Why am I interested in specialised vocabulary?
My interest in this field developed firstly through teaching in language schools in various countries, such as Romania, Hungary and Estonia. The students in these schools were predominantly adult learners, and many had quite low levels of proficiency in English. Many of these students were professionals, for example, heart surgeons, agricultural scientists, teachers and business people, and their language needs did not seem to be well served by the general English textbooks which made up the curricula in the schools. These textbooks and materials had other important functions for the students, such as helpful ways to meet and talk about general topics, and support for language skills development. At a teacher’s conference in Estonia, Larry Selinker, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Michigan, gave a talk where he emphasised the importance of empirical research to support learning and teaching. This talk served as a turning point as I began to wonder what sort of empirical research I needed to know about for my teaching, and what assumptions I was making as a teacher.
During my postgraduate studies back in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I began to teach EAP. It was during this time that I became more aware of research in vocabulary studies and how it could inform and, in some cases, transform the learning and teaching objectives of a class. I consulted Jim Dickie at Victoria University, a wise lecturer in my postgraduate studies about doing a thesis as part of my master’s study. Jim said, ’You know what works, but you don’t know why.’ This was another turning point. And then John Read, also then at Victoria University, mentioned that Xue and Nation’s (1984) University Word List needed updating. So I went to talk to Paul Nation. This is how the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000) research began. I have been lucky enough to be able to have opportunities to talk about research with these and other great colleagues in Aotearoa/New Zealand and in far-flung places many times over the last 20 years.