The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, November 30, 2020

A jobbing corpus linguist

In a Facebook corpus linguistics group I follow, someone recently posted the following question:

I immediately wanted to put my hand up and shout "Me! Me!" I excitedly typed a reply in the comments, but soon realized I had more to explain than I could realistically fit in, so I promised the poster a follow-up blog post. 

Getting started: 

So, how did I become a corpus linguist? Well, after about 7 years as a full-time EFL teacher, I realized the teaching lifestyle wasn't for me and I did an MA at Birmingham University. I already had an idea that dictionaries might be my thing – which was why I chose Birmingham as the home of COBUILD - and I took options in lexicography and corpus linguistics. 


I finished my MA in late 1998 at a time when there was a bit of a boom in ELT dictionaries. I was actually lucky enough to have interviews for in-house lexicography roles at three big ELT dictionary publishers within the space of a few months. I took a job at CUP – mostly because the timing worked out best – and was lucky enough to get stuck in straight away on the new, from-scratch Cambridge Learner's Dictionary (an intermediate-level dictionary). I learnt loads from my fabulous in-house colleagues and when I later went freelance, worked for the next 5 years or so on dictionaries for most of the major publishers (CUP, Longman, Macmillan, OUP, Chambers and eventually, many years later, Collins COBUILD). 

Broadening out: 

I worked on back-to-back lexicography projects through to around 2005. A few things then happened to send me off in different directions. Having worked with the Cambridge Learner Corpus when I was in-house (on dictionary error notes), I was asked by CUP to do some learner corpus research into common learner errors for their new Common Mistakes series of books. While doing the research, I realized I'd quite like to take the next step and write the material too, so ended up authoring two of the books in the series. After a long stretch of lexicography, it was nice to branch out into other things and I started working on more general ELT writing, initially alongside lexicography projects. Over the next few years, my focus shifted more towards writing – a shift that happened to coincide with a gradual decline in dictionary projects as several of the big publishers scaled back their dictionary operations. 


A mixed portfolio: 

Since then the mix of general writing and corpus-related work I do has varied year-to-year. I've done bursts of mainly writing, but always come back to corpus work. That's continued to include dictionaries and other reference projects, like Collins COBUILD Key Words series. I also do quite a lot of learner corpus research for CUP to feed into their ELT books. Sometimes that's just straightforward research investigating the issues made by a specific group of learners – mostly by level, but also by L1 – where I research to a brief and produce a report that goes to the authors. Frequently though, I do the research and also write the material, often in the form of notes and practice activities around specific learner issues. I had a look back over the past 3 years and my mix of work breaks down very roughly as below.

So, in answer to the original question, no, I don't have a job as such as a corpus linguist. I do, however, spend a large chunk of my working life using my corpus linguistic skills in some way or another. And even on the jobs I haven't classified as directly corpus research, I'm dipping in and out of corpora pretty much daily for almost everything I do.

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Blogger Keith Folse said...

Great post!

Just yesterday a friend who's interested in language and languages asked me if there is a way to monetize or make a career out of corpus linguistics. I reminded him about predictive texting on his cell phone. Corpus linguistics is what helps make that work so well (ok, most of the time!).

THANKS for this interesting story of how you use corpus linguistics in your work.


7:26 pm  
Blogger Evan said...

Thanks for sharing Julie. I would just add that knowing a bit about corpus linguistics is also pretty useful in ESP, especially for anyone writing materials. I needed to find some writers for a recent project, and it was surprisingly hard to find people who could do even basic searches in the corpus the client had put together.

2:42 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Apologies for the non-thread-style comments (old blog template)!

Keith: Thanks. As you say, I'm sure for the techier-minded there are loads of roles for corpus linguists around tech and AI.

Evan: Before I did my MA, I was doing a lot of in-company/ESP teaching & I can just imagine how useful it'd have been to create & use some simple corpora to inform my teach & create bespoke materials.

9:09 am  

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