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Review ~ Professional English in Use: Engineering

A thorough book of engineering vocabulary with an easy to use format
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Dave Allen
Professional English in Use: Engineering

Professional English in Use: Engineering

Part of the major Cambridge “in use” series, this addition is one title from the Professional English in Use sub-series that includes vocabulary for Marketing, Finance, Medicine, Law. Thanks to the burgeoning popularity of ESP, you name it, Cambridge are writing a vocabulary book for it.

There are 45 units, with 9 themes, such as Design, Measurement and Energy. There are two pages per unit, with the right and left fulfilling different roles: The left page has words in context and the right page has exercises for the target items.

The texts in which the words are given in context are from textbooks, magazines or other sources. The target audience includes both engineering students and professional engineers. The level is Intermediate and above (B1-B2 CEF), so although the texts may be largely authentic they’re probably edited to keep the incidental lexis level down. The texts by and large read like an explanatory text from a textbook. For example,

“Welding means permanently welding two pieces of material by heating the joint between them. The heat melts the edges of the components being welded together, and once the material has become molten (liquid), fusion occurs.” p.62.

The vocabulary items are mainly individual terms presented as above in context and in bold print, though collocates are also presented as lexical chunks (e.g. has the potential, waste energy, work done, p.76). These collocations appear naturally in context – that is, if the textbook-style discourse sounds natural to you. I must admit I quite liked it. As I read, I really felt like I was learning what the terms mean, for a second time. In fact, the author mentions in the introduction that the text is good for teaching us ‘non-expert’ English teachers the Engineering lingo.

In a section like Non-Mechanical Joints (from where the quote above originates), there are many related words presented – arc welding, shield welding and gas welding. Different parts of speech are also usually presented in the texts and students can then use them in subsequent exercises. This is essential as knowing “measure” without “measurement” or “conduct” without “conduction” is not very useful for technical writing. There is therefore some repetition of words within some of the units, which is good. The book as a whole presents a lot of words but repetition is necessarily minimal, so repetition within each unit at least adds to the input frequency. Defining, or rephrasing, is common in the texts, so learners can understand the key items without resorting to a dictionary (e.g. The welding rod is therefore consumable – it is used up. p.62.). This type of additional information in the texts is very common, making the text even more supportive on the language side.

The register is generally neutral and dominated by subject-specific vocabulary. There is the occasional inclusion of terms like ‘goes rusty’, which seem a little informal. This made me wonder how useful some of the vocabulary is when teaching formal writing, but overall such informal phrases are rare. We should also remember that in the Engineering journals of IEEE, there are frequent uses of words and constructions that are too informal for most science journals – contractions, phrasal verbs, and in general an adoption of a much more spoken style of writing.

Exercises are generally gap-fills, matching, correction and so on, often engaging the learners’ productive understanding of the terms. A final exercise prompt called ‘over to you’ attempts to initiate students into a more productive, realistic use of the words, for example, by discussing which of the terms they use or have used recently. Similar tasks include describing the adhesives that you use at work, or the bolts that are used in an installation that you know of – all thrilling stuff for engineers. Joking aside, I am actually pretty sure that they will want to talk about this in English, to help their fluency and get used to using the terms in English.

The numerous appendices are full of list-like sections of units of measurement and tables of terms such as chemical elements, which are useful for reference.

The book has lots of nice visuals, is well-presented and likeable in terms of layout and organisation. Nonetheless, I can imagine anyone working through 45 units would be pretty sick of it by the end; but hey, who’s studied vocabulary and not thought that about a book?

For vocabulary acquisition, sometimes the oldest methods are the best: List-learning is still the fastest way to learn one-to-one translation pairs (and technical words tend be semantically similar across languages), so I imagine learners using this book will also be making their own lists to accompany their learning activities (or adding translations to the index at the back, which by the way has helpful phonetic transcriptions). But how would a teacher use the text as part of an ESP course? The text seems geared particularly for self-study rather than in-class work. A set of unit-by-unit tests for teachers to download and use in class would be a good way of encouraging students to study the items in detail as a supplement to class work. Teachers could select units related to class content and set these for homework. I imagine this would be tough but rewarding for students, especially if the items are recycled throughout the course.

One minor annoyance is that there is no list of words presented in each unit, so in order to know which words are in which unit you have to scan each (left-hand) page and note down the target words. An additional index page with this information would be helpful for course planning.

The author, Mark Ibbotson, is a qualified and experienced engineer and has professional experience in ELT. The book is not based on corpora, but it doesn’t seem to matter – it’s obviously well researched and the terminology provides a useful resource for learners with engineering backgrounds and needs.

One thing the book lacks that I think learners may want is more detailed description of the uses of the vocabulary. When working through the text, words are introduced in context and further examples of use are provided in the exercises, which is useful for learning how to use the words. However, many technical words have highly specific meanings that differ from the general meanings. For example, “accuracy” and “precision” do not appear to be distinguished here (both appear as synonyms for “exactness”). In science and engineering these two words have slightly different technical meanings: accuracy refers to how close a measure is to the actual or real size, while precision refers to the ability to repeatedly measure the same item and get the same result. Maybe in more general engineering discourses these words get treated the same, as they do for non-experts. Either way, this is a sign that some of the finer distinctions between technical terms are absent and for more exact semantics one should check a good dictionary. For Intermediate learners and above, one could argue that a greater amount of specificity for vocabulary, instead of such a broad range, may have been useful.

In sum, Professional English in Use: Engineering provides a lot of reading input, almost like reading an engineering textbook but with a much greater focus on language. It is supposedly well matched to the Cambridge English for Engineering, which is a more communicative, integrated course book. All in all, this text can teach the basic meanings of technical terms in context and should be well received by learners who have the stamina to persevere in the all important but never ending process of vocabulary development.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Dave Allen
April 2011 | Filed under ESP Materials