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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.)

Important Reading on “NNESTs”

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US, so it occurred to me it might be timely to post on this topic, which has surprising intersections with issues of racism and classism. (Language-based discrimination often does.)

An issue that is close to my heart is the status of English teachers who learned English as a second or additional language themselves (often called NNESTs–non-native English-speaking teachers). Throughout the world, most ESL and EFL teachers are in this category. However, that’s not reflected in the textbook industry, the leadership of many ELT organizations, the popular image of English teachers, and so on. Sometimes, they experience subtle or direct discrimination and bias in hiring, promotion, salaries, and assignments, and they may be treated differently from their native English-speaking counterparts by their colleagues and students. This is despite the fact that many of these teachers are among the best suited to teach English. They have generally mastered English themselves, are often fully bi- or multilingual, may have a lot in common with their students, may have far more awareness of English grammar and any potential problems, may be better at explaining features of English explicitly, and so on. Many studies back up NNESTs’ skills in these areas, which often outstrip their native-speaker counterparts, and while students are sometimes initially skeptical, course-end evaluations usually indicate that students picked up on these strengths and appreciated them. Meanwhile, many of their native-speaking colleagues are teaching a second language or are doing teacher training–teaching second language acquisition–without having ever experienced the full acquisition of a second language. I don’t know, it’s like teaching mechanics without ever having repaired anything yourself, or something like that. (Obviously not all or any of these conditions are true all of the time, but this is frequently the situation. I’m one of the latter teachers myself; I am not yet fluent in a second language, and although I’m trying, I don’t know if I ever will be.)

EDIT: This is not even mentioning the common EFL condition in which “native speaker teachers” or “foreign teachers” have no genuine language-teaching training at all and are not professional teachers by career, in which case a well-educated, English-fluent professional local teacher would be far preferable. However, so many students have swallowed the myth of the native speaker’s perfection that few would make the right choice (and few are aware of the many studies backing up the usefulness of the well-educated NNEST even as opposed to an equally-qualified NEST). In an ideal world, I think real team teaching with a pair of true professionals from both the L1 and L2 backgrounds would be the perfect EFL learning condition, but many nations are short on both the former and the latter–native speakers are often hired willy-nilly with little regard for competency, and local teachers are not often given the chance to study international teaching methods, etc.

At any rate, I learned so much from the many international graduate students and bilingual-bicultural Americans in my certificate and MATESOL programs at CSU East Bay, and I also really enjoyed getting to know them. They’re great people, and it’s not right that the happenstance of my birthplace and schooling and accent mean that some schools will value me more than them. I think it is essential for all English-language teachers to pay attention to “NNEST issues,” whether you are a non-native speaker of English yourself or are a native speaker of English who may accidentally benefit from a system that is often unfair and ignorant of context.

Anyway, the WATESOL (a Washington, D. C. Area TESOL group) NNEST Caucus has published their Annual Review. It includes multiple papers that you can read online using Google Docs or download. Titles include “All Teachers are Equal, but Some Teachers are More Equal than Others: Trend Analysis of Job Advertisements in English Language Teaching” by Ali Fuad Selvi, “Students’ Appraisal of Their Native and Non-native English-speaking Teachers” by Caroline Lipovsky & Ahmar Mahboob, “Teaching as a Native (Chinese) Speaker and a Non-native (English) Speaker: Different Identities, Similar Needs” by Huijin Yan, “‘She Immediately Understood What I Was Trying to Say': Student Perceptions of NNESTs as Writing Tutors” by Sunyoung Park & Sarah Shin, and more–there’s even a piece on accents by George Braine, one of the most famous writers on the topic of NNESTs.*

The papers are freely available, well written, and interesting. I recommend reading them whether you are a native speaker of English or another language (or English and another language or two). I think doing so can help us improve how we treat each other, how we respect the importance of each other’s languages, and and how we teach.



*I don’t really like the “NNEST” terminology, and I’m resisting putting in a NNEST tag, because it seems weird to me to create an “other” category–particularly when teachers who are not native speakers of English are the default and not the exception. Yet virtually no one seems to actually use the counterpart term “NEST.” If I revisit the topic, which I expect to, I’ll probably have to resolve this to make the posts easier to find. (Never mind that “native speaker” itself is actually rather hard to define and more than a bit problematic.)

A Silly Joke

Here’s a silly old language-related joke, which I suppose many younger students wouldn’t even get (not that I’ve ever sent a telegram):

A dog goes to a telegraph office and dictates the following message to the clerk: “Woof woof woof woof woof woof woof.”
“That’s seven words,” says the clerk. “You get eight for the same price, so do you want to add another ‘woof’?”
“Certainly not,” says the dog “Then it wouldn’t make any sense!”

Ha, ha … well, this is funny (marginally) because it gets at certain sociolinguistic realities: behaving as though an unfamiliar language is nonsense, not realizing that an unfamiliar language may carry meaning in an unfamiliar encoding (like tones in Chinese), offering help that isn’t actually helpful due to intercultural ignorance, etc.