The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

#IVACS2018: new corpora and new collaborations

I came away from the IVACS conference in Malta a couple of weeks ago with my head buzzing with ideas which still haven't quite settled themselves down into a coherent order for a blog post, but here goes anyway ...

Lots of corpora:
Almost every speaker seemed to start off by describing the new corpus they'd compiled for their research. To the outsider, this might seem slightly pointless, constantly reinventing the wheel ... why not just use an existing corpus? I guess the answer is that the English language isn't a single homogeneous whole and if you want to study a particular area of usage or group of users, you do need to look at relevant, representative data. A lot of the corpora I heard about were fascinating, but a couple I took note of as being especially useful for ELT - and crucially, available or almost available to use - were ...

EFCAMDAT: This is a corpus of learner writing collected from the language school chain EF’s online learning platform, based on responses to a variety of tasks at a range of levels. I had come across it before and tried to register to use it but never got the confirmation email through. (Tried again this week, but I seem to have got stuck at the same point, sadly). I think it's potentially a useful addition to the CLC because of its wider range of task types. Ute Römer talked about her research into verb patterns using EFCAMDAT and it looked like it was bringing up a nice range of examples. I’ll keep trying to register …

Growth in Grammar: Phil Durrant described his work compiling and analysing a corpus of children's language. The project is aimed at understanding how (native speaker) UK school children's language develops between the ages of 5 and 16 and the corpus consists of writing kids have done in school, not tasks set by the researchers, just their day-to-day schoolwork. The corpus is due to be made publically available in the near future and it struck me as a potentially really useful resource for writers of ELT materials for young learners. A number of times lately, I've been asked about using corpora to inform YL materials and I've drawn a bit of a blank because most existing corpora consist firmly of grown-up data which just doesn't seem a relevant point of comparison. When you're asked to look at the authenticity of the language in a story about a talking octopus, the BNC really doesn't offer very much!! So I'll be keeping an eye open for when Growth in Grammar becomes available for all my YL ELT writer colleagues.

Research into practice:
A number of speakers were talking about the potential implications of their research for teachers and learners. Again, loads of interesting stuff, but I just want to highlight a couple of things that have stuck with me ...

Native/non-native teachers, teacher talk and ELF: Perhaps my favourite session of the whole conference was Eric Nicaise's brilliant paper on teacher talk.  He compiled a corpus of teacher talk in the ELT classroom by native and non-native speaker teachers (working in Belgium) to compare their use of language.  It revealed some fascinating differences which Eric was keen to stress weren't about making any kind of judgment, but about raising both groups of teachers' awareness of the type of language they use which might be providing a model for their students. Just two of the findings he had time to present were around the use of modals and phrasal verbs. He found that the NS teachers used a much wider range of modals in the classroom and used them for a wider range of functions. So, for example, while NS teachers would say things like “Would you like to … (turn to page …)” and "Shall we ... (look at …)?", NNS teachers would often go for much more direct imperatives “Turn to …” and “Repeat …” (examples from memory).  And perhaps unsurprisingly, when it came to phrasal verbs, the NS teachers again used far more scattered throughout their speech, whereas the NNS teachers used fewer and they tended to be mainly when they we were consciously teaching and exemplifying phrasal verbs.

For me, this set my head whizzing with all kinds of ideas. Eric mentioned the idea of language that's perhaps more suitable for teacher talk at lower levels where NS teachers might want to consciously use simpler forms and it also struck me that avoiding the trickier forms might apply to learners in ELF contexts ... why use confusing phrasal verbs if you're a French L1 speaker talking to an Italian and you'll both find Latinate verbs much easier?! Then from the opposite perspective, if learners are underexposed to a full range of modals, for example, they risk coming across to native speakers they communicate with (and expert NNSs too) as overly direct and even rude. This has implications for NNS teachers who might want to try and model more of these forms in their TT, especially at higher levels, and for learners, who need to be aware of the effect their language choices can have on the impression they create.

Collaboration between researchers and materials writers: One of the key points I tried to make in my own session was about how we can feed insights from corpus research into classroom materials and this was a theme that cropped up again and again in other talks with various researchers talking about the importance of translating their research into practical applications. For some, with very specific research objectives, that meant applying it directly to their own teaching context, but several also expressed the need for more collaboration between researchers and mainstream materials writers. In the Q&A at the end of Ute Römer's great plenary, I ventured to suggest a direct collaboration between corpus researchers and MaWSIG (the IATEFL materials writing group) ... a suggestion that seemed to be received enthusiastically. 

Conference selfie via @uroemer

So often it seems to me that freelance ELT writers would like to keep up with the latest research but they come up against various barriers (a point picked up too by Clare Maas at the recent MaWSIG/Oxford Brookes event). Most academic research is behind paywalls which make it difficult to access if you're not attached to a university – I couldn’t, for example, access the papers on which some of the talks mentioned above were based in order to recheck details. Of course, there are ways around this if you know what you're particularly interested in (I could have emailed the researchers directly), but without access to the kind of search facilities found in university libraries, how do you know what to look for? Finding out about relevant research becomes rather pot luck, down to happening across things shared on social media, reviewed in open access sources (such as ELT Research Bites) or mentioned at conferences, and for each person is usually restricted to the highlights in their own specialist area. And then there's time ... as a freelancer, time is money and most of us simply can't afford to spend lots of unpaid hours ploughing through long academic articles in search of relevant insights that we might be able to make use of when we have writing deadlines to meet. It seems to me that more direct contact between researchers and writers would be really helpful in sharing knowledge in a way that's friendly and accessible. Hearing about research face-to-face with the option to chat and ask questions, to clarify any unfamiliar academic terminology, to share ideas on applicability and tease out any important caveats would be really helpful. I don't know quite what form this might take or who we could invite, but I'll definitely be talking to the MaWSIG crew about it as a possibility.

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