IATEFL Poland: Maria Heizer on learning from English in packaging, ads and slogans

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Can pedigree lion pamper kitekats? In adverts, brand names, slogans, strap lines – English is all around us in Poland, but we barely notice it or question what it means. Maria Heizner makes the point that this is a very rich resource, and that by focusing on it, learners can discover that they already know many English words without even realising it. She whetted our appetite by giving everyone a Polish boiled sweet with, puzzlingly, ‘Lobster Tails’ as a by line to the brand name.

Maria quoted McLuhan, who once said, “ads are not made for conscious consumption”. Maria illustrated this by showing us how sex-related imagery is used in very many adverts, but so subliminally that it takes concerted effort to notice it. She quoted a large percentage of ads that use this device, even in products targeted at children.

The use of English in ads etc., is also subliminal, but Maria says we can bring it out onto the surface of consciousness and get our students to understand and play with it. Her suggestions included grouping words by themes eg animals (dove, camel, toilet duck…), looking at collocations (cash & carry; happy meal; care free), studying the meaning of invented names (eg Chicken McNugget), focusing on the grammar (eg Fruit of the loom, Uncle Ben’s), and studying the meaning of slogans (Life’s good, Just do it, Finger lickin’ good). Another interesting area is seeing how and why advertisers use wrong spellings (eg lite) or wrong grammar (Feel like at home, Think different, I’m lovin’ it).

As regards actual classroom activities, Maria threw this open to the audience for suggestions. Here are some ideas participants came up with: students collect wrappers and make them into a poster, with notes around the side explaining the English words and phrases; students take five or six English words from brand names and create a story including these words; students take a set of cosmetic adverts and invent the idealised person who has all of the perfect features promised; students explain the meaning of the English slogans on their own and their classmates’ T-shirts.

I also liked the idea that we could use this material to develop critical literacy, looking at how advertisers try to persuade. A simple idea, for example, might be that students replace brand names with ‘honest’ equivalents, for example, instead of ‘Digestives’, ‘Boring brown biscuits’, instead of ‘Milky Way’, ‘Tooth Decay Bars’. Although, as one participant mentioned, we might not want to give some of these products free publicity!


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