Why investigate specialised vocabulary in the professions? - Specialised vocabulary research and the professions

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Why investigate specialised vocabulary in the professions?
Specialised vocabulary research and the professions

The relationship between knowledge of a profession or occupation and its specialised vocabulary is very strong. Students need to know the vocabulary of their field well in order to function as professionals. Peters and Fernández (2013, p. 236) make the point that ’since professional decisions and judgements hang upon their [learners’] command of specialised language, there is a strong incentive for learners to grapple with the challenges of bridging the gap between their L1 and L2, and develop the necessary lexicon.’ Learners often consult specialised dictionaries to support their learning, as was the case in Peters and Fernández’s (2013) study of Spanish students of Architecture. The students in this study sought support for three types of vocabulary in their field (p. 240). The first was lexical items that were specific to architecture and building, such as duct and cladding. The second was lexis that was shared with other academic areas of study and disciplines (general academic vocabulary), such as resources and stress. The final type was everyday words for materials used in the building process, such as measure and straw. So specialised vocabulary in the professions is important because it is essential for learners and it can cover different types of vocabulary within one field.

Professional purposes vocabulary is also important because it is needed for communication between professionals and between professionals and laypeople. At the personal level, everyday types of encounters with professionals in the health area can remind us of the importance of clear communication between experts and non-experts. Medical staff need to know the technical vocabulary of their field as well as the everyday or layman’s terms for the same diseases or conditions, so that they can communicate with patients and their families and support people. When a basketballer in New Zealand suffered an eye injury on the court in early 2017, he was interviewed on the radio about what the medical staff had said. His response was basically that the doctors had said ’a bunch of big technical words and then a bunch more’. But he understood enough to know that his sight was going to be fine and the injury was not permanent. Another good example in Dentistry is the use of the word tartar in advertising and everyday English to mean hardened plaque on teeth. Tartar or plaque are more likely to be used in a conversation with a non-specialist audience or advertising than the technical term calculus. Not all specialised vocabulary is a matter of life and death, but it is important enough to know when to use it, how to use it and what other vocabulary can be used in its place as necessary.

The characteristics of specialised vocabulary make it important for research in professional contexts. One characteristic is the sheer amount of specialised vocabulary in a field of study; it potentially represents up to a third of the vocabulary needed in any field. As mentioned in earlier chapters Chung and Nation (2003) found that one word in three in an Anatomy textbook was technical. Another characteristic is that these technical words are not all long and complicated. They can be high, mid and low frequency vocabulary (Nation, 2016), and they can be single words or multi-word units. Examples in Aviation (Aiguo, 2007) include black box, sniffer dog, base leg, downwind leg crosswind leg and upwind leg. Some of this lexis may be shared between professions, while some lexis may be limited to particular field. All of these points can present potential difficulties if researchers are experts in Applied Linguistics research, but not experts in the field they are researching.

It is also important to find out what aspects of specialised vocabulary might be needed in a field. For example, writing for publication in English for Academic Professional Purposes (Belcher, Serrano & Yang, 2016; J. Flowerdew, 2015) demands a high level of academic subject area knowledge and English language proficiency. Verdaguer, Laso and Salazar (1996) developed a corpus of Biology, Medicine and Biochemistry to use as a reference tool for Spanish Biomedical academic writers needing to publish in English. Their main focus was ’high frequency non-specialised lexical items and phraseology, which pose the main difficulties to researchers whose mother tongue is not English’ (p. 22). This response to a need for non-specialised vocabulary indicates how important lexis is in professional academic writing in English. Another example of such support comes from Cheng (2014) who draws on a multi-disciplinary corpus of academic research articles to identify common collocations used in different sections of published texts, including introductions, discussions, and results sections. In Aviation, pilots and air traffic controllers rely on spoken communication, and need to know what vocabulary they can use in standard situations and what to use in the event of an emergency. Let’s now look more closely at specialised vocabulary in Aviation.