In a corridor at work, leading to nothing more glamorous than a classroom and a staff toilet, there are framed pictures on the wall. In these pictures a number of well-known British personalities are embracing English words that they particularly like. For example, actor and writer Stephen Fry has a particular passion for the word quince which, he claims, sounds spicy as well as old-fashioned. (As an aside, I note that a number of writers of my personal acquaintance like quince, though usually the fruit rather than the word.) Then there is the Northern Irish poet, Sinéad Morrissey, who has incandescent next to her photograph though, she says, she doesn't really have a favorite word in the language as "all words can find their place, with skill." She chose this one, though, because it 'lit up' a particular poem when she used it.
Then there is that edgy artist, Tracey Emin, who chooses the word docket ("before you get a ticket" she explains) and points out that her cat is called Docket, and that she loves her cat, so we're not sure if she loves the word because it is the name of her cat or whether the cat got its name because she loves the word docket. As usual, Emin is challenging us. Then, to be different, there is the British inventor, James Dyson, who has chosen the word Engineering. What is different is that he has chosen the word more because of what it represents rather than what it sounds like. Artists and scientists, eh? Who'd have thought it?
This display got me thinking about this division of words that people lay claim to, between what it sounds like and what it means. I have often told my students to work on new words that they like, because they are more likely to remember them and, more importantly, be able to use them correctly if they actually enjoy the word itself and adopt it as their own. Some students pick on words that seem eminently useful to them — perhaps because of the work they do, a situation that seems plausible to them or of association with the translated word into their own language — while others go for words that are fun to see on the paper, or hear out aloud and which have sonorities that appeal. Like quince, perhaps, or otter, or feather, or flawless. The trouble with these words is that they might not be particularly useful in a conversation over coffee, or when buying a train ticket, or in a job interview. But then you never really know, do you?
On the other hand, what both kinds of examples do give to the learner of English is a little lift in the personalization of the language: I never tire of saying that developing a sense of ownership of language helps students to better acquire the language. Identifying favorite words assists enormously in this task and gives legitimacy to the student's growing relationship with the language they are learning.
It was a short step from looking at the pictures on the wall to asking my colleagues for a little bit of help in discovering the favorite words of their students. What I wanted to know was their favorite word in English, and their favorite word in Portuguese — the latter as a kind of control in the experiment. I also thought it would be useful to know their ages, but I didn't require any other information though, in retrospect, knowing their gender might have presented another interesting angle too. In the largest grouping, the youngest students were 11 and the oldest were early twenties, but the majority hovered around the 16 years old — sweet sixteen, perhaps, and sweet was quite a popular word amongst this age group.
A quick, initial trawl through the piles of four hundred words showed clearly that round about the age of 14 there was a marked shift in the apparent way that words were chosen: from its meaning to its sound. Many 11- to 13-year-olds came up with football, friend, love, kiss and correspondingly amizade, amigos, amor and abraço (friendship, friends, love, hug) in Portuguese. By the time we got to the 16 year olds, it was clear that many more words appeared to be chosen because of their sound rather than their meaning (though we can never entirely disentangle the two). Lollipop, bubble and gorgeous were very popular, as were the fruits strawberry and pineapple (both singular), and also marshmallow and mushrooms. These same respondents also had food on their minds when it came to Portuguese, with francesinha being extraordinarily popular (a remarkable invention this: a toasted sandwich filled with sausages, ham and steak, a fried egg on top and cheese melted over everything and served in a hot, spicy sauce). Portuguese fruit also crept healthily in, with pêssego (peach), abacaxi (pineapple) and marmelada (quince jelly). There's that quince again, even though this is the origin of the English word marmalade.
Older students demonstrated a clear preference for the sounds of words in both languages, and demonstrated a remarkable grasp of low frequency lexis in English, and multi-syllable words in Portuguese. Amongst the English words for the 16+ age group were rancid, twelve, unbiased, cranky, otter and (wonderfully) turpitude and gregarious, while the same group produced estrambólico (extravagant), gargalhada (loud, sudden laughter), ornitorrinco (platypus) and otorrinolaringologista (ear, throat and nose medical specialist) — which, amazingly, was the only word to be chosen in each of the age categories 14-16, 17-19 and 20- 25.
So it was clear that choice of favorite word in both languages went about a fundamental change throughout early teens, and the functional, literal meaning of good, basic words that clearly had significance for the younger students gradually transformed into words that are more recognizable for their musical and rhythmic qualities, where meaning is perhaps less important than the metaphysical existence of the word, or at least in implied, sound-generated metaphor.
In an earlier article I discussed a question posed by a poet. "Why," he had asked " if poetry is the glorious summit of linguistic achievement in any language, does it work so well in a language learning environment? Surely this is a contradiction?" At the time I had ventured an answer along the lines that poetry frequently extends beyond the actual words it uses and that sound and rhythm play a part in connecting with the listener and the reader. Teachers of English as a foreign language notice that certain kinds of poetry appeal to different age groups of children, and that this more or less corresponds to the kind of poetry they appreciate in their own language. Younger children work well with poems that are centered in things they know, using words and real-life images they have experienced or can imagine. In EFL we have used the work of poets like Michael Rosen, Levi Tafari and Tony Mitton to great effect in this respect. Older teenagers seem naturally to veer towards imagery, metaphor and soundscapes and so this discovery of the choice of individual words came as no great surprise. Indeed it reinforced what we had suspected.
The sample group of much older students — those over 30 and 40 — was too small to do much with but was big enough to hint at something else going on. Do older learners revert to simple words with literal meanings and no-nonsense sentiments? I might be tempted to run another survey to find out. Meanwhile, I applaud the zeal with which so many young learners of English embraced words as their own. And the most popular word? Peace, perhaps inevitably, followed closely by lollipop and mushroom.
Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe.Click here to read other articles by Fitch O'Connell