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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

A Case Study Demonstrating Usage of Data-Driven Language Learning

Mark Brooke, Hong Kong

Mark Brooke is currently senior teaching fellow in the Department of English at the Institute of Education, Hong Kong. E-mail:

Using a concordancer for data-driven learning can aid learners of English to discover the many patterns that flower the language. With a little learner training, it can also make ‘noticing’ much more learner-centered, and it can offer language learning to all levels in classes of mixed English language proficiency.

The British National Corpus is a well-known resource. Thornbury (2004), for example, uses this corpus for his book ‘Natural Grammar’. In this work, he cites the 100 most common words in English and their most frequent usage. For example, ten high-frequency collocational occurrences for ‘get’ are presented, including get + NP (I got a taxi here); get + NP + past participle (we’re getting a terrace built); and get + infinitive (Did you get to see the Pyramids?). Although the use of corpora, as illustrated by Thornbury, is quite common today, it is still relatively under-utilized in the classroom. This article demonstrates how a corpus was used in class and argues that it is a very powerful tool for language learning.

Johns (1994: 297) defines the rationale behind data-driven learning:

‘The assumption that underlies this approach is that effective language learning is itself a form of linguistic research, and that the concordance printout offers a unique resource for the stimulation of inductive learning strategies – in particular the strategies of perceiving similarities and differences and of hypothesis formation and testing.’

The following is an example of a student-generated ‘outpull’ activity, guided by a facilitator, using a Hong Kong-based corpus. The activity sprang spontaneously when a student asked the seemingly simple question: ‘what is the difference in usage between speak and talk’? In most grammar references, the two verbs are described as sharing common patterns as shown below:

Moreover, in Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’ (1995: 552) it states:

‘Little difference – there is not very much difference between speak and talk. In certain situations, one or the other is preferred (though they are usually both possible).’

He then goes to mention a ‘talk’ is more informal; you should use ‘can I speak to… on the phone and you use talk + sense/ nonsense.

Feeling that there must be more to this question and using strings of data taken from the Virtual Language Centre, Hong Kong of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the class found that there were in fact many differences. Below are 10 examples of authentic usage for each of the verbs:

  1. On social issues, Clinton failed to speak a language of liberty and opportunity to
  2. Direct leaders need to speak across disciplines to a wider, more
  3. parents and grandparents; they could speak allusively to us, confident of being understood
  4. Last time we had Terry Waite to speak about it and it only seemed right that I try
  5. Conference, said too many preachers speak as if to a "fantasy world which
  6. The President used his address to speak directly to the man
  7. Lord Tebbit fulfils his offer to speak to a "rebel" constituency in place
  8. east 50 of the 60 councilors will speak at the debate today and tomorrow.
  9. Mr Davies can well dare to speak his mind.
  10. You have to be directly elected to claim representativeness in order to speak loud and clear in the legislature,'' said Mr Leung.

  1. Instead, there will be a lot of talk about new technologies and small b
  2. My mother refused to talk to me about one topic, and Connie Chung
  3. You can easily talk yourself out of cruising with children
  4. The film The Lover made him the talk of the movie world
  5. American talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael had in the studio Andrew Morton and two other ``Royal'' authors, Lady Colin Campbell who wrote Diana in Private, The
  6. Sources in Beijing said key excerpts of the talk might be relayed to party cadres in the form of Central Document No 6.
  7. Yet, for all the talk of reform, analysts saw the speech as a compromise between liberals and conservatives.
  8. Pure money talk is as fleeting as the pound in your pocket.
  9. Instead, there will be a lot of talk about new technologies and small businesses.
  10. However, when there is a possible conflict of interest and your employer begins to get worried about "pillow talk", one of you will have to go.

Given the sets of data, learners induced that ‘talk’ was more likely to be used when the object of the sentence or the receiver was the focal point of the message, e.g., ‘for all the talk of reform’, and ‘there will be a lot of talk about new technologies and small businesses’. As a result, ‘talk about’ and ‘talk to + noun phrase’ have very high significance (they occur very often). In contrast, ‘speak’ tends more to be the subject of the sentence and to refer to the physical action of communicating. In this way, common are entries displaying patterns like ‘parents and grandparents; they could speak allusively to us, confident of being understood, and ‘60 councilors will speak at the debate today’.

More detailed analysis showed many more significant differences between the two verbs and some of these can be seen in the mind map below:

This is a fairly simplified version of the ones that were created using the given data above. If you would like to see a fuller version, please do not hesitate to contact me.

In conclusion, it is very interesting to note the effectiveness of this approach. It is an example of very active learning. With the growing enthusiasm of some of the participants in this class, it was also soon discovered that there are other related verbs or verb phrases such as make known, communicate, state, declare, convey, relate…These can also be looked at, and compared in this way. It is a continual process of discovery.


Johns, T. (1994). From Printout to Handout, in Odlin, T. (Ed.) Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar, CUP.

Swan, M. (1995). Practical English Usage. OUP

Thornbury, S. (2004). Natural Grammar. OUP

Virtual Language Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong:


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