Webster Didnít Get It: 5 Important Words Your Students Wonít Find in the Dictionary
Do your students think the dictionary is the end all be all when it comes to language resources? Have you seen students that are linguistically paralyzed if you say no dictionaries allowed?
Give them a glimpse of the complete linguistic picture, and a more balanced view of Webster, by pointing out these words that the dictionary missed.
These Are The Words Your Students Won’t Find in the Dictionary
Slang is always a big red flag for English as a second language students. Because language is always changing, because it is a living and fluid thing, there are always new words being born into English. After a piece of slang becomes more commonly used and is used by a larger portion of the population, it may gain status by being added to the dictionary. For example, in recent years the expression “ginormous” (a combination of giant and enormous) gained some popular usage. Most English speakers would say it is obviously slang, but it now appears in the dictionary, labeled as informal language. On the other hand, the word “woot” which has become a common expression of happiness or excitement is not found in most dictionaries. Ask any college student today what it means and they will likely be able to tell you, but here is an instance where a commonly used piece of slang will be a mystery to your students who are overly dependent on the dictionary.
Slang is not the only place language changes. With scientific advances moving forward every day, language moves right along with it. Words are added to English with many scientific discoveries or technological advancements. Because of this, the dictionary will not reflect these recent additions to the language, even if they seem like legitimate words. For example, if someone were to ask you what a netsurfer is, you could probably tell him or her it is someone who browses the internet for entertainment. You will not, however, find this word in the dictionary. Another example is technostress which describes a negative emotion tied to new technology. These are examples of new words that have come about as a result of technological advancements. These types of words also come as a result of scientific discovery. One such word is heliopause, which identifies a boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space. Though it may show up in future revisions of the dictionary, you will not find it there now and neither will your students. Again, your students should be encouraged to think beyond the covers of their dictionaries.
What do you think of when you hear the word fahrvergnugen? How about joie de vivre? In fact, both speak of the joy of life, of living the good life, and neither of these expressions is English, not in the traditional sense, anyway. When two languages have natural contact with one another, whether through business or social relationships or another means, the speakers of these languages at times will use words from the language not their own. With continued use by those original speakers and then the adoption of the foreign word by other native speakers, what was once a foreign word becomes a part of (in this case) the English language. These words borrowed from one language into another are called loanwords. Many English words have been “loaned” to foreign languages, the word computer is used in French for example, and English has likewise borrowed many words from other languages. Eventually, these words and expressions may make their way into the English dictionary, but it sometimes takes quite a long time for that to occur. Making your students aware that these words exist is part of helping them understand the meanings behind them. If a word happens to be borrowed from an ESL student’s native language, they will obviously have an advantage over other students where that word is concerned. Most of the time, however, these foreign words will be completely foreign to your students as well. If you like, you can encourage your students to keep a list of these types of words in a notebook for their own reference. It will come in useful when an English-speaking friend says, “Ciao!” and your student knows not to head for the cafeteria.
In this age of text messages, perhaps the most necessary “words” your students will need to enable communication with native speakers are acronyms. An acronym is a word that is composed of the initial letters of the words or the important words that make up a larger phrase. Some acronyms become commonly used words over time and make their way into the dictionary in their own right, radar and FBI for example. Others may never get dictionary status, but it does not stop native speakers from using these acronyms in their speech and writing. You probably know what ttfn, rotfl, and pyt stand for, but your students may not, and the dictionary is not going to help them understand them, either. Your students may find that there is no easy way to know what an acronym means unless they have learned the expressions from which it comes, but learning these expressions is worth the effort if they intend to communicate with native speakers through any informal, written means.
Finally, as anyone who has ever had a lesson on the dictionary knows, the valuable reference books do not include proper nouns or names among their entries. Most students will expect this to be the case, and they will not depend upon their dictionaries to understand these words.
The challenge ESL teachers have is to break their students away from the dictionary for more than just words which start with a capital letter. Making students aware is the first step in helping them know when the dictionary will be a help and when it will be nothing to them. As always, be sensitive to your students and understanding of their struggles but still challenge them to think outside the reference book.
Susan likes to enjoy every day to its fullest whether she is freelance writing, teaching homeschoolers, or developing her special talent of instigation. When she is not imagining sand castles or catching others off balance, she cooks, sings, reads and takes walks in the sunshine. She earned an M.A. from the University of Delaware in Linguistics and an M.A. from Trinity School for Ministry in Youth Ministry. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and her three cheepy cockatiels.
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