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College Writing: a Corpus-based Analysis

College Writing: a Corpus-based Analysis

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Published by Teodora Popescu
Cette étude présente l’analyse d’un corpus d’essais écrits par des apprenants de la langue anglaise (LEWC) compte tenu de la perspective offerte par l’analyse computationnelle. Le sous-corpus de LEWC visé par notre ci-présente analyse comprend 30 essais (environ 13 600 mots) rédigés par des apprenants de la langue anglaise, ayant un niveau intermédiaire, ceux-ci étant étudiants en sciences économiques. Tout en utilisant de divers moyens de l’analyse computationnelle nous avons élaboré une classification des types d’erreurs y enregistrées. Nos futures recherches seront dirigées vers l’amélioration des compétences en anglais écrit.
Cette étude présente l’analyse d’un corpus d’essais écrits par des apprenants de la langue anglaise (LEWC) compte tenu de la perspective offerte par l’analyse computationnelle. Le sous-corpus de LEWC visé par notre ci-présente analyse comprend 30 essais (environ 13 600 mots) rédigés par des apprenants de la langue anglaise, ayant un niveau intermédiaire, ceux-ci étant étudiants en sciences économiques. Tout en utilisant de divers moyens de l’analyse computationnelle nous avons élaboré une classification des types d’erreurs y enregistrées. Nos futures recherches seront dirigées vers l’amélioration des compétences en anglais écrit.

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Published by: Teodora Popescu on Aug 01, 2009
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COLLEGE ESSAY-WRITING: A CORPUS-BASED ANALYSIS
Teodora Popescu“1 Decembrie 1918” University of Alba Iulia
1. Introduction
Starting with the 70’s, Error Analysis (EA) became a scientific method in its ownright, owing a lot to the research done by Corder (1967), Richards (1971) and Selinker (1972), who identified different aspects of the second/foreign language learners’ ownlanguage system, which is neither the L1 (mother tongue), nor the L2 (second/foreignlanguage). The essential shift that their studies brought about in linguistics is areassessment of the importance of errors made by ESL/EFL learners. Therefore, accordingto Corder (1967), a learner’s errors are not random, but systematic (unsystematic errorsoccur in one’s native language) and they are not negative or interfering with learning theTarget Language, but on the contrary, they represent a necessary positive, facilitativefactor, indispensable to the learning process, highly indicative of individual learner strategies. Further on, Richards (1971) identified three types of errors: a) interferenceerrors generated by L1 transfer; b) intralingual errors which result from incorrect,incomplete or overgeneralised) application of language rules; c) developmental errorscaused by the construction of faulty hypotheses in L2.By the same token, Selinker (1972, and more recently, 1992) elaborated on thetheory of interlanguage, by which we understand a third language, with its own lexicon,grammar and discourse structure, phonological traits, etc. The basic processes throughwhich interlanguage is created are: language transfer (negative transfer, positive transfer,avoidance, and overuse), overgeneralization (at phonetic, grammatical, lexical, discourselevel) and simplification (both syntactic and semantic).This process-oriented approach to error-analysis (investigation into the reasons whylanguage errors are made, and learners’ active strategies) has allowed for the adoption of alearning-based perspective. It follows that teachers now view errors as necessary stages inall language learning, as the product of intelligent cognitive strategies, hence as potentiallyuseful indicators of what processes the student is using.In our endeavour to investigate students’ errors occurring in essay-writing, we firsttried to identify and categorise these mistakes, and further on we attempted to explore thereasons why they might have come about. In order to ascertain learners’ writingcompetence (in L2), we analysed learner errors from a linguistic perspective: (spelling –  partly accounting for phonetic inaccuracies, morphological, syntactic, collocational anddiscursive – in terms of non-achieving coherence and cohesion). The approach we adoptedwas one provided by electronic tools of concordancing software.
2. Corpus Linguistics
The term corpus, derived from the Latin word for body, was first encountered in the6th century to refer to a collection of legal texts,
Corpus Juris Civilis
(Francis 1992: 17).The term corpus has preserved this initial meaning, i.e. a body of text; nevertheless thisdefinition is not entirely satisfactory for corpus linguists. According to one of the fivedefinitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, a corpus is ‘the body of written or spoken material upon which a linguistic analysis is based’. It results that a corpus is not just a collection of texts; it represents in fact ‘a collection of texts assumed to berepresentative of a given language, dialect, or other subset of a language, to be used for linguistic analysis’ (Francis 1982: 7 apud Francis 1992: 17). Furthermore, Francis (1992)mentions three main areas in which corpora have traditionally been used: lexicographical
182
 
TRANSLATION STUDIES: RETROSPECTIVE AND PROSPECTIVE VIEWS.
2
nd
Edition.1 – 2 November 2007. Gala
i, Romania
183
studies in the creation of dictionaries, dialectological studies and the creation of grammars.Modern corpus linguists nevertheless are quite different from their early fellows. Kennedy(1992) underlined the fact that initial corpora were mostly of written texts only, just theforms were counted, not the meanings and they were untagged, so homonyms were oftenclassed as one word. Another important reason was that traditionally, linguists had beenstrongly influenced by Chomsky’s theory that corpora were inadequate whereas intuitionwas. Chomsky contested the concept of empiricism on which corpus linguistics had been based and offered a rationalist approach instead, supporting a sort of methodology bywhich ‘rather than try and account for language observationally, one should try to accountfor language introspectively’ (McEnery & Wilson 1996: 6). Chomsky condemned corpus- based studies asserting that ‘Any natural corpus will be skewed…the corpus, if natural,will be so wildly skewed that the description would be no more than a mere list’ (Chomsky1962: 159 apud Leech 1991: 8). This theory is not surprising as long as Chomsky, moreinterested in competence than performance, was against an approach that was foremost based on actual performance data. Nonetheless corpora research continued in spite of early criticisms, and it evenstrengthened due to technological advances in computer software. Now it is possible to process texts of several million words in length (Sinclair 1991). Nelson (2000) pointed out that there are several reasons that speak in favour of using corpora in linguistics analysis: objectivity vs. intuition, verifiability of results(Svartvik 1992, Biber 1996), broadness of language able to be represented (Svartvik 1992,Biber 1995, Biber, Conrad & Reppen 1994), access, broad scope of analysis, pedagogic – face validity, authenticity, motivation (Johns 1988, Tribble & Jones 1990), possibility of cumulative results (Biber 1995), accountability, reliability, view of all language (Sinclair 2000).
3. Methodology
The learner essay-writing corpus (LEWC) was created by collecting the essayswritten by 30 Romanian-speaking university students of economics in their 2nd year at anintermediate level of language learning. We need to mention that students typed their ownessays, which were subsequently compiled by the teacher. This fact might a priori accountfor the automatic correction of some spelling mistakes (made by the word editor studentsused), as well as for a limited amount of correction in the case of morphological or syntactic errors. Results would have undoubtedly been different had we had our studentshandwrite their essays. The essays are argumentative, non-technical, including titles suchas ‘Crime does not pay’, ‘Most university degrees are theoretical and do not preparestudents for the real world. They are therefore, of very little value’, ‘Living in a city hasgreater advantages than living in a small town or country’, and have an average length of about 500 words each. The first step was to analyse the corpus as a whole, in order toidentify the most frequent words that were used. The figure below will show a screen shotof the frequency count of our corpus.
 
Teodora PopescuCollege Essay-Writing: A Corpus-Based Analysis
184
Figure 1 Frequency sort for LEWC
As can be seen from the picture above, the most frequent words are articles(definite and indefinite), prepositions and conjunctions, personal pronouns – mainly 1st person singular since it was an argumentative essay and students expressed their ownviews, as well as the verb
to be
. The most frequent noun was
 people
, again because anargumentative essay has to be rather referential and generalising. Next in our count wehave crime, person and life.
 Person
is the singular of 
 people
, therefore the sameexplanation as above might hold true.
Crime
was mainly used because most of the essayswere written on the topic ‘Crime does not pay’.The next step was to highlight the errors that occurred in the corpus and to try toclassify them. As we mentioned in the introduction to this study we considered the errorsfrom a linguistic point of view: (spelling, morphological, lexical – inappropriate use of lexis, lexical – collocational, syntactic, and discursive).
Type of error Examples No. of occurrences
Spelling * […] and you remain like a dad person […]a dead person…* They kill for example for unpayed debts[…]unpaid debts25Morphological*Crimes always catches up with the criminalCrimes and criminals are always discovered…* so they have to action […][…] so they have to act / take action […]54Lexical – inappropriate useof lexis* My device
1
in life is…My motto/watchword/slogan in life is […]* I think rappers are equal with the criminals…68

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