They parked two buses’: a corpus study of a football expression

ENG blog post - Oct 15Blog post written by Mark Wyatt based on an article in English Today 

The football expression ‘to park the bus’, meaning for one team to play in a negative, boring, defensive way, focused on making it so difficult for the other team to score that it was as if there was a bus parked in front of the goal, is popularly attributed to the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, who complained to the media about Spurs playing in this way in a game in 2004. Our research into the history of the expression using tools of corpus linguistics supports this popular understanding.

In our article, we explore how the expression has developed in English since that time, spreading around the world through English and helped by the popularity of the Premier League, sometimes being used as a cliché but also being adapted in fresh, imaginative ways. Jose Mourinho appears to have had a significant impact on the English language through his translation of the expression from the original Portuguese and continuing creative use of it in English. The term has even crossed over into another sport (American Football) and has been used to describe the defensive behaviour of the Bank of England. It has also contributed to the development of related expressions, e.g. ‘to pull a Jose Mourinho’ (though this has been used with various different meanings that reflect disparate controversial incidents in Mourinho’s career) and the ‘parked bus defence’ (which may have emerged around 2008).

We consider why the ‘park the bus’ metaphor is so enduring, and compare it to another of Mourinho’s coinages ‘19th century football’, which he has also used as a form of disparagement for negative tactics used against his Chelsea team. Finally, we consider how corpus-based methodology, such as that we have employed here, can be used to explore other interesting expressions in the language that seem to have emerged almost out of nowhere and spread quickly.

We invite you to read the full article ‘They parked two buses’: a corpus study of a football expression’ here 

The Atoms of Language

LIN 2015 CoverArticle written by Bozhil Hristov based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

In line with what is expected of this type of publication, my review article of Anna Kibort & Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Features: Perspectives on a key notion in linguistics (Oxford Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 333, sets itself several targets. The primary goal is to summarise and assess the book, while also seeking to take up and further develop some of the central ideas. In addition, it places the book in its wider linguistic context by drawing attention to some of the current debates and preoccupations of the field.

The opening sections summarise and evaluate the contents of the edited volume, attempting to do justice to the wealth of perspectives it offers. Its chapters deal with long-established linguistic features such as case, gender, tense, or animacy, which can be thought of as equivalent to the atoms of chemistry. The book considers various features (phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic) from the vantage points of approaches as diverse as typology (the study of the common properties and structural diversity in the languages of the world), computational linguistics, and formal theories like Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar or Minimalism, which normally provide competing explanations of observed linguistic phenomena.

The discussion section of the article then takes up several of the unifying threads that run through the volume, including how valid or real features are and how they correspond within a single language, as well as cross-linguistically. Another key issue concerns the boundaries between the traditional areas of morphology, syntax and semantics. I argue for a syntactic treatment of what has been referred to as periphrastic tense constructions in Bulgarian, including the future and the perfect, where a category is expressed with more than one word. I believe that the syntactic treatment of those structures ensures greater language-internal and cross-linguistic consistency in setting up features and assigning their values. After briefly examining animacy in Bulgarian, I conclude that it is sometimes especially difficult to draw boundaries between the fields of semantics and morphosyntax in view of the operation and classification of features. Finally, a case is made for treating tense at least as partly morphosyntactic in English, due to the so called backshift or sequence of tenses – essentially morphosyntactic agreement in tense. I take issue with the prevalent current assumptions about the strictly morphosemantic nature of tense across the board, as they relegate it to the ranks of the morphologically marked categories which only express semantic (i.e. meaning) distinctions, without participating in syntactic processes.

Throughout the article, we keep coming up against fuzzy boundaries which undermine neat classification. Nowhere is this pervasive reality of human language seen more clearly than in examining the ubiquitous and indispensable features that constitute its complex grid of atoms. And yet, the article and the book it reviews show equally clearly how linguists try to bring order out of chaos in a valiant attempt to improve our understanding of this challenging inherent complexity.

 View the full review without charge here

Graphs and Natural Language Processing

Natural Language Engineering

Blog post written by Vivi Nastase based on the special issue ‘Graphs and Natural Language Processing’ in the journal Natural Language Engineering.

Graph structures naturally model connections. In natural language processing (NLP) connections are ubiquitous, on anything between small and web scale: between words — as structural/grammatical or semantic connections; between concepts in ontologies or semantic repositories; between web pages; between entities in social networks. Such connections are relatively obvious and the parallel with the graph structures straight-forward. While less obvious, with a little mathematical imagination, graphs can be applied to typo correction, machine translation, document structuring, sentiment analysis and more.

Graphs can be extremely useful for revealing regularities and patterns in the data. Graph formalisms have been adopted as an unsupervised learning approach to numerous problems – such as language identification, part-of-speech (POS) induction, or word sense induction – and also in semi-supervised settings, where a small set of annotated seed examples are used together with the graph structure to spread their annotations throughout the graph. Graphs’ appeal is also enhanced by the fact that using them as a representation method can reveal characteristics and be useful for human inspection, and thus provide insights and ideas for automatic methods.

We find not only the standard graphs — consisting of a set of nodes and edges that connect pairs of nodes — but also heterogeneous graphs (to model the network of tweeters and their tweets, or the network of articles, their authors and references), hypergraphs (which allow edges with more than two nodes, that could model grammatical rules for example), graphs with multi-layered edges, to fit more complex problems and data.

In the special issue we include a survey of graph-based methods in natural language processing, to show both the variety of graph formalisms and of tasks they can be useful for. The core of the issue consists of four articles, each of which showcases and exploits a different facet of graphs for different tasks in NLP: graphs as a framework for the organization of complex knowledge; using the graph structure of knowledge repositories for the computation of semantic relatedness between texts; revealing and exploiting sub-structures in word co-occurrence graphs for approximating word senses and performing sense-level translations; tracking changes in word co-occurrence graphs to identify diachronic sense changes.

Read the special issue ‘Graphs and Natural Language Processing’ in the journal Natural Language Engineering.

Replication in interaction and working memory research

JCL blog post Sep 15 - memoryBlog post written by Lorena Valmori based on an article in Language Teaching

Several empirical studies have shown that L2 interaction promotes L2 learning. However, recent research has also shown that individual differences, such as working memory capacity, can impact the benefits of feedback.  Working memory capacity is argued to be responsible for storing and processing incoming input and has been measured with a number of elicitation methods such as phonological short-term memory (digit and non-word span), reading span, and operation span. We argue that the time is right to replicate studies that unify the research areas of working memory capacity and L2 learning.

We selected and analyzed two recent studies (Révész 2012 and Goo 2012) that investigated how working memory capacity mediates effectiveness of feedback (recasts and metalinguistic feedback). In Goo’s study, it mediates the effects of recasts, but not of metalinguistic feedback; in Révész, it depends on the type of working memory test. We think these two studies represent recent directions in the field, address the important construct of working memory capacity whose measurements show potential methodological issues, and provide detailed descriptions of all aspects of the studies to facilitate replication.  In the attempt to generalize findings, we emphasize the importance of replication in a number of different areas including grammatical complexity of the target structure, the nature of the working memory tests, modes of delivery, and the possibility to gather information about the thought processes through stimulated recalls.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Replication in interaction and working memory research: Révész (2012) and Goo (2012)’ here

Research into practice: The influence of discourse studies on language descriptions and task design in published ELT materials

LTA 47 2Blog post written by Alex Gilmore based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

 Discourse studies is a vast, multidisciplinary, and rapidly expanding area of research, embracing a range of approaches including discourse analysis, corpus analysis, conversation analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis, genre analysis and multimodal discourse analysis. Each approach offers its own unique perspective on discourse, focusing variably on text, context or a range of semiotic modes. Together, they provide foreign language teachers and material designers with new insights into language, and are beginning to have an observable impact on published English Language Teaching (ELT) materials. This paper looks at the ways in which the four approaches with the strongest links to the ELT profession (corpus analysis, conversation analysis, discourse analysis and genre analysis) have found their way into language learning materials, and offers some suggestions on how discourse studies may influence ELT classrooms in the future.

 While each of the approaches to discourse focused on in the article brings its own unique perspective to the field, it is clear that there is also a high degree of interconnectivity and overlap amongst them. This suggests that, rather than limiting ourselves to one particular methodology, it would be much more useful to see them as complementary tools in our ‘discourse toolbox’: a selection of lenses that can be combined eclectically to reveal different layers of meaning in our data. Collaborative work of this type, however, brings with it significant challenges – relinquishing ‘ownership’ of knowledge, substantial time commitments, obstructive institutional structures, trust and process issues amongst participants, the negotiation of a common interdisciplinary language, and uncertain outcomes  – but, as Jan Blommaert in his book ‘Discourse’ (2005: 237) says, this is ‘a richer and more interesting field to dwell in than rigidly defined habitual orthodoxies of scientific exploration’.

 Although discourse studies started out as being predominantly about text linguistics, there has been a noticeable shift in focus away from texts towards the context of production, as well as increased interest in non-textual forms of social semiotics. This trend in itself is encouraging more interdisciplinary dialogue, as researchers begin to better appreciate the fact that the complexity of social interaction, as it is played out in the real world, requires a multi-level analytical approach in order to be truly descriptive.

Read the full article ‘Research into practice: The influence of discourse studies on language descriptions and task design in published ELT materials’


Studying Error Correction in Second Language Writing

LTA 47 2How Models from Past Research Can Inform Future Research

Blog post written by Dana Ferris based on an article in Language Teaching

The title of an important 2008 study by Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford is “Mistakes are a fact of life.” “Mistakes” are also natural part of any learning process, but when it comes to student writing, teachers worry that if language errors—such as problems with verb tense or missing word endings or incomplete sentences (fragments) or incorrect punctuation—are left uncorrected, students will never learn from those mistakes. Teachers also worry that students’ ideas, competence, and work ethic will be harshly judged by later real-world audiences, such as graduate school professors or future employers, if young writers do not learn to self-edit errors and make progress in avoiding them on subsequent pieces of writing.

This tension between normal learning processes and teacher concerns about student development has led to a contentious several decades of research on the topic of “written corrective feedback”—error correction—in teaching writing, especially for students who are not writing in their first (primary) language. Studies of error correction in student writing have crossed several disciplinary boundaries—from foreign language studies to writing/composition studies to applied linguistics/second language studies. This is a topic that continues to be of great practical interest to teachers and researchers.
In my article published in Language Teaching, I discuss two very important studies on this topic, both of which appeared in major journals (Modern Language Journal and College Composition and Communication) in the 1980s. I talk about why these two studies have been important in shaping discussion and research about the topic of written CF in the following decades. I also argue that the two studies should be replicated—repeated under similar conditions—so that their findings can be extended to current student writers and classrooms. In this argument, I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the two studies and make specific suggestions about what replications of these two important pieces of research might look like. Readers interested in this topic will find the detailed summaries of these two “oldies but goodies” valuable, and researchers looking for good models for their own studies will find them in these two landmark pieces of research.

Read the full article ‘Written corrective feedback in L2 writing: Connors & Lunsford (1988); Lunsford & Lunsford (2008); Lalande (1982)’ here

Parents Mixing Languages has No Impact on Children’s Vocabulary Development

Mother and ToddlerPost from the University of Maryland College of Behavioural and Social Sciences Blog The Solution

Many adults speak more than one language, and often “mix” those languages when speaking to their children, a practice called “code-switching.” An eye-opening study by researchers in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences has found that this “code-switching” has no impact on children’s vocabulary development. The study, “Look at the gato! Code-switching in speech to toddlers” appears in the Journal of Child Language.

Professor Rochelle S. Newman, chair of the department, and then-graduate students Amelie Bail and Giovanna Morini studied 24 parents and 24 children aged 18 to 24 months during a 15-minute play session.

Key Findings:

•Every parent in the study switched languages at least once during a play session with their child; more than 80 percent of parents did so in the middle of a sentence.
•An average of 4 percent of parents’ individual sentences included more than one language.
•The children of parents who switched languages more often than average, or had more mixed-language sentences did not have poorer vocabulary skills.
•The researchers found no indication that the mixing of languages by the parents resulted in poorer vocabulary learning by the children.

“Parents tend to use very short sentences when talking to children this young—yet despite this, they often switched languages in the middle of sentences, saying things like, ‘el otro fishy’ or ‘can I have the beso?’ We were surprised that so many parents would use two languages in the same sentence when speaking to such young children,” Newman said.

The study was conducted in part to address parental concerns.

“A lot of parents worry that using more than one language in the same sentence might cause confusion for a young child. So it is reassuring to know that children whose parents mixed their languages more often didn’t show any poorer vocabulary skills,” Newman said.

Read the full article ‘Look at the gato! Code-switching in speech to toddlers’ here

The bilingual advantage in phonetic learning

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Mark Antoniou and Patrick Wong based on an article in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

Fundamental questions concerning language learning remain unanswered. Some foreign learners are able to acquire a foreign language very successfully, whereas others are frustrated by their lack of progress. It is not clear why some learners flourish while others in the same setting struggle. Our study, published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition sought to shed some light on this topic.

Numerous factors are thought to be advantageous for non-native language learning although they are typically investigated in isolation, and the interaction between them is not understood. Firstly, it is often claimed that it is easier for bilinguals to acquire a third language than it is for monolinguals to acquire a second. This may be due to cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, knowledge of a greater number of phonetic features, or greater perceptual flexibility that comes from having already learned an additional language. Secondly, closely related languages may be easier to learn because learners may benefit from their existing knowledge and fast-track their learning. Closely related languages are likely to share common features, and may thus allow a learner to skip having to learn those features. Thirdly, anecdotal evidence suggests that certain phonetic features (and perhaps even certain languages, more generally) might be universally more difficult to acquire regardless of prior language experience.

We tested each of these hypotheses in a series of experiments in which adults learned several artificial languages with vocabularies that differentiated words using foreign phonetic contrasts. In the first experiment, Mandarin–English bilinguals outlearned English monolinguals for both Mandarin-like and English-like languages, and both groups found the Mandarin-like (retroflex) artificial language easier to learn than the English-like (fricative voicing). In the second experiment, bilinguals again outlearned English monolinguals for the Mandarin-like artificial language. However, only Korean–English bilinguals showed an advantage over monolinguals for the more difficult Korean-like (lenition) language. Thus it seems that bilinguals, relative to monolinguals, show a general advantage when learning ‘easy’ phonetic contrasts, but similarity to the native language is useful for learning universally ‘difficult’ contrasts. These findings raise interesting new questions that we are pursuing in subsequent language learning experiments concerning the interaction between the characteristics of the language to be learned and individual differences among learners.

Read the full article ‘The bilingual advantage in phonetic learning’ here

Differences in Language Exposure and its Effects on Memory Flexibility in Monolingual, Bilingual, and Trilingual Infants

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Natalie H. Brito based on an article in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Although the majority of multilingual children learn languages sequentially, typically learning their first language in the home and their second language from school, a number of children are exposed to two or even three languages in the home from birth. Studies have found differences between infants exposed to one language vs. two on tasks tapping memory flexibility – as early as 6-months of age (Brito & Barr, 2014). Memory flexibility is the ability to retrieve past memories despite changes in cues and context, and memory flexibility has been tested using the deferred imitation memory generalization task. In this task, the experimenter demonstrates a series of actions with a toy, then after a delay, the infant is given the opportunity to play with the toy and demonstrate the previously seen target actions Generally, infants are able to recall the target actions when the toy is the same from demonstration to test, but fail to do so when there are inconsistencies in shape, color, or object.  The good news is that infants become better able to flexibly apply past memories as they grow older. For example, previous research demonstrated that monolingual 18-month-olds were unable to generalize across two puppets, a yellow duck and a black/white cow, but could do so 3 months later at 21-months of age. Using the same puppets, we found that bilingual, but not monolingual, infants were able to generalize at 18-months after a 30-minute delay (Brito & Barr, 2012).

In a recent study (Brito, Sebastián-Gallés, & Barr, 2015), we examined what factors may influence memory performance for bilingual infants. In the first experiment we examined the role of language similarity; bilingual 18-month-ols who heard to two similar languages (Spanish-Catalan) or two more different (English-Spanish) languages were tested on a memory generalization task and compared to monolingual 18-month-olds. In the second experiment we tested trilingual 18-month-olds exposed to a variety of languages and compared their performance to infants from the first experiment. Our results indicated that both bilingual groups (Spanish-Catalan & English Spanish) outperformed the monolingual groups, with no significant differences between the two bilingual groups. Interestingly, infants exposed to three languages from birth performed the same as the monolingual groups. For the trilinguals, it is possible that more experience processing the three languages is necessary and similarities between bilinguals and trilinguals may be more apparent later in life. These findings demonstrate early emerging differences in memory flexibility and contribute to our understanding of how early environmental variations shape the trajectory of memory development.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Differences in Language Exposure and its Effects on Memory Flexibility in Monolingual, Bilingual, and Trilingual Infants’ here



Words, Words, Words,

ENG blog post - Sept 15Blog post written by Simon Elmes based on an article in English Today 

They fill the airwaves, and whirl around our breakfast, lunch and dinner tables… those legions of words that pour from the radio and the television hourly, daily – every second. And they get crunched, munched and bunched by their utterers, perhaps caught on the hop on a live microphone, or maybe who’ve made the mangling of the English language a life’s work. John Prescott, for one, was famed for his outspokenness and the interesting grammar with which he articulated it.

‘Speaking proper’, as the celebrated Colloquy by the monk, Aelfric – one of the earliest records of what medieval spoken English may have resembled – shows, has been a nagging preoccupation since the year 1000. “We would like you to teach us how to speak properly, for we are ignorant and badly spoken” says a pupil to his teacher. Oh dear.

But, today, when we’re so annoyed that we want to throw something, there’s nothing so tempting as a nice, available aunt-sally. And for the linguistic purist, the BBC is Aunt Sally Number 1. As a young Radio 4 producer, I found myself caught up on the frontline of these linguistic battles, as the armies of righteous Prescriptivists assailed the Corporation, like Henry V’s archers, with deluges of letters – and, more recently, emails – of complaint about a misplaced stress here or a wrongly pronounced word there: “Everybody knows it’s not pronounced like that!” Well, clearly not quite everybody

But then again, even a dyed-in-the-wool Descriptivist like me finds myself wincing as journalists on the telly, so eager to show themselves ahead of the trend, adopt non-standard Brit-speak pronunciations for lovely old concepts that we’ve rubbed up against like purring cats for generations. Take ‘leverage’ for one. Yes, I know, it’s a banking term, and as such it’s been imported with its US ‘levverage’ pronunciation. But just because we’ve talked a lot about finance over the last 5 years, that doesn’t mean to say we have to adopt a new way of talking about influence, or indeed about how to move something without too much direct force: for me, that’s still ‘leeverage’.

And I’m left tut-tutting with the best of the Prescriptivists. And don’t get me started on elevators. But then again, wasn’t it that beautiful Italian invention the ‘balcony’ that, when first imported to these shores, arrived with its Roman pronunciation intact: ‘bal-coney’? Nowadays, if you started talking about a hotel room with a lovely bal-coney, the Prescriptivists would be on it in a trice: “don’t you mean ‘bal-cunnee’?

So, a love of the Old? Or the thrill of the New? Well, it’s always been a matter of – er – controversy. Or was that controversy?

Read the full article ‘Words, Words, Words – An insider’s reflections on BBC broadcasting about English’