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Language is big news

Professor Tony McEnery, the lead educator of the free online course ‘Corpus linguistics: method, analysis, interpretation’ by Lancaster University, talks about the uses and abuses of language.

Corpus linguistics: method, analysis, interpretation

Language is a common topic of conversation in the news – from Twitter trolls to the question of what language it is appropriate for children to be exposed to, language makes headlines worldwide. Yet it should probably do so more often than it does. Language is used on a daily basis to persuade and manipulate. Sometimes for the best of motives sometimes, sadly, for the worst. On this free course we will be looking at an approach to the study of language – corpus linguistics – that allows us to see what is happening when we use language in unprecedented depth and breadth. In doing so it gives us insights into such issues as how language is used to manipulate and persuade.

But what is different about the corpus approach to the study of language? One basic problem humans have always faced when studying language is its scale. We speak and write a very great deal. Those studying language have wrestled with the problem of data for a long time – how much, or at times how little, language in use should we analyse? Computers have weighed in decisively in this debate. Using computers to guide and aid linguistic analysis allows linguists to carry out analyses on a scale that is not really possible without them.

On this course we will start with two one million word collections of language data (so-called corpora, singular, corpus) and work up to analysing collections of up to 100,000,000 words in size. As students will see on the course, size can matter in the study of language – when we look at language on a large scale, significant patterns of usage which one or two examples would never show become clear. Patterns of usage which are persistent, but which we do not readily perceive with our conscious mind alone, also become clear. Some linguists have likened the invention of the corpus approach to language to the invention of the telescope – and rightly so. Every year, just as the telescope produces new insights into the Universe, so the use of corpora provide us with new insights into language.

Yet this will not be a course on which students will simply be told of the wonders we behold. This is a course designed to start students on their own journey into language. We will be providing students with the ability to think about and test hypotheses about the use of language. You may have thought that men swear more than women, for example. If you take the course, by the end of it you will be able to look at corpus data that will allow you to explore that hunch and gather evidence for – or against – your idea. In doing so, you will be following the path of others who have used and discovered the great benefits of using corpora in the study of language.

If you think that this sounds fun but a bit abstract – a course on which curiosity and little else can be satisfied – think again. You are almost certainly an indirect user of corpora already. If you have a recent English language dictionary in your home check it – it will doubtless boast about the size of the corpus it was based upon. If you learnt English as a second language, it is almost certainly the case that the dictionaries, teaching materials and even the syllabus you used were heavily reliant on corpus data. And rightly so. Such vast collections of data have revolutionised and improved lexicography and second language teaching, as students will discover on this course. Beyond that, a host of applications that you use on an everyday basis including; spell checkers, speech recognition systems and even, to an extent, web browsers rely, directly or indirectly, on corpus data and ideas from corpus linguistics. So sign up today at and spread the word – language is news.

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