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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 1; Issue 1; February 1999

Ideas from the Corpora

This column will run right through the 8 issues we intend publishing in l999 and will be written by the lexicographer, Michael Rundell. Michael is currently snowed under with work and the first two pieces will be written by Mario Rinvolucri.


A major claim by Ron Carter and Mike McCarthy, as they investigate the grammar of ORAL English, is that you cannot achieve a reasonable description of the way UK people speak to each other without bringing in the way they relate to each other. Carter and McCarthy claim that relationship between the speakers has to be a major variable in an adequate, descriptive grammar of a spoken language.

We have, of course, always known that the relationship between the speakers determines the register of the language they use. A vice-chancellor would be unlikely to say to a minister visiting her university: "Wanta cuppa tea?"

What I have found really new in the Nottingham work is that a grammatical choice often encodes relational information. If I say: "Mary was telling me the car broke down" the use of the past continuous strongly implies that I know Mary pretty well. By using past continuous I make a relational claim. Compare this with "Hilary Clinton said she is sick and tired of. ." : here I make no claim to knowing the speaker.

In chapter 12 of Exploring Spoken English, Cambridge, l997, Carter and McCarthy suggest that the choice of "going to" or "ll" to express futurity depends on whether the two people in the restaurant are thinking aloud in each other's presence or actually giving the order to the waitress. They write;

"Note how their decisions are expressed by "be going to" when they are simply thinking aloud, but change to " 'll " when they have to state their decision finally and externally to the waitress."

The fact that a grammar of spoken English must have the variable of relationship as a central pillar in its descriptive architecture means that now humanistically inclined teachers of language are beginning to have a description of English that fits in with their concerns. Just as relationship is central to the enterprise of humanistic teaching, student-to-teacher, student-to-student and student-to-group, so, now, relationship is looming larger in descriptions of language based on oral corpora, based on observable, accurately recorded real-life data.

At last, I can turn to linguistics as a congruent feeder field for my teaching, in ways I was not able to through the 70's and most of the 80's.

Mario Rinvolucri

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