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A New Year Resolution Worth Investing In

Young man reading on the trainIn this article, Margaret Deuter, a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, considers how to really make a fresh start this New Year!

7 a.m. on a damp winter’s day. Commuters standing around on a dark railway platform, trying to read the free newspaper in the pools of inadequate light shed by the station lights or cradling cups of coffee (or is gingerbread mochachino something else?). But wait – there’s someone lying on the ground! Before anyone can rush up to offer assistance, he’s hoisted himself onto hands and toes – he’s doing press-ups!

In my pool of light I’m just reading about the Edinburgh barber who’s offering a free haircut to anyone who can do thirty pull-ups. Perhaps our man’s in training for that. It would be a long way to go for a haircut, though. So I dismiss it as New Year Syndrome: here is someone who has made a resolution to get fit and is using every spare minute in pursuit of his goal. It’s a true test of our resolve that in the northern hemisphere, the season of good resolutions coincides with the coldest, darkest part of the year. Hardly surprising that most of us give up after a week or two.

But not all resolutions involve physical discomfort. Personally I don’t want to have any closer contact with the wet tarmac than is strictly necessary, but brain gym – well, that’s another matter. Lots of us use the feeling of optimism around a new year to start learning something new, or to get more serious about our learning. And it feels good to think that we commuters are not wasting the time we spend on the train or the bus, or in the car, but using it, for example, to improve our language skills. Are you one of those people?  Do you listen to English on your MP3 player or take a notebook to revise vocabulary on the bus? If you’re in the car you have the advantage of being able to practise speaking out loud without other people around you wondering whether you’ve gone mad. Perhaps you have an app on your phone to practise your English?  Do you play language games or test yourself on grammar or new words? We’d like to hear from you.

When I was at school we were warned NOT to do our homework on the bus, and frankly, it was quite a struggle to do a good diagram of a Liebig condenser on the back seat of a double-decker, but there are advantages to using travelling time for learning, particularly now that we have the mobile devices to help us. Language learning benefits most from regular practice – a few minutes a day is likely to help us improve more than a single bout of an hour a week, so using the commute to work or college is a good way of finding a slot in our otherwise packed schedules.

I know we should all be thinking about getting fit, but really, isn’t it boring doing all those physical jerks? Why isn’t there someone out there offering free haircuts to people who can learn 100 new words, or conjugate a particularly tricky verb?  There’s an easy answer to that – lots of us can achieve it. The Edinburgh hairdresser knew he wasn’t going to be ruining his business, because most of his customers can’t manage thirty pull-ups. Learning a language in bite-size chunks is a much more manageable goal. You can even do it while you’re jogging…

Good luck with the good resolutions!

And if you need a little help along the way, take a look at our range of mobile apps to aid your language learning.

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The Language Legacy of the Olympics

2012 Olympic Stadium

Image courtesy of Nick J Webb on Flickr

In this article, Margaret Deuter, a managing editor, and Leonie Hey, an assistant editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, look at some of the language that came out of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games in London.

As memories of the 2012 Summer Olympic and the Paralympic Games fade, interest shifts to the legacy of the Games. Work has begun on the Olympic Park. Some of the buildings are being dismantled and taken to Rio. Others will be transformed for other uses. The poetry displayed around the Olympic site and read by thousands of spectators last summer will stay. But what about the words that were not carved in stone? The words that were on the lips of commentators and spectators – will their legacy include a permanent place in the English language?

Like true athletes, words are versatile, and during the Summer Olympics they were changing discipline all over the place. Competitors no longer ‘won a medal’, but ‘medalled’ – Michael Phelps even became the ‘most medalled Olympian’! To receive their medal, they used to stand on a podium – now they can ‘podium’. Neither of these verbs first appeared at these Games (‘to medal’ has been around since 1822) but the boost they received may mean that they will be around for longer.

And what a godsend for teachers dealing with comparison of adjectives the Games with their ‘faster, higher, stronger’ motto is. Reporters claimed they were running out of superlatives and reaching feverishly for the dictionary…

‘Medal munching’ was a new name for something that winning athletes have probably done for some time – biting into the gold for the cameras – or was it just another opportunity to show off that patriotic “nail art”?  Talking of nails, how many of those athletes were ‘nailed-on winners’? Of course they ‘nailed it’ – they won – but beforehand, pundits knew which candidates were guaranteed to succeed. This expression is a nailed-on certainty – it’s already used in a variety of contexts, including many sporting ones (‘a nailed-on penalty decision’) but also going beyond the world of sport: ‘A merger and acquisition boom looks nailed on.’ ‘It’s a nailed-on recipe for disaster!

Words not only morph into new parts of speech, they associate with new companions. Flag-bearers and torch-bearers always make appearances at the Olympics. A new compound was created for London in the shape of Games Makers. Although volunteers had helped at the Games when they last came to London in 1948, this year they were christened  ‘Games Makers’ in recognition of the way they helped ‘make the Games happen’. They were featured on a commemorative stamp after the Games, but their name might not be immortalized in the language. I doubt whether that’s a compound that will make its way into the dictionary.

New venues, too, will generate new terms. Perhaps in 2016 we’ll all be adding sporting words of Portuguese origin to our vocabulary.

The sporting legacy of the Olympics may be less spectacular than the politicians and sports organizers hoped – too many of us preferred to sit back and watch others achieve sporting greatness to doing anything more athletic than reaching for the remote control. But a little corner of the English language will have been shaped by the excited crowds and commentators of London 2012.

Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.  She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

Leonie Hey  taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

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Making the Most of Dictionaries

Students in a classroomIn this article, Margaret Deuter, a managing editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, looks at why proper use of dictionaries is so important to English language learners.

It’s not the stuff of spy novels, editing dictionaries. But some teachers act as if we were producing some subversive material that should be handled with extreme care.

It’s depressing for those of us who work to make dictionaries useful resources for learners to go to conferences and hear teacher trainers telling their audiences that dictionaries should be kept out of the classroom. Or to read in a coursebook multiple strategies for getting students to guess the meanings of words and only as a last resort to look them up in a dictionary.

We all know that using a dictionary badly can lead to hilarious results – well, not so funny if as a student you get a really bad mark because of it; but funny, for example, to visitors at this hotel where in the restaurant, “regional and international courts are offered to winter garden…In the summer a terrace to the decree”.

It’s quite possible that these errors have come about by inexpert use of a dictionary, but if the choice is a) ban dictionaries or b) teach students to use them properly, surely there is a clear pedagogical answer. Equipping students with the skills to help themselves is just as much part of a language teacher’s job as imparting knowledge of irregular verbs or practising pronunciation. If these skills are not taught in the classroom, students will still use dictionaries at home, but they won’t be as efficient or proficient at using them as if the dictionary is a regular part of what happens in the classroom.

Tasks designed specifically to familiarize students with dictionaries and to build their reference skills are available to accompany learners’ dictionaries.  Even better, allowing the dictionary to take the strain when you’re doing vocabulary work in class, whether it’s by topic, or based on reading, or just items that crop up in the lesson, is not undermining the teacher, but sharing the burden – with the added benefit of helping the student to cope independently.

You know how it is when you have a special visitor who doesn’t come very often – you go to a lot of trouble over their visit and it’s very hard work. And then there are those visitors who pop in so often that they’re like part of the family – they roll their sleeves up and help with the washing up and they know where the cutlery drawer is because they come so often.

If the dictionary is like the first guest, making a special star appearance and then never turning up again, it will have made it hard work for you and been of only limited benefit to the students. But if it’s like the second type, the friend that is always popping in and out, and making themselves useful, helping with all the routine tasks, it’s not taking up your time unnecessarily; in fact, it’s sharing the burden with you and certainly helping your students.

To find ideas and activities for making the most of dictionaries visit our Dictionaries hub.

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