ELF corpora in the mainstream: notes from the ICAME 35 conference

Nottingham Castle, the site of the conference excursion dinner.© Sebastian Hoffman

Nottingham Castle, the site of the conference excursion dinner.
© Sebastian Hoffman

Last month I presented a paper at the ICAME 35 corpus linguistics conference at the University of Nottingham, and I was happy to find that I wasn’t the only one there combining an ELF research perspective with a corpus methodology. Two other major ELF corpus projects were also represented at the conference, and it was nice to hear about the different research questions and ELF data that are being investigated. Though ELF research is still seen as controversial in some quarters, our papers and poster seemed to be well-received. Other researchers can see that lingua franca data is linguistically relevant and can be fruitfully investigated without foregrounding ideological concerns.

My own paper was drawn from my PhD research, a corpus-based study of fluency in spoken academic ELF. This data is drawn from ELFA corpus and SELF project data, all of which is naturally occurring spoken ELF from university settings. In addition to this data from relatively formal settings, a new corpus of informal academic ELF talk is being compiled at the University of Saarland. In their paper at ICAME 35, Stefan Diemer, Marie-Louise Brunner & Selina Schmidt shared early findings from CASE (Corpus of Academic Spoken English), made up of recorded interactions on Skype. But first, I want to discuss a project from Linnaeus University in Sweden, where an ELF research perspective is integrated into a corpus-based study of ongoing change in English.

ELF & the big picture: ongoing grammatical changes in English

Click to view the poster presented by Mikko Laitinen, Magnus Levin & Alexander Lakaw at ICAME 35, 30 April–4 May, 2014.

Mikko Laitinen, Magnus Levin and Alexander Lakaw presented a poster entitled “Ongoing grammatical change and the new Englishes: Towards a set of corpora of English use in the expanding circle” (link to pdf, or click on the image at left). Their project, led by Prof. Laitinen at Linnaeus University, is compiling two corpora of contemporary English in Sweden and Finland. Laitinen’s linguistic roots are in the VARIENG research unit here in Helsinki, and this background in the diachronic study of change in English (change over time) is here directed toward the “Expanding Circle” – the growing number of second-language users of English in countries like Sweden and Finland, and who are increasingly likely to both reflect and influence ongoing changes in English. Their research tests the applicability of some of the methods and theories used in empirical historical linguistics to the study of present-day ELF use and language contact. They ask questions such as to what extent global ELF uses contribute to language variability and whether ongoing grammatical changes are accelerated or slowed down by ELF speakers/writers.

The Corpus of English in Sweden (SWE-CE) and the Corpus of English in Finland (FIN-CE) are each targeted for one million words of written and spoken English produced by native speakers of Swedish and Finnish, respectively. By sampling material across several domains and situations which differ from one another in terms of their communicative purpose, the project aims to provide a blueprint for additional first-language-specific corpora of English, much like the Intl. Corpus of English (ICE) has fruitfully done for regional varieties of English (Inner & Outer Circles). The Linnaeus project also brings an ELF research perspective into the mainstream of research on ongoing change in English by creating corpora of second-language use that are comparable to established reference corpora.

These first-language-specific corpora could also be of interest for exploring the concept of similect proposed by Mauranen for the “lects” (varieties) spoken in ELF. Popular notions of “Swenglish” or “Finglish” can’t be considered English dialects, as native speakers of Finnish, for example, typically don’t use English to communicate with each other. Yet, speakers of the same first language show similarities in their production of English, suggesting a variety not based on a community of speakers in interaction with each other, but a variety based on similarity of English in interaction with others — a similect. The question of how one’s first language influences these similects is a question that the SWE-CE and FIN-CE corpora could help to answer.

Academic ELF online: the Corpus of Academic Spoken English

Click to view the presentation slides (pdf) from Stefan Diemer, Marie-Louise Brunner & Selina Schmidt at ICAME 35.

Click to view the presentation slides (pdf) from Stefan Diemer, Marie-Louise Brunner & Selina Schmidt at ICAME 35.

The most recent spread of English as a global language has coincided with the explosion of digital technologies. It’s no surprise that ELF research has made important connections to Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) research, documenting the ways in which second-language users of English interact online. A project led by Prof. Dr. Stefan Diemer at the University of Saarland is contributing to this work with a corpus of Skype conversations in English between university students in Germany, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain. It is also a contribution to research in academic ELF, as these Skype conversations capture more informal and private academic interaction compared, for example, to the recordings in the ELFA corpus.

The Corpus of Academic Spoken English, or CASE, is currently being transcribed, drawing on 200 recordings of Skype conversations between 141 participants. The CASE team is performing a relatively narrow (or detailed) transcription enabling finer-grained analysis of discourse features. For their presentation at ICAME, findings were presented from 260,000 transcribed words, representing 28 conversations and nearly 31 hours of data. Much of their presentation focused on interactive aspects of starting the Skype sessions, with reference both to CMC research and related findings from conversation analysis. The presentation slides by Diemer and his graduate assistants, Selina Schmidt and Marie-Louise Brunner, are available as a pdf file by clicking the image above.

I was especially interested in the CASE findings regarding laughter in these Skype interactions. I’ve blogged quite a bit about findings on laughter in the ELFA corpus, and I’ve found that there’s a lot of laughter in the interactive data such as seminars and lecture discussions. It can’t all be attributed to “cracking jokes”, nor is it merely “nervous laughter”. The CASE team related laughter in their Skype corpus to rapport management, and how laughter is used to maintain friendly relations and relieve potentially awkward situations, including coping with technical problems. Similar functions of laughter have been described in Mauranen’s work on the ELFA corpus, and I expect the CASE research will provide useful links between the study of academic ELF in both formal and informal settings.

Parsing spoken ELF: a linear approach

Click to view the presentation slides (pdf) that I presented at the ICAME 35 conference.

Click to view the presentation slides (pdf) that I presented at the ICAME 35 conference.

This was my first time at an ICAME conference, and while the reputation of the conference dinner disco is well deserved, I enjoyed the other parts of the conference as well. I presented the first official paper of my PhD project, “Toward a methodology of chunking: Extensions and applications of Linear Unit Grammar” (LUG). This paper documents my development of a chunking program that can semi-automate LUG analysis on spoken ELF data, with findings on the chunker accuracy as well as my tests of inter-rater reliability and the ability of LUG chunk boundaries to predict tone unit boundaries. Since the conference, I’ve been immersed in a mass of data on the distributions of LUG organizing chunks across tone unit boundaries, and I’m just now writing up many of these findings for the eventual paper itself. This also explains my recent neglect of this blog!

From the shameless self-promotion department, I should mention that my paper was the co-recipient of this year’s John Sinclair Bursary, awarded to the best paper by a junior researcher at each year’s ICAME. This is junior in the sense of “early career”, as I can no longer claim youth as one of my primary virtues, academic or otherwise. It was a special honor to receive the award, as John Sinclair was co-developer of Linear Unit Grammar, and he was also interested in the potential for LUG analysis to be automated. As I’m writing this paper now, there will be more to come, but you can see my slides from the conference as pdf files from this link or by clicking the image above.

Lastly, thank you to the research teams at Linnaeus University and Saarland University for sharing your poster and slides with the blog!

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2 thoughts on “ELF corpora in the mainstream: notes from the ICAME 35 conference

  1. […] Nottingham Castle, the site of the conference excursion dinner.  […]

  2. […] Mikko Laitinen, Magnus Levin and Alexander Lakaw presented a poster entitled “Ongoing grammatical change and the new Englishes: Towards a set of corpora of English use in the expanding circle” (link to pdf, or click on …  […]

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