CASS at Corpus Linguistics 2017

The biennial Corpus Linguistics conference first took place in 2001 at Lancaster, with the 2017 conference at Birmingham being its 9th outing. Lasting four days with an additional day for workshops, this blog post details CASS participation at the event.

On Monday 24th July CASS ran two pre-conference workshops: Vaclav Brezina and Matt Timperley’s workshop was based around the tool #LancsBox which has the capacity to create collocational networks while Robbie Love and Andrew Hardie introduced the Spoken BNC2014 Corpus. Pre-conference workshop presentations were also given by CASS members in the Corpus Approaches to Health Communication workshop which saw talks by Paul Baker (on NHS patient feedback), Elena Semino (on assessment of a diagnostic pain questionnaire) and Karen Kinloch who gave two talks on discourses around IVF treatment and post natal depression (her second talk was co-presented with Sylvia Jaworska).

On the first day of the conference proper, CASS Director Andrew Hardie gave a plenary entitled Exploratory analysis of word frequencies across corpus texts: towards a critical contrast of approaches, which involved a “for one night only” Topic Modelling analysis, demonstrating some of the problems and assumptions behind this approach. Key points were illustrated with a friendly picture of a Gigantopithecus (pictures of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures were used in several talks, perhaps suggesting a new theme for CL research). The plenary can be watched in full here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ka4yDJLtSSc

A number of conference talks involved the creation and analysis of the new 2014 British National Corpus, with Abi Hawtin presenting on how she developed parameters for the written section and Robbie Love discussing swearing in the spoken section of the BNC2014. Vaclav Brezina and Matt Timperley discussed a proposal for standardised tokenization and word counting, using the new BNC as an exemplar while Susan Reichelt examined ways of adapting the BNC for sociolinguistic research, taking a case study on negative concord.

In terms of other corpus creation projects, Paul Rayson, Scott Piao and a team from Cardiff University discussed the creation of a Welsh Semantic tagger for use with the CorCenCC Project.

Two talks involved uses of corpus linguistics in teaching. First, Gillian Smith described the creation and analysis of a corpus of interactions in Special Education Needs classrooms, with the goal of investigating teacher scaffolding while Liam Blything, Kate Cain and Andrew Hardie analysed a half million corpus of teacher-child interactions during guided reading sessions.

Regarding work examining discourse and representation using corpus approaches Carmen Dayrell presented her work with Helen Baker and Tony McEnery on a diachronic analysis of newspaper articles about droughts, their research combining corpus approaches with GIS (Geographical Information Systems). GIS was also used by Laura Paterson and Ian Gregory to map text analysis of poverty in the UK while Paul Baker and Mark McGlashan reported on their work looking at representations of Romanians in the Daily Express, comparing articles with online reader comments. A fourth paper by Jens Zinn and Daniel McDonald considered changing understandings around the concept of risk in English language newspapers.

Collocation was also a popular CASS topic in our presentations. Native and non-native processing of collocations was investigated by Jen Hughes, who carried out an experimental study using electroencephalography (EEG) which measures electrical potentials in the brain, while another approach to collocation was taken by Doğuş Can Öksüz and Vaclav Brezina who examined adjective-noun collocations in Turkish and English. A third collocation study by Dana Gabasolva, Vaclav Brezina and Tony McEnery involved empirical validation of MI-based score collocations for language learning research.

Finally, Jonathan Culpeper and Amelia Joulain-Jay talked about an affiliated CASS project involving work on creating an Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s language. They discussed issues surrounding spelling variation, and part of speech tagging, and gave two case studies (involving the words I and good).

 
The conference brought together corpus linguists from dozens of countries (including Germany, Finland, Spain, Israel, Japan, Brazil, Iran, The Netherlands, USA, New Zealand, Taiwan, Ireland, China, Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Chile, UK, Hong Kong, Norway, Australia, Belgium, Canada, South Africa and Venezuela) and was a great opportunity to share and hear about developing work in the field. There was a lively twitter presence throughout the conference, with the tag #CL2017bham. However, my favourite tag was #HardiePieChartWatch, which had me going back to my slides to see if I had used a pie chart appropriately. Be careful with your pie charts!

The next conference will be held (for the first time) in Cardiff – I hope to see you there in two years.

More pictures of the conference can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/artsatbirmingham/sets/72157684181373191

User Involvement: CASS go to CLARIN PLUS workshop

At the beginning of June, I attended the CLARIN PLUS workshop on User Involvement held in the capital Helsinki. CLARIN stands for “Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure”; it is an international research infrastructure which provides scholars in the social sciences and humanities with easy access to digital language data, and also advanced tools to handle those data sets. The main purpose of the workshop was to share information, good practice, expertise, and ideas on how potential and current users can most benefit from CLARIN services.

I was representing Lancaster University as part of the UK branch of CLARIN, which is led by Martin Wynne at Oxford. Some of the participants, representing CLARIN’s different national consortia, shared their successful stories of their involvement with the local community.

At the workshop, Johanna Berg, from Sweden, and Mietta Lennes, from Finland showed us how they made innovative use of the roadshow event format to present some language resources across different institutions in their countries. Mietta also gave us a taste of the very useful tools and corpora that you can find at The Language Bank of Finland.

Another fruitful example presented at the workshop was the Helsinki Digital Humanities Hackathons. The event, which is in its third edition, brings together researchers from computer science, humanities and social sciences for a week of intensive work sharing a diversity of skills. Eetu Mäkelä, one of the organisers of the DHH, demonstrated that it is possible to engage researchers from very different backgrounds and have them working in a complementary way. The impressive results of last year’s edition can be checked out at the DHH16 website.

At the end of two profitable days, Darja Fišer, director of CLARIN-ERIC User Involvement, wrapped up the event by presenting other amazing experiences across several institutions connected to CLARIN. One of the success stories she mentioned was the Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation MOOC offered by CASS, which will be running again in Autumn this year (you can register your interest here!). Darja also highlighted the importance of events such as summer schools to reach out to more users. Indeed, Darja shared some incredible resources and insightful ideas at our recent Summer Schools in Corpus Linguistics and other Digital methods (#LancsSS17). Make sure you read our next blog post for a summary of the summer school week!

CASS go to ICAME38!

Researchers from CASS recently attended the ICAME38 conference at Charles University in Prague. Luckily, we arrived in Prague a day early which gave us plenty of time to explore the city. The weather was sunny, so we walked to Wenceslas Square, and then took the lift to the top of the Old Town Hall Tower to enjoy the views over the city.

The following day, it was time to begin the conference! Over the course of the event, seven CASS members presented their research (you can view full abstracts of all talks here). Up first was Robbie Love, presenting “FUCK in spoken British English revisited with the Spoken BNC2014”. By replicating the approaches of McEnery & Xiao (2004) on the new data contained in the Spoken BNC2014, Robbie found, among other things, that FUCK is now used equally by men and women, and that use of FUCK peaks when speakers are in their 20s and then decreases with age, apart from the 60-69 group which has a higher frequency than the 50-59 group.

Also discussing the BNC2014 project was Abi Hawtin, who presented “The British National Corpus Revisited: Developing parameters for Written BNC2014.” Abi discussed the progress on the project so far, and gave the audience a chance to look at the sampling frame which has been designed for the corpus. Abi also highlighted the difficulty of collecting certain text types, particularly published books.

Amelia Joulain-Jay presented “Describing collocation patterns in OCR data: are MI and LL reliable?” Amelia discussed the fact that data which has been digitized using OCR procedures often has low levels of accuracy, and how this can affect corpus analysis. Amelia tested the reliability of Mutual Information statistics and Log Likelihood statistics when working with OCR data, and found that, among other things, Mutual Information and Log Likelihood attract high rates of false positives. However, she also found that correcting OCR data using Overproof makes a positive difference for both statistics.

CASS director, Andrew Hardie, also presented research using OCR data. He gave a talk titled “Plotting and comparing corpus lexical growth curves as an assessment of OCR quality in historical news data”. Andrew further drew our attention to the amount of errors, or ‘noise’, in OCR data, and showed that if a graph is constructed of number of tokens observed versus count of types at intervals (say, every 10,000 tokens) a curve characteristic of lexical growth over the span of a given corpus emerges. Andrew showed that visual comparison of lexical growth curves among historical collections, or to modern corpora, therefore generates a good impression of the relative extent of OCR noise, and thus some estimate of how much such noise will impede analysis.

Also presenting was Dana Gablasova who discussed “A corpus-based approach to the expression of subjectivity in L2 spoken English: The case of ‘I + verb’ construction”. Dana used the Trinity Lancaster Corpus (TLC) to investigate the ‘I + verb’ construction in L1 Spanish and Italian speakers aged over 20 years. Dana found that with the increase in proficiency the frequency of emotive verbs decreased while the frequency of the epistemic verbs increased considerably. The study also identified the most frequent cognitive and emotive verbs and the trends in their use according to the proficiency level of L2 users.

Vaclav Brezina (and Matt Timperley, who was unfortunately not able to attend the conference) gave a software demonstration of #LancsBox – a new-generation corpus analysis tool developed at CASS. Vaclav showed that #LancsBox can:

  • Search, sort and filter examples of language use.
  • Compare frequency of words and phrases in multiple corpora and subcorpora.
  • Identify and visualise meaning associations in language (collocations).
  • Compute and visualize keywords.
  • Use a simple but powerful interface.
  • Support a number of advanced features such as customisable statistical measures.

#LancsBox can be downloaded for free from the tool website http://corpora.lancs.ac.uk/lancsbox.

Dana and Vaclav also gave a presentation together, titled “MI-score-based collocations in language learning research: A critical evaluation.” Dana and Vaclav identified several issues in the use of MI-score as a measure in language learning research, and used data from the BNC and TLC to:

  • place the MI-score in the context of other similar association measures and discuss the similarities and differences directly relevant to LLR
  • to propose general principles for selection of association measures in LLR.

Finally, former CASS senior research associate Laura Paterson, who recently moved to a lectureship at the Open University, presented “Visualising corpora using Geographical Text Analysis (GTA): (Un)employment in the UK, a case study”, which stemmed from her work on the CASS Distressed Communities project. Laura showed how GTA can be used to generate maps from concordance lines. She showed lots of interesting data visualisations and highlighted the way in which GTA allows the researcher to visualise their corpus and adds a consideration of physical space to language analysis.

Aside from all of the fascinating talks, ICAME38 also had a brilliant social programme. We were able to go on 2 boat trips along the river. The first gave us brilliant views of the city, and the second allowed us to get much closer to the bridges and buildings which line the river. The Gala dinner was also great fun – we had a linguistics themed menu and, best of all an Abba tribute band!

Thank you to all of the organisers of ICAME38 for such an enjoyable and well-organised conference!

 

Recent Research into CEO Compensation

On Wednesday 18th January, the CFA Society United Kingdom (CFA UK) hosted a breakfast meeting at Innholders’ Court (London, EC4R 2RH) to discuss findings of a recently completed CFA UK-funded research project examining CEO compensation across the FTSE-350 from 2003 to 2015. CFA UK represents the interests of around 12,000 investment professionals in the UK and the report received widespread press coverage over the Christmas period including coverage from the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, and Financial Times.

The report (co-authored with Dr Weijia Li, Lancaster University Management School and available to download at: https://www.cfauk.org/media-centre/cfa-uk-executive-remuneration-report-2016) contributes to the executive remuneration debate by providing independent statistical evidence highlighting a limited association between economic value creation and executive pay.

Among other findings, the research suggests that despite relentless pressure from regulators and governance reformers over the last two decades to ensure closer alignment between executive pay and performance, the association between CEO pay and fundamental value creation in the UK remains weak at best.

At the heart of the problem is the disconnect between the performance measures that are widely employed in executive remuneration contracts such as earnings per share (EPS) growth and total shareholder return (TSR), and the extent to which these metrics provide reliable information on periodic value creation. Economic theory clearly demonstrates that EPS growth and TSR provide poor proxies for value creation; and this insight is confirmed in the data, with correlations below 30% documented for these measures and more sophisticated value-based performance metrics such as residual income and economic profit that include an explicit charge for invested capital.

The work also reveals that mandatory pay-related annual report disclosures designed to enhance the transparency of executive remuneration arrangements have become increasingly complicated and hard to read (measured by the Fog index), to the extent that even relatively sophisticated consumers of firms’ published reports struggle to identify basic information such as total compensation paid to the CEO during the reporting period.

Attendees at the event comprised representatives from a range of City institutions including CFA UK, The Investment Association, SVM Asset Management, RPMI Railpen, Schroders, PIRC, Aberdeen Asset Management, JP Morgan Asset Management, Kepler Cheuvreux, Legal & General Investment Management, Fidelity International, Willis Towers Watson, Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association.

Will Goodhart (Chief Executive, CFA UK) welcomed attendees and Natalie Winterfrost (Aberdeen Asset Management) provided context for the research. After a brief summary of the research purpose, methodology and main findings, plus follow-up comments from steering committee members Prof Brian Main (Edinburgh University), James Cooke (SVM Asset Management), and Alasdair Wood (Willis Towers Watson), attendees engaged in a lively discussion concerning the report’s conclusions and their implications for executive compensation policy in the UK. The discussions will help CFA UK to formulate its engagement strategy with companies and institutional investors to improve the degree of alignment between pay and value generation.

CASS goes to the Wellcome Trust!

Earlier this month I represented CASS in a workshop, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, which was designed to explore the language surrounding patient data. The remit of this workshop was to report back to the Trust on what might be the best ways to communicate to patients about their data, their rights respecting their data, and issues surrounding privacy and anonymity. The workshop comprised nine participants who all communicated with the public as part of their jobs, including journalists, bloggers, a speech writer, a poet, and a linguist (no prizes for guessing who the latter was…). On a personal note, I had prepared for this event from the perspective of a researcher of health communication. However, the backgrounds of the other participants meant that I realised very quickly that my role in this event would not be so specific, so niche, but was instead much broader, as “the linguist” or even “the academic”.

Our remit was to come up with a vocabulary for communication about patient data that would be easier for patients to understand. As it turned out, this wasn’t too difficult, since most of the language surrounding patient data is waffly at its best, and overly-technical and incomprehensible at its worst. One of the most notable recommendations we made concerned the phrase ‘patient data’ itself, which we thought might carry connotations of science and research, and perhaps disengage the public, and so recommended that the phrase ‘patient health information’ might sound less technical and more 14876085_10154608287875070_1645281813_otransparent. We undertook a series of tasks which ranged from sticking post-it notes on whiteboards and windows, to role play exercises and editing official documents and newspaper articles. What struck me, and what the diversity of these tasks demonstrated particularly well, was how the suitability of our suggested terms could only really be assessed once we took the words off the post-it notes and inserted them into real-life communicative situations, such as medical consultations, patient information leaflets, newspaper articles, and even talk shows.

The most powerful message I took away from the workshop was that close consideration of linguistic choices in the rhetoric surrounding health is vital for health care providers to improve the ways that they communicate with the public. To this end, as a collection of methods that facilitate the analysis of large amounts of authentic language data in and across a variety of texts and contexts, corpus linguistics has an important role to play in providing such knowledge in the future. Corpus linguistic studies of health-related communication are currently small in number, but continue to grow apace. Although the health-related research that is being undertaken within CASS, such as Beyond the Checkbox and Metaphor in End of Life Care, go some way to showcasing the rich fruits that corpus-based studies of health communication can bear, there is still a long way to go. In particular, future projects in this area should strive to engage consumers of health research not only in terms of our findings, but also the (corpus) methods that we have used to get there.

Birmingham ERP Boot Camp

Last week I attended a 5-day ERP Boot Camp at the University of Birmingham, and this was an incredible opportunity for me to learn from ERP experts and get specific advice for running my next ERP experiments. The workshop was led by two of the most renowned ERP researchers in the world, namely Professor Steven Luck and Dr Emily Kappenman. Luck and Kappenman are both part of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, which is one of the world’s leading centres for research into cognitive neuroscience. They are both among the set of researchers who set the publicationjen workshop blog 1 guidelines and recommendations for conducting EEG research (Keil et al. 2014), and Luck is also the developer of ERPLAB, which is a MATLAB Toolbox designed specifically for ERP data analysis. Moreover, Luck is the author of the authoritative book entitled An Introduction to the Event-Related Potential Technique. Before attending the ERP Boot Camp, most of the knowledge that I had about ERPs came from this book. Therefore, I am extremely grateful that I have had this opportunity to learn from the authorities in the field, especially since Luck and Kappenman bring the ERP Boot Camp to the University of Birmingham just once every three years.

There were two parts to the ERP Boot Camp: 2.5 days of lectures covering the theoretical aspects of ERP research (led by Steven Luck), and 2.5 days of practical workshops which involved demonstrations of the main data acquisition and analysis steps, followed by independent data analysis work using ERPLAB (led by Emily Kappenman). Day 1 of the Boot Camp provided an overview of different experimental paradigms and different ERP components, which are defined as voltage changes that reflect a particular neural or psychological process (e.g. the N400 component reflects the processing of meaning and the P600 component reflects the processing of structure). Most of the electrical activity in the brain that can be detected by scalp electrodes comes from the surface of the cortex but, in the lecture on ERP components, I was amazed to find out that there are some ERP components that actually reflect brain stem activity. These components are known as auditory brainstem responses. I also learnt about how individual differences between participants are typically the result of differences in cortical folding and differences in skull thickness, rather than reflecting any functional differences, and I learnt how ERP components from one domain such as language can be used to illuminate psychological processes in other domains such as memory. From this first day at the Boot Camp, I started to gain a much deeper conceptual understanding of the theoretical basis of ERP research, causing me to think of questions that hadn’t even occurred to me before.

Day 2 of the Boot Camp covered the principles of electricity and magnetism, the practical steps involved in processing an EEG dataset, and the most effective ways of circumventing and minimizing the problems that are inevitably faced by all ERP researchers. On this day I also learnt the importance of taking ERP measurements from difference waves rather than from the raw ERP waveforms. This is invaluable knowledge to have when analysing the data from my next experiments. In addition, I gained some concrete advice on stimulus presentation which I will take into account when editing my stimuli.

On day 3 of the Boot Camp, we were shown examples of ‘bad’ experimental designs and we were asked to identify the factors that made them problematic. Similarly, we discussed how to identify problematic results just by looking at the waveforms. These was really useful exercises in helping me to critically evaluate ERP studies, which will be useful both when reading published articles and when thinking about my own experimental design.

From the outset of the Boot Camp, we were encouraged to ask questions at any time, andJen workshop blog 2 this was particularly useful when it came to the practical sessions as we were able to use our own data and ask specific questions relating to our own experiments. I came prepared with questions that I had wanted to know the answers to for a long time, as well as additional questions that I had thought of throughout the Boot Camp, and I was given clear answers to every one of these questions.

Furthermore, as well as acquiring both theoretical and practical knowledge from the scheduled lectures and workshops, I also gained a lot from talking to the other ERP researchers who were attending the Boot Camp. A large proportion of attendees focused on language as their main research area, while others focused on clinical psychology or other areas of psychology such as memory or perception. I found it really interesting to hear the differences of opinion between those who were primarily linguists and those who were primarily psychologists. For instance, when discussing the word-by-word presentation of sentences in ERP experiments, the psychologists stated that each word should immediately replace the previous word, whereas the linguists concluded that it is best to present a blank white screen between each word. Conversations such as this made it very apparent that many of the aspects of ERP research are not standardised, and so it is up to the researcher to decide what is best for their experiment based on what is known about ERPs and what is conventional in their particular area of research.

Attending this ERP Boot Camp was a fantastic opportunity to learn from some of the best ERP researchers in the world. I now have a much more thorough understanding of the theoretical basis of ERP research, and I have an extensive list of practical suggestions that I can apply to my next experiments. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the workshop and I am very grateful to CASS for funding the trip.

CASS goes to Weihai!

 

China 1

Between the 28th July and the 2nd August, Carmen Dayrell and I represented CASS at the 3rd Sino-UK Summer School of Corpus Linguistics. The summer school was organised by Beijing Foreign Studies University and was hosted at the Weihai campus of the University of Shandong, China. A research symposium followed the summer school on the 3rd August where we presented our research to representatives from both universities. The research symposium gave us a taste of how corpus linguistics is used in a different culture and we heard papers on a range of different topics, such as Alzheimer’s research, work on translations, Chinese medicine, and analyses of media discourse.

Our summer school sessions introduced students to corpus linguistics and gave them an overview of the discipline’s development within a UK context. We also discussed the range of projects ongoing at CASS and foregrounded the interdisciplinary focus of the Centre’s work. After the formal lectures, we ran hands-on sessions demonstrating how to use Graphcoll and CQPweb and conducted seminars using material from the Climate Change and Discourses of Distressed Communities projects to test the students’ frequency, keywords, and concordance analysis skills. The students really engaged with the sessions and were particularly taken with Graphcoll. They enjoyed doing the practical sessions, which they said were different to how they usually learned. Everyone in the classroom worked really hard and asked great questions that showed how interested they were in Lancaster’s tools.

China 2

Weihai is an absolutely beautiful place. The university sits with a sandy beach on one side and a mountain on the other. Because of this, Weihai campus is considered to have good Fung Shui. The place itself was described as a small city by those who live here, but ‘small’ is relative when compared to cities the size of Lancaster. Carmen and I enjoyed our time in China (despite a long journey involving flight cancellations and a trip to a Beijing hotel in the middle of the night) and loved seeing how well the students took to corpus linguistics and the materials that we prepared for them. The trip was a great success and we look forward to future collaborations between Lancaster and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

China 3

Textual analysis training for European doctoral researchers in accounting

Professor Steve Young (Lancaster University Management School and PI of the CASS ESRC funded project Understanding Corporate Communications) was recently invited to the 6th Doctoral Summer Program in Accounting Research (SPAR) to deliver sessions specializing in textual analysis of financial reporting. The invitation reflects the increasing interest in narrative reporting among accounting researchers.

The summer program was held at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management (Vallendar, Germany) 11-14 July, 2016.

Professor Young was joined by Professors Mary Bath (Stanford University) and Wayne Landsman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), whose sessions covered a range of current issues in empirical financial reporting research including disclosure and the cost of capital, fair value accounting, and comparative international financial reporting. Students also benefitted from presentations by Prof. Dr. Andreas Barckow (President, Accounting Standards Committee of Germany) and Prof. Dr. Sven Hayn (Partner, EY Germany).

The annual SPAR training event was organised jointly by the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich School of Management and the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. The programme attracts the top PhD students in accounting from across Europe with the aim of introducing them to cutting-edge theoretical, methodological, and practical issues involved in conducting high-quality financial accounting research. This year’s cohort comprised 31 carefully selected students from Europe’s leading business schools.

Professor Young delivered four sessions on textual analysis. Sessions 1 & 2 focused on the methods currently applied in accounting research and the opportunities associated with applying more advanced approaches from computational linguistics and natural language processing. The majority of extant work in mainstream accounting research relies on bag-of-words methods (e.g., dictionaries, readability, and basic machine learning applications) to study the properties and usefulness of narrative aspects of financial communications; significant opportunities exist for accounting researchers applying more mainstream textual analysis methods including part of speech tagging, semantic analysis, topic models, summarization, text mining, and corpus methods.

Sessions 3 & 4 reviewed the extant literature on automated textual analysis in accounting and financial communication. Session 3 concentrated on earnings announcements and annual reports. Research reveals that narrative disclosures are incrementally informative beyond quantitative data for stock market investors, particularly in circumstances where traditional accounting data provide an incomplete picture of firm performance and value. Nevertheless, evidence also suggests that management use narrative commentaries opportunistically when the incentives to do so are high.  Session 4 reviewed research on other aspects of financial communication including regulatory information [e.g., surrounding mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and initial public offerings (IPOs)], conference calls, analysts’ reports, financial media, and social media. Evidence consistently indicates that financial narratives contain information that is not captured by quantitative results.

Slides for all four sessions are available here.

The event was a great success. Students engaged actively in all sessions (including presentations and discussions of published research using textual analysis methods). New research opportunities were explored involving the analysis of new financial reporting corpora and the application of more advanced computational linguistics methods. Students also received detailed feedback from faculty on their research projects, a significant number of which involved application of textual analysis methods. Special thanks go to Professor Martin Glaum and his team at WHU for organizing and running the summer program.

40th Anniversary of the Language and Computation Group

Mahmoud

Recently I was given the chance to attend the 40th anniversary of the Language and Computation (LAC) group at The University of Essex. As an Essex alumni I was invited to present my work with CASS on Financial Narrative Processing (FNP) part of the ESRC funded project . Slides are available online here.

The event celebrates 40 years of the Language and Computation (LAC) group: an interdisciplinary group created to foster interaction between researchers working on Computational Linguistics within the University of Essex.

There were 16 talks by Essex University alumnus and connections including Yorick Wilks, Patrick Hanks, Stephen Pulman and Anne de Roeck. http://lac.essex.ac.uk/2016-computationallinguistics40

The two day workshop started with Doug Arnold from the Department of Language and Linguistics at Essex. He started by presenting the history and the beginning of the LAC group which started with the arrival of Yorick Wilks in the late 70s and others from Language and Linguistics, this includes Stephen Pulman, Mike Bray, Ray Turner and Anne de Roeck. According to Doug the introduction of the cognitive studies center and the Eurotra project in the 80s led to the introduction of the Computational Linguistics MA paving the way towards the emergence of Language and Computation. Something I always wondered about.

The workshop referred to the beginning of some of the most influential conferences and associations in computational linguistics such as CoLing, EACL and ESSLLI. It also showed the influence of the world events around that period and the struggle researchers and academics had to go through, especially during the cold war and the many university crises around the UK during the 80s and the 90s. Having finished my PhD in 2012 it never crossed my mind how difficult it would have been for researchers and academics to progress under such intriguing situations during that time.

Doug went on to point out how the introduction of the World Wide Web in the mid 90s and the development of technology and computers helped to rapidly advance and reshape the field. This helped in closing the gap between Computation and Linguistics and the problem of field identity between Computational Linguists coming from a Computing or Linguistics background. We now live surrounded by rapid technologies and solid networks infrastructure which makes communications and data processing a problem no more. I was astonished when Stephen Pulman mentioned how they used to wait a few days for the only machine in the department to compile a few lines-of-code of LISP.

The presence of Big Data processing in 2010 and the rapid need for resourcing, crowd-sourcing and interpreting big data added more challenges but interesting opportunities to computational linguists. Something I very much agree with considering the vast amount of data available online these days.

Doug ended his talk by pointing out that in general Computational Linguistics is a difficult field; computational linguists are expected to be experts in many areas, concluding that training computational linguists is deemed to be a challenging and difficult task. As a computational linguist this rings a bell. For example, and as someone from a computing background, I find it difficult to understand how part of speech taggers work without being versed in the grammatical aspect of the language of study.

Doug’s talk was followed by compelling and very informative talks from Yorick Wilks, Mike Rosner and Patrick Hanks.

Yorick opened with “Linguistics is still an interesting topic” narrating his experience in moving from Linguistics towards Computing and the challenge imposed by the UK system compared to other countries such as France, Russia and Italy where Chomsky had little influence. This reminded me of Peter Norivg’s response to Chomsky’s criticism of empirical theory where he said and I quote: “I think Chomsky is wrong to push the needle so far towards theory over facts”.

In his talk, Yorick referred to Lancaster University and the remarkable work by Geoffrey Leech and the build up of the CLAWS tagger, which was one of the earliest statistical taggers to ever reach the USA.

“What is meaning?” was Patrick Hanks talk’s opening and went into discussing word ambiguity saying: “most words are hopelessly ambiguous!”.  Patrick briefly discussed the ‘double helix’ rule system or the Theory of Norms and Exploitations (TNE), which enables creative use of language when speakers and writers make new meanings, while at the same time relying on a core of shared conventions for mutual understanding. His work on pattern and phraseologies is of great interest in an attempt to answer the ”why this perfectly valid English sentence fits in a single pattern?” question.

This was followed by interesting talks from ‘Essexians’ working in different universities and firms across the globe. This included recent work on Computational Linguistics (CL), Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML). One of those was a collaboration work between Essex University and Signal– a startup company in London.

The event closed with more socialising, drinks and dinner at a Nepalese restaurant in Colchester, courtesy of the LAC group.

In general I found the event very interesting, well organised and rich in terms of historical evidences on the beginning of Language and Computation. It was also of great interest to know about current work and state-of-the-art in CL, NLP and ML presented by the event attendances.

I would very much like to thank The Language and Computation group at Essex Universities for the invitation and their time and effort organising this wonderful event.

Mahmoud El-Haj

Senior Research Associate

CASS, Lancaster University

@DocElhaj

http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/elhaj

Corpus Data and Psycholinguistics Seminar

On the afternoon of Thursday 19th May 2016, CASS held its first ever psycholinguistics seminar which brought together researchers from both linguistics and psychology. The theme of the seminar was “Corpus Data and Psycholinguistics”, with a particular focus on experimental psycholinguistics.

The afternoon consisted of four 40-minute presentations which covered a range of different experimental methods including eye-tracking and EEG. Interestingly, the notion of collocation also emerged as a strong theme throughout the presentations. Different types of collocation were addressed, including bigrams, idioms, and compounds, and this prompted thought-provoking discussions about the nature of collocation and the relationship between psycholinguistic results and the different statistical measures of collocation strength.

The first presentation was delivered by Professor Padraic Monaghan from the Psychology Department at Lancaster University. In this presentation, Padraic provided an engaging introduction to computational modelling in psycholinguistics, focusing mainly on connectionist models where the input determines the structure of processing. This talk prompted a particularly interesting observation about the relationship between connectionist models and parts-of-speech tags in corpora.

In the second presentation, Dr Phil Durrant from the University of Exeter provided a critical perspective on his own earlier work into whether or not psycholinguistic priming is evident in collocations at different levels of frequency, and on the distinction between the related notions of collocation and psychological association. This presentation also provided a really interesting insight into the different ways in which corpus linguistics and psychological experimentation can be combined in psycholinguistic studies. This really helped to contextualise the studies reported in the other presentations within the field of psycholinguistics.

After a short break, I presented the results of the first of several studies which will make up my PhD thesis. This initial study pilots a procedure for using EEG to determine whether or not the brain is sensitive to the transition probabilities between words. This was an excellent opportunity for me to gain feedback on my work and I really appreciate the input and suggestions for further reading that I received from participants at this event.

The final presentation of the afternoon was delivered by Professor Michaela Mahlberg and Dr Gareth Carroll from the University of Birmingham. This presentation drew upon eye-tracking data from a study exploring literary reading in order to pinpoint the methodological issues associated with combining eye-tracking techniques with literary corpora, and with corpus data more generally.

With such an interesting series of talks sharing the theme of “Corpus Data and Psycholinguistics”, the CASS psycholinguistics seminar proved to be a very successful event. We would like to thank the presenters and all of the participants who attended the seminar for their contribution to the discussions, and we are really looking forward to hosting similar seminars in the near future.