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TESOLGobbledygook: The Proliferation of Jargon in English Language Teaching

Written by: Joshua D. Bernstein
Published on: May 17, 2021

Maple Leaves
Image credit: tbralnina/Getty Images

A novice monk who tended a Zen temple garden was informed that special guests would be visiting and expeditiously began weeding plants, pruning branches, and raking up the hardscape. When the monk had finished, the temple’s abbot was called to approve his work. “Isn't it perfect?” asked the novice monk. “Yes,” said the abbot, “But something is missing,” and to the young monk’s astonishment he shook a large maple tree littering the garden with dry leaves. The abbot exclaimed, “Now that’s better!”

Like the novice monk, English language teachers must learn the vocation’s discourse before they can “shake” the metaphorical tree. This technical lexicon or jargon includes presentational, syntactic, and lexical markers such as abbreviations that function as professional shorthand (Allan, 2006). Thornbury (2006) astutely remarked in his introduction to An A–Z of ELT:

Training and development involves not just the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also a specialized language to talk about them and to make sense of how other professionals talk about them.

Acquiring specialized language facilitates in-group communication, functions as an important step toward becoming socialized into the field, and offers linguistic tools for this new identity (Murray, 1998; Thornbury, 2006). Likewise, insular or unclear terminology (i.e., gobbledygook) can be exclusionary and hamper communication (Hirst, 2003). This article draws from an ongoing empirical study examining the merit of online teaching certificates and the language used in their marketing to critique the current use of jargon in English language teaching. Although the article does not ignore the tacit reality that jargon will inevitably be created and used, it builds on previous work (e.g., Hales, Williams, & Rector, 2017) that has asked for frequent (re)assessment of how we employ professional language and through doing so advocates for its purposeful application.

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