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English Language Teaching Global Blog


How digital technology is changing our lives… and our language

DeathtoStock_Medium5Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

New words that enter the language are a reflection of the way people’s lives are changing. If we look at what is trending, we can see that new technology can bring with it new capabilities. There are wearables – computing devices that you can wear, such as a smartwatch – which are touch-sensitive and may be voice-activated. Superfast broadband and in-app purchase offer new opportunities, but there’s a new distraction in the form of clickbait – that’s a link or headline on the Internet that you just can’t help clicking on. All this can have a profound influence on how people work, enjoy themselves and relate to one another

If we look at new words connected with work we can see several strands, some of them in opposition to each other. Decisions are data-driven. It is important to demonstrate proof of concept. Using agile methodology, getting things right requires an iterative process of refinement and modification. But if that doesn’t work, putting a finger in the air is a less scientific approach, based on guesswork. Or you can put together a mood board with key images and words that best convey the image of the brand.

New technology and new ways of working have an effect on how people feel and how they manage their lives. Always-on devices can make for always-on people who find it harder to draw boundaries between work and home life, public and private. They may worry about their digital footprint, all the information that exists about them on the Internet as a result of their online activities. What kind of information security (or infosec) do companies have in place? Ad blockers screen out unwanted advertisements and are one kind of lifehack – a strategy or technique that you can use to manage your time and daily activities in a more efficient way. At a more profound level, a therapist may teach mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, which is a way for body and mind to reconnect.

Technology has transformed some of our leisure activities as well. Game apps and MMOs – massively multiplayer online games – have brought with them a whole vocabulary of their own. Sometimes this means new meanings for old words. Players move from level to level in different virtual worlds. Killing monsters and defeating enemies earn XP (that’s experience points) that help you level up and unlock new features of the game. Fantasy worlds have their own technology: travel by jetpack – a device you can strap on your back that enables you to fly – or do battle with an army of mecha – giant animal robots controlled by people who travel inside them. Hoverboards used to belong to the world of fantasy too, but now you can ride one for real. A real one doesn’t actually hover, of course – it’s a kind of electric skateboard.

Millennials – the generation of people who became adults around the year 2000 – may still be considered digital immigrants. Their children are true digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and digital technology. They relate to each other in a different way. Online communities are not based around a neighbourhood but around a shared interest or fandom enthusiasm for a particular person, team or TV show, for example. Online friends express themselves digitally, filling their tweets and emails with emoji – small digital images used to express ideas and emotions.

What are the takeaways from all this – that is, the important facts, points or ideas to be remembered? Only that language and communication are endlessly fluid and inventive. Dictionary editors need to be constantly on the alert for new words and phrases and new uses of old words, monitor them carefully and then make a judgement: is this a genuine new expression that is going to catch on and deserves a space in the dictionary? Technology and the Internet have transformed this task, as they have many other jobs, and enabled dictionaries to get closer to the cutting edge of language change than ever before. See here for the full list of words and expressions added to www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com in December 2015.


The trail of the magpie: How foreign words create exceptions to the rules

Close-up of Dicionary entry in dictionaryIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post he takes a look at where some of our words have come from.

English has been described as a ‘magpie language’. If you look up the word magpie in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary you will find a reference to ‘a popular belief that magpies like to steal small bright objects’. In the same way, the English language has been quite happy to steal useful words from other languages and add these to its vocabulary.

When English borrows words, it sometimes keeps the original spelling form, but sometimes it alters the spelling. As a general rule, when words are borrowed from unfamiliar, non-European languages, they are more likely to be transformed so that the spelling and pronunciation conform to familiar English patterns. Words taken from Asian, American, and African languages can appear in English with their spellings radically changed, as in the cases of chutney (from the Hindi word catni) and hickory (derived from the Algonquian pawcohiccora).

When English borrows words from European languages, however, it often preserves the original spelling and aspects of the original pronunciation. This is probably because native English speakers have some familiarity with the rules of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. So we preserve the French word brochure in its original spelling, and pronounce the -ch- as /ʃ/ in the French manner; similarly, we preserve the Italian spelling of pizza, and pronounce -zz- as /ts/.

Here are some other patterns of spelling and sound that do not conform to the standard English rules but are found in borrowed words:

  • -eau- is pronounced as /əʊ/ in words borrowed from French, as in bureau.
  • -que is pronounced as /k/ at the end of words borrowed from French, as in mystique.
  • -cci- is pronounced as /tʃiː/ in words borrowed from Italian, as in cappuccino.

Moreover, there are certain general rules that apply to English spelling that have to be suspended in the case of borrowed words. One of the most familiar spelling rules is that ‘I comes before E except after C’. However, caffeine and protein break this rule because they follow the pattern used in their original French and German spellings.

Less well known is the principle that native English words do not end with -a, -i, or -u. Perhaps the reason this principle is not well known is that there are so many exceptions created by borrowed words such as orchestra (Greek), spaghetti (Italian), and haiku (Japanese).

It is highly unusual to find a double consonant at the start of an English word. When it does happen, in the case of llama, again the explanation is to be found in the fact that the word is borrowed (in this case from Spanish).

Finally, we should note that the tendency of words borrowed from French, Italian, Latin, and Greek to form plurals following the pattern of their original languages (although in some more common words these inflections are not used or are regarded as alternatives to the simple addition of -s):

  • French words ending in -eau form plurals that end in -eaux, as in tableaux and gateaux.
  • Italian words ending in -o form plurals ending in -i, as in Mafiosi and paparazzi.
  • Latin words ending in -us form plurals ending in -i, as in stimuli and fungi.
  • Greek words ending in -on form plurals ending in -a, as in phenomena and criteria.

So if you were wondering why learners of English have to cope with so many exceptions, now you know the answer. It’s not the fault of English; it’s the fault of all the other languages!


Academic writing: The magnificent seven

AA044039Ken Paterson is a freelance ELT writer and consultant, and co-author of the Oxford Grammar for EAP. In this post he looks at the grammatical features that characterize academic writing.

At this year’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool, a Polish lecturer asked me how I would have responded to the question an MA TESOL student had recently put to her: what grammatical features were most characteristic of general academic writing? With a coffee in one hand and two minutes to get to the next talk, the best response I could come up with was the rather underhand counter question: is there really such a thing as ‘general academic writing’? On reflection, however, and after a trawl through a broad variety of text-types, I think there are a number of features that recur often enough to be ‘characteristic’. So, if she’s still listening, here – in no particular order – is an attempt at a list.

1. Complex noun phrases

e.g. … a task-driven approach to software design …

Where there is a need to convey information economically, nouns are often pre-modified by adverbs, adjectives and other nouns, and post-modified by phrases and clauses. Typical language includes

  • compound adjectives such as small-scale or free-market, and adverb + adjective combinations like highly sensitive or rapidly growing
  • noun pairs like government measures, market crash or health policy
  • nouns + prepositional phrases such as research into social work practice or an analysis of the relevant data

2. Hedging devices

e.g. Internet Protocol Television is arguably the most interesting new media development.

Hedging devices reduce the strength of statements that, unless we are dealing with indisputable facts, are always open to doubt. Typical grammar includes the use of

  • hedging verbs such as appear, seem, and tend, and adverbs like apparently, approximately and relatively
  • the language of probability rather than certainty: may, might; be likely to; probably
  • hedging expressions like The evidence suggests that …, as a rule; and to some extent

3. Depersonalizing structures

e.g. There needs to be a proper exploration of the causes of the riots.

Depersonalizing structures tend to reassure the reader that the views expressed are the result of analysis rather than prejudice. Typical structures include the use of

  • the preparatory subject It … as in It may be preferable for the newspaper industry to regulate itself.
  • There to suggest that something exists rather than claim it as a personal opinion: There seems to have been a disagreement over the exact date of the discovery.
  • essay, report, evidence etc. as the subject of the sentence: This report focuses on …

4. Passives

e.g. Twelve new species of Peruvian insect were identified by Swiss naturalists in 2011.

With its desire to foreground events, results and processes rather than human agents, it’s not surprising that the passive is fairly common in academic writing. Typical grammar includes

  • passive forms of the modal verbs can, could, must and shouldExporting to a new market could be described as one of the key challenges facing an expanding business.
  • reporting verbs in the structures It + passive verb + that …  e.g. It is estimated that …
  • passive verbs + prepositions such as be associated with, be based on, be composed of etc.:  From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was classified as a planet.

5. Particular types of linking language

e.g. Swans, in contrast, appear to mate for life.

The requirement in academic expression for a logical flow means that certain linking devices are more common than in other styles of writing. Typical language for

  • expressing results includes as a result, consequently, therefore, thus
  • expressing contrast includes in contrast, however, on the contrary, on the other hand
  • expressing additional information includes in addition, furthermore, similarly
  • structuring a text includes firstly, subsequently, finally, in brief, in conclusion

6. The frequency of signalling language

e.g. Anders and Silver do not share the same views on the technical aspects of stem cell research. Armstrong (2012) explains why this disagreement matters …

The complexity of an academic text may mean that the reader needs more guidance than would be necessary in other types of prose. Typical language to refer backwards and forwards to specific parts of the text includes

  • this, these, that and those on their own or with nouns that summarize a recent idea, e.g. this phenomenon, these objectives, that argument
  • such, the same; one, both, some etc., e.g. if such a theory (i.e. the one recently mentioned) holds true, then …
  • the former/latter; respectively; above/below etc., e.g. in the preceding section of this report, we attempted to show …
  • modal will/shall to tell readers what they may expect to find further on in the text: In the second part of this report we will argue that new legislation is required to …

7. Particular uses of verb tenses/aspects

e.g. Both studies conclude that a sudden drop in temperature delays the bonding process.

Certain verb tenses/aspects carry specific meaning in academic English. The most typical are:

  • present simple to report research results (as above) and the arguments of other academics (As Steele explains, …) and to summarize articles, chapters etc. (This report considers the effects of … )
  • past simple to describe the procedure in particular experiments/studies as in Bernard (2007) interviewed 146 soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • present perfect to summarize arguments made up to a particular point in a text: The first part of this report has outlined how one-way road systems can be beneficial … and to place emphasis on the strength of current arguments: Keirston (2010) has shown that the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be delayed by …

Other grammatical features such as the frequency of the relative pronoun ‘which’ and the use of the ‘it cleft’ could be mentioned but in the interests of drawing the line somewhere, I’m stopping at seven! As usual, your comments are welcome.

For more information on ‘hedging’ and its use in academic writing, join my webinar ‘Language for hedging in academic English’ on 15 October.



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.


Using colour and hand signals to licence learners to drive their own connected speech

Man holding thumbs upIn this guest post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares his tips for using colours and hand signals to help learners grasp pronunciation.

To teach or not to teach pronunciation? That’s the question. As paradoxical as this question may be, the answer for it should be simple: pronunciation is communication, and thus, worthy of attention in the language classroom. As an advocate for the teaching of connected speech, I am always looking for ways of raising my learners’ awareness of this productive capacity of spoken language.

In this post, I would like to share a colour-coding system I have been using with my learners to help them focus on prosodic features such as stress, elision, assimilation, linking and intonation. I have called it, Traffic Lights.

The rationale

Traffic lights are useful signals, so I thought they would be a helpful aid to guide my learners in their journey of discovery about connected speech. The Traffic Lights system is also supported by hand gestures such as finger clicking, hand waves, hand strokes and finger to thumb movements, which I believe help learners to relax rather than worrying too much about trying to work out what is happening in the mouth in order to allow themselves to enjoy the pronunciation practice via a more active and kinaesthetic approach.

Understandably, articulation exercises tend to focus too much on the ear and the mouth at times. However, for many learners this experience is rather daunting and unpleasant. By giving them an opportunity to visualise and cognitively shift the focus of the brain away from these body ‘instruments’, they stand a better chance of visualising and thus becoming more attune to natural speech. While observing my learners in action in the classroom, I have noticed some clear improvement in their ability to speak more intelligibly, even though their initial reactions to the approach being reserved.

The preparation

At the beginning of your course, introduce the learners to the systems. For this, the learners will need to have a four-colour pen and a copy of the Traffic Lights card below (which I like to laminate for them).

Traffic lights

Ask the learners to attach this card to their file, as they will need to refer to it on a regular basis during the course.

The application

Start by showing the learners some functional language for introductions of your choice. Here are some common get-to-know-each other questions:


First, get the learners to use the red ink in their pen to mark the STRESS in the language above e.g.


Encourage the learners to analyse this language in pairs or small groups.  Monitor and assist where necessary.

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