Etymology and the Development of L2 Vocabulary: The Case of ESL Students at the University of Botswana

Alec Pongweni, Modupe Moyosore Alimi


Part of the history of English is that many of its words are of Graeco-Latinate origin. Hence, the vocabulary of the language comprises words which are short and familiar and those which are foreign and long (Quirk,1978, p. 138). However, both L1 and L2 users have to get acquainted with the second group, which dominates academic discourse. Our students are disadvantaged on two grounds. Firstly, vocabulary instruction for them seems quite deficient in scope and depth, and secondly, the students tend to acquire the vocabulary of academic discourse necessary for their success in tandem with the learning of concepts which come incased in words they are unfamiliar with. Our paper uses data collected from the students’ writing over a period of twenty years to examine their specific problems relating to the etymology of English words. Two questions are addressed: What problems does the etymology of English words pose for ESL students? What measures can be adopted to alleviate these problems? We discuss confused pairs of words, pairs erroneously considered synonymous, and coinage resulting from student’s lack of appropriate vocabulary. We recommend that teaching the etymology of words used in academic discourse would assist our students to improve their fluency in English.

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International Journal of English Linguistics   ISSN 1923-869X (Print)   ISSN 1923-8703 (Online)   E-mail:

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