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Learn English: How a corpus can help you increase your word power

Improving your word power using a corpora
Improving your word power using a corpora.

Flickr CC: Susana Fernandez

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If you're learning a new language and you come across a new word, how do you learn its meaning and use? Margot Palmer from Hawthorn Learning explains how language learners can use a corpus to help them learn and increase their vocabulary in a meaningful way.

A corpus is a collection of texts which captures language used in the written or spoken form. It gives examples of how language is used in real life situations. You can access different corpora online.

Margot says by using a corpus, you get the context of the word you are trying to learn. She gives an example of the word 'depend' below.

Search results for the word 'depend' in a corpus
Search results for the word 'depend' in a corpus showing how it is used in English.

Supplied: Margot Palmer

"When you’ve got a little report like this, you need to look left and look right," Margot says.

"So just by looking at the use of depend in this context you can see that a common construction is ‘depend on’. And then if you look right you can see the different types of nouns that are used with it."

By looking at the corpus search result above, you can see that (modal) + depend + (on) is a common chunk.

A corpus can give examples of chunks of language and this helps you understand the context and use of the word you're trying to learn.

"The more you read, the more you listen, the more you notice chunks of language. The more you can buy into the concept and context of the word, and use it, the easier it will be for you to memorise it," Margot says.

She encourages learners to try using what they have learnt in real life.

"If you try a chunk and you notice there’s a strange reaction, try another word that will fit," she says.

Another advantage of using a corpus is that it helps you understand the frequency of the word you come across. Frequency indicates how often the word is used by native speakers in speaking or written contexts.

For example, the word 'efficaciousness', which is synonymous with effectiveness, has a frequency of 10. That means it's rarely used by English speakers and so its meaning may not be widely known.

"If native speakers are saying they don’t understand that word [you're using], you need to listen to them because every word has a frequency.

"So if it’s been used 10 times, it’s not a high frequency word. The native speakers are telling you that "effectiveness" is much more easily understood.

"The aim of any language learner is to be understood. So even though you might be really proud that you’ve learnt this really long word, if people aren’t understanding you then it’s not helping your communication."

The length of the word can also help you decide if it's a high frequency word, according to Margot.

"Generally speaking the longer the word the less high frequency it is," she says.

Margot also recommends using an online search engine, like Google, if you don’t know what a word means.

"If you put [the word] through Google images quite often it’s the easiest way to understand the word because you’ll get a picture and you don’t need to translate it.

"Make sure you get the correct picture because remember context is always important," she says.

Learn English Hacks is a Facebook Live series featuring Australian teachers where they discuss challenges learners face and how to overcome them. For more information, visit our Learn English Facebook page.