Week Seven: Lexis

What was this week’s module about?

Lexis is (at least in my mind) the preferrable term over ‘vocabulary’ as it reflects that words usually combine with others when we convey ideas. Vocabulary is often associated with singe word items, which might lead teachers or students to think of phrasal verbs as part of the grammar structure, or idioms like kick the bucket as poster-worthy curiosities of English.  

Why is ‘lexis’ a better word?

Imagine you’re building an extension to your home. The builders come in and construct the structural shell – basic things like walls, floor, a door, but nothing that tells you what the room is for or who lives there or uses it. That’s what the grammar system allows us to do in language: build a solid structure which we can use to convey meaning. That’s the fun bit, and it happens when we apply content words to the functional structure. But the words aren’t applied in isolation. The words might connect with other ones in the sentence, or there might be words which we frequently use with them. It might be that a group of words together have a completely different meaning than their individual parts. This idea cannot be expressed by ‘vocabulary’ alone; lexis, on the other hand, implies these connections exist.

What was involved in the module?

Several aspects. Much of the reading delved into the Lexical Approach – the basic tenets, common critiques, and ways it can be applied to a communicative or task-based method. There was also group-work discussing these six statements from Penny Ur, and whether we agree with them, and the essay assignment was a discussion of the value of collocation and tasks which use it in class. This week’s live lesson delved deep into idioms and idiomatic language, and spoiler alert: if you think idiomatic language is just those things on that poster from Cambridge, you’re very much mistaken.

So what is idiomatic language, then?

Kick the bucket is an example of a fixed idiomatic expression. English is full of them and some might be more useful than others. As I write this, Microsoft Word is suggesting I change that idiom to die, and there might well be a popular opinion growing that these expressions are clichéd and belong in the list of ‘things we don’t say anymore’. Raining cats and dogs is another one, and I wonder if the only people actually saying these things nowadays are poor unsuspecting English students who studied English File in the noughties.

What is the origin of the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs?" | Library of  Congress
Very unpleasant weather by George Cruikshank (1820)

Idiomatic language, on the other hand, is any phrase or expression where the meaning is not immediately clear or transparent from the choice of words; it might be that we need context to determine the meaning, it might be that the expression has a whole different associated meaning. There’s a spectrum of idiomaticity that goes from transparent meaning to opaque meaning, and lots of types of lexis can be found along it, such as phrasal verbs, metaphor, euphemism, and (semi-)fixed expressions. For a Spanish speaker, how are you is pretty transparent, but its more colloquial counterparts like how’s it going or what’s up? are much more opaque. This is idiomatic language. It’s basically everything.

What was your main takeaway from this week?

I’m a Lexical Approach fanboy, and it has a much wider influence on my teaching that I had realised.

What’s next?

There are no more assignments until 2021, but still lots to be getting on with. The final module of the year introduces the research-based unit 2, and there will be a lot of reading and preparation work from that.

It’s also Christmas (yay!), which will give me time to work on my next two articles, about teaching myths and students’ mental health, and preparing for the Language Teaching for the Planet course which starts in early January.

If you’re wondering, no I don’t proof these journal entries. They’re a stream of (un)consciousness just as I prepare to switch off for the weekend.