The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Semi-academic sources in EAP: an interview with a New Scientist journalist (2)

Part two: Language & vocabulary

My last post featured the first part of an interview with Dr Alison George, an editor for New Scientist magazine. She talked about how scientific papers are restructured and presented in a more appealing way for the more general, New Scientist readership. In this post, she talks about how the actual language used is different.

Dr Alison George: “A journalist will try to avoid the "jargon heavy" language used in scientific papers and adopt a simpler approach to conveying information.  A case in point is my PhD thesis, for which I gave the title:  "The biodegradation of anionic surfactants in the estuarine environment".  In hindsight, I realise that I went out of my way to use long words to make it sound serious.  This is typical of scientific papers. However, if I was explaining my thesis to a friend, I'd say that my research was about whether the chemicals found in shampoos and detergents are biodegradable.” 

I ask whether the use of long words in academic papers is really just about ‘sounding serious’ and on reflection, Alison admits, that isn’t always strictly true. “For example, to use "detergents" instead of "anionic surfactants" would have made it easier to understand for the lay person, but is technically inaccurate.

Vocabulary differences: a specific case

To further illustrate her point about language differences, Alison gave me an example of an article she’d written for New Scientist about penguins and for comparison, the two academic papers on which it was based. 

She picks out a couple of phrases that were reworded to make them more accessible. “The first paper used the words "synoptic survey" in the opening sentence and title . The words "synoptic survey" would not be used in New Scientist, instead we might say, "a survey of the entire coastline of Antarctica using satellite images".  

The second paper uses terms such as "analysis of coupled demographic and climate models ". Again, we would avoid using this term in New Scientist because it's hard to work out what it means. Instead, we might say something like: "predictions of future numbers of Emperor penguins based on forecasts of the Antarctic climate".  

The bottom line is this: although a scientific research paper and an article in New Scientist might tackle the same topic, and both might deal with some tricky concepts, the style they are written in is different. In New Scientist, we make strenuous efforts to translate technical terminology and jargon into words that an educated reader, without any specialist knowledge of the subject, should understand.”

Lost vocabulary:

What exactly constitutes ‘technical terminology’ though? The two examples above are clearly very specialist and arguably not very useful for the average EAP student to spend time on, but what about the rest of the language? If we compare the New Scientist article with the first of the academic articles in terms of overall vocabulary, we see any interesting difference:

New Scientist article
Original scientific paper
Top 2000 most frequent words
AWL* words
Other words
* Academic Word List

These stats are very broad-brush, but they do show that as well as cutting the most specialist terminology, the New Scientist article also loses a lot of the general academic vocabulary (here based on the AWL), which is probably exactly what EAP students do need. Just some of the vocabulary that gets lost in the edit here includes words like: assess, consistent, distribution, establish, evidence, factor, function, indicate, occur, variation; all recognizably useful core academic words.

If so many EAP materials focus on teaching this core academic vocabulary, it seems somewhat counterproductive to be using texts that quite consciously feature significantly less of it.

Idiom and hyperbole:

So what is it that replaces the academic vocabulary in the New Scientist article? Well, it does contain a higher proportion of high frequency words, which should make it more accessible to the average non-native speaker student. This is good news, of course, if you’re looking for input for a speaking lesson, say. However, there are a couple of linguistics features which could work against its usefulness in an EAP context.

Because New Scientist articles are essentially targeted at a native speaker readership, they draw on idiomatic language and cultural references to appeal to that audience. Take these two short extracts:

“Fast-forward a few decades, and many colonies will be on the road to extinction. Are we witnessing the last march of the emperor penguins?” (> tricky idioms in ‘fast-forward a few decades’ and ‘on the road to extinction’, plus the cultural reference to the documentary film ‘March of the Penguins’, which gets another mention later in the piece)

“This extraordinary lifestyle has made the emperors famous. They have even been held up as role models by evangelical Christians.” (> again, the cultural reference here might take quite a bit of explaining to students from some backgrounds!)

These type of issues might be a fun distraction in a General English class, but are they really an effective use of class time for students preparing for academic study? Again, I guess that’s down to context and the amount of class time available, as well as the interests and priorities of your students.

Perhaps of more concern, I think, for students trying to get to grips with an academic style of writing is the type of language used to give the story more impact for a general audience. The New Scientist article is littered with words like impossible, blockbuster, breath-taking, catastrophic, disastrous, extraordinary, demise and vanish.  This is exactly the type of language that academic writers are careful to avoid, unless it’s very carefully hedged (with seemingly, apparently, potentially, etc.) It comes back to the point Alison made above about the need to be completely accurate in academic writing. As EAP tutors, we warn our students to avoid exaggeration and overgeneralization in their writing, because we can foresee the comments which will come back from their subject tutors.

This raises the question of whether it’s actually misleading to present this type of text to students as an example of academic writing. How will they know just what’s appropriate to use in their own writing and what’s not? Yes, we can make mention of the differences, we can do a bit of genre analysis even, but will students be able to make all those distinctions for themselves, will they realize just what’s transferrable and what isn’t?

So having looked in a bit more detail at the genre, is it helpful to use articles from consumer magazines aimed at a general readership in an EAP context?  As Swales (2016) puts it: “Genres are defined in terms of their communicative purposes” and from what we’ve seen, the communicative purposes of these articles versus the kind of academic texts that students will need to read as part of their studies are clearly not the same. So, once again, I think, it comes back to the aims of the lesson; these articles are clearly more fun and engaging than most academic texts and because they’re aimed at a non-specialist audience, they’re more suited to a mixed-discipline EAP class. However, if the aim is to prepare students for the type of reading texts and language they’re going to need for their future studies, not only are these articles unhelpful, but they could actually prove a hindrance.

With special thanks to Alison George for taking the time to answer my questions, for being so enthusiastic about the topic and for providing some fascinating insights into the workings of New Scientist.

Fretwell PT, LaRue MA, Morin P, Kooyman GL, Wienecke B, Ratcliffe N, et al. (2012) An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species from Space. PLoS ONE 7(4): e33751. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033751
George A (2012) The last march of the emperor penguins. New Scientist
Jenouvrier S, Holland M, Stroeve J, Barbraud J, Weimerskirch H, Caswell H (2012) Effects of climate change on an emperor penguin population: analysis of coupled demographic and climate model. Global Change Biology 18 (9), p.2756-2770
Swales J (2016) Genre & English for Academic Purposes video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W--C4AzvwiU&feature=youtu.be

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Semi-academic sources in EAP: An interview with a New Scientist journalist (1)

Part one: Structure and content

In the past few years, I’ve come across several EAP teachers who are advocates of using what could be described as ‘semi-academic’ texts in class. By this, I mean articles from magazines such as New Scientist, National Geographic or the Economist. These articles take academic topics and often report on academic research, but they’re arguably more accessible and engaging than rather dry, ‘authentic’ academic texts (from textbooks or academic journals).  I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about their use though because my sense is that these magazines represent a wholly different genre with a different style of language and different conventions which could actually be more misleading than helpful for EAP students.

To find out more about the differences between the genres, I interviewed a good friend of mine, Dr Alison George, an editor for New Scientist magazine. 

Dr Alison George

I asked her quite simply about the process of ‘translating’ an article from a scientific journal into something to be published in New Scientist. She came back with lots of really fascinating insights, so I’ve broken down the interview into two parts. In this post, I’ll look at how the structure and content of articles differs. And in my next post, I’ll look in detail at the actual language used. 

Dr Alison George: “I can only speak for the way that science papers are written. It's possible that academic papers in archaeology or economics are written differently.  However, the main purpose of all these papers is to convey information to other specialists, so the language is often obscure and the way they are written is of secondary importance to the information they contain.  Little effort is made to make them accessible to non-specialists. 

So how do we, at New Scientist magazine, turn scientific papers into magazine articles?  

Structure & content

For a start, only the most thought-provoking, surprising or important papers will make it into the magazine.  A journalist will think about why a particular paper is cool or exciting, and then try and convey that essence early in the story.  A reader of a consumer magazine such as the Economist, New Scientist or National Geographic has a million other things they could be reading - they have to be seduced into reading your article from myriad others on offer.  

The writing style used is different depending on whether the article is a news story or a feature-length article. A news story will generally have an introductory sentence, then will quickly move onto: how, what, who, why, where, when (in other words, giving the reader all the key details of the story as soon as possible).   A feature story will generally have an opening paragraph that grabs the reader's attention and piques their interest.  The second or third paragraph is usually what is called a "nutgraph" (aka "in a nutshell paragraph") which tells the reader what the story is about.  

This is a completely different style of writing to a scientific paper, where the most interesting stuff is often given in the final paragraph of the Discussion section, and the emphasis is placed on conveying correct information rather than grabbing a reader's attention.”

So what implications does this have for EAP students?

If we’re trying to help students improve their reading skills and enable them to deal with the volume of reading they’ll need to cope with through their studies, then reading magazine articles that are structured to give the key information up front, won’t necessarily prepare them for dealing with more formal academic texts, especially postgrads who will have to read original journal articles. 

Academic readers learn to use abstracts rather like the opening paragraph of a magazine article, to find out what the rest of the article is about and whether it’s worth reading on. These abstracts though are incredibly densely packed and require a certain degree of skill to decode. Readers then typically jump to the discussion section to find out the interesting ‘meat’ of the article. Isn’t this a method of reading that EAP students need to get to grips with? Learning where to look and what to skim over or discount will help them maximize their reading time and become much more efficient academic readers. Is spoon-feeding students with texts that present key information in an easy-to-digest form at the start really helping them with the academic reading skills they’ll need to master at some point?

Of course, as ever, what’s appropriate depends a lot on context. What stage your students are at (pre-university, early undergrad or preparing for postgrad study) will inevitably influence what skills you decide to focus on.  Similarly, you also need to think about the aims of a particular lesson. If it’s a discussion class and your aim is to get students engaged in lively discussion, then the exact form of any input will be much less significant than if you’re working specifically on reading or writing.

In my next post, I’ll look at how New Scientist journalists change the language of scientific articles to make it more accessible to their readers and what implications this might have in the EAP classroom.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: A Busy Year

2015 has been a busy year. I’ve been working flat-out for most of the year on back-to-back writing projects and as the year draws to an end, I’m mostly just completely exhausted!

It’s actually been quite an exciting year with lots of really interesting work. Several projects have been in areas that I love working in and I’ll be very excited to see them published (later next year). The schedules though have been distinctly over-optimistic and the expectations of my input very high. I’ve found myself working long hours and a lot of weekends, with only 2 weeks off all year; so much for work-life balance!

I wouldn’t have got through it all without the support of a couple of fabulous editors; Duncan Hamilton (in-house at OUP) and Alison Macaulay (a freelance editor). I’ve been really lucky to have great working relationships with both of them that saw us working closely together to get the best out the material. Perhaps even more importantly, they supported me with humour and encouragement; an invaluable ingredient when you’re a freelancer ploughing on solo at your desk.

I haven’t been chained to my desk all year though. I had a busy conference season back in the spring, with 3 presentations in just over a week! I really enjoyed presenting at the MaWSIG PCE at IATEFL and I had a fun workshop at the BALEAP conference in Leicester. 

I had a couple of foreign trips talking to teachers about the new edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in Poland in March and in France in June; both lots of fun with great co-presenters and travelling companions in Rachael Roberts and Julie Norton. That was followed by a week surrounded by lovely teachers from around the world as part of the ELT Summer Seminar series at Exeter College in Oxford.

2015 also saw a temporary move to a rented office to escape noise at home, several meetings with fellow Bristol-based freelancers for coffee and chat, and a bit of a revamp for my website.
So what does 2016 hold? Well, my diary’s already getting quite full with events; an ELT Freelancers’ awayday in Oxford at the end of January, a MaWSIG event in London, then an EAP conference in St Andrews in February, IATEFL in Birmingham in April and my first plenary at the MATSDA conference in Liverpool in June.

I’m also looking forward to some much-needed holiday! I’ve already got a week away booked in January and there are more trips in the planning. I’d like to do some more teaching this summer on an EAP pre-sessional somewhere outside of Bristol; nothing against Bristol, but I’d just like to experience how things are done somewhere else (suggestions welcome!). And I’m mulling over a few other projects that might come to fruition if I can find the time.

Most of all though, I’m looking forward to meeting and working with lots more interesting people!

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