You might be wondering why I decided to choose the verb ‘ought to’ to stress the importance of Corpora. Well, if you decide to keep reading, you will understand. The reason why I’ve hand-picked it has to do with the short anecdote I am about to tell you.
When I was a young learner of English (yes, I am a NNS), I was lucky enough to partake in a class that literally changed my life. I attended EFL classes twice a week and my teacher was also a NNS of English. On that day, he taught us a lesson on modal verbs. The lesson followed the same old drill of ‘presenting’ the language – in that case ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ – followed by a ‘practice’ and ‘production’ stage where myself and other learners used mostly ‘should’ to express our communicative needs. At one point, the teacher stopped the lesson to stress the fact that we were not using ‘ought to’. I clearly remember asking the teacher why we should use such a verb when the majority of the time I only heard “should” being used in English. He pointed out that ‘ought to’ was an important verb and commonly used in English. I remembered going home and basically reading through all my Azars and Murphys, watching movies and listening to music. I was desperate to find more examples of the “so-frequent” ‘ought to’. And guess what? I didn’t.
Fast forward 20 years and here I am. Still questioning the usage of ‘ought to’. I’m not going to blame my teacher for the lack of exposure to ‘ought to’. However, I am going to question the issue of authority in language. Teachers – and learners too – are frequently bombarded with statements and rules about language. But the question that remains unanswered is: where do these rules come from? What are they based on? Is there any evidence to support them? Who came up with them? How could my EFL teacher be so sure of the importance of ‘ought to’?
When we teach a language, we are basically imparting knowledge that we have acquired over the years. The main sources are: a) introspective – this refers to ‘observation and sometimes the speaker’s intuition about language’ b) secondary – usually refers to ‘an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources’. In other words, referring to grammar books, coursebooks, and, even, other teachers. c) empirical sources, on the other hand, refer to authentic samples of spoken and written English.
And that’s where Corpora comes into play. It is a more ‘hands on’ approach to language because it takes into account language that native speakers have produced as opposed to language they could produce. It helps teachers and learners “observe” and “hypothesize” about rules and patterns of the language and then “experiment”.
Language that comes from Corpora is more authentic and can be “treated with a much higher degree of confidence” because they contain extracts that come from real use of the language.
To give you an idea, the biggest and most well-known corpora, The Corpus of Contemporary American English (also known as “COCA”), is comprised of more than 450 million words.
Now, with the advent of Corpus linguistics, it is possible to say that should is 25 times more commonly used than ought to. However, I am not here to say that we shouldn’t teach ‘ought to’, but rather focus on language people actually use and be more cautious when making any pronouncements about language use.
So…you may ask: ‘Should I use Corpora?’ To which I will say, ‘you OUGHT TO!’
- “Primary and Secondary Sources.” – Ithaca College Library. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
- “Introspection.” – Scholarpedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
- Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.
- Lewis, M. 2000. Teaching Collocation. Hove: LTP.
- “Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).” Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
English Central would like to thank Leo Gomez, teacher and teacher trainer, for signing on to write this column for us.
Leo Gomez is a teacher and trainer based in Toronto. He’s been TEFLing for over 14 years in different countries. His interest lies in a lexical approach to language learning and Corpus linguistics.