Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

Etymology and the Development of L2 Vocabulary: The Case of ESL Students at the University of Botswana

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

Etymology and the Development of L2 Vocabulary: The Case of ESL Students at the University of Botswana

Article excerpt


Part of the history of English is that many of its words are of Graeco-Latinate origin. Hence, the vocabulary of the language comprises words which are short and familiar and those which are foreign and long (Quirk,1978, p. 138). However, both L1 and L2 users have to get acquainted with the second group, which dominates academic discourse. Our students are disadvantaged on two grounds. Firstly, vocabulary instruction for them seems quite deficient in scope and depth, and secondly, the students tend to acquire the vocabulary of academic discourse necessary for their success in tandem with the learning of concepts which come incased in words they are unfamiliar with. Our paper uses data collected from the students' writing over a period of twenty years to examine their specific problems relating to the etymology of English words. Two questions are addressed: What problems does the etymology of English words pose for ESL students? What measures can be adopted to alleviate these problems? We discuss confused pairs of words, pairs erroneously considered synonymous, and coinage resulting from student's lack of appropriate vocabulary. We recommend that teaching the etymology of words used in academic discourse would assist our students to improve their fluency in English.

Keywords: ESL, Botswana, vocabulary instruction, word origin, word structure, focus on form instruction The vocabulary of a language is the only part of it over which we can confidently assert that no single native speaker has total command. This is because the lexis is far vaster, and far less rigidly structured than other levels of language (Steven Dodd, 1993, p. 35).

1. Introduction

The dominance of the Roman Empire and its language in the period Before Christ and, for a long time, well into Christendom, is a historical fact. The Romans themselves owed a lot of their vocabulary and grammatical concepts to the Greeks. This was reflected in their discourses in the fields of commerce, politics, the law, medicine, natural sciences, literature and literary criticism, linguistics, and generally in all spheres of their lives. On the matter of linguistics, which is directly relevant to our paper, we quote from the Greek grammarian Dionysius Thrax's (c100BC) work, Techne Grammatike:

A sentence is a combination of words, either in prose or verse, making complete sense. ... Of discourse there are eight parts: noun, verb, particle, article, pronoun, preposition, adverb, and conjunction. A noun is a part of discourse having cases, indicating a body (as 'stone') or a thing (as 'education'), and is used in a common and a peculiar way (i.e. is common or proper) .. (in Dykema, 1961)

Dionysius Thrax provides such definitions for each of these 'parts of discourse', which we now call 'parts of speech'. The result of this debt is that many English words, especially those of academic English, are from Latin and Greek, the languages of learning during and for a long time after the Roman conquest of Britain. Latin enjoyed the prestigious status that English was later to occupy in the British Empire, and which it continues to in the post-colonial period, particularly in the academy, but also in the same domains in which the Romans used Greek and later, their own language, Latin. The crucial question, the answer to which points to the probable causes of our students' problems with English vocabulary, is this: Whose children are brought up exposed to discussions, in English, of commercial, political, legal, scientific, literary, linguistic, and other matters that daily affect all aspects of their lives? Part of our argument is that children who do have an early start in their acquisition of vocabulary have an advantage over others in the English classroom. 'Practice makes perfect.' They are not likely to say 'Please borrow me some money', or, 'I want to appoint with you/I want to appoint you', which the others tend to do.

In an era when Latin and Greek have been phased out of most education systems in Africa, and in a country where they were never taught in public schools, it would be unrealistic to suggest that the solution to our students' problems with English words of Graeco-Latin origin would be to argue for these languages to be introduced in the schools. …

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