Reading between the lines

Being asked to review the Collins online dictionary reminded me of my vocabulary classes as a first-year student at the department of English language & literature at the University of Amsterdam nearly 20 years ago. We had to study concordance lines (kwic lists) containing words from groups of synonyms using the COBUILD corpus (the forerunner of the Bank of English and the Collins Corpus of English) and a concordancer – which the more ‘mature’ of our readers may remember running on their DOS operated macines – called Microconcord. (For our younger audience, yes there was a time when there was no Windows and computers were operated by typing commands. Typing? Yes typing!)

These lists of keywords in context (kwic) were meant to illustrate difference in meaning and/or usage by showing them in context, allowing/forcing the students to deduce the subtleties of usage differences rather than memorise them. Now I have to admit that I’m not completely up to speed with the currect verdicts on the use of corpora in English language teaching, but personally as a student, I found it very useful to learn the subtle differences in usage between near-synonyms in this way, reading between the concordance lines as it were. It was an aspect of vocabulary that I could not have learned in the traditional way of cramming lists of words with their translations – something I was always pretty bad at anyway.

Have you used corpora as a learner or teacher? What is your experience? Do you really get a better idea of actual usage by using corpora?

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About Robin Straaijer

Linguist of English prescriptivism and standards. Lover of photography and comedy.
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