New book highlights the technical language demands in trades

A tradesperson on a building site writes on a clipboard
English for Vocational Purposes: Language Use in Trades Education is the result of an interdisciplinary study from Dr Averil Coxhead and Dr Jean Parkinson (School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington), and Weltec’s literary specialist Emma McLaughlin and science education specialist James Mackay.

“Our colleagues in the vocational sector alerted us to the fact that acquiring the language of a trade was far more demanding than the stereotypical view that trades training would have us believe,” says Dr Parkinson. “Very little prior work had been done in the area of vocational language and, given the importance of trades in the New Zealand employment landscape, we were interested to investigate.”

The study confirmed this and showed that between 30–38 percent of the vocabulary within written trades text is technical. The group developed technical word lists to help learners and teachers set learning goals for courses. The technical vocabulary level and the amount of vocabulary needed in trades education is similar to, and at times more than, what is required for academic study.

“We wanted to consider second-language English speakers in our study, as they make up 21% of vocational students in New Zealand, and many are Pasifika,” says Dr Coxhead. “This brought about the creation of bilingual English-Tongan technical word lists. The technical word lists can be used to support Tongan trades professionals working in New Zealand, as well as those learning a trade in Tonga. We hope to replicate this and develop more technical word lists in other languages.”

A fascinating aspect of the study was the analysis of tutor talk in their trades classrooms. The example below shows a tutor in automotive technology taking a class through a fault diagnosis and asking the students what they think would happen next. Such examples, including regular mentions of pies, highlight the practical and down-to-earth approach of these tutors in this context.

An automotive technology tutor and a student work through a fault diagnosis (Example 2) (T = Tutor, S = Student)

T: So ah, you can see there that the current flow path, that both our switches and our regulator are up. And the current flow goes through a warning light, through the switch on the right-hand side and then down to ground. And ah, also the current flow goes through our ignition switch and through our top contacts down through our rotor and then down to ground. So we have a problem with this at the moment. If we stood here, with our key on, engine off and then went into the shop and got a pie, and come back and ate my pie. What is most likely to occur?

S: Going to burn out (unclear)

T: It’s gonna burn out the?

S: (unclear)

T: The rotor, cool.


English for vocational purposes offers vocational teachers, and education providers, as well as applied linguists and literary specialists, research findings, teaching materials, and information to provide them with a better understanding of language use in trades education. The project is now expanding to spoken teaching in trades, including tag questions (e.g. isn’t there; don’t we), use of terms of address like mate, guys, and man, as well as multiword units (e.g. cooling system; ignition coil) in both written and spoken automotive engineering language.

Cover of book

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