Corpus Family Feud

Since I started teaching community college ESL, I’ve set aside at least one class period in all my writing classes to teach students how to use COCA and the other BYU corpora, but I struggled for a long time to incorporate it in an intuitive way into my intermediate multi-skill classes. I think its utility is clear, but the interface (computer literacy can be a problem) and baseline metalinguistic knowledge necessary just to use it have thus far stopped me from making it a regular feature. I do, however, have one activity that uses corpora (either COCA or iWeb) that is reliably entertaining and useful for classes of any level. I call it Corpus Family Feud.

Like the real Family Feud (a TV game show, for those of you outside the US and non-fans of SNL), the point is for participants to guess the most common answers to a survey question. Unlike the real Family Feud, the questions are specifically concerned with language use, and the “survey” is of corpus data rather than 100 people randomly by phone.

Also like the real Family Feud, it’s the studio’s (i.e., the teacher’s) job to prepare the questions and collate the survey answers beforehand, and then reveal them to the participants after they have made guesses.

The basic steps are:

  1. Before class, prepare sentences with one or more blanks, and then find the most common words that fill those blanks according to corpus data. 3-5 total sentences for one session seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep interest high throughout the activity.
  2. Also before class, prepare a slideshow (I use Google Slides) that features the sentence with blanks, directions for what kinds of words go in the blanks, and the answers in list form. The answers should be set to be invisible when the slide loads and appear on subsequent clicks.
  3. During class time, announce that you are playing a game, and display the slide with the first sentence. Tell explicitly what kinds of words can be used to fill in the blank, and tell in general terms that you found the top 5 words that people actually use to fill in that blank in their real communication in the real world.
  4. Have students write down the top 5 words that they think fill that blank in the real world. Announce that they will get 1 point for each of their answers that is actually in the top 5. Tell them also that it doesn’t matter which order they put them in; they get 1 point for any answer that was in the top 5.
  5. After a few minutes, announce that you will start displaying the answers. Drum roll and display the first answer. Students will probably applaud, shriek, or say, “ohhhhh”. Remind them to keep track of how many points they have as you continue drum rolling and displaying the answers in sequence.
  6. After you’ve displayed every answer, ask the students who has 3 points, 4 points, or 5 points until you figure out who the winner is. Give the winner a piece of candy or some other gold star-equivalent. Repeat with the next sentence.

As a variation, you can choose 5 words in advance, display them when you display the sentence, and ask the students to put them in order. This allows you to choose words other than the true top 5 according to corpora (which are often boring words that nobody ever thinks of, like “be” or “doing”), but requires you to give points only for correct order of words rather than giving points for any word that appears in the actual list.

For example, let’s say your intermediate multi-skill class is covering gerunds (I mean “covering” as in it came up for one reason or another, whether as a front-loaded chapter of a synthetic syllabus or as focus on form after a task). You might decide on a few chunks where gerunds are commonly used, like “I enjoy ___” or “____ is important”. These would be the questions for your game. Your slides might look like this:

I really ought to make this look more game show-like…

I display the frequencies, but this is probably unnecessary. In the variation where you supply the words, it might look like this:

Where only the ranking and frequency numbers appear on click and the words are displayed from the beginning.

Other variations I have used in the past look like this:

There is almost literally no end to the kinds of phrases or grammar you can use to play this game. Besides an excuse to use corpora in a mid-level class, this helps turn what could be an abstract grammar lesson into one that respects chunking and the conventions, rather than just the rules, of language. Have fun!

Virtue Signalling, feigned interactions, and In-N-Out

Virtue signalling” has sort of become this generation’s “politically correct”, a term of abuse for supposedly vacuous public communication by the political left. Much like political correctness, it actually describes something universal across political groups, and use of the term is itself is an example of the phenonemon it describes (i.e., calling something out as “virtue signalling” is a way of virtue signalling to one’s peers, much like decrying “political correctness” is a literally politically correct thing to do in certain circles).

Certain kinds of virtue signalling consist of messages ostensibly sent to the out-group, actually meant for the in-group to see, where the appearance of communication with the out-group is an important part of the real message. The real act of communication seems to be, “Look at me, trying to talk to these savages! That’s how committed I am to our cause!” Unfortunately, a lot of political communication these days really consists of ostentatious displays of self-sacrifice to one’s own tribe, where the sacrifice lies in having to tolerate communication with members of the other tribe.

I’ve covered this ground before, but have a few new insights:

  1. The proportion of apparent communication between tribes which is really feigned communication designed for consumption by members of one’s tribe may be increasing
  2. Some communities place a higher value on communication with out-groups than others, perversely raising the likelihood that it is feigned

The first is just a result of the increasing siloing of discourse; communities have more opportunities for self-selection with cable news and social media than any other time in history. Few conservatives watch MSNBC, and fewer liberals watch Fox News. Odds are, when you see a commentator or guest that appears to be ideologically opposed to the main viewership of whichever cable news network you are watching, you are seeing a feigned communication in which the fact that the host is trying hard to “reach the other side” is the real message of value, and that message is solely intended for his or her own political tribe. Any bonafides that the heel commentator may possess only serve to increase the value and validity of the real message. This has been true of talk radio and conservative commentary since at least the days of Wally George, but the fact that any subculture can now have a facebook group or YouTube channel all its own makes the incentive for in-group signalling so much more valuable than genuine out-group communication that a high proportion of fake out-group communication is inevitable.

The second was brought to my attention by my wife, who asked me what the “Revelation 3:20” on the bottom of our In-N-Out burger wrapper meant. She had heard that In-N-Out food comes with Bible verses written discreetly somewhere on the packaging, but still couldn’t decode this apparent combination of TOEFL vocabulary and time of day. It hadn’t occurred to me that In-N-Out’s Bible verses could also be an example of feigned communication, but of course I grew up in a household that at least pretended to think that church was important and hadn’t thought of how opaque something like “Nahum 1:7” (on the bottom of a Double-Double) looks to someone raised without any exposure to the Bible. A straightforward interpretation of the presence of these phrases is that to Christians, this is like whispering a codeword, a message which shows insider knowledge and expertise, while to non-Christians, it is pretty much indistinguishable from “Xanthan Gum”. If that were the sum of its meanings to both groups, it would be either straightforward in-group communication or simply failed communication rather than feigned communication. However, I doubt the owners of In-N-Out, conservative Christians though they are, would waste ink telling fellow Christians something they already knew or giving non-Christians the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal number to look up. They might instead be communicating something to their fellow Christians besides literal Bible verses – they are communicating the fact that they are trying to reach non-Christians, a message with special currency among evangelical Christians. Seen this way, the use of Bible verses makes more sense – it is vastly more important to put the message in an emic form that Christians recognize, since they are the true recipients of the message, than in a form that non-Christians would, since they are only the feigned recipients. In a community where outreach is a core value, feigned communication with out-groups is an especially tempting form of in-group signalling, and although I haven’t been to church in many, many years, I suspect feigned communication with non-Christians is pretty common. I noticed feigned communication first in Japan, but clearly this type of feigned communication takes place in other groups with similar ways of defining themselves.

Source. Hard to believe this was ever questioned.

Not meaning what you mean

When a colleague in ESL or English answers “how are you?” With “I’m well”, I always think the substitution of “well” for “good” is a bit like pulling rank. It’s the linguistic equivalent of casually mentioning that you’d “been praying about something” or commenting on the gluten content of foods that your neighbor is eating – the invocation of a hierarchy that you know the you place yourself highly on, and everyone else lower. I do not accept the premise of that hierarchy (nor the others that I mentioned), but explaining that point is another long conversation that ends up making me look like the pedant.

Often, I find that in these conversations the core of the misunderstanding (from my perspective) is that there is a correct way to use words and that the speaker is showing off that he knows it.

There’s a switch in my mind that keeps flipping back and forth between annoyance and acquiescence at people’s tendency to talk about words this way – as if they had “true” or “original” meanings clear as day to prudent and thoughtful individuals (like the speaker), but which idiots (like you) are prone to getting wrong.

You see this most clearly nowadays in the Princess Bride meme, which always goes something like the following:

(can you believe Inigo Montoya and Saul Berenson on Homeland are the same actor?)

LITERALLY YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD. I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANSYOU KEEP SAYING 'IRONY. I DON'T THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS.

You might see this idea that words contain meanings which fluent speakers are capable of getting wrong (in its Princess Bride form or otherwise) deployed a variety of ways (here is one), but usually to condescend to someone and argue against their position ad hominem – the implication being that someone who is so slipshod with words must be mentally deficient in general. It also has a general-purpose use, outside of any particular argument, to serve as an in-group signifier. In these cases, the person complaining about other people’s poor language use is asserting his or her status as a “correct” language user. A knight of the old code, if you will, a defender of the faith.

The idea (that words contain true meanings which fluent speakers can be wrong about) behind this meme is clearly wrong, and no one who ever heard the words “social construction” as an undergrad should ever think otherwise. Words can only mean what speakers think they mean, and saying that someone doesn’t know what a word that they just used means usually is really a way of saying that usage is known but frowned upon (i.e., I am classier than you).

This is a transparent power play, often classist, chauvinist, or elitist. Certain words (I only know Japanese and English, but both languages have plenty) in languages are wedges used to distinguish members of groups, as in the story behind shibboleth. Two groups which seem to always exist in highly literate societies are “those whose language, culture, and customs are objectively correct” and “those whose are particular, local, and temporary”, and many words like “ain’t”, “a whole nother”, or the above memes, in addition to grammatical structures like “might could”, “to boldly go” or “It’s me”, serve as the stars on our proverbial Sneetch bellies. These usages aren’t really mistakes so much as an open flank for pedants to attack and claim the position of “correct language user” as outlined above. They have a negative sociolinguistic meaning, not an incorrect literal meaning.

Some pedants claim that such overcorrection is necessary, because languages need standards to maintain intelligibility. But intelligibility is never the issue. I’ve seen people point out the supposed illogic of a double negative in sentences like “I ain’t never”, but have never seen anyone actually act on the mistaken belief that the two negatives cancel each other out –  the supposed confusion is always feigned and exaggerated. If a pedant has ever legitimately been confused by “literally”, I’ve never seen it. The claim that by correcting misuse pedants are defending standards is doubly false – first because the violation is really an opportunity for them to play referee, and second because the standard doesn’t exist, or at least not as described.

Now, there are reasons as language teachers to treat words as objects of study in themselves, and use the metaphor of words “having” meaning, although as trained linguists we know that this can only be in the sense that an electromagnetic frequency “has” color or a country “has” borders. But grammar pedants are not all language teachers, and a conversation in the break room is not (generally) a language lesson. Turning lunch into a site of linguistic one-upsmanship literally decimates the mood of the break room, and is fulsomely ironic because as an otherwise full-time pedant you should be on a break.