Tuesday, 29 November 2016

On research ...

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a Research Foundations module as part of my MA course which looks at different aspects of doing academic research in the field of linguistics. At the same time, in my ‘other life’ as an ELT freelancer, I’ve been trying to juggle a work project which has involved carrying out corpus research for an ELT publisher. 

In recent years, working both as a ‘commercial’ researcher and being involved loosely in academia through my work in EAP, the contrast between the two research realities has often struck me, but being involved in both so directly in parallel, the overlaps and contrasts have been especially obvious.

To be clear, I’m not saying that either approach is somehow ‘better’ or, to use an academic term, ‘more valid’ than the other. Of course, they’re different because they’re different contexts and have different purposes, but I thought it might just be interesting to reflect on those differences.

I obviously can’t go into detail about the commercial project I’ve been working on, for reasons of confidentiality, but very broadly, it’s using the publisher’s corpus of learner English to research the linguistic features typical of different groups of learners to feed into some teaching materials.

1 Getting started
Academic: The first 5 weeks of the research module were taken up with preliminaries – formulating research questions, lots and lots of reading and critiquing others’ work – and it wasn’t until week 6 that we even got on to talking about collecting data. This reflects, perhaps, the long process of planning and formulating a research question that goes on in academic research – there’s plenty of thinking time.
Commercial: The corpus already exists, so the data’s already collected and the research question had been formulated by the in-house project editors and passed to me in the form of a brief. So after a brief flurry of emails to clarify a few details, I got stuck straight into the analysis.

2 The timeframe
Academic: Certainly weeks, if not months or in many cases, years.
Commercial: 5 days!

3 The data
Academic: One of the things that never ceases to amaze, and often frustrate, me is how little data a lot of academic research is based on. So much of the research into L2 vocabulary acquisition, for example, seems to be based on short-term studies involving a handful of Japanese university students, who aren’t really representative of anything other than maybe ... those Japanese university students. Yet the findings get extrapolated to all language learners everywhere! Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not that wide of the mark. To be fair, that’s because it can actually be very difficult to gather large amounts of data for academic research, either due to lack of time or resources or access.
Commercial: Large publishers have the resources (both financial and infrastructure) to gather huge amounts of data which they then have the wherewithal to process and store in massive computerized corpora. The corpus I’ve been using for this project is a corpus of learner language collected from students sitting international English exams. It contains over 50 million words produced by over 220,000 students from 173 countries. Which I think makes it pretty representative … at least of the language students use in written English exams, which was exactly what I was interested here in because my research was to feed into designing exam practice materials.

4 The theoretical background
Academic: Academic researchers have to ‘situate’ their work within the existing research and theoretical frameworks in their area. This means they really have to know their stuff. They have to know what everyone else has said or done before them otherwise they risk criticism … academics love to pick holes!
Commercial: When I get a brief for a job like this, I don’t really have the time to go out and do lots of reading, I have to rely on what I already know. That partly comes down to practical experience both as a language teacher and as a corpus researcher. I’ve been involved in ELT for some 25 years and I’ve been doing corpus research for almost 20. Over that time, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the field, some of it of the pure academic kind and a lot that’s been ‘filtered’ as part of articles, blogs, conference talks and the like. I do try and keep up with my field(s), but it’s certainly not systematic or comprehensive.

5 The methodological approach
Academic: In the academic world, a lot of thought goes into developing the methodology for a particular study. Will the methods be quantitative or qualitative, will it use questionnaires or interviews, how will the sample be selected, will the study attempt to replicate previous research, what ethical considerations are there? Like the theoretical background, the methodology will be picked over and critiqued ruthlessly, so it has to be watertight and justified at every stage.
Commercial: The research that I’m working on won’t be published in itself. It will go straight to the editors and the materials writers, and they’ll be more interested in the results than how I got to them. That’s not to say I don’t approach the task systematically, but my methods can be much more mixed and pragmatic. In fact, for this particular project, I came at it from both a quantitative and a qualitative angle and then combined the two drawing on my personal knowledge of language teaching, language learners and exam materials to come up with useable results. So from a quantitative perspective, the corpus tools can crunch the data and produce things like word frequency lists that indicate which particular vocabulary items the different groups of learners produce most often. But I also looked at a smaller number of sample texts in more detail to get a feel for discourse level features. And if I come across something potentially interesting in the sample (like, say, the use of a particular discourse marker), I then searched to see how it was used elsewhere in the data – was it a quirk of the individual student or was it a wider phenomenon?

6 The write-up
Academic: An academic research project is written up in a very formalized style either as a dissertation or a journal article or maybe as a chapter of a book. It has to follow particular conventions with an introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, references, etc.
Commercial: Thankfully, my report can be written on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. The people who are going to make use of it don’t want to plough through a load of waffle, they just want a clear explanation of the results. So I present the findings numbered and explained under headings with lots of examples and a bit of commentary. In this case, my report came out to just over 6,500 words – not far off an academic journal article (typically 7,000-8,000 words) but much looser in style and typed up as I went along with only minimal rereading and editing.

It’s difficult to say which approach to research I prefer – and that’s probably a topic for a whole post of its own! – but it’s certainly going to be an interesting challenge over the next couple of years to flit between the two. Hopefully, the overspill in both directions will be productive.

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