The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A long January

I always knew that the year was going to get off to a bit of a slow start. I finished one piece of work over Christmas and the next thing wasn't due to start until mid-January. It wasn't quite when I'd choose to have a gap in my schedule, but I planned to make the most of the free week or so with a few nice bits and pieces - some walking on the coast, a wildlife photography workshop and a few coffees and catch-ups with pals.

Photo of the sea from clifftop at Old Harry Rocks, Studland, UK

A black and white avocet, taken at Slimbridge, UK

Then I heard that the project I was expecting to start on had been delayed until the start of February 😕 The prospect of a whole month with no work (and no income!) wasn't great so I started putting out feelers, I updated LinkedIn, advertised my availability via English Publishing Professionals and sent a few emails to contacts. I couldn't afford to keep treating myself to days out, so I decided to use the time productively. I wrote a few blog posts, submitted a couple of conference proposals, watched some webinars, read lots and generally schmoozed social media. 

All of which was fine for a while, but gradually as the grey, unstructured days took their toll, the anxiety grew and my motivation levels sank. 

On Monday this week, I chased up the delayed project to check we were still on to start next week .... "Erm, well, it might be more like 10 Feb" came the response ... Still anxious but kind of resigned, I bought some matchpots and planned to paint the front room ...

Image of four small paint tins

This morning, a possible fill-in bit of work got confirmed. Hooray!! I happily downloaded all the relevant documents and printed out the brief. Then ping, ping, ping .... a flurry of emails arrived to say that not only was the delayed project ready to get started right away, but there were two levels (of the same project but being dealt with by different in-house editors) queued up for me!

After a bit of emailing to and fro, I've managed to agree dates to spread it all out a bit and I'm feeling much happier at the prospect of having some work (and income) over the next few months. But y'know, it seemed a good topic for a blog post ... and I'd already got a walk planned in for this afternoon ... and those walls aren't going to paint themselves!

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Lexical layers 3: idiolect and finding your voice

Ever since I started getting interested in language, I've been intrigued by variation. For my undergraduate dissertation, I looked into differences between the way men and women use language. My MA dissertation looked at the effects of speaker age on the type of language we use – I found some surprising similarities between the youngest (teens) and oldest (70+) age groups.  Then when I recently dipped into the study of Forensic Linguistics, I read a lot about the concept of idiolect and how each individual's language use is shaped by a whole host of factors. This might include their gender and age, their social, cultural, educational and professional background, their social and political attitudes, where they grew up and have lived through their life and of course, their L1 and influences from other languages they speak.

Over time, we all acquire a slightly different set of vocabulary and we develop our own preferences about words and phrases we use and don't use, where, when and to whom. Some of those choices are quite conscious and considered, especially when it comes to sensitive areas like swearing and taboo or culturally sensitive topics. A lot of our choices though are largely unconscious. For example, do you mostly say thank you, thanks, ta or cheers? Or maybe something else altogether? Does it depend on the context or the person you're speaking to? Are there any of these that aren't within your personal idiolect? Personally, I'm not much of a cheers person. As a carefully-spoken, middle-class, middle-aged woman, it always feels a bit awkward to me. However, just occasionally, if I'm trying to sound a bit less posh and a bit more blokey, say speaking to a builder or a white van man, I sometimes slip in a "cheers, mate!" - always reverting slightly towards the London accent I grew up with. That might sound a bit patronizing, but in fact, it's a perfectly normal reaction and even has a technical name; accommodation (or more specifically convergence). But that's getting away from my point …

What does all this have to do with language learners? Let me give you a couple of examples. When I was at school my French teacher (an L1 French speaker) would sometimes exclaim in class when we were stuck on a question – "That's easy peasy, lemon squeezy!" We'd all laugh, in part, because it just sounded funny in her fairly strong French accent, but also because it's typically a childish expression you wouldn't expect a teacher to use.  Of course, she was well aware of what she was doing, it was a conscious choice to deflate a slightly tense atmosphere and it worked a treat.

My second example is of a student I taught several years ago. He was a late-teen, German L1 student visiting the UK. His English was good (B2+), he was keen to pick up spoken expressions and he would regularly use cheers to mean thank you. He (mostly) used it appropriately, but there was something about his accent and very precise articulation that made him sound like a very posh public school-boy clinking a champagne glass. I had to stifle a laugh every time he said it just because it sounded so incongruous.

Developing your own voice in a second language is tricky and no one wants to sound silly, but at the same time, we don't want learners to get overly self-conscious and never attempt to use new language. The good news, as I mentioned in my first post, is that a lot of basic, high-frequency language is, almost by definition, fairly safe and neutral which makes getting started relatively uncomplicated. It's as students progress and are increasingly exposed to a range of authentic language that more caution is needed. A quirky expression picked up from an online video that might be appropriate for the middle-aged male presenter in his local North London pub with his mates isn't necessarily going to sound right coming from a 20-something young woman on the other side of the world who drops it in with the American English she learnt at school!

That's not to say that we should be shielding students from all but the blandest, 'standard' English. Far from it! We should though be actively exploring the layers of meaning that the language they meet might hold. That doesn't necessarily have to involve explaining in detail all the possible subtle nuances of meaning and usage of a particular word, but at least flagging up language that students need to be careful about using. Emphasizing that they need to really get to know a word or expression, who typically uses it and when before they try it out for themselves. Synonyms can't just be substituted because they 'mean the same'. The language of journalism is intentionally colourful to draw in readers and may not work in a formal essay or a work email. The latest edgy youth slang will sound comical from a middle-aged mum. People generally use idioms for effect, to be playful or humorous, to play down the seriousness of a situation or to exaggerate it – writing "Hitler had a bee in his bonnet about the Jews" in a school essay (yes, that's a real example from a real student essay!) doesn't work on all kinds of levels!

In this series of posts, I've tried to move from the more obvious, broad-brush, outer layers of meaning, with basic distinctions of register and genre, down to the subtler, more difficult-to-define nuances of individual usage. These aren't issues that will crop up in every vocab set with every class, but if we don't explain this stuff where it is relevant, we're only telling half the story and we're seriously short-changing our students.

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Thursday, January 02, 2020

Lexical layers 2: connotation

In my last post, I talked about the importance of delving beyond the surface meaning of new vocabulary to try and help learners understand where and when it's appropriate to use a particular word or phrase. I looked at the concepts of register and genre, and how certain words are more typical of particular contexts and stand out as odd (or 'marked') when they're used elsewhere.

A couple of the comments on that post questioned how teachers can find time to cover all this extra information when there's already so much else to fit in. To which my first reaction is perhaps that quality is as important as quantity – there's no point memorizing a whole load of words if you don't know how to use them appropriately! But also, I realized that it's easy when you focus on a specific aspect of learning for it to get blown out of proportion. While I'm saying that understanding beyond the surface of meaning of vocab is really important, I'm not saying that learners and teachers need to go into all this detail with all the words they come across and certainly not all at the same time. Lots of words are fairly neutral and uncontroversial, so it may only be the odd word or phrase here and there that comes with a 'health warning' and needs some extra explanation. And those layers may be peeled back gradually with repeated exposures, adding in a note about register or other kinds of usage as vocab starts to shift from learners' passive to active vocab (pointing out a new aspect of a word is a great way to make revision seem less repetitive). Nonetheless, for those words which are marked in some way, exploring those extra layers can be really key to vocab development.

In this post, the layer I want to explore is connotation or the feeling and attitude of the speaker that particular word choices convey. Take a look at these words and phrases that all refer to a person who's physically larger than normal – what images do they conjure up, who could you apply them to and how would they feel about it?
A word cloud containing the words and phrases: statuesque, well-built, fatso, overweight, big-boned, fat, plus-size, imposing, plump, flabby, obese, hench, chubby and built like a brick shithouse

Adjectives like these tend to be at the more obvious end of the connotation scale, but all kinds of words reveal something about the user and their attitude towards the person or thing they're talking about. To take an example in the news fairly recently, would you describe a person at a climate strike event like the one below as an activist, a campaigner, a protestor, a demonstrator, an agitator, a militant or maybe a troublemaker or even an uncooperative crusty*? 

Photo of a teenage girl holding a banner at a climate strike event

All these words have slightly different connotations, both in and of themselves, and also depending on who they're used by and applied to. The learner who looks up the equivalent in their L1 on Google translate and randomly picks one of the options they're offered could find themselves getting across a very different message from the one they intended. Incidentally, I looked up activist on Google translate and, ignoring the translations, it offers the English synonyms militant, zealot, protestor, radical, extremist and netroots … the last of which I'd never heard before but apparently comes from a blend of grassroots and internet to describe campaigners who communicate their message online (check out definitions here and here)  … which is a neat word, but clearly has layers of meaning (not to mention lexicogrammar) that you'd need to decode before using it.

Teachers and learners often love the idea of a thesaurus to help expand their vocabulary, but as the example above illustrates, it's a path fraught with danger. Many of the thesaurus tools available online are aimed at L1 speakers of English who are looking for inspiration. It's assumed they'll be familiar with most of the synonyms that crop up and have some idea when it's appropriate (or not) to use them. They are not designed for learners of English and even if they link through to definitions, they'll likely again be written for L1 speakers in a style that won't be of much help to the average learner. Many learner's dictionaries also have thesaurus facilities of some kind, often in the form of clickable synonyms at the bottom of an entry. These can be more helpful, in part, because they're likely to focus on more useful, high-frequency words rather than the often obscure results of L1 tools. What's really important though is that learners understand the importance of clicking through to the definitions to check how the synonym may differ in usage from their starting point. Learner's dictionaries often show connotation through labels such as disapproving or offensive or humorous. Alternatively, these restrictions may be incorporated into the definition itself, e.g. "used to describe someone you disapprove of …".  Or subtler differences may be shown through the choice of examples. I suspect, however, many learners skim over these important caveats, focusing only on the basic meaning (or denotation). Which is why work in class on noticing and understanding the significance of this kind of information is so important.

Of course, though, dictionaries and other reference sources can only give very general guidance on typical usage. People all use and understand language differently. If you're female, for example, how do you feel about people referring to you as a woman, a lady, a girl or a bird? Does it depend on who they are? Have your feelings, like mine, shifted slightly over time? Whether or not you perceive a particular word or expression as formal, informal, slang, old-fashioned, offensive, condescending, complimentary, humorous, appropriate or inappropriate will come down to your social, cultural, regional, educational and professional background, your age, your gender and potentially a whole host of other factors … which I'll talk about in my next post.  

* uncooperative crusties was an expression used by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to describe people at a climate strike event in London in Oct 2019 (link to BBC news report here)

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