PhD student Shuangling Li has won an award from the Chinese Government who found her research to be ‘outstanding’.

Susie, her English nickname, has spent the last four years looking at the words time and thing and has come to the conclusion that they can only really be understood when they are encountered as part of a phrase. The individual words have so many different meanings that they become practically meaningless when they appear in isolation. According to Susie the words time and thing often occur in rather vague phrases like from time to time, things like that, and that sort of thing. “Time is often used in phrases which are used to organise text such as at the same time meaning in addition or however. You can even ask someone if they do the coffee thing? where thing refers to a part of something which is much bigger and more complex i.e. the whole coffee culture.” According to Susie both words are highly polysemous (they have many different meanings) and it is only when we meet the word in a phrase or pattern that we can begin to understand what is meant on this occasion.

Photograph of Shuangling Susie Li

All of Susie’s examples are taken from her corpus-based research. A corpus is a large data base of language, in this case written and spoken English, and Susie has been using data from a variety of different corpora to study how we use words like time and thing. The University of Birmingham is one of the leading centres for corpus-linguistic research in the country and is famous for its work on collocation, phraseology, metaphor, and discourse. “I feel very lucky to have received guidance from exceptionally knowledgeable and professional supervisors, and to have had the support of a very active community of staff and fellow research students. I was able to access to a lot of resources which proved invaluable for my own research”.

Susie has recently completed her doctorate and will be returning to China to take up a job as a lecturer at a University there. “I think the most valuable thing I have learnt from my studies is how to become a good academic researcher, keeping a critical mind towards my own work and the work of others’, being open to new and unexpected findings from the data, and always reflecting on how certain results from my research can benefit other studies and English language teaching”. Susie’s research shows how phraseology is central to language use and needs, for example, to be taken into account when teaching and learning a language. Hopefully, in future years, language teachers in China will focus less on individual words like time and thing and more on the phrases and patterns they are associated with.