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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

How to avoid giving bum information

Jamie Keddie is an English teacher and writer. He is based in Barcelona and is currently working to complete his first book, Imperfect Tomatoes, which he describes as a self help book for all Spanish learners of English.


Question time
Corpus searches
Activity 1: Prestigious word search
Activity 2: Funny peculiar or funny ha ha?
Activity 3: Collocation poems

Question time

Here are 5 questions that I have been asked by students this week: -

- Which is more common, TV, telly or television?
- Do you say I live in Calle San Pau or on Calle San Pau?
- If the word "friend" means amigo or amiga, how do you know if we are considering a male friend or a female friend?
- How many uses does the preposition "by" have?
- What is the difference between say and tell?

As a younger teacher, I used to love questions like these. Although in some cases, it would have been possible to go straight for the dictionary or grammar book, I used to prefer the challenge of being put on the spot and doing the thinking for myself. After all, wasn't that my job? My students certainly seemed to think so.

Student: What does "hold" mean?
Me: [After a few moments of hesitation and deep thought] to have in your hand
Student: Do you say in the night or at the night?
Me: You say inin the afternoon, in the evening but at night.
Student: If "funny" can also mean "strange", how do you know which meaning the speaker is referring to?
Me: Context

Everyone seemed to be happy with this system. My three-in-one role as a living dictionary, grammar book and linguistic encyclopedia was firmly established and my students certainly weren't shy to take advantage of it.

Life continued in this way until one day, while looking through the introductory pages of a new mini dictionary that I had bought, I read that the definitions were "corpus informed". Being unaware of what a corpus was, I had to investigate further. I soon came to understand that a corpus or text corpus is a huge database of written and/or transcribed spoken language that exists for the purpose of linguistic research. Dictionary writers were no longer sitting around large tables and arriving at word definitions based on their own internal and personal ideas and understandings. Instead, they were looking externally. They were looking at language in use. This is corpus linguistics.

Corpus searches

The British National Corpus (BNC) allows non-subscribers to carry out free "simple searches". Here is how to do it: -

1) Go to

2) Enter a word or item of your choice.

3) Click "Solve it!"

4) The search will tell you the frequency of your item in the corpus. This is followed by up to 50 random examples of your item in context. In most cases, the examples given are good-sized pieces of text - usually whole sentences.

5) The search results can be printed off and used in a number of different ways in class (3 activities are suggested later in this article).

Corpus searches will usually surprise you in some way or another. Recall, for example, my classroom definition of the word "hold" (to have in your hand). Of course, I did not obtain this information by looking at language itself. I looked inward and picked it straight out of my own brain. I thought I had taken good care to get the definition as accurate as possible. However, I didn't expect the word to be so versatile and the corpus search that I ran returned at least 11 other meanings that I could differentiate between: -

Synonym Example from corpus search
to keep … the weight of your body clinging to hold it shut.
to be host to Britain to hold first talks with Savimbi
to have/possess … those who hold information hold power …
to contain Detectives believe they may hold a vital clue …
to hug … hold onto me, hold on.
to maintain Because they hold that the difference …
to control … continued to hold the area around the towns …
to grasp / take have in your hand I asked her to hold my hand
a grip He lost his hold on the bag …
leadership … to break the hold of the rebel Sudan People's …
cargo storage … the riveted bulkhead of a starship's cargo hold.

I was also struck by the large number of collocations, none of which I had considered when constructing my definition: -

hold back
hold on
hold onto
hold power
hold shares
hold tight
hold up
tn hold etc

Despite its weakness, I don't feel that my definition (to have in your hand) was really a bad description of the verb in question. And it probably did provide instant relief for inquisitive minds. But the important thing is that I was totally unprepared for the true complexity of the situation. When dishing out my internally-obtained definition, I really was under the impression that I was telling my learners everything they would ever need to know about the word hold.

More dangerously, a lot of the information that we give off the top of our heads can turn out to be bum information. For example, I specifically remember a class discussion that went something like this: -

Student: Do you say in the night or at the night?
Me: You say in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening but at night.
Student: Why do you not say in the night?
Me: That's just the way it is.
Student: Do you never say in the night?
Me: Hesitant] Not really, no.

A corpus search of the two items, in the night and at night, reveals that I was talking absolute nonsense. At night was certainly the more common of the two items but there were also too many cases of in the night to be ignored: -

In the night approximately 3000 corpus hits
At night approximately 600 corpus hits

Perhaps more importantly was the fact that there are often perceivable differences in meaning between the two. For example, a brief look at the contextualised uses led me to consider that perhaps in the night is sometimes used to refer to the previous night (i.e. the one that we woke up from this morning).

… like dreaming of a particular person for the first time in decades, then waking up to find that they died in the night.

At night, on the other hand, does not seem to be used in this way. Whatever the differences, it is often best to let our students appreciate them for themselves. Corpora and corpora activities allow learners to see grammar and meaning come together. This is something that the study of isolated items of language, often off the top of the teacher or text book writer's head, will never do.

There are many simple and easy-to-prepare lessons and activities that can be arranged around corpus searches and the print-offs that can be obtained from them. A corpus search can also be a great way of dealing with awkward student questions such as those listed at the beginning of this article. The remainder of this article will look at 3 example activities.

Activity 1 - Prestigious word search

A few weeks ago, I received a bilingual wedding invitation. Printed on one side of the card was a message in English that started with the words "We're getting married!" On the reverse side, the same message in Spanish started "¡Nos casamos!" The language was simple, the translations were good and the texts were short. There was no way I wasn't going to incorporate this gem into my classes for that day.

I created a translation activity. I split my classes into A's and B's. A's were given photocopies of the English side to be translated into Spanish. B's were given photocopies of the Spanish side to be translated into English. Everyone was given access to bilingual dictionaries.

Once this had been done, I collected back all the photocopied invitations so that no one had access to either the original Spanish or English texts. A's were then paired up with B's and each partnership had to use their own complementing translations to reconstruct the originals as accurately as possible. Finally, I read out the invitation aloud in English and then Spanish so that my students could correct their work and laugh at my bad Spanish accent.

One passage created a lot of discussion: -

Tenemos el gusto de invitaros a la ceremonia que se celebrará en el Ayuntamiento de Zafra a las 19.30 horas y al banquete que se servirá a continuación en el Hotel Huerto Honda.

My students' attention was drawn to the word "banquete". According to the dictionaries we were using, the equivalent English word was almost the same (banquet). Why, then, had the word not been used on the English side of the invitation?

We are happy to invite you to the ceremony that will take place in the Town Hall of Zafra at 7.30 pm. Dinner and dancing will follow at the Hotel Huerta Honda.

To answer this question, we have to understand what is meant by connotation. The connotation of a word refers to that part of its meaning that is determined by the situation in which it is usually found. A quick corpus search shows us that the English word banquet is used alongside other words and items such as: -

Prince Charles
Warwick Castle
Lord Mayor
High ranking guests
Guests of distinction
18 course[s]
Prince and Princess of Wales
A silver cup
Prime minister
Sir Crisp
The world's richest man
To celebrate the opening of his new palace
Mayor's banquet
Bush's collapse at state banquet
[remember daddy Bush being sick?]
EtcBefore giving out copies of the print-out, I made sure that my students understood what was meant by prestige. They then had to search the print-off and find words, items or any other clues (such as the ones listed above) that pointed towards the prestigious nature of the word "banquet". It then became quite clear why the Bride and Groom had decided to opt for dinner and dancing instead (good luck Carla and Mark).

Activity 2 - Funny peculiar or funny ha ha?

I remember once a class of mine was thrown into a state of upheaval upon realising that the word "funny" could also mean "strange". One of the many questions that was directed at me was, "How do you know which meaning [of funny] the speaker is referring to?"

I often meet such questions with a one-word reply - "context". Although learners may be quite quick to accept this answer, I feel that this it is a bit of a cop out. After all, a corpus is a very powerful tool that allows us to demonstrate the idea of context in use.

Later that day, I prepared a short activity that I would go on to use in the next session with the same class: -

1) Run a simple corpus search of the adjective "funny" to obtain 50 examples of the word in context. Cut and paste them all into a word document.

2) From the 50 contextualised examples, select about 10 good ones in which the meaning of funny is apparent and delete the rest. For example, the following could be included: -

… he choked, went a funny colour, ripped his collar open, waved his arms a bit, and dropped down dead.

The preview for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels shows con man Steven Martin suavely pushing a hapless granny into the sea, but the final film doesn't: perhaps it was too funny to be included.

Funny that I can always tell what you're thinking, isn't it?

3) Blot out each example of the word "funny" with a black marker pen and make photocopies for your students. (NB the text can usually be seen through the inky blots on the original but not the photocopies so keep the original to yourself).

4) Tell students that you ran a corpus search of a word that was discussed the previous day. Give out the contextualised examples and have students work out/recall what the mysterious inky-blotted word is.

5) Students can then use the context to deduce whether the meaning is "funny peculiar or funny ha ha". It can be worth pointing out that this expression exists in English because very occasionally in conversation, the speaker's intended meaning of the adjective is unclear.

Activity 3 - collocation poems

Earlier we saw that a corpus search is good for examining collocations. We looked at the word "hold" and saw how it is often married to other words (hold back, hold power, on hold, etc). This phenomenon is very important to address in the language classroom.

One way to raise our students' awareness of it is to make poems out of word partnerships. Although this task sounds immediately daunting, it is actually very easy to do.

1) Obtain a corpus search print-off for a word such as "hold" which has many collocations (of course, in language, words are not monogamous - they can have more than one partner).

2) Get students to look at the 50 contextualised examples and identify collocations with your help. There will usually be a lot of discussion about word meaning. Just go along with this but try not to get in too deep.

3) Once 16 collocations have been identified, have students write them down on little pieces of paper and shuffle them around until a poem is born. Have them read out. Here is one that was prepared earlier: -

Get a hold of yourself

Hold power
Hold shares
Hold a license
Hold a post

On hold
Hold on
Hold onto
Hold up

Hold firm
Hold still
Tight hold
Hold tight

Hold off
Hold back
Hold out
Hold true


When teachers and students realise that language itself is the only resource to turn to for real answers to linguistic queries, the classroom becomes a better place.


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