I’ve just been putting together a talk about academic
vocabulary for an EAP event at London South Bank University next Saturday (31
I’m going to be talking about ways of exploring vocabulary in EAP that go
beyond just lists of words. I’ll be looking at the familiar topic of
collocation, but giving it an academic / discipline-specific slant. I’ll also
be talking about register, authentic texts and issues around marked language.
But the topic that’s really sparked my interest as I’ve been preparing for the
talk has been the concept of connotation and how students need to learn to
tread very carefully with vocabulary choices when they’re writing about sensitive topics.
Connotation doesn’t often get much coverage in general ELT
materials. In some advanced coursebooks, you’ll perhaps get something about the
distinction between slim (approving) and skinny (traditionally disapproving,
although I wonder if we’ll find that changing with the advent of skinny
jeans?!). But it rarely goes much
further than that. I think one of the main reasons being that connotation, all
the cultural and social baggage that words carry with them, really comes into
its own when we get onto talking about more sensitive topics where we need to
tread carefully in our language choices. And of course, these are the very
topics that materials published for a global ELT market avoid so as not to
offend their potential customers – I’m sure many of you will have come across
the classic PARSNIP* acronym for topics to steer clear of.
In EAP though, these are often the very topics that our
students, especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be
reading and writing about. I trawled back through the titles of essays written
by my own pre-sessional students over the years and found the following topics:
or Segregation: Is UK Immigration Policy Toward Third World Immigrants Unfair?
• Problems in intercultural
relationships between Russia and the EU (Politics)
abuse and its psychological effects on abused women (Psychology)
• Discussion of the rainbow zone in
British cinema—from homosexual to queer (Film Studies)
• What kinds of problems may limit the
value of Mental Health Review Tribunals? (Law)
actually this last one, from a Chinese law student, which first really got me
thinking about connotation and the issue of sensitive language. Throughout the first draft of her essay, she
referred to how the legal system deals with “mental patients”. I winced
slightly every time I came across the phrase and in my feedback, I suggested
she change it to “patients with mental health problems”. In her tutorial
though, she questioned why she should change something so simple and concise to
something more awkward and unwieldy. Good point and not an easy one to explain!
part of my talk on Saturday will go into my answer and how this translated into
materials and activities exploring connotation and sensitive language a few
years later when I was working on Oxford EAP Advanced.
based in or near London and want to come along to find out more, then the event
is free, but you’ll need to register here in advance.
* PARSNIP: stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms (racism, sexism, etc.) and Pork
Labels: connotation, EAP, London, OLDAE, Oxford EAP, presentation, vocabulary