The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, July 03, 2015

Idioms: a post of two halves (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, I mulled over how useful (or not) it is to teach the more colourful end of the idiomatic spectrum (of the raining cats and dogs variety). My thoughts were prompted by a Twitter chat last week about teaching lexical chunks. As we bantered to and fro in 140-character bursts though, I was struck by how many idioms we employed ourselves to get our points across. Now admittedly, we were trying to outdo each other in seeing how many idioms we could shoehorn into the discussion. Nevertheless, I still found myself using them even when I wasn’t consciously trying to. And it got me thinking about the role of idioms in communication via social media.  

Part 2: Are idioms more prevalent in social media?

Let me start off by saying I haven’t done any kind of research into this, but my linguist’s intuition tells me that it could just be the case. Journalists and other writers who want to make a quick impact on their audience have long understood the power of a well-placed idiom:

They’re colourful: idioms generally conjure up vivid images (think of those cats and dogs falling from the sky), which makes them more salient than other types of language, they jump out at the reader, they paint a picture and may even raise a smile. When you’re trying to stand out amongst the jumble on someone’s newsfeed, that’s exactly what you want.

They’re much more than the sum of their parts: as I said in the first part of this post, an idiom often carries a whole load of connotational baggage along with it. Sometimes they just add a bit of emphasis, but frequently they say a lot more besides. Say, you wanted to describe someone who isn’t ‘normal’, each of these idioms might tell quite a different story:
off his rocker
has a screw loose
has lost the plot
a few sandwiches short of a picnic
mad as a box of frogs
a bit off the wall
... and of course, they say all that extra stuff in well under 140 characters!

They appeal to a shared culture: because idioms tend to be quite culturally-bound, when we use them, we’re saying something like “see, we have the same cultural background”, whether that’s quite broadly or as part of a sub-culture. At the extreme end, idioms are even created out of quotes from popular culture (apparently called snowclones; thanks to Hugh Dellar for that nugget), think “what have xxx ever done for us” (from Monty Python) or even the title of this post (which for those of you who don’t know comes from British football punditry). It’s probably also one of the reasons why idioms are so beloved of soap opera scriptwriters; by cramming the characters’ speech full of idioms, we’re perhaps inclined to think they’re “just like us”.

All those characteristics make idioms perfect for getting across a message concisely but with impact when space is limited. I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter and Facebook feeds over the past week and it’s difficult to say whether there are really a lot of idioms or whether I’m just noticing them. I was struck a few days ago though when I was trying to follow a Facebook thread in French and found myself struggling, not just because my French is a bit rusty, but because it was full of idioms I’d never come across. I learnt that “nous ne sommes pas sortis de l’auberge” (which Facebook rather unhelpfully translated word-for-word as “we haven’t left the hostel”!) apparently means something like “we’re not out of the woods yet”.

You just know you’re going to be spotting idioms everywhere now, don’t you? ...

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Idioms: a post of two halves (Part 1)

The other evening I’d fallen into the trap of having a quick flick through social media while I was half-watching something on TV and I stumbled across an #ELTChinwag discussion on Twitter which I couldn’t resist adding my twopenn’orth to. The discussion was about the Lexical Approach in ELT, but I came in on a thread about teaching idioms. It got me thinking on two slightly different paths:

Part 1: Teaching idioms

A contributor to the discussion made the following comment:

“one concern that we could focus too much on idiomatic lang. Most learners will prob be speaking with NNspeakers in future.”

It struck a chord as it goes to the heart of the arguments I’ve been having with editors for some years now about teaching ‘idioms’ (clarification of what I mean by that coming up), how useful they are in general and especially whether they have a place in the fairly restricted kind of format of vocabulary activity in many published materials (i.e. in a slot-filling type of context where students match them to their ‘meaning’ in a rather simplistic way).

Now before I go any further, I should clarify what I mean by an idiom. Of course, the term ‘idiom’ can be interpreted very broadly to refer to almost any fixed (or semi-fixed) chunk of language, in which case, it covers all kinds of expressions like in a moment, all the time, of course, all kinds of, etc. At the other end of the scale, it’s also frequently used to refer to the kind of colourful expressions of the ‘raining cats and dogs’ variety where it’s impossible to work out the meaning of the overall expression from the sum of its parts. And then there’s everything in-between which arguably forms a cline from the mundane and unremarkable, to the very salient and much more marked.

As someone who spends most of my working life playing around with vocabulary, it would be strange indeed if I wasn’t a big proponent of the former, ‘fixed phrase’ type of idiom. They’re absolutely essential for communication, almost no matter who you want to communicate with. What’s more, they provide learners with incredibly useful pre-formed chunks they can use to cut down the processing load required to create utterances completely from scratch every time.

Once in a blue moon?

The other end of the scale, that seems to be so beloved of coursebook publishers, I believe needs treating with more caution. The more colourful idioms (once in a blue moon, every dog has its day, have a bee in your bonnet, etc.) are particularly marked; that is they aren’t standard, neutral language that will go unnoticed, they stand out to the reader/listener and, perhaps most importantly, they do so because they often have lots of cultural associations and connotations tied up with them. Take a look at the selection of idioms below that roughly mean ‘annoy/irritate’ – who would you expect to use them and in what context? What do they tell you about the speaker and/or their intended listener? Which would the speaker use to talk about their own feelings and which about others? Which would you use?

get on sb’s nerves
get on sb’s tits
get up sb’s nose
rub sb up the wrong way
try sb’s patience
ruffle sb’s feathers
wind sb up
piss sb off
drive sb to distraction
drive sb round the bend
annoy the f**k out of sb

I could probably write a whole blog post about each one!

We all have our own idiolects, the words and phrases we use based on our background (social, cultural, regional, educational, etc.) our age, gender, etc. And we use different language based on the context, our mood and who we’re talking to. As native speakers, we weigh up our language choices all the time and (mostly) choose expressions that are just right from the context. We often couldn’t say exactly why a particular expression just fits, but our accumulated (largely subconscious) understanding of language comes into play.

Explaining all that to a learner, especially one from a very different cultural background, can be very difficult and advising them as to when, how or whether to use the expression for themselves is almost impossible. Of course, that’s true of all kinds of language (whether it’s slang or literary or whatever), but I think idioms are particularly tricky.

I’m not saying that we should avoid these idioms altogether, I’m just not sure that teaching whole sets of them apparently for productive use is terribly helpful. If they come up in a text, they can form an interesting point of discussion and help learners make sense of the same idiom if it crops up again – you wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of this blog post if you didn’t know a few idioms! -  but that’s a whole different kettle of fish from the type of activity where the learner simply has to match, well, a whole different kettle of fish to say ‘something completely different’, then try to use it in a sentence or worse still, a dialogue!

I’m not saying that as language teachers (or materials writers) we should dictate what language is and isn’t appropriate for our students to learn/use, but neither is it fair to teach language of this kind in a way that doesn’t fully explain its possible impact, leaving our students to make potentially very awkward or embarrassing faux pas when speaking to native speakers or alternatively, just elicit blank looks from other non-native speakers.

As I’ve rambled on quite long enough, I’ll break off here and come back to the other thought I had about the role of idioms in social media another day …

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

EOAP: the rise of the 'grey learner'?

I'm just back from a fantastic trip to France, talking to teachers in Strasbourg, Lille and Paris about the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Most of the teachers I met were freelancers, getting work from a mix of in-company training, one-to-one's and some general English courses for adults. Nothing new there. But the theme that kept emerging from conversations that struck me most was how many mentioned teaching classes of largely retired people.

It seems that, in France at least, there's a demographic who studied English at school, way back when, but who probably learned very little and who now, with time on their hands and money to spend on lessons, are returning to the classroom. Some are using their retirement to travel the globe and recognise how useful English is as a lingua franca, others have children who've moved abroad and find themselves with English-speaking grandchildren.

I was chatting to my colleague, Julie Norton, about it on the train from Lille to Paris and we were speculating about whether there's a market for materials aimed at "the older learner". OUP's new Navigate series (which both Julie and I have worked on) is aimed squarely at adult learners, avoiding the fluffy celebrity-focused topics of many courses for the teen and young adult market, but what might a course in EOAP (English for OAPs) look like?

Would it cover topics like gardening? (One I've had rejected when I tried to slip it into materials before!) What about useful language for describing daily aches and pains? Could "hip replacement" become target vocabulary? And as my mum suggested when I was telling her about the idea on the phone yesterday evening, how about classic sports cars for the older gentleman?!

And of course, this would be alongside all those useful travel expressions and how to Skype your grandson in Canada. Just a thought ...

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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vocabulary: making the shift from passive to active

On my trip to Poland a few weeks ago, I was quite surprised at how much Polish I understood (at least when it was written down), because of the similarities to Czech. Not that I really speak Czech, you understand. I lived in Prague for a couple of years, but I didn't make very much effort to learn the language (for all kinds of reasons) and I certainly never really "spoke Czech" beyond a few basic functional words and phrases. Evidently though, I did take in quite a bit of vocabulary, albeit in a very passive capacity.

All language learners have a much wider passive (or receptive) vocabulary (i.e. words they recognise and understand) than the range of active (or productive) vocabulary that they actually can (and do) make use of. Generally, as our learning progresses, the words in our passive vocab get transferred to our active repertoire as we become confident enough to use them. Up to a certain level, that process seems to be fairly natural; we need and want to talk about things which pushes us to start using new words. Somewhere around intermediate level though, that process often stalls. You reach a point where you can communicate most basic ideas adequately, so you just rely on the same old, familiar words and phrases you've grown comfortable with. It may be that your passive vocabulary continues to expand as you read more complex texts on a variety of subjects and you 'learn' new words, but whether those words then get put to use is quite a different matter, because they're often not strictly needed to communicate.

A fixation with new words:

It strikes me that our approach to vocab teaching often tends to reinforce this. Especially at higher levels, there seems to be a perception that vocab activities should only contain completely 'new' words, otherwise learners won't feel like they're learning and teachers won't feel like they're teaching. Many's the time when I've been writing vocab activities that I've had items vetoed because they were 'too easy', the students would already 'know' that word, it was covered at B1, or whatever. It's an attitude that bugs me on a number of levels ...

Firstly, just because you've met a word once doesn't mean you know it. Learning vocabulary is a complex and gradual process that involves repetition and recycling; you need to encounter a word repeatedly in different contexts to get a feel for it. Especially at higher levels, you need to understand how a word's used (its register, collocations, colligation) in order to really get to know it. And of course, English is a highly polysemous language; a single word can have several different meanings or be used in different expressions, so you can't just tick a single sequence of letters off a list and say you know it!

And then there's knowing and there's knowing. We really need to consider whether we're focusing on a particular lexical item because we want students to recognise it (as part of their passive vocab) or whether we expect them to actually start using it as part of their active vocabulary. And we need to think about how we can shift words from the passive category to the active. When students say they already 'know' word, we need to challenge them to start using it; to explicitly recognise and encourage that process of shifting from one set to the other.

A balanced vocab diet:
Oh yes, of course revision and recycling are important, I hear you say, but it's about more than just revisiting words in another receptive context (although, of course, that's important). For me, vocabulary activities need to include a smattering of comfortable, known vocab (perhaps working on those tricky points of usage like dependent prepositions), a handful of genuinely new items (so we all feel like we're breaking new ground) and then a healthy dose of that in-between category of words that we want to move from passive to active. And they need to include an appropriate mix of receptive and productive tasks. Especially when we're looking at those passive-active words, we need to encourage students to really use them, maybe choosing a handful of words they haven't used before to include a piece of writing or in an oral presentation.

If a student tells me that the vocab is too easy or claims that they already know a word, then I'll challenge them to use it, I'll dig a bit deeper into their knowledge. In short, I'll show them how they can know more and use it better. A constant diet of more new words on their own is of no use if understanding is only surface deep.

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