Swimming in the deep end of the Spoken BNC2014 media frenzy

As someone who enjoys acting in his spare time, I’m rarely afraid of the chance spend some time in the spotlight. But as I sat one morning a few weeks ago in my bedroom, in nothing but a dressing gown, about to do a live interview on a national Irish radio station, with no kind of media training or experience under my belt, I really did get a case of the nerves. I would spend the entire day appearing on over a dozen radio and TV broadcasts (thankfully with time to get dressed after the first), promoting participation in the Spoken BNC2014 project, and finding out the true meaning of the phrase ‘learning on the job’. My experiences taught me a few things about the relationship between the broadcast media and academic research, which I’ve summarised at the end of this blog.

In late July, CASS and Cambridge University Press announced a new collaboration which aims to compile a new spoken British National Corpus, known as the Spoken BNC2014. This is an ambitious project that requires contributions of recordings from hundreds, if not thousands, of speakers from across the entire United Kingdom. As a research team (which includes Lancaster’s Professor Tony McEnery, Cambridge’s cdembry(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)cambridge.org">Dr Claire Dembry, as well as Dr Vaclav Brezina, Dr Andrew Hardie, and me), we knew that we had to spread the word far and wide in order to drum up the participation of speakers across the country.

So, at the end of August, we put out a press release which teased some preliminary observations, and invited people to get involved by emailing corpus(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)cambridge.org. These findings were based on some basic comparisons between the relative frequencies of the words in the demographic section of the original spoken BNC, and those of the first two million words collected for the Spoken BNC2014 project. We put out lists of the top ten words which had fallen and risen in relative frequency the most drastically between the 1990s data and today’s data.

 

Words which had declined Words which had risen
fortnight facebook
marvellous internet
fetch website
walkman awesome
poll email
catalogue google
pussy cat smartphone
marmalade iphone
drawers essentially
cheerio treadmill

 

It seems that these words really captured the imagination of the media powers that be. On the week of the release at the end of August, I was told on the Monday afternoon that the release had been sent out. By late that night, the story had already been picked up by the Daily Mail. Such was my joy, and perhaps naivety, that I sent out a brief and fairly humble blog post celebrating the fact that one person from one newspaper had run an article on our story. What I didn’t realise at the time was that, had I put out a blog post every time we discovered a piece of coverage the next day, I would still be writing them now.

The next morning I was woken by a message from Lancaster Linguistics and English Language department’s resident media celebrity, Dr Claire Hardaker, asking urgently for some information about the Spoken BNC2014 project. She had been contacted by LBC Radio, who had caught wind of the story and assumed sort-of-understandably that, since it was a linguistics story that involved Lancaster University, Claire would be directly involved. She isn’t, sadly, but they had lined up a live interview with her in twenty minutes’ time regardless, and she had kindly agreed to do it anyway with what information I could get to her in time.

After that, I soon realised that perhaps this story would garner more interest than a few newspaper articles. My phone went into melt-down, bleeping with emails from the PR team at the university and phone calls from unknown numbers. There was a 90 minute period where I couldn’t leave my room to get a shower, get dressed, and get on to the campus, simply because I was being lined up for so many interviews throughout the day. As such, I had to do my first there and then, in my dressing gown, while Claire Hardaker kindly waited on stand-by in the university press office in case I couldn’t make it to campus on time for my next.

Once I got there, it was a busy day of interviews right through to 6pm that evening. Over the course of the day, I was interviewed by international radio stations BBC World Service and Talk Radio Europe, UK national stations BBC Radio 4, Sky Radio, and Classic FM, Irish national station Today FM, and Russian national station Voice of Russia UK. I was also interviewed by UK regional BBC news stations London, Merseyside, Coventry & Warwick, Lancashire, and Three Counties. The highlight for me though was the TV interview with the Sky News channel, which I recorded using the Skype app on my little Windows tablet. The interviewer could see me, but I couldn’t see her (or indeed hear her all that well), and I had no idea that she was set up in the studio and that the video would be edited together and released that day. Aside from being shown on the Sky News television channel itself, and their website, the interview appeared on upwards of 40 regional radio websites, including Rock FM, Magic FM, The Bee, North Sound, Yorkshire Coast Radio, Wave 965, and Juice Brighton, as well as other media sites. Claire Dembry also got involved from Cambridge, doing further TV interviews with Sky News and even joining me for a live double interview with BBC Radio London.

So, what did I ‘learn on the job’ through my baptism of fire in the media world? Three main points:

  • Some interviewers thought I was announcing the death of the English language

Though most of the interviews went about as smoothly as I could have expected, with me remembering to plug the email address corpus(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)cambridge.org at any given opportunity, some were much harder work. Some interviewers seemed horrified at the thought of ‘losing’ words such as marvellous and cheerio, and wanted me to tell them what they could do to help rescue them. Though it was tempting to say “well if you keep saying them they won’t disappear…”, I instead politely made the point that language, like everything else to do with being human, changes over time, and that this is perfectly okay. Just like fashion. This ‘endangered species’ discourse came about in a few interviews, and it seemed that the interviewers felt I was suggesting that the English language was somehow shrinking or degrading over time.

  • Some interviewers thought I was actively promoting the changes I was reporting

In other cases, the interviewers seemed to imply that I was making recommendations for the words that speakers should avoid or should start saying more, in order to ‘stay up to date’ and not come across ‘old fashioned’. In other words, I was mistaken for a prescriptivist rather than a descriptivist, who was trying to stop people from using the word catalogue, or encouraging everybody to say the word treadmill at least five times a day.

  • Some interviewers asked ‘nice’ questions, and some didn’t

This is a more general observation which I suspected to be the case before I started, and had it confirmed as the interviews went on. It is a simple truth that the interviewers who ‘got’ the project the most were the ones who, for me, asked the best questions. When being interviewed about the list of words which have decreased in frequency I was, in varying forms and among many others, asked the following two types of question:

A: The words which were more popular in the 1990s but not so much now – tell me about ‘pussy cat’ – what’s going on there?

B: The words which were as popular in the 1990s as Facebook is now – I guess words like ‘marvellous’ and ‘catalogue’ are harder to spell and we’re getting lazier these days so we’re just going to say shorter words aren’t we?

For me, and I imagine many others, question A is the ‘nice’ question of this pair. The interviewer draws me to one example which looks interesting – fair enough – but importantly they make no inference themselves about the possible explanation. They set up a blank canvas and allow me to paint it in the way which is most advantageous to my purpose.

Question B, however, is much more problematic for me as the interviewee and sadly occurred as much, if not more, than those like question A. Firstly the interviewer has re-conceptualised the findings and created equivalence between the frequency of the declining words and the words on the rise. Therefore the possibility for conclusions like “marmalade used to be as popular as Facebook” or, worse, “iPhones replace pussy cats in British society” are opened up and thrown into the ether.

Secondly, and much harder to deal with immediately, is the lumping of two completely unrelated words (marvellous and catalogue), the assumption of societal degradation (we’re getting lazier), the pseudo-logical causal relationship between written conventions and spoken interaction (harder to spell), which are based on such assumptions of societal degradation (so we’re just going to say shorter words), and, the icing on the cake, the tag question which invites me to agree that everything the interviewer has just said is perfectly correct (aren’t we?). Yes, this is indeed not a nice question. The strategy I developed is to say that yes, everything you have just said could be the case, and then to go about repackaging their question into something more reasonable for me to say anything about. This was not easy and in some cases I did this better than others!

 

The recurring theme of my experience was the extent to which the interviewers’ expectations of the Spoken BNC2014 research matched what we are actually trying to do. Most of the time, there was a close match and the questions fit my aims well. In the cases where this didn’t happen, and the questions made all sorts of false assumptions, life was more difficult. I don’t think, however, that anyone was deliberately misconstruing our humble aims, and really I’d rather have given those difficult interviews, where I felt like I was in a fight for mutual understanding, than not to have given them at all for fear of being misunderstood. It seems that this is an inevitable aspect of daring to throw your work out of the bubble of academia and into the public sphere, where it really matters. My goal for next time is to improve the way that the research is communicated in the first place, and to plug potential potholes of misunderstanding in a way that is as accurate as reasonable but still makes a good story.

Overall, I think I managed as well as I could have done, given the abrupt start to the day and my naïve expectation that the press wouldn’t be as interested in the story as it turns out they were. Hopefully we’ll have generated lots of interest in the project. I’d like to thank Claire Hardaker for helping me learn the ropes as I went along, the staff at Lancaster University’s press office for keeping me in the right place at the right time, and the ESRC, who have since offered me some media training, which I will very gladly accept. Awesome!

Notes from the SILK Road International Summer School

In July 2014, I and four other students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at Lancaster University (Sophie Barker, James Lester, Eleanor Richards-Johnson, and Gillian Smith) travelled to Hong Kong to attend the SILK Road International Summer School.

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The three week summer school, organised by Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), in affiliation with Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU), was attended by students from countries all over the world, including Hong Kong, mainland China, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States of America, Thailand, and South Korea. Its aim was to encourage students to “Study in and Intercultural environment and Learn to be Kreative” (SILK), and this was made possible by hosting an internationally diverse cohort of students. At the helm of the summer school was Lancaster University Linguistics alumni Dr Xu Xunfeng, who accompanied us for the entire duration of the course.

We took two out of a choice of four credit-bearing university modules. These courses, usually delivered across an entire term, were adapted to be taught intensively. As such, we received eight hours of contact time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and were required to prepare readings and assignments in between classes. The courses offered were:

The first week took place at PolyU in Hong Kong, where we were housed in PolyU’s student accommodation. The second and third weeks were hosted at XJTU in mainland China, where we were accompanied and taught largely by the same staff from PolyU, and stayed in a hotel. Each module differed in terms of assessment style, but they all concluded with group presentations on the final day of contact time, which consolidated some aspect of the learning experience. At the end of the course, we returned to Hong Kong for one more night before travelling home.

In addition to taking classes, we were taken on day trips every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, to a series of cultural sites both in Hong Kong and Xi’an. These included the Terracotta Army at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, the Zhongnan Mountains, the Wild Goose Pagodas, and the Tang Dynasty Palace Theatre. In addition there was some free time for us to explore both Hong Kong and Xi’an independently – all in all we certainly had a chance to squeeze in a fair amount of sight-seeing amongst all the studying!

This was the first time that the SILK Road International Summer School had taken place, and it proved to be a valuable, educational, and enjoyable experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be there. The organisers have already announced that the summer school will run again next year, and I hope it is even more successful than this year. I am very grateful to both Hong Kong Polytechnic University and FASS at Lancaster University for funding our trip.

In memory: Professor Geoffrey Leech

It is with great sorrow that we report the death on 19th August of Professor Geoffrey Leech.

Geoff was not only the founder of the UCREL research centre for corpus linguistics at Lancaster University, he was also the first Professor and founding Head of the Department of Linguistics and English Language. His contributions to linguistics – not only in corpus linguistics, but also in English grammar, pragmatics and stylistics – were immense. After his retirement in 2002, he remained an active member of our department, not only continuing his own research but also, characteristically, providing advice, support and encouragement for students and junior colleagues.

All our thoughts are with Geoff’s wife Fanny, and with his family.

It is still hard for us to find the right words at this time. For many of us he was an inspirational teacher and mentor, but for all of us, he was a kind and generous friend.

The video below was recorded by Tony McEnery in conversation with Geoff in late 2013 for Lancaster’s online course in corpus linguistics. In it, Tony and Geoff discuss the history of the field. We present it now publicly as a first tribute to Geoff’s life and work.

(A transcript is available from this link.)

How to be a PhD student (by someone who just was), Part 3: Towards the viva

After successfully defending my viva early this year, I’ve been sharing some of the lessons I learned over my 38 months as a PhD student. In this installment, I talk about powering through your final year and preparing for your viva. 

If you missed the previous entries, click through to read Part 1 (Preparing for the programme) or Part 2 (Managing your work and working relationships). 


Coming down the final stretch

When you absolutely can’t stand the sight of your PhD, you know you’re nearly finished with it. From speaking to my friends and colleagues, this tends to happen around 8-10 months before submission, which means that you get about 40 weeks of steely focus, single-mindedly trying to get the demon out of your computer and into the hands of your examiners. This is a testing time for your personal relationships and for your scholarly stamina, but a most excellent time for your academic work.

I’ve yet to meet someone who had the problem of too little material for their PhD (though I suppose they might be out there), so remember ABC: Always Be Cutting. When re-reading your work, keep a sharp eye out for words and phrases such as basically, simply put, in other words, and so on. These are clear indicators that you’ve been repetitive and could be more succinct.

Don’t be afraid to be absolutely ruthless in editing and rewriting, especially in this magical 8-10 month period where you just want it gone. Print out a copy of your research questions and hang them somewhere in sight of your working space. As you finish your analyses and revise your structure, make sure that all words serve the research questions. If you find that your work drifts, you have two choices:

  1. Revise the research questions to match what you researched. It is the worst-kept secret in the academic world that research questions posed in the infancy of a project might not be those we end up answering along the way. This is totally natural. What’s unnatural is if your research questions and chapters/analyses do not evolve together, and your thesis ends up looking more like a centaur than a human or a horse. Pick a human or a horse, and run with it!
  2. Remove analyses that do not directly contribute to the thrust of your thesis. This can be very painful, but is almost always necessary. You do so much work during the PhD that you want to be able to show it all off at the end. But the truth of the matter is: not everything is relevant, and 80,000 words cannot hold the entirety of your own knowledge, let alone the accumulated learnings of the human race. If you find analyses that are clear departures from your research questions, remove these from the main document and save them in a series of new files to turn into papers when you’re ready. Summarise each of these in bullet points, and you can add them into the ‘further work’ section of your thesis, which means that you can still demonstrate that you’ve thought about (and even journeyed toward) new directions in your work. The upside here is that you have a clear path to follow-on publications.

Remove distractions. Be selfish. This is a very short time in your life where it is perfectly fine to just stay the course and keep your eyes on the prize. Surround yourself with understanding, patient, and supportive people. Work each day until you are not being productive anymore, and then relax doing something that is not mentally exhausting but is not mentally destructive. Try your best to stay flexible and (self-) reflexive.

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Staying flexible and reflexive

Everyone who starts a PhD is a perfectionist, to some point. We all came to this point (the highest tertiary degree on offer) with a unique mixture of natural talent, intellectual curiosity, mental fortitude, and real hard-headedness. Either you or many of the people in your cohort would have been at the top of their Masters or Bachelors classes, or come from a solid career in industry. The thing about a PhD is that it is designed to be both finite and imperfect.

In the postgraduate socialising area of the linguistics department at Lancaster, we once hung a sign that said, “There are two kinds of PhD: Perfect, and finished”. Choose ‘finished’! The last year of your PhD will break your heart, because that’s when you realise just how much you can do in your finite period, and more devastatingly, how much you just cannot fit in. I can’t remember who told me this, but whoever it was should step forward (because I owe you a drink):

Your PhD is not your great work. If you stay in academia, it is almost certain to be your worst work.

We do this to prove that we can do greater things if given more time, money, chances, collaborators, experiences. If you save all of the interesting things that you can’t fit into your PhD into separate folders, you have a good head start on papers that you can publish either during or directly after your doctorate. You can easily fill up a ‘Future Work’ section in your final chapter. And most importantly, you can finish your PhD.

As soon as I let go of the idea of my thesis as this all-encompassing, nearly-perfect, staggering contribution to science and accepted the fact that it was just the best version of many possible (apprentice) books that I could have written in that time, it just flowed out of me.

For instance, throughout my thesis, I worked on a method of downsampling that could help researchers who were, like me, working with very large corpora resulting in hundreds or thousands of collocates per search node. To make sure that this method was applicable to different data sets, I did two case studies, and I was able to refine the method quite dramatically in the second half of my study. As I wrote up the second half of my PhD, I agonized about the first half, which was completed and written up using the now-outdated, subpar version of the method. “Do I have to go back and redo the entire thing?” I wailed to my long-suffering supervisor. “It will be more perfect if I do”. In his wisdom, my supervisor suggested that I find a way to turn these lemons into lemonade, rather than turning them into 6 months of additional hard labour.

In the end, I presented my PhD warts and all. I was transparent about my ‘research journey’, which my examiners looked upon very favourably. Remember that this process is meant to be hard work; totally whitewashing your PhD by removing all traces of earlier errors, therefore denying yourself the ability to weave in a narrative about the learning experience itself will not do you many favours. Also, including brief notes about where you went wrong, how you identified problems, and what you did to fix them, will help future PhD students immensely. Everyone who opens your thesis afterwards can avoid reinventing the wheel you already sweated over – they can focus on their own unique and novel problems!

Choosing your panel

Choosing the people who will sit on your panel is one of the most crucial decisions of your doctorate. In the UK, we generally have four panels: a pre-confirmation, a confirmation, a post-confirmation, and a viva voce.

The pre-confirmation happens during your first year, and generally checks your progress and working relationship with your supervisor. I suggest choosing an examiner who is (even marginally) in your field and can make some comments about your literature review and some suggestions for possible directions in your work. The most important trait of an examiner in the pre-confirmation (in my opinion) is that they are supportive and kind. Choose someone who will boost your confidence for the road ahead!

The confirmation panel (in my department, taking place in the second year) confirms the movement from PhD student to PhD candidate. This panel is high-stakes, as failing it can mean a significant delay in finishing your PhD, or even discontinuing it completely. Despite this pressure, I recommend choosing the toughest possible person from your department to examine your confirmation panel. For this spot, you want the person most likely to pick holes in your theoretical and methodological choices while there is still time to adjust before the viva. If you choose correctly, your confirmation will be the hardest panel of your PhD – mine certainly was!

The post-confirmation panel happens in the third year of the PhD here, and checks that you have settled on research questions and are on target to submit. Your examiner should be someone quite critical about research questions and design, but also someone who you feel that you can trust and talk to, particularly if you’re encountering issues. This is your last panel before the viva, so it’s a good place to take the temperature of your overall research design and to get a bit of a confidence boost or a reality check.

Finally, we come to the viva. In Lancaster, this happens after 3-4 years of PhD study. I know that some universities don’t give students much control over the members of their panel, but I urge you to have an open dialogue with your supervisor about this. The people sitting in those seats can not only change the outcome of the day, but also have a lasting effect on your career. For my viva, I needed to have three examiners: one internal and two external. (At Lancaster, your supervisor is present during the viva, but cannot speak.) I chose a variety of scholars who have all used corpus linguistic methods in their work, and whose previous findings have been echoed in my thesis. I knew that they would be critical of my work, but would most likely receive it positively. At this point in the process, you would like to engage in a lively debate about your research, but you do not want this to be a negative or a defensive one.

Preparing for the day

This was quite controversial at the time, but I also only told three people (my partner and two very close friends) which day my viva was on. I was freaking myself out enough counting down the days to V-Day; I didn’t want a dozen other friends (as well-intentioned as they might have been) ramping up the pressure by constantly reminding me of the impending panel.

You’ll likely have quite a bit of practice describing your research from speaking to fellow students, scholars, and conference attendees. However, speaking to influential people in your field is much different; it’s a good idea to practice some answers just in case you find yourself freezing up on the day. Here are some questions that could/maybe/will come up in a viva:

  1. Explain your thesis in fewer than 5 sentences.
  2. Explain your thesis for a layman.
  3. What is the one idea that links the entire work together?
  4. What motivated you, personally, to undertake this work?
  5. What do you think the main contribution of this work is?
  6. What was the most crucial decision that you made in designing/structuring/undertaking this work?
  7. Do you think you could have done better work with more data or less data?
  8. How have you, as a researcher, influenced the outcome of this analysis? What safeguards have you put in place against this?
  9. How has the process influenced you? Has your view of the data/circumstances/research topic changed over the course of the degree?
  10. Summarise your major/key findings. Are any of these surprising? Why are they interesting?
  11. Who will find this work most interesting? Do you think it’s accessible to this audience?
  12. Do you have plans for distributing these results to non-academic audiences? What about the contributors/stakeholders?
  13. How would you begin future research?
  14. What sort of advice would you give future PhD students? (Maybe you can write 3 blog posts about it!)
  15. Why do you think that this merits a PhD? (This is the toughest question in the book, and I think it’s only asked in extenuating circumstances, but best to be prepared.)

The best thing that I did to prepare for my viva (personally) was to read through my thesis one last time, with comments and track edits turned on in MS Word. I got a head start correcting typos that were spotted by my examiners, and I was able to add comments expanding on some areas that I thought might fall under their scrutiny. Because I was reading the thesis closely enough to edit it, I really re-familiarised myself with the content (much of which I had blocked out in the two months between submitting and defending it). When I was done, it was this copy that I printed and brought with me in a ring folder to the viva. I’ve seen a lot of people put post-its and highlights all through their theses, but I just put tabs on each chapter and post-its marking the areas I thought we’d turn back to regularly: 1) key words; 2) details of corpus design; 3) final comments. I’ve heard of people bringing stacks of books to their viva, but if a critical reference isn’t contained within your PhD, you have much bigger problems! The printed, annotated copy of my own thesis was totally adequate.

On the day itself

On the day of your viva, try not to do anything that makes you more anxious than normal. For instance, I’m a coffee addict but I only had one cup that morning, resisting the urge to chain-drink the stuff to get some rocket fuel before the main event. Try not to run around the department like the sky is falling, or to haphazardly skim-read your thesis; you know what’s in there. Go about your business like it’s a normal day and then go to talk about your work with some people.

That’s important enough to bear repeating: you’re just talking with people. During the viva, remember to be as respectful and as grateful as possible, and you will (most likely) be treated with kindness in return. Examiners read hundreds of pages — for free — and often travel great distances just to discuss your work with you. Be gracious about this! Not everyone is entitled to a smooth, friendly viva, but we all hope that we get one.

So when an examiner asks you a question about your thesis (your baby! your precious!), answer as calmly and objectively as possible. They are genuinely curious! Famous people! About your work! Remember that nobody has read and done paperwork and travelled to be horrible to you.

thesis_defense

Unlike in sports, the best defense is not a good offense. If the PhD is an apprenticeship, the viva gets close to teaching new scholars what it is like to present to the toughest crowd at a conference, or to get back the most detailed peer review from a journal. In almost all cases, you can accept what your examiner says, or thank them for their comment and think over the ramifications later. This is not to say that you should go limp during the viva; if you feel misunderstood, or if you feel as though a challenge to your theoretical framework/methodology/research design is unfounded and can be easily responded to, do your best to present your perspective. But much of the viva is a group of very clever, very curious people asking questions, hoping for clever, interesting answers. If you are able to get into this mind-set, you might actually be able to do the unthinkable and enjoy your viva. If you manage to impress examiners with both your work and your congenial attitude, your viva might also be the birthplace of new collaborations or lasting scholarly relationships.

You can do it!


This was my last post in the series. If you have any questions about being a PhD student, or if you’re considering doing a PhD at Lancaster University, please get in touch! You can email me at a.potts(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)lancs.ac.uk or follow me on Twitter @WatchedPotts

A Journey into Transcription, Part 2: Getting Started

training:
MASS VERB:
The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour.

So how to begin?  With experts as our guides (and thankfully no animals in sight!)…

The Context:  The first week was to be dedicated to training.  We began by watching a short video clip of a Trinity examination in progress.  Although our day-to-day work is based purely on audio recordings, we really appreciated having this quick peak into the world of the examination room.  Being able to picture the scene when listening to exam recordings somehow brings the spoken language to life.

Picture this: a desk with a friendly examiner seated at one side; tape recorder in situ and possibly a fan whirring (quietly, we hope) in the background;  a pile of papers (perhaps held down by a paperweight); and then, most importantly for us in this research into learner language, a student seated on the  other side of the desk;  some nervous, some shy, some confident, some excited, some reluctant to speak and a rare few who might even have felt quite at home seated on the other side of the desk! 

Time spent viewing this clip was truly a valuable introduction to the context of this research and the real world to which the audio transcriber is privy on a daily basis.

What next?  Enthusiastic to get started, headsets on, foot pedals down…

Practice File:  We started with a practice recording that had been transcribed previously, applying to it our first set of transcription conventions.  (These have subsequently been altered and updated  on numerous occasions.)  This was an extremely valuable process – in listening separately and together to sections of the recording and in comparing our own transcripts with each other and with the original, we quickly realised the range of subtleties that are involved in this task.  The aim, of course, is for transcribers to do as little interpretation as possible and to be able to apply the conventions in a more or less uniform manner, thus making  the transcription process as straightforward as possible.  This, after all, is what will enable us to build a reliable corpus of words that are actually uttered.  Whilst the technology now exists to generate text from spoken words, the accuracy of the text produced does not come close to that produced by a real-life human transcriber.

Key to this task is the fact that it is unlike transcription in other working environments; we are not seeking to produce grammatically correct punctuated documents such as you might find on a BBC website when you want to review that radio programme you heard, or perhaps missed.  In spoken language there are only utterances and our job is to record every utterance precisely by following the given conventions, the only punctuation in sight being apostrophes and the odd question mark.  So is that syllable a word ending, a false start to another word, perhaps a filler used intentionally to maintain a turn in conversation, or perhaps an involuntary sound? All these are natural features of spoken discourse.  Tackling this challenge and striving to produce a document that represents as accurately as is humanly possible the words actually uttered by each individual speaker – once again, here is the challenge that makes our job enjoyable and rewarding.

And finally… A Transcriber’s  Thought For The Day:

I tried to catch some fog.  I mist.

Reflections from the CASS student challenge panel member, part 3

Pamela Irwin, this year’s CASS student challenge panel member, is looking back on her past year of research. This is part 3 of her reflections — need to catch up on the others? Click here to read part 1, or here to read part 2


Lately, I have been examining sociolinguistics and its related sub-disciplines as part of my exploration of the synergy between the social sciences (sociology/social gerontology) and language (corpus linguistics) in relation to my research.

My first task was to compare sociolinguistics with the sociology of language. According to the literature, in brief, the focus of sociolinguistics is to ascertain the effect of society on language, whereas the sociology of language is oriented around the influence of language on society.

Even with this conceptual clarification, I still found it quite difficult to assimilate the vertical (layers) and horizontal (scope) dimensions of sociolinguistics and then to differentiate within and between the sociolinguistic sub-specialities. At this stage, it was a relief to discover that some of these social/linguistic links had already been mapped, including sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics (Baker, 2010), critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics (Baker, Gabrielatos, Knosravinik, Krzyzanowski, McEnery & Wodak, 2008), realism and corpus linguistics (Sealey, 2010) and linguistics and ethnography (Rampton, Maybin & Tusting, 2007).

Linguistic ethnography has particular relevance my study’s ethnographic methodology. During my ethnographic fieldwork in rural Australia, I obtained data from multiple sources: historical records, contemporary materials such as local newspapers and community notices, participant interviews and journals, and field notes. As I had naively assumed that all types of data are equally valid, Creese’s (2011) advocacy of a non-hierarchial balance between researcher fieldnotes and interactional data (interviews, conversations) was reassuring.

According to Rampton (2007), a distinctive linguistic ethnography is still evolving and as such, it remains open to wider interpretative approaches. Here, Sealey’s (2007) juxtaposition of linguistic ethnography and realism to address ‘what kinds of language in what circumstances and with what outcome?” (p. 641) makes a valuable contribution to my analytical repertoire. For instance, my findings suggest that the older and late middle-aged women’s life history narratives vary significantly in terms of their depth (reflective/instrumental) and breadth (expansive/constrained). While these differences do not seem to be related to the type of data (written versus spoken accounts), the influence of temporal (age, period, cohort) and situational (rural/urban, ‘local’/newcomer) circumstances on the women’s accounts is less clear. Corpus linguistics provides an objective analytical method of unravelling these complex inter-relationships.

References:

Baker, P. (2010). Sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). A useful synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press. Discourse & Society, 19(3), 273-306. doi: 10.1177/0957926508088962

Creese, A. (2011). Making local practices globally relevant in researching multilingual education. In F.M. Hult and K.A. King (Eds.). Educational linguistics in practice: Applying the local globally and the global locally. Chapter 3. pp. 41-59 Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Rampton, B. (2007). Neo-Hymesian linguistic ethnography in the United Kingdom. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11(5), 584-607. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2007.00341.x

Sealey, A. (2007). Linguistic ethnography in realist perspective. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11(5), 641-660. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2007.00341.x

Sealey, A. (2010). Probabilities and surprises: A realist approach to identifying linguistic and social patterns, with reference to an oral history corpus. Applied linguistics, 31(2), 215-235. doi: 10.1093/applin/amp023


Are you interested in becoming the next student challenge panel member? Apply to attend our free summer school to learn more.

Reflections from the CASS student challenge panel member, part 2

Pamela Irwin, this year’s CASS student challenge panel member, is looking back on her past year of research. This is part 2 of her reflections — did you miss part 1? Click here to catch up.


As my research is predicated on a realist ontology, I have been concerned that it is at odds with the constructivist perspective adopted by many studies investigating the use of language in society.

Very simplistically, realists believe in the existence of a reality that is external to a person, whereas for constructivists, reality is contingent on language and signification.

Different versions populate both ontologies. Realism is largely associated with the critical realists spearheaded by Bhaskar and Archer. Likewise, constructivism is noted for its variations, such as those associated with the sociocultural and critical constructivists.

As such, I am struggling with ‘if and how’ to reconcile these “incompatible meta-theories” (Chouliaraki, 2002, p. 83). Lichbach (2003) suggests that there are three ways to address this philosophical schism: ‘competitors’ exaggerate the differences between these perspectives, ‘lumpers’ try to synthesise them into one centre, and ‘pragmatists’ roll over and ignore discrepancies. Here, my view aligns with the competitor’s insistence on separate ontologies.

Interestingly, a lumper approach is deemed workable in an ontological/epistemological combination. For Chouliaraki (2002, pp. 97-98), this is “a discourse informed by realist elements”, where a constructivist ontology is combined with a realist epistemology to draw out conceptual, analytical and temporal effects. Conversely, Buroway (2003, p.655) “presumes an external ‘real world’ but it is one that we can only know through our constructed relation to it…realist and constructivist approaches provide each other’s corrective.” His sequence (a realist ontology and a constructivist epistemology) aligns with my conceptual position.

I am also intrigued by the potentiality of ‘critical’ as a hinge linking the critical realist and critical constructivist worldviews. (Incidentally, two recent papers address this realist/language divide: Elder-Vass (2013) with his seven classifications of linguistic realism and Lau and Morgan (2013) via discourse theory). When contextualised to my realist/constructivist framework and research data revealing inequalities in power relations and social structures in the rural community, a comparable option for me might be to underpin critical gerontology (ontology) with a critical discourse analysis (epistemology), mediated through corpus linguistics.

References:

Buroway, M. (2003). Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography. American Sociological Review, 68(5), 645-679. Retrieved from: http://jstor.org/stable/1519757

Chouliaraki, L. (2002). ‘The contingency of universality’: Some thoughts on discourse and realism. Social Semiotics, 12(1), 83-114. doi; 10.1080/10350330220130386

Elder-Vass, D. (2013). Debate: Seven ways to be a realist about language. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. doi: 10.1111/jsb.12040

Lau, R.W.K., & Morgan, J. (2013). Integrating discourse, construction and objectivity: A contemporary realist approach. Sociology. doi: 10.1177/003803513491466

Lichbach, M.I. (2003). Is rational choice theory all of social science? Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


Return soon to read Pamela’s next installment! Are you interested in becoming the next student challenge panel member? Apply to attend our free summer school to learn more.

A Journey into Transcription, Part 1: Our Approach

To Transcribe:
VERB:
to put (thoughts, speech, or data) into written or printed form
origin:
mid 16th century (in the sense ‘make a copy in writing’):
from Latin transcribere, from trans- ‘across’ + scribere ‘write’

In September 2013 we applied for the post of Audio Transcriber in the CASS Office in the Department of Linguistics and English Language here at Lancaster University.  The job description seemed straightforward; to transcribe audio tape materials according to a predefined scheme and to undertake other appropriate duties as directed.  And the person specification?  As you would expect, a list of essential/desirable skills including working effectively as part of a team; the ability to learn and apply schemes (more of that later); and the ability to work with a range of accents and dialects of English (this is the fun part!).

We say the post of Audio Transcriber since, as far as we knew, only one post was available.  How wonderful to find ourselves both appointed (long may the funding last!); the opportunity to establish a slick working team, as well as to consult when problems arise and, not least, to celebrate the successes (yes, transcribing is a rewarding job!) are a huge benefit not only to ourselves in our work but also to the success of project as a whole.  In the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, it must be the corpus that is at the heart of the centre.  Knowing that we play a key role within the team working together to develop this corpus, we take great pride in what we do.  After all, our listening skills, our focus on accuracy and our meticulous attention to detail have the potential to help develop a corpus of excellent quality, and this will make a vital contribution to the validity of the all the research that will follow.  Quite simply, it is this which makes our job so enjoyable and rewarding.

Our day-to-day work involves transcribing recordings of oral examinations taken by learners of English as a second language at elementary, intermediate and advanced stages.  The examinations have been carried out by Trinity College London and have taken place in various countries; Spain, Mexico, Italy, China, India and Sri Lanka so far.  Each language and each stage have their own unique features.

Seven months and 1.5 million words later (Stage One completed and celebrated with colleagues and cake!), we were delighted to be invited to contribute a BLOG documenting our experience as transcribers.  Over the coming months we plan to describe and discuss various aspects of the job.  The aim is to offer an insight to other transcribers and researchers about this particular process.

Look out for the next instalment on Getting Started!

And finally… A Transcriber’s  Thought For The Day:

They told me I had type A blood, but it was a type-O.

Reflections from the CASS student challenge panel member, part 1

Each year, one student from an outside institution is appointed to ‘challenge‘ CASS with concepts from their own novel research. Pamela Irwin, the 2013/2014 student challenge panel member, is beginning to wrap up her ‘term’, and has put together a series of reflections on the process. Read the first entry below.


I am a mature student with a background in health and higher education, and currently completing my PhD in gerontology. My research centres on the interaction between age, gender and the community in the context of resilience in older women living on their own in rural Australia.

Although ageing is informed by many disciplines, my research route is via the broad domain of social sciences. Serendipitously, a peer review of a journal article was responsible for my formal exposure to linguistics and corpus linguistics. The reviewers indicated that my paper reflected a sociological rather than the requisite social psychology orientation, and while I was aware that my topic crossed these disciplines, I was not fully cognisant of the critical importance of language in differentiating these subtleties. As a result, I enrolled in a corpus linguistic programme designed to improve academic language use, and through the inaugural CASS summer school, I was then able to consolidate, expand and apply this knowledge. This immersion in the world of linguistics stimulated a new and growing interest in the ‘function’ of language in academia and everyday life.

However I soon realised that my grounding in the grammatical structures of the English language was extremely basic. While I could identify the fundamental parts of speech, I could not parse a sentence and any further analysis was well beyond my skill set. Since then, I have been introduced to new concepts (semiosis), terminology (concatenate), techniques (linguistic ‘friendly’ transcribing) and technology (WMatix) amongst others, as well as being challenged to rethink and change some of my preconceived ideas (metaphor).

Here, my understanding of the figures of speech is particularly salient. Resilience, a key theme in my research, tends to have different meanings depending on both the subject and context. An overview of the literature suggests that resilience is often described metaphorically as ‘bouncing back’ in academic and popular psychology, whereas in an Australian setting, resilience is more likely to be associated with an image of ‘the (little) Aussie battler’ (Moore, 2010). In this context, resilience represents perseverance, with the ‘underdog’ battling against all odds to overcome hardship in adverse conditions. By contrast, at a systems (socio-ecological) level, resilience is not yet related to a specific metaphor or image. It is however, closely linked to a related term, ‘panarchy’, that involves a dynamic process of adaptation and transformation.

Thus resilience is defined by a metaphor (a ball), an image (a battler) and a conceptual term (panarchy) in my study. These differences provide a rich ‘landscape’ to uncover with corpus linguistics.

Reference:

Moore, B. (2010). What’s their story? A history of Australian words. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


Return soon to read Pamela’s next installment! Are you interested in becoming the next student challenge panel member? Apply to attend our free summer school to learn more.

Dispatch from YLMP2014

YLMP

I recently had the pleasure of travelling to Poland to attend the Young Linguists’ Meeting in Poznań (YLMP), a congress for young linguists who are interested in interdisciplinary research and stepping beyond the realm of traditional linguistic study. Hosted over three days by the Faculty of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, the congress featured over 100 talks by linguists young and old, including plenary lectures by Lancaster’s very own Paul Baker and Jane Sunderland. I was one of three Lancaster students to attend the congress, along with undergraduate Agnes Szafranski and fellow MA student Charis Yang Zhang.

What struck me about the congress, aside from the warm hospitality of the organisers, was the sheer breadth of topics that were covered over the weekend. All of the presenters were more than qualified to describe their work as linguistics, but perhaps for the first time I saw within just how many domains such a discipline can be applied. At least four sessions ran in parallel at any given time, and themes ranged from gender and sexuality to EFL and even psycholinguistics. There were optional workshops as well as six plenary talks. On the second day of the conference, as part of the language and society stream, I presented a corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis of the UK national press reporting of the immediate aftermath of the May 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby. I was happy to have a lively and engaged audience who had some really interesting questions for me at the end, and I enjoyed the conversations that followed this at the reception in the evening!

What was most encouraging about the congress was the drive and enthusiasm shared by all of the ‘young linguists’ in attendance. I now feel part of a generation of young minds who are hungry to improve not only our own work but hopefully, in time, the field(s) of linguistics as a whole. After my fantastic experience at the Boya Forum at Beijing Foreign Studies University last autumn, I was happy to spend time again celebrating the work of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and early-career linguists. There was a willingness to listen, to share ideas, and to (constructively) criticise where appropriate, and as a result I left Poznań feeling very optimistic about the future of linguistic study. I look forward to returning to the next edition of YLMP, because from what I saw at this one, there is a new generation of linguists eager to push the investigation of language to the next level.