The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

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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