The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

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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Blogger Sue Argent said...

Thank you for this very clear account of the major drawbacks of using texts from that excellent magazine New Scientist. I used it extensively and enthusiatically in the 90's when teaching EAP at an FE College and only stopped when ticked off by Michael Lewis for using journalistic and not academic texts. I'd like to think I've learned a lot since then -- mainly through concordancing. It's still a good read though.

11:04 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Sue, thanks so much for commenting.

I think you make a really important point. A lot of the comments I've been getting (on the first part of the post) have been from very experienced, full-time EAP practitioners, who know all about the intricacies of genre and style and have all the tools at their disposal to analyse texts and explain the differences to their students.

I think we need to remember though that many less experienced teachers, who perhaps split their time between a bit of EAP and general ELT, are less aware of these things. I agree that New Scientist articles are great to read and coming from a general ELT background where there's a culture of creating fun, entertaining lessons, they seem much more appealing than rather dry, academic texts. And they're about more-or-less the same topics, so why wouldn't you choose them?

Perhaps we all just need a Michael Lewis to tick us off occasionally ...

11:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting analysis of the new scientist article vs the original. Exactly what we can get our students to do. I wouldn't present a New Scientist or Economist article as 'academic', but I would use them as an example of serious journalism/public engagement writing. I was just looking at a group I taught earlier this year. They had to write for the following tasks on their MSC: news and views article, literature review, technical essay, scientific paper, short scientific report. The concept of audience and purpose is key - especially in engineering and the sciences where the IMRD structure has been transformed by open online journals like Nature. My students were quick to spot the differences between extracts from texts on the same topic written for a different audience and purpose.

12:47 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

What a great (brief) analysis of the linguistic differences! What I think would be illuminating for many EAP instructors is seeing this play out one two articles in full (or more). We once did this in our class (incidentally through ARC on the popularised article with the Connector text with help from the Contextualiser being the full research paper). While we did not focus solely on the linguistic differences in as much detail, we did note how evidence was summarised vs detailed.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/your-brain-on-fast-food/ = the journal article is referred to at the bottom

8:59 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks, Tyson. I was trying to raise the issue in a short, accessible form without getting too bogged down in details. I know there's lots of detailed academic analysis already in the area, but I didn't want to go down that route here. If you like, I was trying to write the New Scientist article rather than the academic paper ...


10:45 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

A really interesting pair of posts. It would be interesting, I agree for students to compare language found in authentic academic texts with more journalistic articles. There is, though, I think a temptation to move away from the straight academic texts on some EAP courses where the level of students' English is very low and in which students have difficulties accessing even the most simple academic text. Publishers are moving in this direction to, producing EAP 'lite' materials which don't feature authentic academic texts. It would be great to hear your suggestions for adapting EAP materials for lower levels without making the types of compromises that won't do EAP students any favours in the long-run.

7:17 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Verity,
Thanks for raising a really good point. I think it's very easy for those who teach at the highest (academic and language) levels to dominate this sort of discussion, forgeting that a huge amount of EAP around the world goes on with students who have much lower levels of English.

I actually wrote a post not long ago about ways of making authentic academic texts more manageable for lower level EAP: http://lexicoblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/making-authentic-academic-texts.html

I've been working on some lower level EAP materials (A2/B1) recently and we've been making a lot of use of textbooks from lower academic levels, so not just introductory undergraduate texts, but going down to texts written for the last years of high school (A level, IB and even iGCSE). These texts have a simple academic style, appropriately academic content (without being too specialized) and because they're generally written for teens, they're often actually quite engaging - using illustrations, infographics and examples students can relate to (and which provide support for language learners). I think they win over magazine articles in that they model a style which is appropriately academic for students to copy and build on themselves, they introduce core academic vocab (see below) and they avoid the idiomatic language and cultural references that a lot of journalism relies on and which, as I say in the post, is often confusing for learners.

I've been finding that a lot of these textbooks are great for introducing the foundation vocab that students need to get started in EAP. So, a few of the simpler AWL items: team, colleague, available, finally, file, document, etc. plus some of the top 2000 words which are also key in academic writing (many of which feature on the Academic Key Word list): explain, describe, discuss, include, change, improve, etc. (All of these words are labelled as A2 according to EVP).

It seems kind of logical to me that if native-speaker students move from high school textbooks to undergraduate study, then that's a sensible path for their non-native speaker peers.


11:20 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Jenifer Spencer: This is a very late contribution to this debate- I have only just got round to reading this. I think it is a really important contribution and I like the language analysis which makes such a clear point. All EAP teachers do have access to authentic academic texts. They are called University websites. On these you can access PhD theses. journal papers published by staff, articles about the work of research groups and press/ magazine accounts of their work. I did an exercise for students comparing the original PhD reporting a slightly anomalous value of Lithium observed in the spectrum of a star, to the paper which modestly claimed this might affect some accounts of the origins of matter to the newspaper headlines which were something to the effect: 'scientists prove Big Bang theory! I think the points about the idioms and cultural references beloved of journalistic sources is also really important. The sentence patterns are also not, as widely believed, simpler. I have an obsession for counting the words in noun phrases and the longest I found was in the Economist -31 words as the opening of a sentence! I used the Economist for several years in my earlier EAP teaching and gradually realised the problems you highlight and also that it is not actually a Business magazine at all (nor is the FT}. I once concordance the key language from module descriptors from a range of MBA courses in different institutions through a corpus from the FT and some financial sections of serious newspapers which I had been provided access to. To my astonishment there was no match.
With regard to lower level students, I have found that authentic student writing (or adapted/ modelled versions) e.g. a student report/ assignment are good for this level of students and motivating, as the students see them as relevant. They don't really want to read about penguins if they are going to study mechanical engineering or project management.
So I think this is a really important point and thank you for your work in raising it. Julie

10:59 am  

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