The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, May 26, 2014

EAP: A PARSNIP-free zone?

I’ve just been putting together a talk about academic vocabulary for an EAP event at London South Bank University next Saturday (31 May).

I’m going to be talking about ways of exploring vocabulary in EAP that go beyond just lists of words. I’ll be looking at the familiar topic of collocation, but giving it an academic / discipline-specific slant. I’ll also be talking about register, authentic texts and issues around marked language. But the topic that’s really sparked my interest as I’ve been preparing for the talk has been the concept of connotation and how students need to learn to tread very carefully with vocabulary choices when they’re writing about sensitive topics.

Connotation doesn’t often get much coverage in general ELT materials. In some advanced coursebooks, you’ll perhaps get something about the distinction between slim (approving) and skinny (traditionally disapproving, although I wonder if we’ll find that changing with the advent of skinny jeans?!).  But it rarely goes much further than that. I think one of the main reasons being that connotation, all the cultural and social baggage that words carry with them, really comes into its own when we get onto talking about more sensitive topics where we need to tread carefully in our language choices. And of course, these are the very topics that materials published for a global ELT market avoid so as not to offend their potential customers – I’m sure many of you will have come across the classic PARSNIP* acronym for topics to steer clear of.

In EAP though, these are often the very topics that our students, especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be reading and writing about. I trawled back through the titles of essays written by my own pre-sessional students over the years and found the following topics:

       Security or Segregation: Is UK Immigration Policy Toward Third World Immigrants Unfair? (Law)
       Problems in intercultural relationships between Russia and the EU (Politics)
       Wife abuse and its psychological effects on abused women (Psychology)
       Discussion of the rainbow zone in British cinema—from homosexual to queer (Film Studies)
       What kinds of problems may limit the value of Mental Health Review Tribunals? (Law)

It was actually this last one, from a Chinese law student, which first really got me thinking about connotation and the issue of sensitive language.  Throughout the first draft of her essay, she referred to how the legal system deals with “mental patients”. I winced slightly every time I came across the phrase and in my feedback, I suggested she change it to “patients with mental health problems”. In her tutorial though, she questioned why she should change something so simple and concise to something more awkward and unwieldy. Good point and not an easy one to explain!

The final part of my talk on Saturday will go into my answer and how this translated into materials and activities exploring connotation and sensitive language a few years later when I was working on Oxford EAP Advanced.

If you’re based in or near London and want to come along to find out more, then the event is free, but you’ll need to register here in advance.

* PARSNIP: stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms (racism, sexism, etc.) and Pork

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Monday, May 19, 2014

EAP2014 Potsdam, Berlin

Last weekend, I had a great trip to Berlin to attend a one-day EAP conference at the University of Potsdam.  I had a really interesting day, chatting to lots of colleagues teaching in the university sector in Germany and learning more about what EAP entails in their context. It’s always fascinating to get different perspectives and I think I took two main points away from the day about EAP in Germany:
-  a lot of EAP teaching is to single-discipline groups (ESAP) , with an expectation that it will use texts/materials from that discipline (a point I’ll come back to below)
- German students have a tendency to overcomplicate their academic writing, trying to produce structures which would be considered ‘elegant’ in German academic style but which just don’t transfer into English. An interesting angle for the focus of language work in this context.

I was there to lead a workshop on the topic of “Writing your own: How to create effective EAP materials”, with ideas taken from my training module for ELT Teacher 2 Writer (How to Write EAP Materials). We started off by looking at a few general ideas and principles to bear in mind when writing your own EAP materials, especially around thinking carefully about your audience (both students and teachers) and your aims.

Then participants worked in groups to come up with ideas to exploit a short text (an abstract from an academic article).  I wasn’t quite sure how it’d go, but everyone did an admirable job of plunging straight into an academic text on a Saturday morning and came up with lots of good ideas and discussion.

For me, one of the most interesting things was that a lot of the groups were very focused on the topic of the text. As an EAP writer, especially writing for mixed-discipline groups, although I do think about the topic of the texts I choose, I’m generally much more focused on the features of academic writing it illustrates (organization, style, language, academic conventions, etc.) – as they relate to my aims for the lesson.  Many of the teachers in the workshop started from the perspective of how the topic of the text would be relevant (or not) to their students and what discussion it might generate. This seemed to link to many of the comments made about teaching single-discipline groups and how difficult it was to work with law/engineering, etc. texts which they (as English teachers) found difficult to understand. I wonder whether this points to lessons dominated by content (revolving around comprehension questions and discussion) rather than general features of English in an academic context? Food for thought perhaps?

We finished off with a look at a few tips and tools to help with writing your own materials and in particular, to help in selecting language to focus on, such as AWL highlighters and one of my favourites tools, the advanced search facilities available on the CD versions of learner’s dictionaries.

I certainly enjoyed the session and found it very interesting to see which points produced the most discussion and comments both during the workshop and in chatting to people afterwards. Thanks so much to everyone who came along and contributed! It’s certainly a topic I’d really like to do more workshops on … now I just have to find a way of financing some more!

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