Slang is a complex area of language.

For one thing it changes very quickly. Another is that slang is rarely used across society (certainly not for long). Some terms may mean one thing to some groups but the opposite or something completely different for another group. Lastly, slang is often used to alter power relationships.

The BBC recently wrote about regional differences in teenage slang. Why is teenage slang so rich? Typical teenagers are struggling to define themselves as individuals in a society that still tends to see them as a single block, and a block of children. Slang can be used as a means of preventing or at least deterring comprehension of people outside what could be termed an in group. Groups of teens often feel the need for in group identification, hence slang, and many of their fashion choices.

The same thing happens in many of our classes, groups of students from one country (or linguistic heritage) tend to use their own language outside of class and class activities, sometimes in class and even to achieve class goals. A lot of this is probably sub-conscious it feels very weird to try to operate in a learner language with someone who speaks the same mother tongue as you. If both parties realise the conversation can be conducted more quickly, effectively and easily in language x then they tend to use that language as opposed to language y which might slow things down, impede communication or otherwise muck things up. Of course they might be talking about the other people in the class behind their backs, (at least linguistically).

Public spaces and social learning environments:

One thing that one almost continually encounters walking around campus are seats, often little clusters of seats. Using the buzzword of the day these are social learning spaces. Both inside and out, although much of the year here the outside ones are little used.

What is a social learning space you ask. Social learning spaces are spaces around the campus that are designed to facilitate, foster and promote social learning. See easy! Wait a second what do I mean by social learning? Social learning can be a formal part of assessment, a group project or presentation for example; it could be informal formative assessments, or other group activities in a seminar; it might also be a (usually brief) interlude in a lecture where students are asked to collaborate to answer a question, predict a response, think about a survey etc.  But, all this implies that social learning happens in the classroom, while that is true it can also take place elsewhere, less formally and without any academic staff.

You are using social learning whenever you (or a friend/classmate):

  • sliding into the back row, and whisper to a friend ‘What did I miss?’
  • grabbing a coffee before class you ask ‘Did you get the reading?’
  • leaving the lecture hall ‘do you think that’ll be on the exam?’
  • arriving (early) to seminar you ask,  ‘what was the name of the person mentioned last week’
  • sitting around between classes you chat to classmates/friends about the final assignment and your progress (or lack thereof) on it.


So why does the University want to encourage and facilitate social learning? This in part goes back to how people learn and everyone learns differently. Some people are social learners meaning they learn better when they and colleagues can consider an idea, talk about it, discuss it and then make up their minds about it. (This is sometimes called co-constructing paradigms of knowledge). The opposite end of this spectrum are independent learners, at the extreme these are generally seen as people who read and experiment alone and outside of formal learning, following their interests or motivation. (Think of Leonardo DaVinci and similar scholars.) Even if you are this type you can still benefit from social learning though, once you’ve read what you need, you come up with an idea, you review and revise it, but at some point you need to share it to see if it works. This may be a much later engagement with social learning than those who start out by kicking a few ideas around with friends, but it is still there. 

Still if this happens anyway why go to such lengths to promote it? If the campus is a reasonably pleasant place to spend time it is more likely more people will spend time around campus, rather than retreating to a dorm room, or going off campus between classes.  Sounds simple doesn’t it. It’s not always. Some of the social learning spaces have replaced, or taken space that could be used for classrooms and offices, some have reduced (although not by much thanks to net book loans) the free available computers in some parts of the campus.

It can only really be because of a belief in the value of socially constructed and mediated knowledge, both as part of the formal learning process but also as a supporting element in research.

Literally, and other adverbs often over used.

It was on the news this morning according to the oed you can use ‘literally’ as an adverb to intensify your statement.

He literally has his head in the clouds.

Need not refer to pilots or meteorologists.

They invited literally the whole village.

They may have left out one or two.

Literally millions of pounds are missing.

It’s a lot of money but the reporter may not actually know.

That said, in academic texts you should remember the rather literal meaning behind such words. If you use literally too liberally you may find that your meaning becomes ambiguous. So use with care, or not at all as recomended by the Guardian.


At the core of this one is basic meaning simple or low level. However, it is often used more as a discourse marker to indicate a point of view or oppinion on the matter being discussed.

Basically, the issues are highly complex and should be left to the teams of experts that understand them.

Very little here sounds basic, perhaps importantly would be a better fit.

The last government basically spent money hand over fist as fast as they could get it. Again this situation seems perhaps more complex than basic, essentially might be closer to the meaning.

The test basically covered everything on the course; it was really exhaustive and challenging.

Again this doesn’t sound like basic, ‘more or less’ could be a good fit here.


Is an adverb in form but is often used more as an injection meaning yes, but is often used as an intensifier without addressing how intense an absolute is.

This is absolutely one of the six or seven worst films we’ve seen this year.

That doesn’t sound very absolute.

This child is absolutely the cutest baby ever.

This if read literally is quite clearly unsupportable and not provable, as an academic assertion you’d be on shaky ground.

“Do you want to go to the cinema or rock climbing?”

“Absolutely the cinema… what’s on?”

Again here the absolutely doesn’t seem to be that absolute, can anyone love the silver screen that much? Or maybe they just hate rock climbing.

Polyglots in the Cinema and elsewhere.

How many multi-lingual people do you know in public life?

According to Zimbo many Hollywood Actors are multilingual, in my mind they left out a few. Charlotte Rampling, Jean Reno, Bruce Lee, Antonio Bandaras, Til Schwiger Jackie Chan, and  Kirstin Scott Thomas just to name some obvious (and perhaps some less obvious) ones.

This started me thinking about other notable polyglots. Apparently, Pope John Paul the second wrote his own speeches … in seventeen languages.

What does a second (or further) language do for you? It’s more than just ordering a beer and a sandwich, and understanding what’s in the sandwich, and knowing that drinking the beer may impede your ability to obtain and understand what’s in the next sandwich.

Speaking multiple languages gives one a second, typically different, paradigm of the world and environments (social & physical) that surround us. There’s some research, supported by my anecdotal experience that people’s personalities can change when they switch languages. Someone may be relaxed and carefree in one language while often being fussy and pedantic in another.  

There are ideas that are easy to explain in some languages that may take much more trouble to grasp in others. Try explaining schadenfreude, karaoke, or brie, in English without using the word. Ok originally German, Japanese and French ‘loan words’ but explaining the ideas without them isn’t nearly as fast or easy in English.  Sometimes having explained the idea it may be perceived as illogical, crazy, or even a joke. Other ideas can spread rapidly and without changing (much) from one language to the next. Sandwich and robot are both good examples of this.

What languages do you speak, how well, and how do you feel about them?

Three tips for reading your own work.

It can be essential to passing, it is (usually) essential to getting good marks.

But why is proofreading so very difficult?

Get some distance from your work. We all get very close to our work (even if we just wish it was over and done with). There’s an idiom for all this “when you can’t see the forest for all the trees”. One way to get distance is time; get time away from your work. Several well-known writers and writing tutors have advocated this. The time varies between two days and a month. Obviously you may not have a whole month to leave your assignments sitting, but if you have a complete draft one week before the deadline you can leave it for two or even three days. This time helps you read what you have actually written, not what you were thinking when you accidentally wrote something else.

Listen to your writing. Reading aloud, or even getting someone to read it to you. This allows you to use your ears to listen to your grammar. Vygotsky identifies spoken language as first order representation, and written language as second order. Perhaps this is why mistakes that we often miss in our own work when we read it on screen (or even on paper) pop out when we hear it. The ear tends to be more critical of grammatical errors, poor cohesion and other language slips, but also of poor argumentation and sloppy logic.

Mark your writing.  You don’t need to buy a pack of red pens, (but you can). Take the grade descriptors, (also called: Marking guide/crib) and see how well (or poorly) your work matches up against them. This is difficult without training and standardisation. How do you tell exactly where the line between good presentation and excellent presentation is? However, this process may help you find presentation errors or just better ways of presenting something by focusing on the grades in a similar way to your reviewer. Also look at your original assignment. Are you guilty of mission creep? Ask yourself “Does my response answer the question set”. Answering the wrong question is unlikely to get you a pass no matter how good your paper is. Writing in the wrong form will also cause problems. (We’ve seen essays that started with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or that had labelled bulleted structures.) (I once got a very nice, closely observed elegantly argued poetry paper; the problem was it was in a linguistics module).