Monday, 12 September 2016

Getting technical

A few months ago on Twitter, I asked for recommendations for interesting EAP related articles as I had just gotten access to a university library and had plans to do a ton of reading. Good intentions being what they are, I read very few. Fortunately, Richard Ingold, sensing my idleness, sent me a very enthusiastic recommendation recently. Not only was it an interesting article, in tracking it down I also discovered that I have access to a physical library that I had been completely unaware of. Buoyed by all this serendipity, I thought it might be interesting to do a write up of the article.

Martin, J.R., 1993. Technicality and abstraction: Language for the creation of specialized texts. In A. Burns and C. Coffin, eds. 2001. Analysing English in a global context: a reader. London: Routledge. Ch.13.

Who is it by?
The author is J.R. Martin - I'd not heard of him before but that says more about my ignorance than his renown. He is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, is known for his work on systemic functional linguistics (SFL) and has a Wikipedia page. I've only done a tiny bit of reading on SFL - the idea (I think) is to look at language from a social perspective; that language is shaped by (and shapes) how we see and experience the world and that by analysing the language a person uses, you can better understand their beliefs or world views. (Richard has a fascinating article here where he uses SFL to analyse a sermon by a religious group called Hillsong).

What is the main argument?
For the guts of the article, Martin analyses examples of technical writing (for example, in science but also in the humanities). He starts by talking about how we classify things - for example, children would group a cow, a horse and a dog as animals; if they come across a new creature (he gives the example of a platypus) they might then question whether they can classify that as an animal. If their parent says yes, platypus is now an animal for the child. Similarly, in science, things are classified according to a system but the logic for that system might not be obvious or intuitive to a non-expert.

He then talks about definitions of technical terms. A technical term might be defined using simple language (e.g. A chromecast is a thing you plug into your telly so you can project your phone screen on to the big screen and watch netflix). Alternatively, a technical term might be explained by placing it in a category (e.g. a chromecast is a type of media streaming device). The former takes a bit more time to write but most people should get the idea from it. The latter is obviously easier for me to write and should be easier to understand if the person knows what a media streaming device is - but it would be incomprehensible if they didn't.

In my first chromecast example above there were lots of verbs (plug, project, watch). In my second chromecast example, the only verb was "is". This leads on to the idea that technical writing features lots of nominalisation or noun phrases as opposed to verbs. For instance, science studies processes but looks at these processes as things. Respiration refers to a process but "respiration" is a noun - the process (respiring) is nominalised (respiration) to make it easier to classify and talk about. So in scientific writing, you end up with lots and lots of nouns/noun phrases. Similarly, in the humanities, you have a lot of nominalisation - when we talk about abstract ideas/concepts (e.g. beauty, environmental damage, a vast increase in taxation). As a result, technical writing can often be accused of being jargon heavy. I get the sense that he thinks this either unfair or unhelpful although he does discuss the way some writing leans heavily on nominalisation as a sign of status.

What I took from it
To be honest, the first time I read through it, I wasn't quite sure if it had relevance to my teaching. I read it again and one particular line jumped out at me - "The main point as far as education is concerned is that students need to learn to read abstract discourse if they are to be functionally literate in our culture and write abstract discourse if they are to interpret their world in a critical way". From what I understand, all this technical laguage in academic writing can be extremely challenging for students - they may understand the concept but not the terms or they may recognise the terms but not understand what they mean or how they relate to other terms. So clearly, there is a lot of work to be done there.

Also, because this aspect of academic writing (the nominalisation heaviness) is never really unpacked for them (by unpack, I mean to look at the key nouns/abstract ideas in a sentence and think about what they mean, how they relate to other concepts in the text), Martin also points out how students often end up writing as they speak. This is something I've noticed a lot with students - their writing tends to be full of personal pronouns and lots of "if" sentences; the focus of the sentence tends to be either a person (often "I") or a thing (often the government) that acts like a person.

My advice to students on this tends to be very lame - "don't use I, it's not academic". I think I've been guilty of teaching academic writing in a do/don't approach - "this is a feature of academic writing - this is not; use obtain, not get; contractions are bad, etc.". In other words, a very micro level type approach. On p.221, Martin looks at a students' writing which is very 'spoken' in style and then suggests how it can be improved - his point being that if the student frames their writing within a thesis, argument, summation model, they will need abstract language. I think I might try more of this kind of thing - take a short essay written in a spoken style and then create a more "academic" article; unpacking it for the students to highlight the abstract language, the frequent focus on ideas/nouns and their relationship to other ideas/nouns in the text.

I might also try to get more down and dirty with technical language - I often see skimming and scanning as learning goals in EAP books; perhaps unpacking as a reading skill might be of equal value?

Disclaimer: I may have completely misunderstood this article so please check comments below in the hope that some kind soul offers corrections if needed.


  1. So glad you found the article useful, Stephen. Your reading of it is pretty close to mine.
    One of the key things to think about when looking at both technicality & abstraction is the way this type of language goes beyond the common-sense, everyday experience of life. It creates a world view through language. So, although your definitions of a Chromecast were great examples of using common-sense & technical language (media streaming), you’re slightly off using the word ‘Chromecast’ as an example of technical language as it is a concrete object that can be experienced directly. Chromecast is an example of what Martin would call specialised language – language which is specific to a particular area of life & needs to learnt, but can be directly experienced.
    I’ve been using two examples with my students recently: ‘diet’ & ‘nutrient’. Diet cannot be touched or experienced directly as a thing. It is a word which condenses the meanings ‘food’, ‘usually’ & ‘eat’, & means all of these things at the same time. Similarly, although a nutrient can arguably be a concrete object, it is not something that can be experienced directly, only through scientific study. Also, nutrient can form a taxonomy which includes micro- & macro-nutrients, lipids, minerals, etc. It’s a word which helps scientists carve up the world in a certain way.
    Regarding jargon, I think Martin is well aware of its negative effects – “Writing in administrative contexts, with an eye to social control, is the source of much of the most heavily nominalized discourse in Western culture” (p.224). He sees academic writing and legalese as symbols of status & the gatekeepers of power, but also sees the way the language of academic writing can open up the world & allow people to view & analyse it in ways that aren’t possible with everyday speech.
    Therefore, one of the main aims behind SFL & the genre pedagogy it spawned is to understand ‘the rules of the game’ & to explain them clearly to everyone, thus allowing all people, no matter what their background, to access the knowledge and insight this type of language affords.
    I’m still working on getting all of this across to my EAP students (IELTS 4.5-6.0). It’s not easy as they have to really want to understand language and writing, not only pass a course for instrumental reasons. However, I think that I’ve some real success by focusing on noun groups, nominalisation & the technical & abstract language which Martin highlights in this chapter.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment Richard. Yes, the diet and nutrient examples work better although I am contractually obliged to squeeze a chromecast reference into every post :)

    Although this was the first thing I had read by Martin, I did have the sense that he was trying to get around a certain perception or criticism of academic writing as willfully opaque. I figured that is why he didn't spend too much time on the negative effects of jargon but, as you say, looked at the reason for this technical language and how essential it is that students understand, and are able to use it.

    I'm really fascinated by the last part of your comment. We work with students at a very similar level and what you write struck a chord with me. I've been thinking about motivation a lot recently, especially after an exchange with a former professor of mine. It seems to me that many of the EAP students have a totally different motivation or goal to the goals that I have for the class and learning outcomes. The students want to pass the course so that they can get on to do their masters. So they are really, really motivated - they come to class on time, they do all the work that is set and they actively take part - but I suspect they would be the same if the requirements of the course were to learn knitting. I think this approach is probably fine up to the say 6.0 level in IELTS. But to go beyond that, it seems to me that there must be a deeper interaction with the language.

    To be honest, I struggled a lot thinking about how to apply this to my classroom - I'd love to know more about how you go about focusing on noun groups, nominalisation and this technical language in the class.

    By the way - that article you did on Hillsong was excellent - really interesting in itself but also a really good explanation of SFL.

  3. Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for the complimentary comments about my Hillsong article. You may have put its readership into double figures!
    Interested, & somewhat jealous, to hear about your motivated students. At the moment I’m finding that many of my students, despite their ostensible goal of going to university, have very low levels of motivation. Some have been made to come to Australia by their parents & others made to study subjects they have little interest in. They want to pass the course to get to university, but only really want to be given chunks of language to memorise so that they can create ‘a jigsaw essay’. That’s why I mentioned that getting into the nitty-gritty of language & really helping them improve their writing can be difficult.
    That said, I do of course have many engaged students as well & have found that focusing on noun groups & nominalisation has been a really effective way of helping them to improve both their writing and reading.
    I go about it like this:
    1) Introduce the different ‘levels of language’ (or ‘rank scale’ as it’s called in SFL). Word > group > clause > sentence > paragraph > text.
    2) Examine each level & practice identifying elements from it. E.g. word class (noun, adj, determiner, &c.), types of group (noun group, verb group, adverbial & linker) & so on.
    3) Look at how much ‘work’ different levels of language are doing in different registers - clauses carry lots of meaning in everyday, spoken language while noun groups do much more work in written academic texts as shown by them containing fewer verbs, fewer conjunctions, &c.
    I use simple examples of this idea of ‘work’ like this:
    Yuki is a student. She is 24 years old. She is studying maths. She is living in Sydney. [4 clauses, 12 groups]
    Yuki is a 22-year-old student. She is studying maths in Sydney. [2 clauses, 7 groups]
    Yuki is a 22-year-old Maths student in Sydney. [1 clause, 3 groups; but exactly the same information so the noun group is working harder by holding more meaning]
    4) Analyse model texts and pick out significant features to do with nominalisation and dense noun groups.
    5) Practice simple nominalisation of words. Beautiful > beauty, communicate > communication.
    6) Practice more complex clause level nominalisation. People are destroying the places where animals live > habitat destruction (notice the technicality and abstraction here).
    7) Gradually work up to sentences, paragraphs, factual texts, opinion texts, &c
    It’s not always easy so I try to have as many games & communicative activities as possible to help them along. I think all of my writing lessons are based on these steps now, which is undoubtedly the SFL influence. I’m a huge of fan of the way SFL looks at language & think it provides some of the best insight into the daily workings of language. (I actually met Michael Halliday at a conference once & was so in awe I became a pathetic, tongue-tied groupie!)

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thanks for that detailed response. It is really helpful to see how you move this into the classroom. I love this idea of looking at the "work that different levels of language are doing". The Yuki example is perfect and I can see lots of ways of moving this into the class (also, great for Yuki as nominalisation makes her younger ;). The initial example - lots of clauses and groups is the kind of thing my students would produce so the obvious class activity is then to see if we can follow similar steps to create a harder working noun group for their writing.

      On the course I teach, one things students have to do is word changes - like the Cambridge exams where you have to change a word for another member of its family so that it fits the grammar of the sentence (e.g. The forest left a trail of ___________ [destroy]). We tend to teach this out of all context; just a grammar type exercise that they need to do - it seems like a great way in to the discussion of nominalisation and abstraction.

      As for motivation, don't be too jealous. I have lots of students similar to the ones that you describe. However, the ones that are super motivated can be motivated in the "tell me exactly what to do and I'll do exactly that" kind of way. I worry with that kind of motivation, there is a limit to how far they can go.

      It's actually only through yourself that I've heard of Halliday - will do a bit more reading. I'm reading the second article by Martin in that book Analysing English in a global context - he's very good.

  4. Hi,

    I'm an EAP teacher and teach students slightly above the levels you mention - often between 5-6 in IELTS. I often struggle with motivation as well - their motivation and expectations of class can be dramatically different to what I would hope to cover.

    I come from the same 'school' as Richard - Sydney school genre pedagogy with the use of SFL as a theoretical framework, or toolbox. The ideas Richard has identified are strong (wink, wink).

    I’ve been working on similar things for years – when working with migrants with low levels of English, I started looking more carefully about the field and mode and how changes influenced language choice in context. For example, I would often need to teach people how to read and fill out forms so that they could access health and financial services. Simple things like address, spouse etc could prove a challenge for some people in one mode but not in the other e.g. although one may have enough experience with forms to know the genre and be able to read and understand “address”, they may not be able to understand and answer a question “where do you live?” – and vice versa for others. In attempts to address this, I started looking more closely at Martin’s work on field, which provided insights similar to those in the paper written about above – how to differentiate between specialized and technicalised language and how experiences are construed through ideational resources. His ideas were always extremely useful but it took many years to work out how to integrate it smoothly into my lessons. [NB. I hold Martin in very high regard. His contributions to SFL have been extremely influential in my teaching – especially his and David Rose’s (e.g. see Rose, D., Martin, J. (2012). Learning to Write, Reading to Learn: Genre, Knowledge and Pedagogy in the Sydney School. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Equinox Publishing.)]

    Now I’m working in University bridging programs, the students have slightly higher levels of language but I find they struggle with technicality. I’ve been working on using SFL and LCT in the classroom – SFL because it gives a robust explanatory framework for language in context, and LCT because it presents a strong explanatory framework the context. These tools offer opportunities for me to explain how language moves from the more common/everyday/spoken register to the more specialized/technicalised/written register.

    I’m still working on ways to teach it systematically but it’s extremely difficult to integrate it effectively into any course I teach – there’s often an overload of materials, the students motivation can be lacking, or worse, destroyed, and they don’t all have an active interest in language. But I’ll keep on trying ☺

    Daniel @danielanthonyos

    1. Thanks Daniel for commenting and thanks for the reference - I'm going to check it out.

      I think that point you make about explaining how the language moves from the everyday to the more technical is crucial - especially in terms of student motivation. If you think about it - the students at say 5.0 or 5.5 in IELTS have spent ages working hard to get to that level. When they get a very technical article it must be so discouraging - almost as if they have to start again from scratch - like all their learning has been for nothing. And they've probably already been through that. I often find students who spend a long time in their home country speaking English - they get to a decent level - then they come to an English speaking country (I'm in Ireland) and they can't understand people on the street - even simple questions. So that can be really discouraging. Similarly, when they get into academia, it's a similar thing - it must feel as if we're deliberately trying to make things difficult. Understanding the reasons for these language choices, I imagine, must be very helpful (actually, I don't need to imagine - I remember how traumatised I was (and still am I suppose) reading academic texts).

      I know what you mean though - I remember teaching general english - most students had a curiosity about the language so that when you'd spin off on a tangent about a word's etymology or something, they'd be interested. I'd say one out of every twenty students now would have that curiosity.