MOOCing and Learning: Corpora, Concordancing and Conversations

Corpus MOOCThis is another quick post with my impressions of the first few weeks of the Corpus Linguistics MOOC in response to Vedrana’s earlier comment

I had high expectations of this course and I think it’s fair to say that, so far, those expectations have easily been met and surpassed! I wrote in my last post that this was a great opportunity. I hadn’t realised just how good of an opportunity it was and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

We are getting to hear from a wide range of people who are developing and using corpus linguistics to research a wide range of questions. They are using corpora to confirm or challenge intuition and to gain insights about language use in ways that would not be possible without large quantities of data. Each week there are “In Conversation” pieces where Tony McEnery chats to someone about their work or involvement with corpus linguistics. These, I think, are my favourite part of the course and Tony has expressed how much he has enjoyed doing them. There has been a lot of good feeback about them in the comments and I have a sense that they are a good way to learn – even though we are not directly involved in the chat. They are particularly enjoyable to watch and the information they contain feels more memorable.  This could be a personal reaction but, as I like to use conversation in a language learning situation, I’d like to look into it a bit more. Although these sections are in the supplementary part of the course, I’d really recommend watching them.

As well as finding out about the range of applications of corpus linguistics, we are also learning how to use the tools and techniques. This is what I felt I most needed to learn before starting the course. Corpus Linguistics allows people to access large quantities of language and this can only be done with a computer, specially designed software and the ability to use them! In the first few weeks, we have been introduced to AntConc, freely available software developed by Laurence Anthony. The video tutorials are also available on a YouTube playlist. As I said in my last post, I never knew what I could do with corpora or how to do it. I now know how to find collocations and frequency data, investigate concordances and sort them to the left or the right of a search term. I can discover which words are unusually frequent in one corpus when compared to another one – keywords! I can clone results in order to compare and, this week, I’ve found out what n-grams are. It’s very exciting!

I’m enjoying the flexibility and the variety of the course. As well as the conversations and the video tutorials, there are introductory lectures, readings, practical activities and discussions that are well attended by mentors. These are organised in a ‘to-do’ list that you can mark as completed as you progress through the course each week. You can do the bits that are most useful or interesting for you. For the first few weeks, I’ve been lucky to have a lot more time to be able to spend on it and I can choose what I do depending on the mood I’m in, where I am, what time I’ve got or who’s with me. I’m dipping into the advanced lectures where they interest me. I’m not very interested in its application to translation studies at the moment but I really enjoyed finding out about its combination with discourse analysis. I would love to understand more about the statistical side of things but I got to a point in the first lecture on the subject where it no longer made any sense, so I’ll need to come back to that. (If anyone can point me towards any very simple explanations of how things like statistical significance are calculated, I’d be grateful.)

Next week, we’ll learn how to build our own corpora. The week after, we’ll find out about social issues and corpora as well as something called CQPweb, before we look at textbook and dictionary construction in week 6, language learning in week 7 and swearing in the final week.

I’m finding the course very useful and interesting. First impressions are that it is well prepared, well structured and well supported. It is probably frustrating not to have enough time or energy to do it justice or to feel that you are falling behind, but people are going through it at very different speeds. Some have just started in the last few days, while others can only spend a short time on it each week. We’ve just found out that the course will now be supported by the mentors for two weeks after the end of the course to add even more flexibility. And, there do seem to be plans to run it again in the future – another of Vedrana’s questions 🙂

This is not just any MOOC…

… this is a Corpus Linguistics MOOC run by… Lancaster University! It’s led by Tony McEnery with contributions from and facilitation by an impressive bunch of people. It’s a great opportunity. I’ve been really looking forward to it and, after starting it, I’m even more enthusiastic about it. This short post is to encourage any of you interested in language or involved in language teaching and not already signed up for it to think about giving it a go. It has just started. You’ll catch up quickly!

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As language teachers, I’m hoping it’ll expand our ability and confidence to find out more about how language is used, to make discoveries, to test hypotheses, and to verify our intuition about how the language works. Out of context, our intuition about what we would actually say in a particular situation is not always accurate whether we’re so-called native or non-native speakers of a language. We can’t always bring to mind the relevant uses or collocations of particular words. We can be unclear about the difference between near synonyms.

There are those who suggest that, because of this, we should depend on ELT course books. But even when we can be sure the language information is accurate, it is necessarily limited to what the course book writers have chosen and not targeted towards our particular learners. Also, the more aware we are about how language works, the more able we’ll be able to draw attention to features that may not be easily packaged into course book activities. (I’m not saying that course books aren’t useful, just that, ideally, we need to know more about language than what is in course books!)

I’ve always enjoyed finding out about language and it was this interest that led me towards working in ELT but I know very little about corpus linguistics. For a while, I’ve felt that I should find out more about how I can better use corpora in my work. I’ve read posts about it. I’ve watched webinars. While I’ve been impressed at how people like Mura Nava, Leo Selivan or Scott Thornbury write about their use or refer to findings, I’ve only ever dabbled ineffectively, not sure about what I can do and/or how to do it. After starting this course – yesterday – the fog is already starting to clear. I’m excited by my growing confidence and the potential of a corpus linguistics approach!

Find out more about the course:

It’s designed in such a way as to be useful and interesting for a wide range of people, from those with very little prior knowledge or limited time, to those who want to expand or deepen their knowledge or who can spend more time on it.

Have a look!

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