Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mark Davies' new academic word lists

Mark Davies, over at Brigham Young University, has developed some fantastic corpus-based resources. His most recent project, along with Dee Gardner, is a set of academic word lists (notice the plural).

In the comparison they provide with Coxhead's 2000 AWL, they claim,
our word lists provide better coverage of academic English. The 570 "word families" in the AWL cover 7.2% of the words in the COCA academic texts, but the top 570 word families in our list cover 14.0% -- nearly twice as much. In a "neutral" corpus -- the 32 million words of academic and semi-academic texts in the British National Corpus -- the AWL covers 7.1% and our list covers 14.0% -- again nearly twice as much.
I haven't had an opportunity to look at these carefully, but at first glance, this seems like a very unfair comparison. It seems that part of the way they have achieved the very high coverage rate is to include some very frequent words, words like between, low, need, difference, use. 

Coxhead's list is built on top of the West's General Service List, which is to say that it only includes words not already listed in the roughly 2,000 words of the GSL. As a result, more very frequent words are excluded (although others, such as area, which are very common but were excluded from the GSL because they had significant semantic overlap with another word, give the AWL an undeserved coverage boost). The approach taken by Davies and Gardner doesn't have any frequency ceiling at all. Rather, they have chosen to consider any word that occurs at least 1.5 times more frequently in the academic sub corpus of the COCA than in the other sections of the corpus. This captures words that have something of an academic proclivity, but a number of those words are vehemently everyday vocabulary.

On the other hand, the new lists distinguish between lexical categories. That is to say that noun use is considered academic, while the verb use is not. Similarly, it brings word families together while still distinguishing between different members. Thus, under the headword move, neither the noun nor the verb move are academic, but movement is.

This is quite a different approach, and will take some time to evaluate. I'm looking forward to trying though.

PS, the lists have been published minus every fifth word as a sort of embargo until a paper describing the lists can be published.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Grammatically speaking and number

I have often been critical of the "Grammatically Speaking" columns put out occasionally by TESOL, but the most recent is, I think clear, accurate, and interesting. It looks at the the question of why we say zero degrees instead of zero degree. Something I've brought up here before.

Schmitt points out that the terms plural and singular may be misleading, and suggests singular and nonsingular. This I think, is a useful approach.

As for his brain teaser, these usually strike me as fairly obvious, but this time, I have no idea what the issue is. Any insight?

Look at the two example sentences below. Explain what grammatical holdover they illustrate and suggest how a teacher might teach this to a language class.
  1. Here's why working at home is both a curse and a blessing.
  2. In particular, Biden cited the billions of dollars in government financial support for U.S. automakers during the recession as an example of the differing approaches between the parties.

Effectiveness of LINC programs

It's rare to find a study looking at overall program effectiveness. But Citizenship and Immigration Canada has conducted just such a study of their Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, and the results are interesting. They look at a variety of elements including costs, intake type, and provision of daycare. What interested me most, though, was the language learning outcomes, as displayed in the graph below.