Why use corpora?

James Thomas has uploaded his slides from IATEFL ’16 (which I learned of by checking the always useful G+ CL group). I’m not reviewing them or discussing the finer details of his work here, I just wanted to quote a few lines from his slides that I think get at the heart of why corpora are, and can be, valuable in language teaching and learning.

From slide 5: “answer language questions from data when dictionaries, grammars and intuition fall short”

  • Occasionally, some teachers try to force a corpus-based learning method that isn’t appropriate for their students and their context. It’s really important to remember that all these tools and resources can complement each other. I absolutely think more teachers should become familiar with corpus-methods because they offer options when other methods aren’t enough; and likewise in the other direction, too. Varying circumstances and questions call for a variety of tools and approaches, including corpus-based methods.

From slide 10: “learn language from language”

  • I teach in an EFL context, so my students’ access to hearing/reading the English of expert/fluent users of English, or to ‘natural’ English, can be quite limited. Using corpora or deriving materials from them is a way to expose students to particular patterns and expressions of natural use, which I believe is beneficial and valuable. It also allows students to compare their own knowledge and output to samples of real-world language use.

From slide 27: “asking thousands of native speakers at the same time”

  • For this quote, I’ll focus on how this idea affects me as a teacher.  Sometimes a dictionary or grammar gives, imo, unsatisfactory information; sometimes I find textbooks or other materials to have, imo, contrived, forced, or poor examples; sometimes I’m not sure of my ability to answer a question from students; in all these cases I feel that consulting corpora lends me a sense of confidence about how to address the issue at hand, and this stems from the idea that I’m consulting thousands of people at once about usage.

I very much recommend looking through all of the slides. There’s a lot more useful and insightful info in the presentation than the few lines that I wrote about here.


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