The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, April 20, 2012

A spot of anthropology

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from my normal ELT work and spent a couple of hours reading and editing a research proposal for an anthropology project to study the effects of rapid economic growth in Mongolia!  It was sent to me by an old friend who's now a university lecturer in Social Anthropology. The story of how we met is an interesting one and, I realise, our association over the years has probably had more than a passing influence on the work on EAP materials I find myself doing now.

When I first went freelance, some 12 years ago, I looked into using some of my new-found flexibility to do some voluntary work of some kind.  I was living in Cambridge at the time and one of the places I approached was the university's centre for supporting disabled students.  Amongst other things, they put me in touch with a dyslexic anthropology PhD student who needed someone to proofread her thesis. Thus started a relationship which soon turned into a friendship and which has continued ever since. 

When she sent me the first section of text to look at, I couldn't make head nor tail of it! This had nothing to do with her dyslexia, which mostly only came out in odd surface errors like spellings and apostrophes, it was the subject matter and the genre that proved to be a challenge. The terminology and abstract concepts involved in social anthropology were initially completely impenetrable to an outsider.  Slightly daunted, I started off by confining my comments and corrections to surface language issues.  As I read more and became more familiar with the subject matter though, I got bolder in my suggestions, making comments about things that didn't seem clear, maybe needed more context or explanation or reorganizing. By the time she finally submitted her PhD, I'd learnt a huge amount not just about social anthropology and Mongolian culture, but about academic writing as well.

We've stayed in touch over the years and every now and then, she sends me something she'd like me to read through. This time it was a funding application to be judged by a panel of non-academics. As I've been working a lot on EAP materials lately, it was interesting to be viewing it with a slightly different analytical eye.  There were a few surface language points that I picked up right away, but then I got to thinking about how accessible it was for its intended audience.  The short answer is, it wasn't!  Anthropologists seem to be particularly guilty of the common academic tendency to make things sound way more complicated than they really are!  It's an interesting task to try and 'translate' the academic jargon into something slightly more comprehensible.  Part of that job is weighing up when a particular term is just "for show" and can easily be replaced by something more everyday and when it's really needed to pick out a subtle, but important distinction.

All in all, the task provided an interesting challenge, not to mention a welcome change, and sparked a few thoughts and reflections which will undoubtedly feed into my EAP work.  I hope it also helped in a small way to shape the proposal and I'll be keeping fingers crossed that my friend gets the funding she's after!

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