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Words about Words

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“Euphemism” is a pretty big word, but it’s so useful that it’s part of a set of words I generally wind up teaching to my students if they’re at least intermediate level. These “words about words” belong to a vocabulary set that’s above or outside of the level of the other words they know. However, I think these words make it easier to talk about English and in English with them. (For that matter, they can explain terms from their own languages better in English once they learn these words.) These words save time once the students know them. I think my students find these words useful, because they use them back to me and go right to “Ah, okay!” when I use them for explanations.

Of course, I mostly work with adults in a one-on-one setting where I can judge their readiness and comprehension individually, so I’m not sure that these would be suitable for a group or younger students. If you’ve successfully used these kinds of words or similar words with a class or with K-12 students, I’d love to hear about it.

Here are some of the terms I use:

  • Euphemism: This is especially useful when students are reading news articles, which are full of phrases like “passed away” and “had an affair,” but generally it’s useful for a variety of words.
  • Jargon: Sometimes I need to explain that a word has limited use outside of certain occupations, and “jargon” does the trick. It’s especially useful with Japanese students, because several English loan words that are used as ordinary words in Japanese are considered jargon in English (such as “LOHAS,” marketing jargon). Students generally love this word, and I think it’s their favorite and most-retained of this set, although I think “connotation” is the most important.
  • Connotation: Eventually you have to explain to a student why a word (like “foreigner” or “fat” or “childish”) isn’t appropriate even though it means exactly what they think it means, or why their electronic dictionary is not their best friend. The concept of connotations versus basic meanings is really useful (I usually use “childish” vs. “childlike” as an example), and I show them how a good learner’s dictionary includes connotations and can save them from embarrassment. And no, I don’t teach “denotation”; it’s not very useful by itself.
  • Root, prefix, and suffix: Powerful vocabulary-building terms that are a real revelation to students who haven’t learned them. These are very interesting to Chinese- and Japanese-background students, who can draw parallels between roots and radicals (basic components) of Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji), and Japanese students can connect suffixes with okurigana. Since many European languages share roots with English, students from those language backgrounds may already be familiar with these terms.
  • Abbreviation, short for, and acronym: These all come in handy not just when explaining slang and abbreviated speech, but also when explaining why lexemes that Korean and Japanese students perceive as English loanwords (like “aircon” and “OL”) are not comprehensible or acceptable in English. And no, I do not get into the difference between an initialism and an acronym–99% of native English speakers neither know nor care about the difference.
  • Genre: Not in the linguistics sense, but mostly in the fiction sense–I wind up teaching this word because it’s useful for getting students started with extensive reading and listening. An important note here is that genres are differently divided, different genres do and don’t exist, and individual works are categorized differently within different cultures. This goes for everything from comic books to music, so it helps to familiarize your students with descriptions of genres in whatever medium, plus give well-known examples of that genre.
  • Intensifier: I hesitated over teaching this one because it’s linguistics jargon itself, but it’s better than saying “it doesn’t really mean anything” over and over again for the prepositions in some phrases, the funny use of words like “insanely” and “ridiculously” to expand the already large class of words that mean “very,” and so on. Lots of languages already have a large class of intensifiers, so once you explain the idea of “words that reinforce the meaning,” this seems to be a good hook for students. But you must include the caveat that 99% of other English speakers will have no idea what an intensifier is.
  • Collocation: Another one that I warn students about, because ordinary English speakers don’t know it. Teaching them about the idea of collocations is more important for raising language awareness than for talking about grammar, but I think it’s a useful idea. Get students to be aware of “words that hang out with other words” so that they can build their vocabulary in chunks.

I’m probably forgetting some, but I think those are the ones I use most frequently.

I introduce each word by saying that it will make it easier for us to talk about language, although the word itself is an advanced word. This makes some students a little worried, but most students are intrigued or excited. Of course, this assumes that the students already know the parts of speech and that you’ve already negotiated a common ground on anything with multiple names like “present continuous”/”present progressive” (argh!). However, much to my surprise, there’s a sort of middle ground between the parts of speech and the above special language, a sort of forgotten realm that many students have never learned…

This neglected area is somewhere between grammar and culture, and contains really useful, fairly basic words that are apparently not frequently taught in many EFL curricula. I had been using the word “rude” in explanations with some early students and language partners for quite some time before one of them let me know that she had no idea what it meant. When I checked with the others, they didn’t know it either. Oops.

Here are some of these basic sociolinguistic terms that every student should know, but many haven’t had a chance to learn:

  • Polite: This is essential, right? You need to be able to explain polite language and behavior.
  • Rude: Some students knew polite, but virtually none knew “rude.” Some words are more than not polite; they’re rude. In order to understand the difference, students should know this word.
  • Formal and casual: As students start to learn enough English to handle different registers and connotations, they need to know the difference between formal and casual speech. However, there’s a tendency among many students to equate “casual” and “rude,” so it’s useful to make sure they also know the next two words…
  • Friendly and unfriendly: So that you can explain when “casual” would equal “friendly” and “formal” would be “unfriendly,” such as with classmates and so on.

These can involve value judgments, so I have to tread carefully here. But I think it’s important, and it also opens things up for students to tell you about their language, and ask how they can sound more friendly or more formal if they feel a need to.

What do you think? Too much peripheral vocabulary? Did I leave some important ones out? Is there a better way to go about this? Am I projecting too much about the way I learn onto my students? Some certainly take to it more than others, and those are the ones where I return to it more often. So I think there are students for whom this clicks.

(EDIT: Oooh, I forgot one–pun! It’s the only way to explain so many brand names, movie names, strange lines from TV shows, lyrics, and so on.)

Typing IPA


Here’s an easy way to type those International Phonetic Alphabet symbols that aren’t included on a standard keyboard:, which lets you just click to enter the symbols in a text box. You can even format what you type. This is particularly useful if you can’t install an IPA palette/virtual keyboard on a work computer and still need to enter IPA. Hat-tip to EFL Geek!

If you need a more long-term solution, checking Google for your operating system’s name + “typing IPA” should turn up something. In NeoOffice for OS X, I can get to IPA symbols by just going to Insert -> Special Character -> IPA Extensions, and other Mac applications have IPA under Special Characters -> Phonetic Symbols. You don’t need to install anything for this, although it’s not the most efficient way to enter symbols since you need to click for each one.

(While doing that I noticed that I can also go to Insert -> Special Character -> By Radical and see a list of Chinese characters sorted by radical, with English names for the radicals. Uh, awesome! Embroidery! Frog! Flute! Excuse me, I’ll be geeking out over this for the next 15 minutes.)

Learning Diary: More Language History

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

My friend Tora, who does ESL tutoring and editing in the San Jose area, managed to remind me yesterday that I’d forgotten two more unsuccessful language-learning attempts in my history. One was Chinese again, with the Berlitz method in San Francisco. I literally don’t remember one word of anything I studied there, because Berlitz is essentially another combination of the direct method and the audiolingual method–it really doesn’t work well for anyone who’s not a strongly aural learner. Now it stuns me that the Berlitz method continues to be so lucrative, but at the time, I had no idea the problem wasn’t just me. Few people have any idea what to look for in a good foreign language program. (For the record, the two Berlitz instructors I had were very kind people who were trying their hardest, and I have fond memories of them and our lunches together in Chinatown.)

I also tried to learn Taiwanese, a language which is very different from Mandarin, for a couple of quarters after I came back from Taiwan. There’s no widely-used Taiwanese romanization system, and the instructor was a linguistics grad student with (yet again) no pedagogical background or training. She was also trying her hardest, but somehow I only came away with a few words. Part of that was because I was so focused on my other classes, but I think part of it was also due to the widespread devaluation of language pedagogy at nearly all levels of American education. We can’t really complain about the low standards for EFL instructor qualifications in many countries when the same low standards for foreign language instruction are common in the US.

How about you? How many language-learning attempts have you made, and how successful have you been?