What Can Sla Learn From Contrastive Corpus Linguistics? the Case of Passive Constructions in Chinese Learner English

Over the past three decades, the corpus methodology has revolutionised nearly all branches of linguistics so that corpora have been increasingly accepted as essential resources in linguistic investigation. Two kinds of corpora that emerged in the 1990s have not only greatly contributed to the vitality of corpus linguistics but have also revived contrastive analysis and interlanguage research. They are learner corpora and multilingual corpora. A learner corpus comprises written or spoken data produced by language learners who are acquiring a second or foreign language.1 Data of this type has particularly been useful in language pedagogy and second language acquisition (SLA) research, as demonstrated by the fruitful learner corpus studies published over the past decade (see Pravec, 2002; Keck, 2004; and Myles, 2005 for recent reviews).

SLA research is primarily concerned with ‘the mental representations and developmental processes which shape and constrain second language (L2) productions’ (Myles, 2005, p. 374). Language acquisition occurs in the mind of the learner, which cannot be observed directly and must be studied from a psychological perspective. Nevertheless, if learner performance data is shaped and constrained by such a mental process, it at least provides indirect, observable, and empirical evidence for the language acquisition process. Note that using product as evidence for process may not be less reliable; sometimes this is the only practical way of finding about process. Stubbs (2001) draws a parallel between corpora in corpus linguistics and rocks in geology, ‘which both assume a relation between process and product. By and large, the processes are invisible, and must be inferred from the products.’ Like geologists who study rocks because they are interested in geological processes to which they do not have direct access, SLA researchers can analyze learner performance data to infer the inaccessible mental process of second language acquisition.

Learner corpora can also be used as an empirical basis that tests hypotheses generated using the psycholinguistic approach, and to enable the findings previously made on the basis of limited data of a small number of informants to be generalised. Additionally, learner corpora have widened the scope of SLA research so that, for example, interlanguage research nowadays treats learner performance data in its own right rather than as decontextualised errors in traditional error analysis (cf. Granger, 1998, p. 6). A multilingual corpus involves two or more languages. Data contained in this kind of corpora can be either source texts in one language plus their translations in another language or other languages, or texts collected from different native languages using comparable sampling techniques to achieve similar coverage and balance. The two types of multilingual corpora are usually referred to as parallel corpora and comparable corpora respectively and used in translation and contrastive studies (see section 2 for further discussion).

Contrastive studies can be theoretically oriented or geared towards applied research. Theoretic contrastive studies are language independent and primarily concerned with how a universal category is realised in two or more different languages, whilst applied contrastive studies are preoccupied with how a common category in one language is realised in another language. In its early stage, contrastive linguistics was predominantly theoretic, though the applied aspect was not totally neglected. Theoretically oriented contrastive studies were continued from the late 1920s all the way into the 1960s by the Prague School. On the other hand, WWII aroused great interest in foreign language teaching in the United States, and contrastive studies were recognised as an important part of foreign language teaching methodology (cf. Fries, 1945; Lado, 1957).

As a means of ‘predicting and/or explaining difficulties of second language learners with a particular mother tongue in learning a particular target language’ (Johansson, 2003), applied contrastive studies were dominant throughout the 1960s. However, it was soon realised that language learning could not be accounted for by cross-linguistic contrast alone,2 and as a result contrastive studies lost ground to more learneroriented approaches such as error analysis, performance analysis and interlanguage analysis (cf. Johansson, 2003). The revival of contrastive studies in the 1990s has largely been attributed to the corpus methodology and the availability of multilingual corpora (cf. Granger, 1996, p. 37; Salkie, 1999; Johansson, 2003). Both learner corpora and multilingual corpora have been important areas of corpus research since the 1990s.

The introduction in the preceding paragraphs might have given an impression that the two areas have developed in parallel and are totally unrelated to each other. But in fact they are not. Recently, there has been a convergence between the two research areas, as reflected in the ‘integrated contrastive model’ which was initially proposed by Granger (1996). This article discusses how contrastive corpus linguistics and learner corpus analysis can be combined to bring insights into SLA research via a case study of passive constructions in Chinese learner English.

Name : Richard Zhonghua Xiao

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