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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!


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Academic writing and the grammar of words

Julie MooreClose-up of Dicionary entry in dictionary, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, looks at the benefit of using dictionary skills in academic writing.

In ELT, we tend to approach grammar and vocabulary as two quite separate strands, mostly for the convenience of teaching. Of course, we all know that, in reality, they’re closely interwoven. And perhaps nowhere more so than in EAP (English for Academic Purposes), where complex constructions and the importance of appropriate vocabulary choices often make an understanding of lexicogrammar (the grammar of words) absolutely key to writing clearly and persuasively.

Consider the underlined phrases in the following three examples of student writing – are they issues of vocabulary or grammar?

  • This essay aims to exploring how children’s lifestyles can both cause and address the issue of increasing child obesity.
  • Some of these areas are located in seismic belts and encounter with the risk of strong earthquake.
  • In order to better understand the construction of a photoelectric sensor, a brief explanation to the working principle is given here.

In each case, it’s the grammatical features or typical grammatical patterns of these specific vocabulary items that have caused problems; the following verb pattern, the need for a direct object, and the dependent preposition respectively. This is tough for the learner because it means that it’s not enough to learn general grammatical principles and bolt on a list of appropriate academic vocabulary; they also need to get to grips with the grammatical characteristics of each individual word.

Of course, a lot of this comes from exposure to academic writing; students noticing recurrent patterns as they read and getting a feel for how particular words are typically used in context. But to me as a teacher, that always seems like rather a superficial piece of advice, a bit vague and with no obvious concrete steps that students can take to improve their next piece of writing. The process of learning how vocabulary is used doesn’t have to be a passive one though – students can be encouraged to be proactive when it comes to lexicogrammar.

Each of the students above could be pointed in the direction of a dictionary to see where they’ve gone wrong. Below are extracts from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, which provides a wealth of information targeted specifically at how vocabulary items are used in an academic context, both in terms of meaning and grammar.

aim (verb) … 2 [I,T] to try or plan to achieve sth: … ~to do sth The project aimed to investigate Earth history by drilling the deep ocean floor.

encounter (verb) 1 ~sth to experience sth, especially sth unpleasant or difficult, while you are trying to do sth else: One problem commonly encountered by customers ordering products over the Internet is difficulty with delivery … to encounter difficulties/obstacles/opposition

explanation (noun) … 2 [C] ~(of sth) a statement or piece of writing that tells you how sth works or makes sth easier to understand: … The author provides a brief explanation of his oral history process.

By pointing out in class how this type of information is shown in the dictionary (in each case here by expressions in bold showing the pattern and then reinforced in example sentences), students can start to see how they can learn about how words work for themselves.

Dictionary skills can be incorporated into activities where students edit their own writing (as in the above examples) or it can simply provide a regular interlude when an issue over a particular word or expression crops up in class. And as an added bonus, the processes involved in looking up the word and analysing the information they find, will help this new knowledge stick.


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Webinar: Leading a horse to water and making it drink!

Olha Madylus, a teacher and teacher trainer specialising in both primary and secondary education, introduces her upcoming webinar entitled ‘Leading a horse to water and making it drink‘ on 5th and 7th March, where she will explore ways to motivate students to read and enjoy doing so.

How do we motivate our students to read long texts in course books and how do we ensure that students understand and enjoy what they read?

To our students a long text in a course book can be very off-putting. Not only does the length put them off but it may contain a lot of vocabulary they are not acquainted with and the tasks they need to do, e.g. answer comprehension questions, may seem too difficult.

Using examples from the Insight series, my webinar on reading aims to address these issues by answering the following questions:

  1. What is reading?
  2. What makes a text difficult and off-putting for students?
  3. What can we do before looking at the text to increase motivation to read and to prepare students for potential difficulties like a lot of new vocabulary
  4. What strategies can students employ to get a ‘feel’ of the text when they first meet it, putting into to context, to make reading easier
  5. How can skimming a text effectively help students understand text organisation in order to better navigate it
  6. What do students need to know about syntax, discourse markers and cohesive devices that will make reading easier
  7. How can students deal with new vocabulary within a text?
  8. How can students be encouraged to ‘read between the lines’, identifying implications in order to make inferences
  9. How can we personalise response to texts, to ensure that students do really think about its meaning, rather than just try to get to the end of the activity.
  10.  How can reading be more rewarding and more fun?

So, if you teach reading skills and want some ideas on how to make your teaching more effective and reading lessons more motivating for students, do join me in this webinar.


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Webinar: Which English?

Which Engliah word cloudStacey Hughes introduces her upcoming webinar on 25th and 27th February entitled ‘Which English?‘.

Why is English spelling so crazy? Why are there so many ways to say the same thing in English? Why is there not one ‘standard’ English? Which English should I teach?

Stacey Hughes from OUP’s Professional Development Services will try to respond to some of these questions in her upcoming webinar, Which English?

English history and the English language can hardly be separated. If we look to our past, we can see how English has been shaped by invaders, writers and even its own colonial surges. These influences have led to the way English looks and sounds today.

Many English words are notoriously difficult to spell. Irregularities in the spelling conventions for common words can flummox students trying to learn the basics. And then there’s the fact that words don’t sound like they look. What were they thinking when they came up with the spelling system?

English also has a lot of words – and a lot of words for the same thing. Yet, even if they are similar, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. Context and collocation play their part in making vocabulary difficult to use.

English continues to evolve as new words are added and old grammar rules fall out of fashion. It is also a growing language with speakers using it as a common language even when it is a foreign language for both speakers. English also evolves as speakers adapt it to fit local language needs.

With so many ‘Englishes’ around, which English should we teach?  How can we best prepare our students for the English they will encounter outside of the classroom?

Join the webinar, Which English? on 25th and 27th February to find out more.


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5 ways to use a dictionary for academic writing

Oxford Learner's Dictionary of Academic English book coverJulie Moore, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, shares her top 5 ways to use a dictionary to teach academic writing skills.

With my background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of encouraging dictionary skills in the classroom. And as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I’m really looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my students.

Rather than teach planned dictionary skills lessons, I tend to slip in dictionary usage at every possible opportunity. In particular, I’ll often send students to the dictionary in a writing skills lesson. Here are my top five areas of academic vocabulary to focus on:

Collocation

One thing that can make student writing sound awkward is an odd choice of collocation. Sometimes a choice that would be fine in everyday English or spoken academic contexts, such as do research stands out as too informal in academic writing, where conduct or undertake research might fit better. Checking a key word in the dictionary will provide students with a number of appropriate academic collocations, not just for the most common meanings of a word, but also sometimes more specialist uses too, e.g. a power = an influential country: a colonial/imperial/sovereign/global etc. power.

Dependent prepositions

A wrong choice of preposition may seem like a trivial error, and in speech it will usually be overlooked. But in academic discourse, where precision is highly valued, frequent minor errors can give the impression of intellectual sloppiness and inaccuracy. Next time your students are handing in a piece of writing, try this quick self-editing activity. Before they give you their texts, get them to go through and underline all the prepositions they’ve used, then identify those that depend on a content word (a noun, verb, or adjective) either just before (on impact, under the influence of) or just after (reliant on, consistent with). Next, they choose a handful (3 to 5) that they’re least confident about and look up the content words in the dictionary. Point out that typical prepositions are shown in bold before examples. They can then correct any errors they find before handing in their work.

Following constructions

You can do a similar thing with the constructions that typically follow particular words (focus on doing, demonstrate how/what …). I tend to highlight examples like this when they come up in class, just taking a couple of minutes to raise students’ awareness of how this type of information is shown in the dictionary, again in bold before examples. Students can then use it as a reference source themselves when they’re hesitating over a construction in their writing.

Parts of speech

EAP students need to develop a particular dexterity in swapping between parts of speech, whether they’re trying to find an appropriate paraphrase or construct a complex noun phrase. As different parts of speech typically start with the same combination of letters, they’re generally together in the dictionary, making for a quick and easy look-up. And to help further, the different parts of speech of many key words are even grouped together in word family boxes, allowing learners to see the options at a glance, including non-adjacent words such as antonyms too, e.g. conclude, conclusion, conclusive, conclusively, inconclusive.

Synonyms

For students writing longer academic texts, repetition of key words can become an issue. Finding a few appropriate synonyms can help to improve the flow and style of their writing enormously. With a class of students preparing for a writing task on a particular topic, you might pick out a few key topic words and get students to look them up in the dictionary to search for possible synonyms. These are shown after each definition, e.g. at practicable you’ll find SYN feasible, workable. Of course, synonyms rarely have identical meanings and usage, so get students to look up the synonyms too and decide which might be substitutable and what adjustments they might need to make grammatically (e.g. vary from x to y, but range between x and y).

By incorporating regular dictionary usage into classroom practice, you raise students’ awareness of the type of information they can find in the dictionary, how they can use it to improve their academic writing and become more autonomous learners. What’s more, by proactively doing something with a word (looking it up, thinking about it, then using it), they’ll also broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge.