Hooked on words: interview with Julie Moore, lexicographer and corpus researcher

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices.

This month we have a special guest from the field of applied linguistics, Julie Moore. Julie is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher based in Bristol, in the UK. She’s worked on a wide range of published ELT materials including learner’s dictionaries, language practice materials and coursebooks for both General English and Academic English. Words are still her first love  and one recent  project is  as author of the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles (2017, OUP).

Visit Julie’s websites to learn more about her work:

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): You work as a corpus researcher and lexicographer. How did you choose these fields of linguistics?

Julie Moore: I spent the first part of my career as an EFL teacher – in Greece then the Czech Republic – and the part of my job I enjoyed most was trying to answer language questions. I loved trying to figure out why we say one thing and not another. And that led me back to the UK to complete a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, specializing in corpus linguistics and lexicography.

HRB: How different is a lexicographer’s work today from the days before Internet?

Julie: I guess one of the big differences is the range of possibilities that digital and online dictionaries have opened up. Working in print was very restrictive, trying to cram the most important information about a word into a small space and always having more that you wanted to include. The digital medium allows lexicographers to add more of the information they find when researching a word and to present it in an easier to digest way. We can include more example sentences, usage notes, collocations, information about synonyms, antonyms, related words, links between entries … the list goes on. And on screen, you don’t have to to overload the user with all this information at once, instead they can click on links to explore the points they’re interested in. Perhaps ironically, the advent of smartphones has meant a step in the opposite direction. Mobile-friendly versions of dictionaries, online or as apps, again need to condense the information into an entry small enough to fit on the screen of a mobile phone.

HRB: What does a corpus researcher do?

Julie: I use corpora (the plural of corpus) in a number of ways. I use them to research how language is used when I’m writing my own materials, be that dictionaries, vocabulary practice materials or just general ELT coursebooks. I also act as a researcher carrying out corpus research to feed into projects by other writers. That especially involves using a learner corpus to identify common learner errors.

HRB: How can corpus research inform ELT materials development?

Julie: I use native speaker corpora to check how language is actually used in the real world; to back up my own intuitions. So, I’ll often check which collocation is most frequently used with a particular word and is therefore most useful to highlight in teaching materials. Or I might check what context a particular grammatical form is most commonly used in and then pick that as the topic for a language activity. So, for example recently, I was looking for ideas to practise compound future tenses. I was drawing a bit of a blank, so I did some corpus searches and noticed lots of examples from weather forecasts – the rain will be moving in from the west; it will have cleared by midday – so I built an activity around that. It’s a way of reflecting authentic usage rather than coming up with rather contrived language exercises.

When it comes to learner corpus research, I do a lot of work investigating the most common problem areas for students from particular language backgrounds. This can then feed into extra practice in these specific areas in materials aimed at those learners.

HRB: Do you have to be a computer guru to become a corpus researcher?

Julie: No, not at all. Most modern corpus tools are pretty intuitive, very much like any of the other software we use all the time. You can start off with very basic searches just by typing a word into a box, much as you would with Google. Then as you get used to the different options and menus, you learn to build more complex searches. Unfortunately, different corpora tend to use different software, especially those which are publicly available. That means switching between them can be a bit frustrating and take a bit of time to figure out, rather like switching from a PC to a Mac.

HRB: Which are your favourite corpora?

Julie: Probably the most useful corpora for research are the very large ’balanced’ corpora compiled and maintained by the large dictionary publishers. A balanced corpus is one which contains data from a range of different sources: written and spoken language, different genres, different regional varieties. Having a real range of language data makes a corpus much more representative of language use in general and having a very large amount of data provides many more examples to work with, especially when you’re looking for less frequent words or combinations.

HRB: Something I really like about online dictionaries is that they are constantly updated. Are there situations when you still prefer using a printed dictionary?

Julie: I use both. I’ll sometimes use a print dictionary when I have several windows already open on screen and it’s just easier to have paper dictionary open on my desk to look down at. I also have a number of specialist dictionaries on my shelves which aren’t available online. Perhaps my favourite of these is the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus which I was lucky enough to work on and which I regularly refer to to help me tease out the subtle differences in meaning between similar words.

HRB: In teacher training circles we often suggest that teachers could benefit from learning the basics of corpus research. What do you think of this idea? How do you think corpus research skills can help language teachers?

Julie: Yes, I think learning some basic corpus research skills and becoming familiar with a relevant corpus can be really helpful for teachers. It’s a great way to explore language points when you’re not sure you can rely on your intuition or to answer tricky questions that crop up. I was teaching most recently on academic English courses at Bristol University and often I’d come across something, for example in a student essay, which didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Often doing a quick corpus search would help me figure out what was going on. Whether or not I then actually looked at the corpus in class to explain the language point would depend on the type of students and how much time I had available, but just getting the answer clear in my head, I think, helped me give better feedback.

HRB: There are many popular and well-known word lists available on the Internet. Are there any  you would recommend to teachers?

Julie: I think wordlists are a really useful guide to help teachers choose which vocabulary to prioritize. Which list you choose will depend on your teaching context. So, the English Vocabulary Profile project (from Cambridge English) is really useful for general learners of English. It labels words according to the approximate CEFR level at which students can be expected to start using those words. Or if you’re teaching academic English, then the Academic Word List or the Academic Vocabulary List can both be very useful. My only word of warning would be that wordlists should always be seen as guides and used with a healthy dose of common sense rather than adhered to too rigidly.

HRB: Does a lexicographer have a favourite word?

Julie: There are lots of words that I love and mostly it comes down to how they feel and sound. Perhaps my favourite though is ‘soporific’. I first came across it as a young child in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and I think it was possibly one of the first seeds that led onto my lifelong love of words.

HRB: What do you like reading?

Julie: I’m a slow reader and I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. I think that’s because I spend time actually enjoying the words on the page. I’m not a big fan of really difficult-to-understand, pretentious literary works and neither do I like poorly-written ’pulp fiction’ that’s just all about the plot. I like something in-between that’s well written and uses language in a pleasing way, but which I can also relate to and relax with.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Julie!

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