Sunday, May 2, 2010

Popular science corpora

Materials for Vocabulary In Context: Short Popular Science Texts for EST

Key Words: English for Specific Purposes, subtechnical vocabulary, popular science


A major need of all second or foreign language learners is knowledge of the target vocabulary, without which little can be expressed or comprehended. With unlimited time and opportunities, a broad and diverse vocabulary can be built; however, for the student in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) environment, opportunities and time spent in contact with the language are limited. For the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) student, the area of need is relatively well defined, and materials and vocabulary can be chosen in accordance with goals. This can be fairly clear-cut with a homogenous group of learners but is more difficult with students from a variety of fields of study or interest. It is, therefore, necessary to search for what is held in common.


Not all words are created equal. Some are used again and again, in various contexts, both written and spoken, while others can be found only in specific situations, or are rare enough to send adult LI speakers to an unabridged dictionary.

A distinction must be made, for practical purposes, between common and uncommon vocabulary, words that can be used in a wide range of situations and those which are very specific.

High frequency or general service words are found in several collections based primarily on word frequency, among them West's General Service List (1936), the Brown Corpus of Francis and Kucera (1982) , and the Cambridge
English Lexicon (Hindmarsh, 1980). These are said to cover about 87% of the running (total) words in a text. Above this, Nation (1990) places an academic vocabulary of approximately 800 word families, which make up another 8% of an academic text.

Academic vocabulary is that which appears widely, across many subjects, and is sometimes called subtechnical or semi-technical vocabulary. Subtechnical words form a bridge between the technical terms of a field, while being supported by general or function words (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987).

The remaining portion is made up of technical and low frequency vocabulary. These last two categories are distinguished by the relationship of the word to the subject of the text; technical vocabulary will be closely related to the subject and is likely to occur repeatedly within that section of a specialized text, although the section may be quite limited or specific. Low frequency vocabulary is unlikely to occur again, and can be found in texts of any type...


Myers (1994), who has studied popularizations of scientific discoveries, has found that different presentations of a discovery represent and foster different views of science. Scientists writing for other researchers see them as "much more tentative and mediated" than the general public does. When writing for an audience of fellow specialists, researchers are reluctant to make unqualified statements, and place
evidence and techniques in the foreground of research articles. Myers looked at articles reporting discoveries written by the same authors in two forms: as scholarly research articles and for publications such as Scientific American or New Scientist, aimed at audiences familiar with general science. The latter tend to highlight the people involved, as opposed to the techniques and results stressed in the research article. Myers found that one technique for focusing on the people is
to begin a paragraph with "I" or "we" and an active verb, while treating procedures with the passive. Another alteration is to place events in chronological order.

News articles, on the other hand, focus on the discovery and its implications, mentioning the discoverers much later in the article, and techniques scarcely at all (Myers, 1994). Nwogu (1991) examined the 'moves' of news articles (which he calls the Journalistic Reported Version) of medical research articles, and identified nine types of 'moves' . The Journalistic Reported Version followed normal journalistic
patterns, aside from bringing background from the end of the article to the front, making it the initial move. This type of 'lead' presumably aids the reader in placing the topic in a context with which the reader can relate.

The popularization of research articles, whether in science magazines or news articles, also involves other changes in syntax. The long, involved, many-claused sentences of research articles are changed into shorter, straightforward sentences, that is, clauses are unpacked. This can lead to a reduction in lexical density, a key feature of written English in general, and even more so of formal scientific writing (see Halliday, 1985). Nominalizations are reduced to verbs, once again emphasizing what was done (by whom). Myers also remarks on a wider range of cohesive devices being used in writings for the public.

Clearly, research articles and popular accounts of science and technology differ in form and, if not in content, then in emphasis.They are separate genres with different aims (Swales, 1990), and it would not be appropriate to present popularizations as representative of the whole field of "scientific writing."

Phillips and Shettlesworth warn that "caution needs to be exercised in accepting the relative simplicity of the popularized account,.. .which is frequently achieved at the expense of introducing an unrepresentative register of discourse
(1988: 107).

On the other hand, popular science texts offer subtechnical vocabulary in areas connected with science and technology. They also share some of the features of scientific English, nominalization and density, although not to the extent of a scholarly article. Because of the less complex structure, such materials are more accessible to lower level students or those inexperienced with technical texts. Short popularized pieces could help bridge the gap between general English and more
specialized texts, by increasing skill and confidence in reading and building a fundamental vocabulary. They do not require specialized knowledge on the part of the student or the teacher, and they are readily available.


Popular science texts have the advantage of being authentic and applicable to a broader range of students than specialized materials, while still exposing learners to the subtechnical vocabulary needed for future dealings with specialized material.

1 comment:

frenkeld said...

The newspaper language and expository prose are two types of sources that require expanding one's vocabulary beyond what one meets in novels and movies. Expository prose may be the easier of the two, but I am not entirely certain.