Language Teaching with a Concordancer

 

It is not immediately obvious how or why a concordance program should be used in language teaching. At its heart, a concordancer is a simple program which allows searching of large text files for a word or phrase. So why use a glorified search program in the language classroom? The answers to this question given here are all variations on a theme, namely that it is important for students to work with instances of actual language usage. This sounds all well and good in the abstract, but the problem of working with actual language is that any lexis or construction that is of interest will occur only rarely and be obscured by masses of other language data. How do we create a focus on some particular input? This is where the concordancer shows its mettle. A concordancer is an excellent tool that makes "working with the language" possible; it allows the user to work with actual data and at the same time obtain a "concentrate" of the items under investigation. Furthermore, a crucial difference between a concordancer and a general search program lies in the possibilities, discussed below, for sorting the results of the search in order to more easily observe patterns in the data.

Using Context

Let us start off with a well-accepted idea: context in all its forms is a good thing. Narrowly defined, context is equivalent to co-text, i.e., accompanying words, and an even narrower notion of co-text is collocations, i.e., recurrent word associations such as a good thing. Knowledge of a wide range of collocations is now seen as an important part of competence in a language, and it is actually quite difficult to get access to collocations without using a text analysis program such as a concordancer. Wider notions of context such as the type (genre) of the text, or the purpose of the text, or the setting for a text will not be discussed here.

Everyone is in favour of context; whether it is the use of context to "guess" unknown words or to help determine the appropriate circumstances of use for a word, phrase or construction. One important advantage of using a concordancer is that context is always present. When a word (or phrase) is searched for, the results always include the context of that word. Thus if we search for a word such as since in newspaper texts, we get results in the KWIC format shown below. To save space only a small selection of instances are shown and, here, the number of characters surrounding the search term has been greatly reduced to allow the displays to fit in the two-column newsletter format.


1. hion over the 800 years since Birmingham was grant
2. g and surrounding sites since 1985. As LET’s partn
3. ised central Birmingham since the mid-Sixties. Sho
4. at had been on the site since 1891, he soon forgot
5. eek. <p> What an irony, since the seductive drawin
6. ited for the first time since the 1670s. <p> After
7. re it has not been seen since the eighteenth centu
8. a Nazi sympathiser ever since. The Speer book has
9. bsessed with Classicism since his student days, he
10. e has built in a hurry since 1985 and is now as b
11. ng crisis unparalleled since the end of the last
12. ion _ and have done so since television monarchy
13. been in Leningrad ever since. <p> At a time when
14. ctor buildings created since the war have been fo
15. a party chief who has since been redeployed. <p>
16. rst piece she has made since disbanding her compa
17. couraged the tendency, since if you think that th
18. ). It’s only ten years since the Comedy Store ope
19. t not Pistol’s memory, since King-to-be Henry rep

While the search results in this format reveal something about the nature of since, notably the co-occurrence of dates, it is worthwhile looking for patterns (or having students look for patterns) of language use, i.e., phrases or constructions based on since. A simple but telling reorganisation of the concordance lines involves re-sorting the lines in alphabetical order of the word following since. This operation, known as a right sort, leads to the output shown below.

1. been in Leningrad ever since. <p> At a time when
2. at had been on the site since 1891, he soon forgot
3. g and surrounding sites since 1985. As LET’s partn
4. re has built in a hurry since 1985 and is now as b
5. y a party chief who has since been redeployed. <p>
6. hion over the 800 years since Birmingham was grant
7. irst piece she has made since disbanding her compa
8. bsessed with Classicism since his student days, he
9. ncouraged the tendency, since if you think that th
10. t not Pistol’s memory, since King-to-be Henry rep
11. ion _ and have done so since television monarchy
12. Nazi sympathiser ever since. The Speer book has
13. sed central Birmingham since the mid-Sixties. Sho
14. ek. <p> What an irony, since the seductive drawin
15. ted for the first time since the 1670s. <p> After
16. e it has not been seen since the eighteenth centu
17. ng crisis unparalleled since the end of the last
18. ctor buildings created since the war have been fo
19. ). It’s only ten years since the Comedy Store ope

Using this data students will see not only the use of since with dates, but also the more common use with a descriptive nominal or with a verbal phrase referring to an event: since his student days, since the Comedy Store opened. It may also be useful to draw students’ attention to the use of since in which the anchoring event is less clearly defined and may simply be implied. This use is often associated with the present perfect and is represented in this sample by the phrase a party chief who has since been redeployed. (This use can be found by using a left sort and looking for instances of since preceded by has/have.)

This focus on the association of since with temporal reference points then leads naturally to an examination of other uses of since including the phrase ever since and the logical connective since. In the case of the latter, attention can be drawn to the comma preceding since in this use.

In presenting these examples, I have not discussed how these activities are to be executed, but I assume that however the data is presented to the students, their attention will be focussed through appropriate questioning on particular phrases in the concordance results and that as a result of following a sequence of questions, students will come to understand for themselves several uses of since. In providing the nineteen examples shown above, I did not delete any examples, but culling of examples will sometimes be necessary to tailor the data to the students’ needs. (And here I am simply assuming that the corpus itself is suitable in its form and content for the students.)

As a final exercise on this topic, we can easily produce a reconstruction exercise based on for and since in the following manner. Search first for since and stop the search after getting twenty or so examples, then perform a search append for for and halt the search after about fifty examples. The search append command adds the results of the second search to the existing concordance lines. Remove unwanted items such as instances of for that do not indicate a duration of time. Next, perform a right sort in order to intermix the instances of for and since. Then choose "Conceal hits" from the Display menu of MonoConc and print the results---shown below---or save them to a file. In this format the students have only the context to guide them and from this they must reconstruct the missing word and so determine whether for or since (or both) can fit in the gap.

1. n in communion with Rome______1596, was forcibly me
2. s have come to the state______1990, many in pharmac
3. tened drop in readership______1990 is now so great
4. amese have been captured______26 September," said M
5. first in Eastern Europe______40 years. <p> ‘The hi
6. 3 hostages they had held______a day at the Costa Ri
7. queues could be expected______at least a year. <p>
8. e ninth justice minister______August 1986.<sect> Fo
9. said they had been there______days, but had not boa
10. ons have been under way______early this year, acco
11. deeply inspired me ever______I was a small boy. <p
12. a. And in Angola, ruled______independence in 1975
13. official to visit India______June 1981. The main i
14. The jury deliberated______only 10 hours before
15. road Republican control______Ronald Reagan defeate
16. s have been outstanding______some time, and people
17. separable part of China______the 13th century, alt
18. had reissued the pledge______the Tiananmen Square
19. time in the future but______the moment he feels h
20. at the hotel every year______the rest of their liv
21. ng he had seen no facts______Tuesday which ‘would
22. Guillermo Endara inside______two hours after oppos
23. efeat for Soviet troops______World War II", as unt

 

Inductive versus deductive approaches

The example above indicates an inductive–or what Tim Johns calls a data-driven–approach to language learning. Students are presented with data, i.e., concordance output, and are guided by questions that direct their attention to certain aspects of that data in order to help them understand the usage of the term since and at the same time increase their "feel" for the common patterns of the language, i.e., the way that things are commonly expressed in the language.

In the above example, all uses of since were presented at the same time. Alternatively, the teacher could produce a series of worksheets in which the different uses of since are separated and are presented to the student sequentially. In this mode, the teacher would first select the temporal uses of since, and then move on to other uses.

While I have a preference for an inductive language learning methodology, data from concordance output can also be used in a deductive teaching style. The teacher can present a pattern or rule and the student can check the data for instances, counter-examples etc. This approach does not allow the students to construct their own rule based on their experience of the data, and so is not likely to be as beneficial. However, one deductive approach that might be interesting is to present a grammar rule taken perhaps from the student’s coursebook, and have the student work with a few examples to assess the goodness of fit between the rule and the examples. This can be followed by a brief discussion of those examples which do not fit the rule, if the examples are enlightening.

Investigating culture

It is impossible to talk about language and culture in a paragraph or two, but I will recklessly forge ahead and present some data that may be useful in stimulating ideas concerning corpus-based explorations of cultural themes. The simple notion introduced here is that one way to get a handle on some cultural associations is by searching for colour terms and observing what collocates commonly occur with these terms that might furnish clues to cultural connotations.

First, let us look at the instances of red in the Arts section of the Independent newspaper. Some results are shown below. While these results are not culture-free (note the standard "traditional" red telephone kiosk), many of the examples refer straightforwardly to the colour red

1. standard ‘traditional" red telephone kiosk, Waterlo
2. oured canal barge or a red and white striped deck-c
3. ilan. These canyons of red sandstone still stir the
4. sistence on bathing in red and blue light the scene
5. band, with Chorus in a red hat and sash beating the
6. > With its splashes of red standing out from the sw
7. the lips picked out in red and tint around the eyes
8. er: the clown with the red lips who brings you craz
9. dlebar moustache and a red blouse who has been play
10. tions set up amid the red plush of a theatre. What

Turning to the business section of the newspaper and searching for red, we get a much more culturally interesting set of uses: red ink, red rag, and red tape. I chose to give examples from the Arts section and Business section to illustrate the variation that can be found with different text types, but the main point I want to make is that a search for colour terms in a variety of texts can be used to focus attention on cultural aspects of language.

1.ompany slipped into the red after the stock market c
2. nlays was still in the red in the 12 months to 1 Ap
3. ended with a bucket of red ink while fears for the
4. sing. It fell into the red last year, losing Adolla
5. fallen deeper into the red. Losses for the six mont
6. .ket Report: Analysts’ red pencils make their mark
7. ince April, is another red rag to dollar bulls look
8. Business: Cut European red tape, says minister </hl
9. not be tied down by EC red tape. <p> In the single
10. gar, will create more red tape and more regulation

This article is too limited to give more than a flavour of teaching with a concordancer like MonoConc. (I have not even mentioned collocate frequency or word frequency calculations.) For a more thorough account of the use of concordancing in the classroom, the best source is Concordances in the Classroom by Chris Tribble and Glyn Jones, which has been revised and re-published by Athelstan.