In the 1980s, John Sinclair was instrumental in showing the profound impact corpuslinguistics could have on our understanding of language. Now, ten years after hisdeath, I want to urge corpus linguists to think again about having an impact – thistime on fields that most people don't associate with language study, such as engineering.
Why does an engineer need corpus linguistics? How can corpus-based studiesimprove engineering education? What does it take to move from languagedescriptions to applications that encourage changes in what people do? Whatchallenges face corpus linguists in working with professionals who don’t “speaklinguistics”? These are the general questions I will address, using my work in theCivil Engineering Writing Project as a concrete example.
Begun in 2009, the Civil Engineering Writing Project is a corpus-based projectthat addresses a long-standing problem in engineering education: students' lack ofpreparation for writing in the workplace. Despite decades of discussion, there hadbeen almost no empirical investigation of the problem in the United States. I immediately saw the role corpus linguistics could play in defining the problem,informing teaching materials, and assessing improvements. The project materialshave now been piloted at four universities, with significant improvements instudents’ writing.
My talk will include examples of the corpus-based analyses of words andgrammar that helped us understand the gaps between student and practitionerwriting. The analyses have, for example, clarified the highly controversial areas ofpassive voice and first person pronoun use, and highlighted the importance of clausalsimplicity and certain word choice issues. They demonstrate that language choicesare fundamental to effective engineering. However, the linguistic analyses have alsobecome intertwined with techniques that are less typical in corpus studies. Wemaintain ongoing collaborations with professionals in the community, to mine theircontext expertise and get their help interpreting the linguistic findings. We interviewstudents to gain insight into reasons behind their language patterns – insights that no amount of corpus analysis can reveal. We have made additions to the researchmethodology to include judgments of writing effectiveness, a transition fromdescription to evaluation that is necessary for an applied project. And we areconstantly seeking new ways of turning corpus analyses into information andpractice that engineers value. Although the additional techniques increase thecomplexity of the project, I argue in this talk that expanding corpus research in theseways can make it more useful in more disciplines.
I will reflect on the successes and the continuing challenges of the project.How exactly the plate of spaghetti and the cable-stayed bridge figure in – well, thatwill become clear in the talk.