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“I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

Woman shrugging her shouldersRon Martinez has been a TESOL practitioner for over 20 years, with extensive and diverse experience as a teacher, trainer of teachers, materials developer, and academic researcher. In this post, he draws parallels between remembering people’s names and remembering foreign language vocabulary.

I recently had back surgery, which forced me to miss the first three months of this semester at the university where I teach on an MA TESOL program. Right before I was to finally return to duty, I was invited to a special dinner that would be attended by faculty and students from the school. When I got to the restaurant, a number of former students approached me – most of whom I had not seen for over four months – and I found myself doing a lot of “Hi!  It’s… you!” and “Hi… guy!” I, of course, recognized their faces, but I couldn’t remember many of their names. (And I’m sure they could tell!)

And then there was today. I returned to campus for my first day back, and I ran into a person who works in our English Department office – we’ll call her “Linda.” Linda smiled and waved, but I didn’t recognize her. “Out of context, right?” she said, kindly trying to assuage my embarrassment. And then I realized who it was. And Linda was right: I had never seen her anywhere outside that office, and that coupled with the extended time off also threw me off. (But at least I remembered her name.)

I realized that there are some parallels to be drawn between those rather awkward experiences and memory for vocabulary:

  • we tend to forget names, not faces; with vocabulary, we tend to forget the form of a word, not the concept;
  • even after repeated contact over months with people, it’s possible to forget their names after a while if you don’t interact with them somehow;  with vocabulary, the same will happen if you don’t refresh newish lexis on occasion;
  • when you only see people in a certain context, you might not immediately recognize them in other contexts; with vocabulary, you’re less likely to readily retrieve a lexical item from memory that’s only been encountered in one context/genre (e.g. in a coursebook) when meeting that same item in a different context/genre.

All of the above are echoed in one way or another in language acquisition theory. Vocabulary expert Paul Nation, for example, believes keys to vocabulary staying remembered include noticing the word in context, retrieving the meaning of that word from memory, and, ideally, using the word (what he calls “generative use”). So perhaps I was able to remember Linda’s name more easily than my former students’ simply because I’d used her name before. But there’s probably more to it that that. On reflection, I’d not only said her name when speaking to her, but I’d also seen her name in my inbox just about every other day during the semester in her email announcements to faculty. Another authority on vocabulary, Robert Waring, has shown in different studies that a newly-learned word that is met only once in a text will stay remembered for just so long. It needs to be encountered a number of times in order to reach long-term memory.

But just how many times is “a number of times”? It’s not really a hard-and-fast science, but what the research shows is that encountering or even repeating a word over and over again in a short period of time (for example, in just one class) really is an investment with diminishing returns. (Think of trying to do too many “reps” of one exercise at the gym.)  What studies show is that it’s encountering and/or using vocabulary again and again (and having to remember what that vocabulary means) over a long period of time, in various contexts, that helps ensure that a lexical item does not just fade away.

Indeed, as I learned the hard way today with Linda, the “various contexts” part seems to be really important. Michael Hoey has hypothesized that when we come across a word or phrase, we not only notice and retrieve its meaning as Nation would assert, but on each encounter we also retain some information about where that word was found (e.g. its genre), the context in which it was met, the co-text (words before and after the word), and even where in the discourse it was (e.g. the introduction, the body, or the conclusion). This is the theory of “lexical priming,” which suggests that the real key to gaining vocabulary “depth” of knowledge (e.g. collocation) is meeting a word in various contexts over time.

So, maybe if I had kept in touch with some of those students  – even just an email or two – while I was convalescing, remembering their names wouldn’t have been so elusive. And that might explain why I didn’t forget the names of fellow faculty at that same dinner, with whom I of course have had longer and more regular contact in varied contexts. But it wouldn’t explain it fully.

You see, I did not forget all my former students’ names at that dinner. There was one, for example – let’s call him “James” – whose name I remembered right away. What was different about James?

Unlike most of the students in James’s class, I had had contact with him outside of class as well. For example, last semester after a special seminar, snacks and drinks were served and we spoke for several minutes and we realized that we actually had some mutual friends. It is also worth noting that James was exceptional among his classmates, and regularly sent me emails asking questions and asking for suggestions on papers and so on. He even sent me a “get well” email while I was out with the back injury. Moreover, on most if not all those diverse occasions, I actually said (or wrote) his name.

Put another way, it was the combination of the relative frequency, variety and depth (i.e. non-superficiality) of my interaction with James, in addition to also using his name in diverse contexts, that made remembering “James” a lot easier. This concept is also echoed in the literature on vocabulary retention, encapsulated in Norbert Schmitt’s notion of “engagement,” the idea that the deeper the personal and cognitive involvement a learner has with lexis, the better.

So what might all this mean for you, the teacher? Get students to treat vocabulary as they would their friends!  People don’t forget their friends’ names because they see them often, or at least think of them often. Moreover, usually your friends are involved in a network of friends of some kind, and it’s harder to forget a friend’s name when her/his name is being mentioned (or gossiped about) over coffee every so often. And people like to do stuff with their friends, and not the same stuff all the time. You build memories, deep and meaningful memories with those friends, and maybe their names will therefore become engraved in your memory for the rest of your life.

Well, OK, I know that students will not want to start adding lexical items as Facebook pals or anything, but what matters is that students experience (at least) the noticing and retrieval that Nation suggests, repeatedly over a period of time as Waring has recommended, and with the engagement that Schmitt advocates. But what about the variety of contexts?

There’s only so much we can do in class. The variety of contexts and co-texts that Hoey says are necessary for lexical priming to have a positive effect on depth of vocabulary knowledge really are not likely to be had in class alone, which means investing in learning out of class, too. Naturally, a lot depends on students’ motivation, and how we get students motivated…  Well, that’s something for another blog entry, I’m afraid. There are some great authorities on the subject you can read, though. Now, if I could just remember their names…


What do idioms look like?

Man with egg on his faceAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 entitled ‘Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs’, Stuart Redman, co-author of Oxford Word Skills, ‘gets to the bottom of‘ idioms in the English language.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see these expressions?
kick the bucket
be barking up the wrong tree
a storm in a teacup
strike while the iron is hot
have egg on your face

Your answer is probably that they are all idioms: groups of words that not only have a meaning that is different from the individual words, but also a meaning that is often difficult or impossible to guess from the individual words. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they have the wrong idea about how to get or achieve something; it has nothing to do with – or is unlikely to have anything to do with – dogs or trees. If you have egg on your face, you might need a handkerchief, but it’s more likely that you are embarrassed or feel stupid because something you have tried to do has gone wrong. These expressions are also good examples of the commonly-held view that idioms tend to be very vivid and colourful expressions.

Now, let’s turn to another list of expressions. What do they have in common with the list above?
to some extent
I’ve no idea
from time to time
first of all
in the distance

Less obvious perhaps, but the answer, in fact, is the same: they are all idioms. Is the meaning of these expressions very different from the individual words? Not to any great extent. Is the meaning difficult or impossible to guess? Not particularly. Are they vivid and colourful expressions? Certainly not. So, why are they idioms?

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What’s your Word Bug?

Whats your Word Bug?“It’s fewer!! Fewer voters turned out, not less” (My 3 year old seemed relieved it was the radio getting a ticking off for a change!)  It bugs me – I don’t know why. Is it the result of being in TEFL for over 20 years and feeling rather superior that [some] broadcasters should have a better grasp of grammar? Possibly.

But there are words that irritate me too. ‘Lush’, for example. The only thing I feel should be described as ‘lush’ is grass or some kind of vegetation and I object to it being used as a generic adjective for everything from George Clooney to chocolate cake.

Perhaps this is less about the word itself and more to do with its use (or misuse), but it did start me thinking about personal bug-bears and annoyances when it comes to language and words.

In the nature of controlled scientific research, I Googled ‘most hated words’ and was surprised at the number of polls that have been taken on this and the range of people who have responded.

Literally’ was  deemed to be the most irritating word by Daily Telegraph readers and this was in response to a poll run by researchers at Oxford University where ‘At the end of the day’ came in as hot favourite, closely followed by ‘fairly unique’.

YouGov ran a poll among the internet community and surprisingly ‘blog’ came in third? Perhaps that was before we all started doing it. Babycenter.com contributors objected to ‘preggers‘.  Even ‘bun in the oven was preferable to this.

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‘Young’ words

Two teenage boys in hoodies

Kieran McGovern strikes out against youth culture and the decline of the English language with his Top 10 most annoying words in common use amongst today’s youths – with a word of warning to those… not-so-young.

Words are like clothes in that there are some that are only really suited to the young.

Here’s my top ten verbal equivalents of short skirts, low cut trousers and hoodies. These should be avoided by anyone over the age of… well, you decide.

  1. Dude – meaning: male person. Has become pretty universal amongst young Americans and increasingly in the UK, too. A great word with a long pedigree, like a baseball cap it does not suit greying hair.
  2. Awesome! – should only be used for that which truly inspires awe. This does not include the a new cover for your mobile phone.
  3. Banging (great) safe (excellent) ‘hood (neighbourhood) homie (friend) – this job lot of street slang is the private property of teenagers. Sounding like a wannabe gangster is inexcusable if you have a mortgage.
  4. Cool! – the exclamation mark is the line in the sand here. Describing something as ‘pretty cool’ is acceptable but not squealing c-o-ol!
  5. Wicked – (meaning great) Life is complex enough without calling bad things good and vice versa.
  6. Chillin – perhaps a controversial one but I think the world would be a better place without the phrase ‘chill out’.
  7. Skank – horrible word meaning someone of low class, sometimes also used to suggest sexual promiscuousness. Don’t use, ever!
  8. Gay – meaning rubbish, as in ‘that’s so gay!’ As used in the school playground it doesn’t generally have a sexual connotation, but best avoided.
  9. OMG, LOL etc – I know they’ve just entered the OED but there is something a little embarrassing about ageing fingers typing this kind of text short-hand.
  10. Whatever! – this is irritating enough coming from truculent teenagers, unacceptable from anyone old enough to vote.

What do you think? Am I being unfair? A language despot? Or are there more words you’d like to add?

Kieran McGovern blogs at English Language FAQ.

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The toughest verbs in English

Oriental man looking confusedKieran McGovern considers why some verbs in English are so difficult for language learners to grasp and how they have changed (and continue to change) over time.

Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.

There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use.

So how have these tricky customers evolved? And why are they so central to English?

The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an interesting theory. He says that irregular verbs are “fossils of an Indo-European pre-historic language.” This had a regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.

Over time pronunciation changed. The “rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.”

Irregular verbs are notoriously difficult for language learners – native speakers struggle with them, too. It takes children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not ‘speaked’. Some never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything (as opposed to ‘wrote’). In fact many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by native speakers – ‘we was’, ‘they done’ etc. – involve irregular verbs.

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