Saturday, 20 October 2012

Why we need evidence part 2: How we know what isn't so

Are you more likely to die from a car accident or from cancer? And just how much more likely is the one than the other

While writing this post, the excellent 'EFL teachers shouldn't prefer blonds' appeared. It is definitely worth a read and gets right at the heart of what I'll talk about here, even mentioning the availability error.
The availability error/heuristic means that people tend to favour information that is more available to them.  For example, If you ask people whether they are more likely to die from a car accident or cancer many people would suggest that they were perhaps about equal, after all cars are very dangerous. Of course, people dying of cancer doesn't make the news very often and so the fact that you are over 10 times more likely to die of cancer than being in a car accident, isn't as 'available'. Similarly, people may worry about terrorists or shark attacks, but the likelyhood or either of these happening to you is so remote as to be almost meaningless. That said, both of these are still more likely than winning the lottery, but in the UK round 2 million play it every week.  

As Andrew Walkley points out, the same goes for teachers (and material writers) understanding of language. We think we know what people say, we think we know how people talk but actually we often have no idea. We think we know which words are 'common' and which are less so but as this game shows, we probably get it wrong as often as we get it right (thanks to Rachel for the link). This is because humans don't do statistics very well.  

For example, imagine if I told you I was going to spend a lesson teaching students about the the word 'just'. you may be horrified at my wasting so much time on a word like that. However examining Nottingham's corpus of spoken English reveals that "just" is the 31st most commonly used word in Spoken English (O'Keffee et al 2007: 35). Other words are "yeah" (no.12), "mm" (37) and "er" (38).

Generally our intuition about language is wrong. What we end up teaching students is what Lewis calls "TEFLese" (2001: vii) and Stubbs notes that many learners may be able to 'speak grammatically, yet not sound native like' (2006:115) As long ago as 1998 this approach was being questioned:

Working on educated guesswork or hunches when writing dialogues and transactions for coursebooks or when selecting language to teach is highly questionable. (williams 1998:53)
For example, maybe today you taught a class.  And depending on where you work (China, Korea and Japan, yes, I'm looking at you!) perhaps the class featured a dialogue like the following:
A: Hi, How are you?
B: I'm fine thank you, and you?
A: I'm fine too, thank you.
Now it's easy to pick fault with this for being unnatural, but what about this one (Nunan and Lockwood in Carter et al 2005:79):

Patient: Could I make an appointment to see the doctor please?
Receptionist: certainly, who do you usually see?
Patient: Dr Cullen
Receptionist: I'm sorry but Dr Cullen has got patients all day. would Dr. Maley do?
Patient: Sure
Receptionist: OK then. When would you like to come?
Patient: Could I come at four o'clock?
Receptionist: four o'clock? Fine. Could I have your name please?

If you're like me then you have probably taught this kind of thing before. It looks pretty authentic, doesn't it? Certainly better than the 1st example. Yet reality looks quite a bit different (Burns at al 1996 in Carter et al 2005:80):
Receptionist: Sorry to keep you waiting.
Patient: That's alright um I'm just calling to confirm an appointment with Dr X for the first of October
Receptionist: oh...
Patient: Because it was so far in advance I was told to.
Receptionist: I see what you mean, to see if she's going to be in that day.
Patient: That's right
Receptionist: Oh we may not know yet.
Patient: Oh I see.
Receptionist: First of October...Edith....yes.
Patient: Yes
Receptionist: There she is OK you made one. What's your name?
Patient: At nine fift...
Receptionist: Got it got it.
Now whether or not we expose students to this kind of dialogue is an argument I'm not going to get into here, but the point is that despite what we think we know, we are often very bad at judging what actually is.

And if we have no idea about how language is really used how can we expect to make the best use of our students' time? This is where the evidence discovered by corpus linguistics is invaluable to teachers. Computers don't suffer from the availability error. Corpus has revolutionised dictionaries, textbooks and language teaching. But it has only managed this because we were so wrong, so often. If our intuitions about language had been largely correct, it's doubtful corpus would have made the impression that it has.


Carter, R. Hughes, R and McCarthy, M (2005) telling tales: The spoken language and materials development in Tomlinson, B (Ed.), Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge University Press 67-88.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove:Language Teaching Publications.

Williams, M. (1998) Language Taught for Meetings and Language Used in Meetings: Is there Anything in Common Applied Linguistics 9/1: 45-58

Stubbs, M. (2006) language Corpora. In Davies, A. & Elder, C. (2006) (eds.) The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Malden M.A. Blackwell. 106-132


  1. An interesting post and as a corpus researcher myself, I totally agree that corpora are really useful for testing our intuitions about language and helping to inform teaching materials.

    However, one note of caution: whilst corpora are getting bigger and more comprehensive all the time, you do still need to be aware of what they actually contain and therefore, exactly what they actually represent. Certain types of language are much easier to collect (such as journalism) and so tend to be over-represented in lots of large corpora (esp. those used by EFL publishers). Spoken language is much more difficult to record and transcribe, so spoken corpora still make up a relatively small portion of most general corpora (and may not always represent much of a range of everyday conversation). Those of us working with corpora (such as lexicographers) do take these things into account (trying to balance spoken and written data, or ignoring lots of examples that all come from the same source). But if you're going to rely on mediated sources, such as dictionaries (or even, dare I say it, research articles!), you have to be aware of this and not take everything as 'gospel'.

    1. I am just going over my posts and I realised, with some horror, that I never replied to this comment! Thank you (2 years too late?) for commenting.

      Thanks for your insight into this. I'm really interested in corpus stuff, but i hadn't really considered this.

  2. I think you are dancing around the real issue regarding "What" we teach. It is never "what" that is important but rather "How" it is done.

    Corpus linguistics is helpful for being knowledgeable about language in use, how it is used. However, it does in no way give guidance of what we should teach. Nor does it do a very good job of showing how language changes - it dates so quickly.

    Language is a very complex system and it does us no good to pretend we can focus on x, y and z as more important that a b or c. This is what I call the informational view of communication as opposed to experiential where the world/views of both parties are part of the equation as well as the language used. I'll prefer a good experienced teacher's sniffer any day - over a corpus and concordances. Oh - and about "just". I personally don't believe we can teach use. We can expose learners to its use, different uses in context but it is up to students to teach themselves. Acquisition is a result of comprehensible input, practice in context and use - not explanation.

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  4. abracadabra,

    Thanks for commenting!

    I think what we do teach matters quite a bit. A good teacher is important, but so are the materials.

  5. Thanks Julie,

    It's good to hear from someone who is an expert in the field. I'll take your advice into consideration. I like the look of your blog. I hope to get some free time to read over it soon.

  6. Excellent post!
    And I am all for teaching the word "just". I wonder how you go about it - want to exchange ideas?

  7. I actually have a "just" podcast which I made. I'm not sure I actually would teach a whole lesson on it, but it made up a 10 minutes or so podcast with some questions at the end. Not sure how efective it was but the kids seemed to enjoy it.