Episode 10


Hello, and welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. If you’re new to the podcast make sure to head to BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast to use the interactive transcript while listening to the show. You’ll find an embedded audio player along with annotations on all key words and chunks as well as a Quizlet set to review this vocabulary. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of regularly reviewing vocabulary. Studies have shown that the use of flashcards to learn vocabulary can more than double your language acquisition. Some of my students claim that it’s just not their learning style to use these methods. Obviously I won’t force anyone to do anything. But I do want to point out that learning styles have been debunked. They’re a myth. You may not enjoy doing something, at least at first, but I can assure you that once you start seeing dramatic improvements to your vocabulary, especially your productive vocabulary, that is, the vocabulary you’re confident using spontaneously in your speaking and writing, you will thank me for insisting on the importance of flashcard work. 

Last week I talked about the word ordeal, which is a difficult and painful experience that is not over quickly. I decided to post a video about it to my Instagram account BetterLanguageLearning, because it has such an interesting origin related to witchcraft and torture. So, if you’re not following me on Instagram yet, what are you waiting for? Anyway, as you’ve realised by now if you listen to the podcast on a regular basis, I love delving deeply into the meaning of words and chunks because it makes them more vivid and memorable. It will come as no surprise that human beings are hardwired to seek out stories. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher and media theorist who I discussed last week, had this to say

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

What he’s getting at, I think, is the fact that the part of us that craves entertainment, for instance in the form of stories, is not a trivial part of us. In fact, it’s the very same part of us that seeks knowledge, be it practical or ethical. And I think it serves as a stark reminder to educators that entertainment is very much part of our jobs and that if we fall short as storytellers we fall short as teachers. Now, don’t misconstrue my point. I’m not saying that we should stick to easy topics. I’m not suggesting we dumb down the content of what we teach. 

I started this podcast two months ago. Having to come up with a new podcast on a weekly basis is a challenge to say the least. In fact, there are weeks when it’s been a bit of an ordeal, if only because it’s hard to live up to my own expectations. I want to make the content challenging from a language and content point of view. The thing is, the kind of content I enjoy making requires me to delve deeply into things and quite often I’m plagued by doubt. Will other people find this interesting? Is this really worthwhile?

Wear your difference as a badge of honour.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, a fellow teacher, was over for dinner and I asked him his opinion of the podcast. He hesitated for a moment and said, “It’s good, it’s a bit nerdy, but it’s good.” To be honest, his comment cut me to the quick, that is, it hurt. In fairness, this friend was just offering his honest opinion. And the more I thought about this the more at peace I was. In fact, I think I learned something about my own values as a teacher. 

Nowadays a buzzword in education is engagement. Keeping our students engaged l is our Holy Grail as educators. The idea of engaging someone suggests that they’ve somehow been hooked, almost like a fish. And yet we know people’s interest is notoriously fickle. So if we’re all second-guessing ourselves trying to entertain people with what we think will engage them rather than what we really think matters, well we’re pandering to our audience. And worse still, we’re underestimating them.

I’ve decided to make peace with being a nerd. In fact, I’m going to start wearing it as a badge of honour. It means I care enough about what I study and teach to appear overly earnest, overly enthusiastic. Because the deeper I delve the happier I am. 

So if you’re still listening, congratulations, you’re a nerd too. Welcome to the club.

Anyway, even after having reached episode number ten, I still feel like I’m fumbling in the dark. I’m trying to navigate with my hands in front of me, awkwardly. And just as I was thinking of this chunk, fumbling in the dark, another came to mind. The singer Sarah McLachlan has a beautiful album from the nineties called Fumbling Towards Ecstasy which you can listen to using the link in the interactive transcript. What a beautiful idea, that you can be awkwardly, slowly moving towards something amazing. 

All too often we’re led to believe that to pursue a dream you first have to know exactly what it is that you want, when in fact, it’s often a question of fumbling in the dark and being okay with that. There’s a saying “seek and ye shall find”, taken from the King James translation of the Bible. As an aside, if you want a prime example of how a translation can have an impact on a language and culture, look no further than the King James Bible. David Crystal, the well-known British linguist, points out that no fewer than 257 idioms in contemporary English originated in this translation from 400 years ago. You can read more on this by following this link to an article by the BBC. 

Anyway, I digress! So, in modern English we often use the phrase “Seek and ye shall find”, taken from the following passage in the King James Bible:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. 

In a religious sense “seek and ye shall find” means turning to God in prayer. But nowadays we use this phrase in a more prosaic sense to mean that if you search hard enough for something, you will find it.

I’d like to conclude today’s episode with a brief exploration of the verb seek because the chunks that contain this word are particularly useful for advanced learners. What’s more, I hope this will illustrate why the lexical approach, which is what informs this podcast, is so important to achieve true fluency in English.

Some of the collocations you’ll see from SKELL’s word sketch function.

When students ask what the verb “seek” means we often say it’s a synonym for “look for”. But this is misleading, insofar as we use these verbs in very different ways and in different contexts.

If we look up the word sketch for seek in Sketch Engine, which, by the way, is an amazing resource for advanced learners, especially when writing, we find the following results. The top ten nouns that collocate, that is, that go with seek, are: help, advice, refuge, revenge, assistance, treatment, approval, re-election, shelter and employment.

Do you notice a pattern? All of these words represent abstract concepts. Thus, we would never talk about seeking our car keys. Interestingly, “look for” can often, though not always, be used instead of “seek” with abstract nouns. For instance, look for help is just as correct as seek help. The difference here is that seek help is more formal. 

So, a useful rule of thumb when hesitating between look for and seek is that while the former can go with both concrete and abstract nouns, the latter only collocates with abstract nouns. What’s more, when you’re aiming for a more formal register, seek is the more suitable choice. Now, in case that sounds too straightforward or simplistic, I want to point out a couple of things.

In informal English we often talk about “looking for a job”, while in formal English we talk about “seeking employment”. So what do we call a person looking for a job? Well, they’re referred to as a job seeker. We never talk about a job looker and employment seeker sounds odd.

Also, we often use seek as an adjective in the chunk “be highly sought-after”. Something which is highly sought-after is something which many people desire or look for. For instance, we say that fluency in English is a highly sought-after skill.

And one final thing. The verb seek can also be used to mean to try or attempt to do something, as in “The prime minister has sought to reassure voters that the crisis is being dealt with.”

That’s all for today. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget, if you use Apple Podcasts please rate and review the show as it helps me reach a wider audience. What’s more, why not share this episode with a friend or colleague? And last but not least, consider following me on Instagram, my account is BetterLanguageLearning. I post a daily C2 chunk to help reinforce the vocabulary covered in each episode. 

 

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