Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Imagery in Financial English

Have you ever noticed how rich Financial English is in terms of metaphors and imagery? I use metaphors and imagery all the time in my teaching to explain vocabulary, and I consider it to be an incredibly powerful memory tool. I'll tell my story first, and then come back to this important general point.

A few weeks ago, I did a reading text from the BBC on Over-the-Counter Derivatives with several groups of students. I'll admit now that I wasn't very creative with the text - most of the students had forgotten to bring their books (again) and I happened to have the text in my bag. I already knew it well after preparing this Jargonbuster exercise for Professional English Online (PEO). So we just did a predict-read-discuss-vocab lesson. (And you thought I always prepared immaculately polished lessons?)

I should also point out that my students weren't financial experts at all, but all seemed to appreciate this crash course in financial jargon. I also really enjoyed playing the expert: I'm actually pretty clueless about financial English, but I've had to do lots of research for my regular activities and jargonbusters on PEO, so I've started to get a general understanding of the murky world of finance.

It was as I was going through the vocab that I was struck by the beautiful imagery of financial English. Here are the key words from the text, in the order they appear (and I suggest you read the text quickly now before looking at this list). Notice all the pictures I ended up drawing - something I'll comment on at the end.
  • Curb: This word originally meant the piece of metal between a horse's teeth, which the rider pulls to slow the horse down. [I drew a picture]. Nowadays curbs refer to anything that slows something down.
  • Derivatives: Just as the word 'curb' derives from a piece of metal, derivatives derive from simple financial instruments like mortgages. [At this point I drew a diagram to explain how Collateralized Debt Obligations derive from mortgages - see this posting for the source of this diagram.].
  • Over-the-counter derivatives: I explained the difference bewteen over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs, and elicited the parallels in derivatives markets.
  • Convergence: I drew arrows to show converge and diverge, and gave examples from the history of languages (e.g. British and American English have been diverging for a long time, but in some ways they are now converging again).
  • Regulatory framework: My students know frame as in picture frame, so I first made them think of the framework beneath a skyscraper - all those metal girders beneath the flimsy-looking glass exterior. From there it was easy to get to framework = underlying structure.
  • Conduct (= behaviour): They knew conduct as a verb (with the accent on the second syllable), so I started with this. I elicited what you can conduct (e.g. a meeting, research, an orchestra). "What do you think it means if you conduct yourself in a particular way?", I asked. They worked out that it meant behave, so it was a short step from here to the noun (with the accent on the first syllable). For good measure, while we were on the noun, I also elicited professional misconduct and gross misconduct.
  • Core problems: I drew an apple core.
  • A build-up of sth: I used an exploding pressure cooker as an example.
  • Leverage: I drew a picture of a fridge and a stick person (me, of course) trying to lift it. Then I gave my stick-self a crow bar to act as a lever. Suddenly I can lift something very heavy without much effort (shown on the diagram with a big upward arrow and a small downward arrow). This led me to a simple financial example of leverage: using my savings of £10,000 to buy a house worth £1 million. (NB In my dreams!) I then went back to my fridge picture to elicit what might happen if you take leverage too far: your lever breaks and your fridge falls on top of you, just as happened with banks that used too much leverage.
  • Shock absorbers: I drew the suspension system in my car.
  • Margin: I showed the margin of the page. I then elicited other types of margin, such as a profit margin or a margin of error to show how these could act as shock absorbers.
  • Liquidity: I drew some bananas in a food blender (seriously). The bananas are fixed assets, but they can be liquidated  (well, actually liquidised, but I figured the financial term took priority over the cooking term) i.e. turned into banana milkshake (= cash) quite easily. I then drew a coconut - another fixed asset, but one which can't be liquidated so easily. So liquidity is the extent to which our assets are like bananas rather than like coconuts - how easy is it to turn them into milkshake (cash). You face a liquidity squeeze if your assets are long-term things like a house with a mortgage (which you can't just sell tomorrow to pay your short-term debts). Liquidity is another type of shock absorber.
  • Cushions: I elicited a situation where a cushion could act as a shock absorber (e.g. if someone punches you, a cushion might make it hurt a bit less).
  • To withstand sth: I drew a stick man trying to stand despite strong wind - to withstand the force of the wind. Then I related this back to the punching-a-cushion image - it's easier to withstand being hit in the face if you have a cushion. (Sorry for the silly imagery - the important thing is that it should be powerful and memorable, not necessarily realistic or pleasant).
  • To contain a risk: I used the image of a hospital trying to contain an outbreak of a nasty stomach bug, by isolating the ward and imposing tight controls on people coming and going.
And that's it. You can imagine what my sheet of paper looked like by the end of the lesson, with a car, a blender, a horse, an apple ...

Anyway, the point of all this isn't just to teach you some financial jargon (for which I would refer you to a good dictionary rather than listening to me!) or even to show how to teach these particular words. Rather, I wanted to hammer home the importance of imagery as a teaching tool. All of those pictures I drew were quite time consuming, and in terms of getting the message across, probably unnecessary. But in terms of making them memorable, I think they're well worth it. An abstract concept like core or withstand is very difficult to learn unless you can attach it to a picture. And as I hinted above, the pictures may be silly, unpleasant, weird ... but as long as they're memorable, they're great. Ideally, they should be personalised too, so I used my car, my mortgage, someone punching you in the face, which is much more memorable than simply any old stick man.

The same goes for the words I explained without pictures. I think there's a fair chance my students will remember the chain from conDUCT a meeting through conDUCT yourself well to a code of CONduct and then gross misCONduct. Even if they don't remember it consciously, next time they see a word and momentarily wonder what it means, it may trigger a memory deep within their subconscious.

So today's tip is: make vocab memorable through imagery, metaphors and chains.

PS I promised a few months ago to tell you when my lesson on financial English videos was available. Well, it's here. If you try it with your class I'd love to hear how you get on.

PPS By coincidence, Karenne Sylvester has also been writing about images in financial English, and she seems to have spent a lot longer preparing her lesson than I ever do. [I thought she was supposed to be into dogme ...?] Anyway, you could use Karenne's techniques with my article, or the other way round, or both ...


  1. ;-) I'd missed this's full of wonderful tips!

    Ya, I'm um, the dogme2.0 tech teacher who prepares... don't tell Scott, I'll get into trouble!

    Will link this post to my one too!


  2. Cheers, Karenne. You ought to try the no-preparation technique a bit more - it saves a lot of time.