You may have seen the video I posted up of Alex Boulton giving a talk on a meta-analysis of #DDL at #engcorpora2015 , link here in case you haven’t [https://youtu.be/8boFDUwbS7M].
Alex was kind enough to answer a few questions about #corpora and DDL:
1. Please share with us a little of your background.
Alex: British in a former life, I’ve been in France for 25 years or more now and have no intention of moving if I can help it. I did a BA in French and linguistics at the UEA in Norwich, a sandwich course which entailed a year as a teaching assistant at schools in Alsace – a year which started out extremely scary and ended up as one of the best experiences I could have wished for.
I then worked in a language school in Paris for a couple of years, followed by an MA in TEFL back in Britain. I did a DEA and a PhD in Nancy with Henri Holec at the Crapel, and was recruited to a maître de conférences post teaching in distance degrees in English (linguistics, teacher training, corpus linguistics, translation, research methodology, etc.).
I was eventually persuaded to do an HDR and was recruited to a professor’s post here in 2013. My background inevitably means I’m a bit different from most of my colleagues in English or linguistics, and perhaps I do have a more international outlook in some ways. But they tend also to think that being a native speaker of English makes things easy, which is by no means true of institutional life in France and the various responsibilities that go with it.
2. Do you remember the first uses you made of corpora in your teaching?
Alex: When we revamped our distance MA in English about 15 years ago, we took on a lot of students from very different backgrounds, some of whom had never done any linguistics at all before; so I wanted the linguistics component to be new to everyone, both challenging and accessible at the same time. Corpus linguistics seemed to fit the bill, though I had to learn at the same time as my first students. As language majors, I expected them to build and analyse their own corpora for literary, cultural, professional or personal purposes as well as purely linguistic ones.
After a couple of years it suddenly occurred to me that corpus linguistics could have major implications for language learning per se; in other words, I independently hit on the same idea that others (e.g. Tim Johns) had had over 20 years previously. This often happens (to me anyway), which can be depressing initially but I prefer to be positive about convergent thinking, it means I may actually be doing something right if I’m in good such good company. Since then I’ve been interested in pretty much all aspects of corpus linguistics in language teaching and learning.
3. From your experiences of using DDL in class what key issues would you highlight?
Alex: There’s no one right way to use corpora in language teaching and learning. Some teachers or researchers think that corpora aren’t much use at lower levels, or for non-language majors, or for general purposes, or without extensive training; I’d say that their multiple affordances mean that there’s something there for everyone if introduced appropriately. In many cases this might be little more than using corpora to create materials that aren’t much different from traditional ones (just better informed), or helping learners to use Google more effectively as a way to query the internet (which when you think about it is very similar to DDL, i.e. getting software to help find answers to questions in large collections of texts).
In other cases, learners may assume more responsibility at various stages and even create their own specialised corpora to help with writing or translation, for example. It depends on their current and future needs, both linguistic and professional, as well as their personalities, time available, confidence with ICT, etc.
4. I was interested in some of the theoretical underpinnings you listed in your engcorpora2015 talk, do you have a preference for any? If so why/why not?
Alex: Certainly DDL would seem to be in line with much of what we know about language and processing. Usage-based theories (e.g. Tomasello 2003) suggest that we need massive exposure to language, but naturalistic contact is simply too rare, especially in foreign-language contexts (e.g. Schmitt et al. in preparation). Zahar et al. (2001) calculate that with an hour of reading a week, their learners would need 29 years to acquire 2000 words incidentally from that reading; DDL can help to organise and focus the exposure (Gaskell & Cobb 2004).
Language is not rule-driven but fuzzy and probabilistic in nature (Hanks 2013), with grammar and meaning both emerging from use (Beckner et al. 2009); and the mind works with exemplars beyond the level of word in line with dynamic systems theory (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008), Sinclair’s (1991) idiom principle, Hoey’s (2005) lexical priming or Taylor’s (2012) model of the mental corpus, and finds support in recent psycholinguistic work on ‘chunking’ (e.g. Millar 2011), among others. It’s interesting how much of this is a more-or-less direct product of corpus linguistics – or maybe it’s circular, since obviously corpus linguists are going to find ways to justify their work.
5. Anything else you would like to add?
Alex: If you watch a professional athlete, they make it look so easy; you realise it isn’t as soon as you try it yourself – how much training, time and talent are needed to get to that result. At the same time, you don’t need to be a professional to do sport and get enjoyment or other benefits from it. It’s the same with corpus linguistics: many people seem to think that it’s beyond the reach of ordinary teachers or learners, but in my experience that’s confusing hard-end research with everyday uses for ordinary people.
Really all it entails is to take a bit of initiative and explore language for yourself with a bit of help from a computer, as opposed to relying exclusively on other people (e.g. teachers, coursebook writers or lexicographers) pre-digesting everything for you. Anyone can chew on language for themselves.
Beckner, C., R. Blythe, J. Bybee, M. Christiansen, W. Croft, N. Ellis, J. Holland, J. Ke, D. Larsen-Freeman & T. Schoenemann (The ‘Five Graces Group’). 2009. Language is a complex adaptive system: Position paper. In N. Ellis & D. Larsen-Freeman (eds), Language as a Complex Adaptive System. Language Learning, 59 (supplement): 1-26.
Gaskell, D. & Cobb, T. 2004. Can learners use concordance feedback for writing errors? System, 32(3): 301-319.
Hanks, P. 2013. Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Hoey, M. 2005. Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge.
Larsen-Freeman, D. & L. Cameron. 2008. Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Millar, N. 2011. The processing of malformed formulaic language. Applied Linguistics, 32(2): 129-148.
Schmitt, N., T. Cobb, M. Horst & D. Schmitt. In preparation. How much vocabulary is needed to use English? Replication of Van Zeeland &
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Sinclair, J. 1991. Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, J. 2012. The Mental Corpus: How language is Represented in the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tomasello, M. 2005. Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Zahar, R., T. Cobb & N. Spada. 2001. Acquiring vocabulary through reading: Effects of frequency and contextual richness. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3): 541-572.