COCA for translationists

(Corpus of Contemporary American English, alongside the other BYU corpora from Mark Davies)

For basically all my career, from my eikaiwa days Japanese university to community college to the IEP I teach at now, I’ve been trying to get my students to see vocabulary as more than lists of words with accompanying translations.

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Sure, knowing one translation of “marry” is probably better than not knowing anything about “marry”, but it really just gets your foot in the door of knowing that word (and leaves you less able to enjoy semantically ambiguous sentences like “The judge married his son”). You still don’t have much of an idea of what kind of person uses that word, in what kind of situation, and (of special concern for fluency) what other words usually surround that word.

Part of what cramming for tests does to language learners (and really learners of anything) is convince them that the minimum amount of knowledge to be able to fill in the right bubble is efficient and expedient. One of the longest-running efforts of my career is trying to disabuse my students of the notion that when vocabulary is concerned, this kind of efficiency leads to anything worthwhile. To the contrary, the more seemingly extraneous information you have about any given word, the better you will remember it and the more fluently and accurately you will be able to use it.

(Naturally, the site where I first encountered this phenomenon was in Japan, where the question “What does that mean?” is almost incomprehensible except as a synonym for “Translate this into Japanese according to the translation list provided by your instructor”. But knowing a word and being able to use it (a dichotomy which collapses with any scrutiny) demands (again, a collapsed dichotomy being treated as a single subject) quite a lot more than an abstract token in a foreign language being linked to a more familiar token in one’s first language in memory. One can know that “regardless” “means” とにかく or 関係なくin Japanese without knowing what preposition usually follows it, which noun from “outcome”, “result”, or “upshot” most commonly follows that preposition, or that it has an even more academic ring than near-synonym “nonetheless” (which doesn’t have an accompanying preposition at all). Interestingly, overreliance on translation seems to be something of a vestigial trait of language education in Japan – people justify it for its utility on tests, but the tests themselves haven’t required translation in many years.)

Even when my students understand this, however, they still aren’t sure how to implement it. I get a lot of positive reactions to comparisons between chunks in English and in their first language (asking how many words a child hears in phrases like in “Idowanna”, やだ, 我不想 or je veux pas) or between words and animals (a lion can technically eat roast turkey, but what do lions usually eat?). Students readily identify chunks and idiomatic expressions that they hear outside of class (“Would you like to” and “got it” are some of the most-noticed). In the run-up to a vocabulary quiz though, where I want students to show all that they know about vocabulary, what I see most often on students’ desks is the familiar lists of translated pairs:

regardless 而不管 however 然而 nonetheless 尽管如此 nevertheless 但是 notwithstanding 虽然

It seems that students, when they “study”, tend to default to the strategies that they think got them through high school. Usually, students who have this tendency also have familiar patterns of scoring on quizzes: fine-to-high scores on the cloze (fill-in-the-blank) questions and low scores on anything outside of the narrow range where translation is applicable. I see this as a result of not being able to see how to use this knowledge of other features of vocabulary in their customary mode of studying.

I started using COCA in class as a way to plug the fuzzy, often-neglected dimensions of vocabulary learning – in particular register, genre, colligation and collocation – into a behavioral pattern that students have completely mastered. That is, COCA is a way to make a more complete picture of vocabulary compatible my students’ most familiar way of studying – sitting at a desk and looking up discrete words.

With that long preamble over, let’s have a look at the specific activities I use over the course of a term.

First glance at COCA

Starting on the first day, words of particular interest are added to a class web site – either my own, Vocabulary.com, or Quizlet (I’ve tried quite a few) – and drawn on for review, activities, and quizzes. Starting in week two, I introduce the idea of chunks (which they need in order to complete the reading circles sheets from that week on), either with a presentation or less formally, for example with a quiz game.

In a shorter term, I’ll introduce COCA the same week, or in a longer semester, around week 4 (my IEP has lightning-quick 6-week terms). The introduction usually has to be done in the lab – it’s much better if each student can do his or her own searches. I alternate between a worksheet and a presentation for the first introduction. This takes about an hour.

From experience, students never fail to see the utility of COCA at this stage and never seem to have trouble with the idea of another online resource. The issues that typically arise on the first day are:

  1. COCA locks out searches from IP addresses if there are too many in one day (as in a class of 20 or so all using COCA for the first time in a lab). This usually starts to afflict my classes after the first 20 minutes or so of searches.
  2. At minimum, students have to create accounts after the first few searches, which used to require a .edu email address, but doesn’t seem to now.
  3. The use of spaces on COCA is idiosyncratic. A search for ban_nn* (without a space) will find intances of “ban” used as a noun, while ban _nn* (with a space) will find “ban” plus any noun, for example “ban treaty”, or hilariously, “ban ki-moon”. ban* (without space) will find any word starting with “ban”, and ban * (with space) will find “ban” plus any word or punctuation mark. Punctuation needs to be separated with spaces as well. These rules trip up students fairly early on, as they search for, for example due to the fact that* and don’t find what they expect.

Weekly activities

After the first introduction, COCA will be in at least one homework or classwork assignment every week.

Classwork

From time to time, but especially before quizzes, students do a jigsaw-style group activity I call vocabulary circles. As you can see, a good half of it is COCA-derived. If you don’t know how these usually work, students with different jobs are assigned one word per group, share them with “experts” who had the same job from other groups, reconvene and share them with their own group, and then have to take turns presenting all their group’s work to their classmates.

Reading

COCA searches are a part of many of the reading circles sheets I use (reading circles are the only way I do any intensive reading in class). Vocabulary specialists (or whatever you call them) are always responsible for chunks as a category of vocabulary as well as collocations for other words.

Discussions

Starting the week that COCA is introduced, weekly “Vocabulary Logs” on Canvas include COCA work like that reproduced below:

This week, you must use COCA to find something interesting about a word from our class vocabulary list. You must find these 3 things:

What other words usually come before and after that word?
Who usually uses that word? (For example, lawyers, academic writers, news anchors, etc.)
Which forms of the word are the most common? (For example, “present simple”, “plural”, “adverb”, etc.)

You get 6 points for answering all of these questions.
Then, in a reply, use a classmate’s word in a new example sentence that you make. This section will be graded on correctness, so read your classmate’s post carefully. (2 pts)

Or this option to take translationism head-on:

This week, you will compare a word from another language (for example, your first language) to a word in English. The words should be translations of each other.
You will point out how the two words are similar or different in these areas:

Collocation: Do the same or similar kinds of words come before or after the words?
Grammar: Are the words the same part of speech? Are the rules for the parts of speech different in the two languages?
Register: Do the words appear in the same kinds of situations? Are they similar in formality?
Meaning: Do the words have second or third meanings that are different?

This post is worth 6 points. Reply to a classmate for 1 more point.

Quizzes

The quizzes in my classes after COCA has been introduced all have some explicitly COCA-derived questions and some questions that are graded on COCA-relevant considerations.

In questions like the one below, “grammar” includes part of speech and colligation.

Use the word in a sentence that makes the meaning clear. (1 pt for grammar and 1 pt for clear meaning)
(sustainable) _____________________________________________________________

Some questions target collocations specifically (ones that have been discussed specifically in class):

Circle the most common collocation. (1 pt each)
A difficult environment can precipitate ( fights / conflict / argument ).
Adaptation ( onto / to / with )  a new culture takes time.

Other questions target the colligations of vocabulary that should be familiar for other reasons:

Fill in the blank with one of the following. (1 pt each)
Regardless of Owing to Because Also
_______________________ the waiter made a mistake with our order, our meal was free. _______________________, the chef sent us a free dessert. Lucky us!

Students cannot have COCA open during the quiz, but they can (and are advised to) get to know the words inside and out beforehand. As you may have seen, our vocabulary lists can grow fairly long by the end of the term, but words often appear on more than one quiz.

Essays

See my last post on the subject.

I am getting on board the “reflection as revision” train – grading reflection on grammar instead of grammatical accuracy on all drafts besides the first. COCA is the vehicle I use for this.

Conclusions

I presented this to you as a way to get students with an unhealthy focus on one-to-one translation to think about vocabulary in a way that better facilitates real-world use. Actually, it works even better with students predisposed to think of vocabulary in more holistic terms – but those students would often be fairly good learners just with enough input. The advantage of using COCA is that it can easily piggyback on habits that certain students may overuse – many of my students have browser extensions on their computers that translate any word the mouse hovers over. Adding one more dictionary-like tool that includes what dictionaries miss is a way to swim with that tendency rather than against it.

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