When I started teaching Oral English at Hebei Normal University (HNU) in 2013, the last thing I expected was to be writing a lexicology textbook a few years later, let alone that it would be more a UX task than an English one. But that’s exactly what happened.
HNU is a university in Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei Province, China. It is one of the top universities in the province and has over 30,000 undergrads, most of whom come from the surrounding prefectures. As a foreign language expert working there, I taught Oral English and whatever else the local faculty felt like giving me — Pronunciation, Practical Writing, and IELTS test prep, among others. My students were predominantly English majors; most of them planned to get their masters degrees abroad in other fields.
I love language and words (hence the job as an English teacher), so when the dean of our department told me just before the beginning of the semester that I had the option to teach Lexicology — the study of words and their origins — I jumped at the chance. The other lexicology professors recommended the textbook they used, an older book written by a Chinese author. I took their suggestion (how much could lexicology change over a couple of years?) and immediately mapped out my course, excited about this new opportunity to instill in my students my own love of English’s unique chaos.
Things started well — I had fun teaching, and my students didn’t hate it. However, as the semester progressed, I found myself using the book less and less, and my list of its shortcomings grew and grew. The material, which had appeared adequate during my planning phase, was at times useful, but was often phrased in an archaic style that was difficult for even me to get through, let alone my students. Many of the language concepts presented were outdated; the information was poorly organized, confusingly presented, and, at times, incredibly offensive. It simply did not meet the needs of the students, either in terms of academic learning or practical application.
This led me to survey a few groups of my students to better understand their needs, and I was able to fit almost all of the responses into three broad but useful categories. They needed a text that they could understand; it had to be organized with progression and logic; and they needed a clear way to use the information. It became obvious that it would be easier to find a new book rather than continue to struggle with the current one, and after inquiries and searches yielded no lexicology books suitable for students studying English as a foreign language (EFL), I elected to develop a new textbook that would be more useful and user-friendly.
I began the process by asking, what information would normally be taught in a Lexicology class? I went through the old textbook; the notes I had taken and supplementary material I had already found; and everything I could find online — syllabi, studies, tables of contents, and articles. It’s not hard to guess that, despite my best efforts to organize the material, my list rapidly exploded out of control.
Why did Chinese students need to learn lexicology in the first place? Why would anybody need to study lexicology?
I needed a lens through which to focus the course, and that came when I finally got back to the question my students always asked, the one I probably should have started with: Why did Chinese students need to learn lexicology in the first place? They weren’t going to be linguists; they were going to be translators and accountants and physical therapists and tour guides. Even if they did enjoy language, nobody wanted to spend an entire semester learning useless trivia about English.
For that matter, why would anybody need to study lexicology? I realized that I couldn’t come up with a single practical reason for native English speakers to study lexicology ouside of academics. I love words and language more than most, but even I don’t want to go much further than looking up word origins on dictionary.com.
Ironically, though, this led me to some very good reasons for EFL students to study lexicology. I began to think about what I could do with my language that my students couldn’t, that I hadn’t been able to teach them. As a native speaker, I know what “frumious” means even though it isn’t in the dictionary. I know exactly what my friend means when he says “Hey, let’s food,” even though “food” is a noun, not a verb. I know not to pronounce the “t” in “ballet” because it’s a French word; I know what a “third strike” is; and I know that “lol” is the first letters of “laugh out loud.” I realized that lexicology was a chance for me to teach students the mental models used by native speakers, giving them an understanding of English that would allow them to communicate more flexibly.
With this in mind, I realized I could start to iterate on the information architecture I would use, and that this structure would in turn help me filter my content. Although there was a lot of information, I approached it from the perspective of an English learner who had a substantial vocabulary but little to no background on the language itself. I wouldn’t have to teach words or grammar; I could focus on the why behind the words and grammar.
Lexicology was a chance for me to teach students the mental models used by native speakers — I could focus on the why behind the words and grammar
The voice I chose for the book was close to my own — casual, lighthearted, and a little irreverent, while still focused and deliberate. Although it was to be a textbook, I wanted it first and foremost to be actually readable — comprehensible, even enjoyable — to language learners who weren’t yet completely comfortable reading academic literature. As such, I removed as many barriers to understanding as possible, keeping careful watch on my terminology, explaining new concepts thoroughly and in fairly simple terms, using fun comparisons to illuminate concepts and forge useful associations.
My workflow wove between organizing and writing. Sometimes explaining a topic on paper would lead me to understand it in a new way, prompting me to group it in a way that hadn’t previously occurred to me. On other occasions, careful examination led me to break from accepted groupings — lumping a few academically-separate concepts together, or dissecting what was traditionally a single topic into smaller parts — because my EFL students had a very different context for understanding than I did as a native speaker.
In the end, I had an almost-literal architecture for the material. The book begins by laying a foundation for understanding English as a whole (since, as Tumblr has so eloquently stated, English isn’t a language; it’s three languages wearing a trench coat pretending to be one), before providing tools and training that allow students to think about language using a scaffolded framework. From there, the chapters dive into types of words and how word meanings change over time, which flows into discussions of word formation. The book concludes with a section for students to see exactly how those skills, tools, facts, and mental models apply directly to real life, more than just the ongoing skill practice that was present throughout the rest of the course.
Implementing the curriculum the following semester was a delight. That is certainly not to say that it was perfect — I gave out a lot of rewards in exchange for students finding errors — but, since the students knew that it was an experiment, and that I was learning, too, they seemed more willing to try material that was outside their experience.
The course itself had positive results, too, with students using their newfound skills to better understand connotations in casual spoken English; analyze and make educated guesses about words they’d never seen before; and even invent their own words on the fly — all things they would never even have considered attempting at the beginning of the semester. This manifested concretely after the semester grades came in, when students using my curriculum not only scored higher than those using the older book, but also told me how they were faring better in other courses, transferring their new mental models to other aspects of language learning.
All in all, the project was a success. I gathered revisions to the book over the course of its use, updating and editing the text whenever possible as errors and oversights came to my attention. I am currently in the process of adding pictures and further revising the text, and I hope to publish it as a real book in the near future for learners (and language lovers) to read. I also learned a lot — both about teaching lexicology, and about how much language influences the way we think and learn and process information. It’s this awareness that allows us to better understand both ourselves and others, and that understanding is at the heart of authentic empathy and effective communication. And if that’s not UX, what is?