Image courtesy of Windell Oskay
It is funny how things change as you get older. When I was younger, I swore I would never be a teacher. Both of my parents were teachers and I actually thought they were good at their jobs, but the idea of teaching sounded boring to me. So what did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be an inventor. I had this box of old mechanical and electrical components I had scavenged from things I would find around the house and I would attempt to build things from them. My dad even went so far as to buy me a 6V lantern battery as a christmas present one year. It was only one of many unique gifts my parents gave me over the years. Funny thing was, I thought the presents were great.
One day, I decided to solder some random resistors and capacitors together to see what would happen when I plugged them in. Poof. A quick flame and lots of smoke. Oops. Well, at least I didn’t burn the house down. I had no idea that the little coloured bands on the side of the resistor held any relevant information. Nor did I grasp the concept of what a capacitor did. I just took what I thought were relevant parts and assembled them in a way that I thought would work.
For many of my English language students, writing works in the same way. They often piece together formulaic words and phrases that they feel should work in a given situation and PRESTO, you have a sentence that sounds like it was made up of stock words and phrases. Hmmm. Something isn’t working here. Grammatically it is good. Spelling is perfect. Meaning is mostly correct. So what’s wrong?
This is the reason behind a study done by Milton and Hyland (1996) using a collection of essays from students in the UK who were native English speakers (NS) and from university students in Hong Kong who were non-native speakers (NNS). The authors were looking at the use of lexical forms to express doubt and certainty. Somewhat surprisingly, both the NS and NNS students used these lexical forms roughly the same amount, around once every 55 words. What was even more enlightening was how they were used. Here is a short rundown of the results:
- NNS students used will twice as much as NS students.
- NS students used would twice as much as NNS students.
- NNS students used may and think far more than NS students.
- NS students used perhaps and often far more than NNS students.
- Of the single lexical terms used, two-thirds of the usage came from only five words.
- NNS students who graded highly were more likely to use words and phrases associated with doubt and certainty than those who graded lower.
- NNS students tended to use phrases and words of certainty far more than NS students who tended to use probability more.
- NNS students used 300 different intensifying expressions compared to only around twelve commonly used by NS students.
- The use of hedging by NNS students was mostly used to convey less conviction, where as NS students used it “to suggest the limit of academic judgement”.
- NNS students tend to overuse connecting words to express addition.
There is more to this article than I am able to address in this single post, but that just means I will have to revisit this again some time in the future. For now, I would like to hear from you. Do you have any suggestions about dealing with this issue with your students?
Milton, J. and Hyland, K. (1996). Assertions in students’ academic essays : A comparison of English NS and NNS student writers. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology LANG Conference Papers. Retrieved from http://repository.ust.hk/dspace/handle/1783.1/1045