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Book of the month

March 22, 2009

Hello again,

My book this month is not a new publication but it is one that I found dealt with a useful by-path of language that has allowed me to devise ...

...many lessons that are light and amusing but helpful. The book is Vague Language by Joanna Channel (OUP,1994).

We tend to think of vague language as being a sign of poor language skill, woolly thinking or evasiveness. Until I read this book over a decade ago, it had not occurred to me that there is method in vagueness. First it made me think about the wide gulf between the written and the spoken language. When we write we aim for precision, clarity and linguistic accuracy. This is more easily achievable because we have time to polish the written word whereas in conversation we have to be spontaneous.

Channel begins by discussing concepts of vagueness: is vagueness a characteristic of language or of thought? That in itself is a fascinating topic, which I think spills over into the distinctions between high and low context cultures. The author’s approach is very practical, however. She deals with appropriate linguistic theory, types of vagueness and then vague language as it appears in conversational situations.

How can this book be of use for teachers in the classroom? Well, firstly it has a useful breakdown of the expressions most often used for vagueness so that we can give our learners an inventory of vague lexis. Then she examines how and when we use vagueness; for example: for approximating information in a way that helps the listener; to deliberately withhold information; to persuade; for self-protection; for politeness and so forth.

In an area that sounds impossibly fuzzy, Channel has a convincing analysis that allows the teacher to introduce and teach the topic in a practical way. Why teach about vague language? Because it is one of the arts of communication and learners need both to understand its many uses and to be able to use it effectively themselves.

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  1. Jo Segell Says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for highlighting this book. I'm sure it would make worthwhile reading.

    From the list you gave, I think teaching vague language in order to help students to sound polite would be really helpful, especially for students' Oral English.

    The most difficult and yet most interesting area of spoken language is interactional language Its primary function is to enable people to form relationships.

    Transactional language is merely concerned with completing a clearly defined task, such as buying a stamp. If we treated social interaction the same as buying a stamp people would think we were too direct and thus rude.

    By being vague, we are making our language less direct and abrupt and thus more polite and socially acceptable.

    I'd love to read this book. I'm sure it could help me with my conversational English classes.

  1. mauricio aldana Says:

    Hello Brenda. Very interesting indeed. I couldn't help but remember a book I read some months ago. The book is Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. It is revealing to see how people can be talked into anything if properly addressed. I have discussed some chapters with my students and, at least, they have started to recognize these subtle characteristics of language.

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