The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, February 15, 2016

Preparing to present: a new approach

Recently, a number of things have got me thinking about the visual aspects of the presentations I give. And I was inspired to try out a new approach to preparing the slides for my next talk.

In a Facebook discussion about tips for newbie presenters, someone mentioned the impact that visuals can have; a picture speaks a thousand words and all that. That got me thinking that I rarely use visuals and maybe I could include some more.

Then I read a really interesting article that suggested that when teachers use text-heavy slides in class, students actually retain less of the information. The article explains that this is because the overload of information (written on the slides plus the teacher's commentary) can just be confusing, so neither source quite hits home. The article was about high-school students (not especially ELT), but I wondered whether the same principles might apply to conference presentations.

Now, of course, I already try not to overload my slides with lots of text, but as someone who talks primarily about language, it's a bit difficult to get away from altogether. Never one to shy away from a challenge though, I thought I'd try and give it a go.

This weekend I've been putting together a talk for an EAP conference in St Andrews at the end of the month. I realized I couldn't quite wean myself off words altogether, but I've completely abandoned my usual style of slides with bullet points of the key points and gone for a very low-text alternative. Here's a taster ...

If any of you are in St Andrews and come along to my session, I'd be really interested to get your feedback on how the slides work out. Did you like the visuals or were you yearning for some old-skool bullet points?!

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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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