The Corpus, 1000 hours of conversations: what does it mean for ELT?

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At IATEFL this year, Olivia Goodman from the Language Research team gave a talk with Dr Robbie Love from the University of Leeds on how spoken British English has changed in the last 20 years and what that means for us all in ELT. Here, Olivia recaps her talk and introduces how we use the Corpus to influence our content.

To give you a metaphor for understanding how a language is used, we can look at fashion; if we say what’s fashionable based on what we, as an individual, like to wear it might be too narrow a perspective on fashion as a whole. Whereas, if we look at what the larger population find fashionable and what they actually wear then we can make more valid generalisations.

In the case of language – to find out how language is really used by the larger population, instead of just an individual’s view – we analyse a corpus. By analysing the language in a corpus it means that we can move away from what individuals say is right or wrong. Instead, we find out how the language is actually used and are able to make these valid generalisations. We are able to put together a bigger picture and get a more accurate description of how language is used in real-life. Keeping up with how language is changing is more of a challenge. Due to the nature of corpora as static databases of language from one particular point in time, we need to compare corpora from different time periods. Here at Cambridge, we are able to do that. We built a corpus of everyday spoken British English together with Lancaster University – the Spoken BNC2014 – which allows us to find out how proficient speakers of English are using the language. By comparing this data to a similar corpus from 20 years ago – the Spoken BNC1994 – we are able to find out what has changed and how the language has evolved over time.

What have we found out so far?

Many interesting insights have surfaced in our research, but at IATEFL we chose to focus on how five specific adverbs have changed in the last 20 years: well, so, just, like and literally.

Taking so as an example here, we can see that the overall frequency has almost doubled (from 4,500 per million to 8,300 per million). This seems to be due to the clause-level modification – see the two first pairs of bars in the graph below. Sentence-initial so (so do you like the red one?) and clause linking (there’s no white left so it will have to be one of the colours) seemed to have pushed this increase.
Corpus Graph
Using so at the beginning of a sentence is something that some people might say is incorrect, but we can see a clear increase in this usage by proficient speakers. This means that we don’t have to discourage students from using ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence and that it can be used like this in spoken communication.

Researching how English is really used and keeping up with how language is changing means we can include natural, authentic and up-to-date language that has been validated and verified in our course materials. And this means that we can ensure teachers and learners are exposed to language that they will likely encounter outside of the classroom, in the real world.

So, what does all of this mean for ELT?

It means that we can incorporate these insights into our materials and by doing so means that students will be equipped with up-to-date language when they communicate with other speakers of English. Often we hear that students are able to pass their exams but do not feel confident speaking English in ‘real-life’ contexts. Using these insights, we can make sure that we prepare students to succeed academically, but also to communicate effectively in English.

There’s often a disconnect between what students learn in the classroom and what they hear in English films, in music or read on social media, for example. Exposing students to authentic language use means that they will be equipped to deal with these differences. They will understand exactly what those differences are, particularly between written and spoken English. It means they will be learning language as it is really used by proficient speakers.

We all know that language is constantly changing and we understand that it’s necessary to keep track of those changes. This isn’t just a case of being trendy. It’s a case of keeping up with how language is truly changing and evolving.

You can read more about our time at IATEFL 2019 in our previous blog posts.