Ambient vocabulary: Bringing the background to the fore

Have you ever wondered how new terms come into use within ELT? I know I have. My sneaking suspicion has always been that they probably start out a bit like football chants: three mates in a pub after a game drunkenly hit upon a great rhyming couplet and vow to try their new invention out on the terraces the next home game; if the chant is any good, it gets taken up by others around them and eventually takes on a life of its own, maybe even passing into history as one of the club’s all-time greatest songs. I’m sure, for instance, that I can’t be the only in the part of London who, on hearing even the faintest hint of Andy Williams doing You’re Just Too Good To Be True, starts having flashbacks and grins a simple idiot joy of remembering Freddie Ljungberg’s many, many Arsenal goals!

Anyway, I digress. My point is simply that terms must surely come into being by first someone spotting a gap in the conceptual market and then floating a phrase to define it and seeing if it sticks. I’ve always thought it must be great to have come up, say, the phrase lexical priming or sound chunking (Michael Hoey and David Brazil respectively)! My first stab at introducing a new term into the field is far less grand, but does nevertheless represent something I’ve been thinking long and hard about whilst pondering the whole slippery nature of level of late. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you ambient vocabulary.

My Macmillan Advanced Learners’ dictionary advises me that ambient is a technical word meaning ‘existing or present around you – as in ambient sound, whilst ambient temperature is the temperature of surrounding air. Many of you may also be familiar with the concept of ambient music: evolving both from the kind of muzak you might hear whilst trundling your shopping trolley around your local supermarket and out of avant-garde experiments in early electronica, ambient music blossomed in the early-to-mid 1970s, with its dominant artists perhaps being former Roxy Music man Brian Eno, who released his seminal Ambient 1: Music for Airports set in 1978, thus giving life to the term. Eno himself stated that ambient music can be either “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener”, and based his term on the Latin term ambire, meaning to surround.

Now, you’re probably wondering where on earth I’m going with all this, aren’t you? Well, fear not. The sense in which I’ve become interested in in the concept of ambient vocabulary runs parallel to Eno’s notions.  I’m interested in vocabulary that can be actively brought to the attention of students – or just as easily ignored, depending on the choices made by the teacher . . . and I’d like to suggest that generally we’d all be better off bringing more ambient vocabulary to the fore rather than leaving it in the background, especially if we’re keen to up the level of the input we’re providing for our learners.

Ambient vocabulary is language that’s there in the background of any given exercise or text, but which doesn’t necessarily need to be focused on in order for students – and teacher – to complete the task. Let’s look at a concrete example to illustrate what I mean here. Here’s an exercise I watched one of my trainees deal with last week. It’s taken from a writing spread that looks at making requests and enquiries and originally comes from INNOVATIONS Advanced.

2            Stating your purpose

When we write e-mails to people we know relatively well, the language we use is very similar to everyday spoken English. Formal letters to people we know less well are much more likely to be more formal.

Choose the words in italics which are more appropriate for the context.

a  Hi Jamir. You couldn’t just quickly send / forward me a note saying you’ve received that cheque, could you?

b  I am writing to request / ask for a complimentary copy of ‘Practising English Writing’, as advertised in your sales brochure.

c  I am writing to inform you of the fact / tell you that in a recent statement I was overcharged by thirty pounds / ripped off.

d  I am writing to request that you reimburse / give me back in full the amount sent with my recent order from your company.

e  Hi Mike. Just a quick one to ask if you could let me know / inform me how much you think the tickets will be.

f  I am writing to request further information regarding / more info about the current situation in Sierra Leone and to see / determine whether the Home Office is currently telling people not to / advising against travel to the country.

I would be most grateful if you could / Can you forward me details of your course fees and dates for the next academic year.

h  I am writing to enquire about the chances / possibility of acquiring / getting hold of a replica of my birth certificate.

In essence, the bare minimum a teacher would need to check in order to ensure students that had successfully completed this exercise is the language in italics. On a basic level, a teacher could simply explain the task to students, let them get on with it, put them in pairs to compare ideas and then elicit answers by simply saying “OK. A? Right. It should be SEND. Is it more formal or informal? Right. Informal. Because it starts quite informally – Hi Jamir. And B? OK. Request. It’s more formal, right. Writing to someone you don’t know.” – and so on. Doing this is better than nothing, but not by much. In essence, this approach posits the teacher as little more than a glorified human answer key.

A touch more sophisticated would be an approach would tackled not only the correct answers, but which checked and extended upon wrong answers. In this approach, the teacher may well run through the answers more like this: “OK, so A? Right. Send. How do you know? OK, but what tells you it’s informal? Right. The writer says Hi. The writer uses first names – Jamir – instead of something like Mr. Ali or whatever. Anything else? Yeah, the use of just to make the request seem small and actually the whole chunk – You couldn’t just – could you – is pretty informal too. Well spotted. And forward is a more formal way of saying send, so you might write something like I would be most grateful if you could forward me your price list (writes this on the board) or I would really appreciate it if you could forward me details of training programmes and so on. OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. OK. C?” This approach gives the answers PLUS and involves some real teaching, but still doesn’t really tackle the ambient vocabulary lurking behind the scenes in the exercise above.

So what exactly might this ambient vocabulary be and how might teachers alert students to its existence? Well, it’s basically anything there in the sentences that’s NOT central to the answers and that wouldn’t necessarily need to be covered when going through the answers, but which might still be new for students and which they might benefit from being exposed to. It’s language which will up the level of the input students get around the exercise and which will make even those who’ve raced through the exercise and who’ve got all the answers correct that they’re still going away from the class having been pushed and having learned something new. It’s language a sharp, lexically-minded teacher can focus on in addition to doing the great things involved in checking and processing the answers that I’ve outlined above.

In the exercise above, I’d suggest it means the following items: a complimentary copy, sales brochure, statement, (reimburse me) in full, the current situation, course fees and replica. Now, I’m not suggesting that I’d cover all of these items every time I rounded up the answers to these sentences, or that I’d do much more with some of them than check students have noticed them, gloss them, maybe ask one extra question about them. With the more useful words that perhaps have broader applicability (or, if you’d prefer higher surrender value) such as brochure and fees, I’d probably also get some extra examples of usage up on the board as well.

Here’s how I might bring the backgrounded ambient to the fore in just one sentence – B – above.

As I was going through the answers, I’d perhaps say something like the following:

“OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. And did you notice here the writer requests a complimentary copy. What do you think it means here? Right. It’s like a free copy. In the same way, sometimes at big parties, like launch parties for products or whatever, all guests maybe receive complimentary samples or a complimentary drink, and sometimes frequent flyers get a complimentary upgrade to Business Class. OK, and did you notice here, the sales brochure. How many pages usually? Just one or more than one? Yeah, right. It’s usually like a small magazine, and it’s always for some kind of goods or services that a company provides, so you get (write on board) hotel brochures, travel brochures, holiday brochures, school or university brochures, and the expensively-produced ones are usually (write on board) glossy full-colour brochures. And if you just look quickly though one, you (write on board) flick through – or leaf through – it.

More Teacher Talking Time for sure, but that’s what teaching is, folks! I’ve never yet had a student complain that their teachers were trying to explain things in too much depth or giving too many examples! As the old adage has it, you learn language FROM language – and if we really want our students to feel challenged, and we want to make the most of the language that surrounds them then perhaps it’s time we started ensuring we focus more keenly on bringing ambient vocabulary to the fore.

6 responses

  1. ‘ambient vocabulary’ (Dellar, 2012)
    Handy phrase, Hugh, I shall be dropping it into conversation as much as I can. ;o)
    I suppose it’s related to ‘teachable moments’, a phrase which I guess sums up what teachers can do with ambient vocab, bring it to the fore (teach it) or ignore it.

    1. Remember, though, you heard it here first! 🙂

  2. I think you ‘ambient vocabulary’, yes I’m going to use it and quote you, is where the useful language that is always missed by teachers who just teach THE book and don’t have a noticable approach to lexis. Those who take time to analyse the sentence in the examples you can then, through repeated attention, train learners to do this themselves.
    This means your exercise would have two aims a principle and sub aim so ambient would be always secondary. The teacher could take it or leave it.

    From a pratical point of view, if it is also highlighted in colour or in italics then it would be made more prominent. The teacher I watch tend to not look further than what is the main aim of any exercise due to time and difficulty. (yes it could look difficult on the eye too).

    Your ambient vocabulary if made more prominent would help learners to notice the lexis and also force teachers to take them to address them when the exercise is covered.
    It would train them to pay attention to lexical phrases.
    BTW, I remember this only happened in some books which had tapescripts at the back the ambient vocabulary (lexis) was highlighted. I think I first saw this in a business course book. Not sure though!

    Always like your thought!

    1. Hi Shaun –
      Many thanks for the comment.

      I’m slowly gearing up for a few more posts after what was admittedly a very enjoyable six weeks away from it all in pursuit of summer, of rest and relaxation and of respite from the relentless digitalization of our lives.

      I can think of a fair ew other bloggers out there who should give this a try!!

      Anyway, yes, I think you’re spot-on to say that pretty much any exercises (or, indeed, reading or listening text) can be seen as having primary aims and then more hidden / sub- / ambient aims revolving around the language that’s available to be taught within and yet which all too often remains unfocused on.

      I’m constantly astounded – and depressed – by how few teachers do much more than give answers to exercises. I do like the idea of highlighting stuff in order to draw attention to it, and to encourage teachers to teach it, but fear that unless such practice was adopted as an industry standard (Dream on, I know!), the main effect would be to make the page busy to the point of overload or irritation and to put off the casual browser engaged in the flick test!

      If you do ever recall which book you’ve seen this done in, though, please let me now. I’d be fascinated to see it in action. Makes sense for it to be attempted in tapescripts at the back of the book.

      Can also, of course, have a real learner training impact as students have their attention drawn to chunks that they’d almost certainly otherwise simply read over.

  3. […] my first effort at introducing new jargon into a field that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly crying out for more new terminology, […]

  4. […] Arsenal legend, Freddie Ljungberg, who I mentioned – and included a picture of – in a post wherein I contemplated how football chants AND ELT terms come into being! God only knows what the Freddi fans made of the […]

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