The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 30, 2015

Poles apart

I've just got back from a whistle-stop tour of Poland; visiting six cities in six days to talk about dictionary skills to some lovely groups of English teachers. It was my first trip to Poland and as ever, one of the most interesting things about visiting a new country for work was the reaction of the teachers to my session.

You kind of assume that teachers the world over will be much the same, and in many ways, they are, but every country throws up something slightly different. One of my very first speaking 'tours', many years ago, was to Ukraine. I was talking then too about dictionaries and dictionary skills, so I was a little surprised when at the end of each session, I had a series of really tough grammar questions thrown at me. I don't think they were trying to catch me out, they were just really into grammar and were taking the (rare) opportunity of having a native speaker on hand to ask.

In Germany, it took me a while to get used to the fact that when I got to the end of my workshop, everyone starting banging on the table. Apparently, it's the normal way to show your appreciation in Germany; the equivalent of a round of applause. A bit disconcerting though if you're not expecting it!

So what did I notice about the Poles? Well, I guess the thing that took a while to get used to was their initial demeanour. For most sessions, they arrived very quietly, with none of the chatter I'd usually expect of a gathering of teachers. They spread themselves around the room sitting separately and mostly at the back. And as I started my session, I was met with a sea of incredibly serious faces. I came to discover that in general Polish presentations (or 'lectures' as everyone kept referring to them) tend to be rather formal, serious affairs. 

And that wasn't the only cultural difference I discovered. One of the points in my session which provoked the most discussion was the issue of politeness in English and how it differs from Polish norms. It seems that Poles tend to be more direct in their interactions, not because they intend to be rude, but because of a subtly different attitude towards interaction between people.  One participant, Ewa in Gdansk, pointed me in the direction of a really interesting article which examines the Polish idea of 'assumed cooperation'. I wouldn't normally quote from the Daily Mail, but apart from a few rather stereotypical references to Polish plumbers, it's actually a good summary of a piece of academic research, in which Dr Zinken from the University of Portsmouth explains:

“One of the reasons behind the difference in phrasing questions … in each language might be because there is a strong sense of communal responsibility and solidarity in Polish culture, whereas in English culture the maintenance of every individual's privacy borders is important. While in Polish the other person's availability … is assumed, in English … the other person's availability always depends on their agreement.”

And of course, in order to secure that agreement in English, we use all kinds of rather long-winded, ‘polite’ language (Could you just pop your signature here for me, please? rather than Sign here, please.) that would just sound plain odd in Polish.

So given cultural expectations about formal ‘lectures’, I'm not quite sure what my audiences made of me pacing around and waving my hands about in a far from formal manner! By the end of most sessions though, I think they'd got the hang of my approach and the serious faces had largely turned to smiles by the time I produced my tablet to take a selfie of the gathering. Sometimes, I even managed to persuade people to hootch up closer to try and fit them all in the picture! Think my selfie technique still needs a bit of practice though ...

In Gdansk

In Wroclaw

In Krakow

In Warsaw
Thanks to everyone I met for a great week and a lovely (if rather brief) introduction to Poland!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Suggest: as confidently as you dare

In ELT, we like to put things in neat categories. We categorize modal verbs, for example, as being used to express ability or obligation or advice, even though, in real life, the way we use different forms is much messier and more ambiguous – just try writing an activity that practises modals without stepping outside the boundaries you’ve set for yourself!

It makes sense though, both to teachers and learners, to at least start off with these slightly artificial groupings to help them get to grips with what would otherwise be a rather daunting, abstract mess. When I’m teaching, even at lower levels, I make sure that I stress the slightly artificial nature of these sort of ‘rules’, treating them instead as useful guidelines that speakers can, and often do, break. I sometimes worry when I’m writing materials though that the woolliness I try to build in (with carefully placed oftens, usuallys and typicallys) gets missed.

Recently, I’ve been looking at reporting verbs in academic writing and doing battle with a verb that’s especially difficult to pin down.

Some time ago, a colleague passed on the following query:  “I run a course of academic writing for PhDs and last Friday we had this discussion about the word "suggest". I mentioned it is not a really strong verb, it is not really negative or completely weak but not "one of the strongest" either. And the students from the area of Biology and Biochemistry strongly disapproved saying that it is almost a synonym to "prove" in their fields since there is nothing really that certain. So, I tried to say that there is nothing wrong with that verb but they will hardly get a Nobel Prize for "suggesting things". What do you think?”

Suggest is sometimes pigeon-holed in EAP materials as being a ‘tentative’ reporting verb, but on closer inspection, the situation, unsurprisingly, is more complex. Part of the issue boils down to two different uses which revolve around the subject of the verb:

Person + suggests = put forward
This is used, especially in a literature review, to report ideas, theories, etc. put forward by different people. In some cases, it may be that the idea was originally put forward indirectly, rather than explicitly stated, perhaps talking about possible implications – here suggest is indeed slightly tentative and is more synonymous with imply.  But I think it can also be used more neutrally to mean “this is what x said/wrote”. For the academic writer, it can just be a synonym of put forward or propose, chosen for the sake of variety rather than nuances about confidence or tentativeness. Here are a couple of examples (from the BAWE corpus of student academic writing, both from the biological sciences)

Parsons (1991) suggested that Drosophila species have a role as indicators of habitat change due to their close association with the rainforest habitat in which they live. [not especially tentative?]

Rose et al (1998) suggested that PAR-1 may be the only protein required for establishing polarity, however later evidence contradicts the theory … [more tentative or is that actually shown by the may be?]

Evidence + suggests = indicates
This is used in reporting data, evidence or results of research. In this case, the verb in itself is slightly tentative in that it stops short of saying demonstrates or proves. Here those biology students are probably right in that it’s used in contexts where evidence or results can’t be declared 100% conclusive; because of the nature of the research, the size of the sample, how generalizable the study is, etc. The writer though can show their degree of confidence by modifying the verb; seems to suggest (more tentative), clearly/strongly suggests (as confident as you can be).

The evidence above strongly suggests that organelles were arisen from the endosymbiotic uptake of free-living bacteria by eukaryotic host cells.

The data would seem to suggest that the lowest levels of net radiation also coincided with the lowest wind speeds of the trial.

Interestingly, the breakdown by discipline on the BAWE corpus of students using suggest works out as below (most frequent users first):
1 Archaeology
2 Linguistics
3 Psychology
4 Tourism
5 Biological Sciences
6 Business
These feel to me like disciplines where much has to be inferred, where evidence may be anecdotal or needs interpretation. The hard sciences (Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Computer Science) on the other hand, with their focus on more quantitative data, came down the bottom of the list.

It’s the kind of thing I find fascinating and I’m sure there’s enough material in there for a whole PhD thesis, but as a materials writer, the question is … how do I fit all that into a neat little usage note only a couple of lines long?!

Footnote: I’ve used the BAWE corpus here partly because I think it provides a useful model for student (rather than expert) writing and also partly because it’s open source. I checked the discipline breakdown of ‘suggest’ usage against another (commercial) academic corpus though and it came out with broadly similar results, similar disciplines near the top (and bottom) albeit in a slightly different order.

BAWE corpus  available at: https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/