Symbols:Incorporating the Real World Into ELT.

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SYMBOL. A sign; a token; a representation of one thing by another. (The Free Dictionary).

Nina MK, Ph.D.
When I hear about symbols, the first association is always with Dan Brown’s novels. “The Da Vinci Code” acquainted us with the unusual occupation of symbologist. The main hero Robert Langdon is a professor who deals with various symbols and thus helps solve many complicated problems in real life. The novels and especially the films with Tom Hanks as the lead helped popularize the whole concept of using symbols as a means to learn the meaning of incomprehensible phenomena and events.
Naturally we use symbols and signs in any sphere of life, often without consciously thinking about it. For instance we all learned the Periodic Table of Elements by Dmitri Mendeleev at school; though some of the symbols may have sunk from our memory into the sands of Time, we can still identify a few common ones even if we are not chemists. When I first started learning English in second grade, I memorized the phonetic chart. The main mystery to a child’s mind was not the existence of such a thing but rather understanding the need for it. In my native language, we see a word and we can read it. In English spelling and pronunciation are often vastly different. Take the well-known letter combination ~ough. According to the dictionary of phonetics there are eleven variants of pronouncing it. Why is cough to be pronounced as /kof/ and rough as /r ʌ f/? What is schwa? The symbol (ə) used to represent an unstressed neutral vowel and, in some systems of phonetic transcription, a stressed mid-central vowel, as in but. And so on. It means in effect that before we say a new word aloud we better check its pronunciation in a dictionary. Even if the spelling seems familiar from many other instances there are no guarantees that this word will be pronounced in the same familiar way. Having learned for instance that the letter combination TH is to be pronounced as a voiced consonant /ð/ or an unvoiced consonant / θ/, we then learned to say /t/ for the same spelling in the Thames and Thomas. Why exactly is that?
As my teacher used to tell us, English is the language where the words speak and break co-exist peacefully. One of my own favorite examples is the female name Siobhán pronounced (/ʃəˈvɔːn/. It means “God’s grace”. How do we know the correct way to say any word and especially a proper name? It is better to ask both how to spell it and how to pronounce it.

With the development of the internet so many new symbols, signs, abbreviations and contractions sprang into being it is next to impossible to keep track of them. In fact, a new emoticon or hashtag or newspeak appear every day. It is quite possible to conduct a sensible skype session using only emoticons instead of proper words. Young people send IM (instant messages) never once spelling out a full word. If needed we can always open up Google or any other search engine, type in whatever puzzled us, and get a zillion illustrations, explanations, examples and images. All we have to do is choose the relevant one. Why is this happening? The tempo of life, the speed of communication, instant access to any news and information, and the development of ICT dictate the change of pace and the change of the means we use to connect to each other, to do research, to gather information. We cannot follow all the modern trends or grasp all the details of the ways young people use ICT, but we can certainly try to keep abreast of the general discoveries. A teacher does not need to know everything that interests their students; our task is to teach them our main subject and to help them understand how to use it in their future profession. If we do not pay attention to the new trends, we may lag behind to such an extent that they will lose interest in the subject. One sure way of keeping pace is letting the students make reports and presentations. We know EL better than any of them, it’s a given. There is no shame in learning a few other things from them.

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