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#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.

Reference

Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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Toffs and oiks: the language of social class

Union Jack flagJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at the language of social class.

A recent survey conducted by the BBC revealed a new class structure in the UK consisting of seven social classes. The top class is termed the elite and the bottom one, the precariat, or precarious proletariat. Leaving aside any political or sociological consequences, we will almost certainly be hearing a lot more of the word precariat, until now a rarity in everyday English.

Le précariat was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers, and has since been used in other languages including Italian (precariato), German (Prekariat), Spanish (precariado) and even Japanese (purekariāto). Its meaning has evolved into that of a social class – or underclass – as formulated by the sociology professor Loïc Wacquant and the British sociologist Guy Standing in his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

At the top of the new structure we find another word of French origin, elite, which has been used in English since the early 19th century to mean a group of powerful, influential people. English may be the language of a famously class-conscious people and have given the word ‘snob’ to the world but it relies heavily on imports for the vocabulary of class.

Social class has been defined in different ways over the years. Back in classical times, there were patricians and plebeians. In our agricultural past, class was determined by a person’s family and their links to the land – the nobility or aristocracy, the gentry, including the squirearchy, the yeomanry and the peasantry. With the coming of 19th century industrialization, the focus shifted to the individual’s relation to the means of production and the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were the two conflicting classes in Marxist theory. ‘Bourgeoisie’ and ‘petite bourgeoisie were also used in non-political contexts to refer to the growing middle classes. Recent times have tended to speak mainly of ‘the middle class’ and ‘the working class’, with the middle class often divided into upper and lower middle class. The terms ‘upper class’ and ‘lower class’ are less frequent in serious discussion of class.

By studying corpus statistics we can see how adjectives ending in ‘-class’ are actually used and gain a better picture of our perception of class. ‘Working-class’ is typically followed by the nouns ‘struggle(s)’, ‘movement’ and ‘exploitation’. ‘Middle-class’ collocates with ‘suburb’, ‘families’ and ’respectability’; ‘upper-middle-class’ with ‘suburbanites’, ‘enclave’ and ‘accents’, and ‘lower-middle-class’ with ’background(s)’, ’ insecurity’ and ’origins’. ‘Lower-class’ is used of ‘delinquents’, ‘accent’ and ‘subculture’, whereas ‘upper-class’ is used largely in insults, followed by words such as ‘twit(s)’, ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’.

Social class has become more fluid: in the 19th and early 20th centuries the English language adopted the French forms arriviste, parvenu and nouveau riche to speak in a disapproving way of people who, in the latter half of the 20th century, would be spoken of approvingly as upwardly mobile and aspirational. If someone is described as being of lowly or humble origins, they have usually made it up the social ladder!

More informal words describing individuals are nearly always used as insults, giving us a polarized view of a posh bunch of la-di-da, toffee-nosed upper-class twits, Hooray Henrys, chinless wonders and toffs with plummy accents at one end of the spectrum, and at the other a common bunch of chavs, oiks and plebs.

In 1990, the incoming British Prime Minister, John Major (who rose to the highest office from working-class origins!) vowed to create a ‘classless society’. It seems Britain still has some way to go.