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7 (339-429)

What teachers have always wanted to know

How high are you?

All I can do is to write the sentence on the board, explain(s) them in Chi-
nese, (and they laughed), and ss most likely will get the difference. But I
dont really know what else I can do.

The difference in usage between tall and high is particularly difficult for
Chinese learners to grasp because there is no such distinction in Chinese.
Both words will be translated as the same word in written Chinese. Therefore
explaining the words in Chinese does not really help.
Teacher 3 responds to Teacher 1s question by providing an explanation
from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which states that high
is used for measurement of most things but not people, especially when we are
thinking only of distance above the ground, such as a high shelf , a high
building and a high mountain, whereas tall is used for people and ships,
for example a tall man and a tall ship. It further added that tall is used for
things that are high and narrow. It gave the examples of a tall/high building
and a tall/high tree.
In response to the teachers questions, TELEC staff searched MEC in
TeleCorpora and examined the nouns that were modified by high and tall.
What emerged from the search was that there was a tendency for high to be
used in a metaphorical sense with more abstract nouns whereas tall tended
to be used more frequently with concrete nouns such as people, trees and
buildings. The following concordance lines were provided to the teachers.

[Concordance A]
g at least as serious in areas of high industrial growth as in the p
amentals in the region will offer high growth potential. The ass
huric acid the latter at a very high concentration. Following Le
l schools suffered low morale and high wastage rates because of inad
just 50 cents, and the relatively high increases of $2 and $5 would
he next 10 years, and be accorded high priority, it says. {para} M
4,000-strong HKMA claimed that a high inflation rate, which pushed
eveloped countries tend to charge high accounting rates because they
ssion. I must say we dont have a high calibre of people coming into
rket slump had been compounded by high inflation, overheating and ti
senger movement also incorporates high standards of monitoring with
ing and smashing up Hongkong is a high price to pay {article} Howel
s death, concluded that she was a high suicide risk. {para} Ms Lai a
e findings by a legal expert that high costs have kept civil cases o
Hong Kong to remain a bastion of high ethical standards in business
se they work and because of their high visibility. But they should n
f failure. My career started on a high note, then plummeted to icy d
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Amy B M Tsui

transfer beam at the bottom of a tall building. And there isnt at

ength urinals so small boys and tall men wont be embarrassed; m
sustained by daily rainfall, of tall trees, bananas, relatives of
ecause their remote locations and tall chimneys ensured the smoke wa
e Gaulle or Wellington? For every tall leader there is a small one.
} is that the man with glasses, a tall man? {B} mmm {A} mm-hmm {B} S

This was a useful start to get the teachers to think about a word not in
isolation but in terms of their semantic preferences (Sinclair 1991).
A further analysis of MEC showed that there are 1,779 instances of high
whereas there are only 96 instances of tall. Except for 9 instances in which
tall is used idiomatically, such as a tall order, walk tall, the rest are used
in the context of talking about the height of people, buildings, and things (see
the above concordance lines for tall), with the highest frequency of tall
co-occurring with people (about 50%) followed by buildings and structures
(about 35%). In other words, the semantic preference of tall is quite re-
stricted. By contrast, the contexts in which high is found is much more wide-
ranging, including amount, intensity, quality and relative quantity. Taking 10
as the cut-off point for frequency yielded the following nouns that co-occur
with high in the corpus (see Table 1).
A further search was conducted on the BNC which is much bigger and
contained a larger variety of texts than the MEC in TeleCorpora. The findings
converged with those yielded by the search on the MEC: there were 38,188 in-

Table 1. Nouns and their frequencies of co-occurrence with high


Level(s) 77
interest 43
Cost(s) 36
Price(s) 26
degree 25
risks 24
quality 22
Standard(s) 20
inflation 18
profile 15
proportion 14
speed 14
frequencies 11
rate 11
ground 10
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What teachers have always wanted to know

stances of high but only 4,329 instances of tall. One hundred instances of
high were downloaded from the BNC and an analysis was conducted. Out of
the 100 instances of high, only 31 instances are used in the context of mea-
surement of things, for example, a high mountain, high railings. Except for
11 instances where high is used as part of a proper noun, such as the High
Court, High Commission, High School, High Street, and High as referring to
God, the rest, that is, 58 instances, are used with abstract nouns. In other words,
high is in fact less frequently used to indicate measurement in height. A fur-
ther analysis of these 58 instances shows that there are 33 instances where high
is used to indicate quantity, frequency and intensity, such as high ratio, high
rates, high speed, and high incidence, and 25 instances are used in attitudinal
contexts, to indicate quality, for example, high class, high prestige, high stan-
dards, and so on. For the latter, most of the instances carry a positive semantic
prosody (Sinclair 1996; cited in Tognini-Bonelli 2001: 111). For example,

[Concordance B]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . He also had a high opinion of British travellers and officials
. . . . . . . . . We grew up in a world of chain store high fashion, middle-of-the-road revolution,
n form, Josh Gifford, introduces a potentially high class recruit to the chasing ranks in French
oduce FM radios, then television sets and high fidelity reel-to-reel tape recorders which
me women will use it because for them its a high prestige variety.
ucation gave local education authorities very high profiles in the lives of ordinary people;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . He holds the rabbit in high regard as a sporting quarry.
mework to promote, stimulate and encourage high standards of health and safety at work.

In order to find out if the question that the first teacher asked reflects a
common problem amongst students, the student corpus in TeleCorpora was
checked. It was found that the problems that students have do not seem to be
related to the distinction between high and tall, but rather related to inap-
propriate collocation which was very likely to be influenced by the students L1.

[Concordance C]
sionals and workers enriched with high skills are increasing. The f
e studying but also help to pay a high attention and most incentive
thougth Hong Kong is a place with high freedom. But as citizens in
has not been completed. They have high curiosity to their environmen
ver, you employ more teacher with high qualifications in English or

The word high, as used by the students, is likely to be a direct translation

from the Chinese word high which could mean a high degree of or so-
phisticated. In different contexts, the Chinese translation of a high degree of