Thursday, June 02, 2005

English Vocabularly, Academia & the ESL Student

One of the most common concerns among international students is vocabulary. Many students argue that there are actually several Englishes: the formal academic English necessary to write an essay, the informal English a professor uses to tell a joke or a story in class, and the slang or colloquial expressions used in the campus coffee shops or dorms, for example. There is some truth to this idea. Traditionally the authors of writing guides have divided English into:

VocabularyCasual, slang, expressions, usually concreteNon-technical, both concrete and abstractOften abstract, technical, specialized
Sentence length and structureShort, simple sentences, grammar is not always correctLonger sentences, variety of length, grammar should be correctComplex sentences, commonly with 3-5 parts/clauses
UseBetween people who have an established relationshipBetween people of equal status or power with an emphasis on communicating meaningBetween individuals who have equal or unequal knowledge or status
For letters, fiction, advertisingNewspapers, magazines, business correspondenceImpersonal, serious, instructional
Academic writing, textbooks, scientific reports, journals, legal documents

(Adapted from Norton & Green, 2006)

However, many international students struggle to understand, learn, and use the appropriate kind of English words/expressions because it is not as simple as academic English=research paper and slang=Canadian friends. Furthermore, using “right kind of English” is a challenge for everyone, not just international students; status, gender, class, familiarity, culture, or mood are just a few other factors that contribute to the how or why we communicate.

It may be somewhat comforting to know that there are scholars who commit their time and skills to investigating the question “What is standard English anyway???” especially now that worldwide the people who speak English as a Second Language outnumber the people who speak English as a first language.

So what can we do? I have three suggestions:
(1) Pay attention! Notice the different kinds of contexts that you study, learn, or socialize in, and (as long as you are comfortable) try to respond verbally in the same way students in a similar situation do. The same goes for writing; look at successful pieces of writing in your field (or your textbook) and then mimic the kinds of language choices.

(2) If you don’t understand, ask questions about the meaning of a word or expression. Alternatively, you can check out Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on line. As a U of M student, you have free access to the OED!

(3) Check out corpus data. A corpus is a kind of bank of words that are most commonly used in a particular context. For example, the Academic Word List (AWL) is a bank of the 570 most commonly used word families in academic English. There are also great AWL exercises and examples on the "Using English for Academic Purposes" webpage. Finally, a glossary of Canadian slang and expressions can be found on the "Canadian Glossary, eh!" webpage.

If you have any vocabulary learning ideas, or you want to share your thoughts about the above information, send me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

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