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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Blogger Lizzie said...

I won't quite be back in the UK yet but it sounds very interesting!

9:54 am  

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