IATEFL 2013 Corpora and the advanced level: an interview with Mike McCarthy Mike, your talk at IATEFL next week is entitled “Corpora and the Advanced Level: problems and prospects.” So, what are the main problems that teachers face at the advanced level? There are two key problems. One is that we don't really know what happens after, for example, level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). At the A level, you know what the task is: you're starting at a very low level, and working up to a target that's been defined by tools such as the English Vocabulary Profile and the ongoing English Grammar Profile. After B2, though, the sky's the limit: we're not sure if there's a D level after the C level, or maybe even an E level. Consequently, we don't have any ready-made syllabuses at advanced level; what we have is a hotchpotch of stuff that’s been included because it looks difficult; things that haven't been done before because they're complex structures or very low-frequency words, for instance. The second problem is that learners at advanced level need to revisit things they studied quite a long time ago because they're going to learn new ways of using them, and new meanings for them. This can be a bit puzzling for students, who feel that they've reached a level where they're not going to be concerned with, say, the present tense any more. We need to convince them that by revisiting certain aspects of the language, they're going to greatly increase their ability to express meanings. There are other problems too: one is that at the advanced level, virtually every new word you meet is going to be pretty rare – the most common words in the language are very common indeed, and the remaining couple of hundred thousand are all low-frequency. Your chances of meeting these words are very slim, so you need new strategies for learning them. And how can corpora help to solve each of these problems? By using corpora, we can get a proper grip on how grammar operates at a more advanced level: differentiating between what's complex but rare, and what's complex but common. To take the English subjunctive as an example: the type of construction "She insisted that he wear a tie at all times" is something that we've always had in our syllabuses, but it's actually very rare, and we can always get around it by using 'should';. In our teaching, then, we can therefore either dispense with it or deal with it quickly. Much more common, though, are subjunctive constructions after nouns or adjectives – “The judge's insistence that he speak the truth". This is the sort of information you can only get from a corpus.
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Using corpora, therefore, we can construct a useful syllabus for the advanced level. We can make sure to include items that are relatively common or useful for particular types of writing – in professional or academic contexts, for instance – and get a better balance between the “complex and rare” and the “complex and useful or common”. By using the corpus to construct our syllabus, we can also show students that there are still more useful things to learn by revisiting items that they may think they've already completed. While we were preparing for our Viewpoint course, for instance, our corpus research showed us that the future tense, which students will have learned at a lower level, is actually frequently used for things that have happened already: "You will no doubt have heard about the terrible earthquake". The corpus allows us to get at those functions of language. As for vocabulary, research shows that focusing your vocabulary learning - within, say, academic writing – enables you to make greater gains not only within the domain you're interested in but also more widely. Most students who go beyond B2 have some kind of professional, academic or vocational reason for learning English; at this level, then, you need to target vocabulary towards those types of professional and vocational context. The Cambridge English Corpus enables us to look at special types of language, because it can be separated into specialised corpora for, say, business or academic English – the corpus contains more than a million words of English used in the hospitality industry, for instance. By using these focused corpora, we can enable students to make more rapid gains than they would by just learning any new word they came across; words that may be rare in the corpus overall but are more common in their particular fields. So what does the future hold for advanced learners, so far as corpora are concerned? At the advanced level, building specialised corpora will give us key information about real usage within particular domains, and that will allow us to focus on what advanced level learners really need. And multimodal corpora – incorporating audio and video – will give us an even better sense of these particular language events such as business meetings and job interviews.
Mike McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham, Adjunct Professor of Applied Linguistics at Pennsylvania State University, and Adjunct Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Limerick. He is author/co-author/editor of more than 30 books and more than 70 academic papers. He has lectured on language and language teaching in 38 countries and has been actively involved in ELT for 41 years. Mike will be talking about Corpora and the Advanced Level: problems and prospects at IATEFL on Tuesday at 12:55 in Hall 1a.
© Cambridge University Press, 2013