as well as a target attribute.

function modLink(txt){ 
    // Get all the links

var list = document ...

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Canadian research on readability in the ‘90s

I would like to write a word about the beginnings of computer-aided readability assessment research in Canada during the ‘90s, as they show interesting ways of thinking and measuring the complexity of texts.


Daoust, Laroche and Ouellet (1997) start from research on readability as it prevailed in the United States : they aim at finding a way to be able to assign a level to texts by linking them to a school level. They assume that the discourses of the school institutions are coherent and that they can be examined as a whole. Among other things, their criteria concern lexical, dictionary-based data and grammatical observations, such as the amount of proper nouns, of relative pronouns and of finite verb forms.

Several variables measure comparable aspects of text complexity and the authors wish to avoid being redundant, so they use factorial analysis and multiple regression to group the variables and try to explain why a text targeted a given school grade. They managed to narrow down the observations to thirty variables, whose impact on readability assessment is known. This is an interesting approach. The fact that they chose to keep about thirty variables in their study shows that readability formulas lack ...

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Word lists, word frequency and contextual diversity

How to build an efficient word list ? What are the limits of word frequency measures ? These issues are relevant to readability.

First, a word about the context : word lists are used to find difficulties and to try to improve the teaching material, whereas word frequency is used in psychological linguistics to measure cognitive processing. Thus, this topic deals with education science, psychological linguistics and corpus linguistics.

Coxhead’s Academic Word List

The academic word list by Averil Coxhead is a good example of this approach. He finds that students are not generally familiar with academic vocabulary, giving following examples : substitute, underlie, establish and inherent (p. 214). According to him, this kind of words are are “supportive” but not “central” (these adjectives could be good examples as well).

He starts from principles from corpus linguistics and states that “a register such as academic texts encompasses a variety of subregisters”, one has to balance the corpus.

Coxhead’s methodology is interesting. As one can see he probably read the works of Douglas Biber or John Sinclair, just to name a few. (AWL stands for Academic Word List.)

« To establish whether the AWL maintains high coverage over academic texts other than those in ...

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Interview with children’s books author Sabine Ludwig

Last week I had the chance to talk about complexity and readability with an experienced children’s books author, Sabine Ludwig (see also the page on the German Wikipedia). She has published around 30 books so far, as well as a dozen books which were translated from English to German. Some of them were awarded. The most successful one, Die schrecklichsten Mütter der Welt, had sold about 65.000 copies by the end of 2011 (although a few booksellers first thought it was unadapted to children). I was able to record the interview so that I could take extensive notes afterward, which I am going to summarize.

Sabine Ludwig writes in an intuitive way, which means that she does not pay attention to the complexity of the sentences she creates. She tries to see the world through a child’s eyes, and she pretends that the (inevitable) adaptation of both content and style takes place this way. She does not shorten sentences, neither does she avoid particular words. In fact, she does not want to be perfectly clear and readable for children. She does not find it to be a reasonable goal, because children can progressively learn words from a ...

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My contribution to the Anglicism of the Year award

I contributed to the Anglicism of the Year award nominations. It is the second edition, the first was rather confidential but still got mentionned by the English-speaking press (e.g. by The Guardian).

The jury is once again chaired by Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor in linguistics at Hamburg University. The selection of the final nominees will be relayed by a few German bloggers specialized in linguistics. I made it to the first nominees, but there was no selection so far, this phase goes till January 7th. News can be found on the official blog.

My suggestions are:

  • das Handyticketsystem
  • whistleblowen
  • der Occupist, die Occupisten
  • die Post-Privacy

To my opinion, the latter two have the good chances to advance to the final stage. Among the other nominees I like die Fazialpalmierung (facepalm) and die Liquid Democracy. But there are not that many interesting ones, that may be a reason why the deadline was postponed by a week.


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