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Corpus Pragmatics: The effect of data collection methods on the production of requests in English

PhD student Areej Alawad writes about the Corpus Pragmatics: The effect of data collection methods on the production of requests in English talk at the 50 ALC conference.

Prof. Ronald Geluykens

Written by PhD student Areej Alawad

Prof. Ronald Geluykens from the University of Oldenburg in Germany delivered a talk on the study he conducted along with  Illka Flock to investigate the effect of data collection methods on the production of requests in English. In their study, they investigated two questions: 1. whether methodology has an influence on the production of directive speech acts; and 2. whether a discourse type has an influence and to what extent it has on the production of directive speech acts. They compared three types of discourse data: 1. natural conversations found in the corpus of spontaneous (British) English conversations (source: the British National Corpus (BNC)), 2. business letters and 3. discourse completion tasks (DCT). The focus of comparison was on the following three request patterns:

-           directness of the ‘request head acts’,

-          ‘modifications’, such as downgraders and upgraders,

-           and finally the co-occurrence of the word ‘please’ with the imperatives

Results indicated that in  the natural conversations and letters, the participants used direct requests more than 50%. Conversely, in the artificial DCT data, participants used mostly conventionally indirect head acts. Hence, the data collected from DCT have been giving false information of how a request is formed by the native speakers of English (NSE). This naturally affects the way ‘English requests’ are taught to foreign English learners (FEL); i.e. teaching these FEL how to request based on artificial data gathered using the DCT which proved quite different from requests originally found in naturally occurring data. As for the use of ‘modifications’, results also revealed that ‘downgraders’ were significantly more present in the DCT than in the natural conversations and letters. As for the ‘upgraders’, they were found more in the business letters than in conversations and DCTs. With regards to the use of ‘please’, it was found that it was significantly used mostly in the business letters. Hence, this indicates that this discourse type marker, i.e. ‘please, is discourse type sensitive; meaning it occurs with different frequencies according to the discourse type.

"...there was a significant difference between the field and laboratory data sets which signals that there is an influence of methodology."

In conclusion, the study found there is a difference between requests gathered from DCT (laboratory collected data) and natural conversations and business letters (field collected data). With regards to the ‘directness of the head act’, there was no significant difference between the two field data sets, i.e. the conversations and letters. However, there was a significant difference between the field and laboratory data sets which signals that there is an influence of methodology. With regards to the ‘modification’, the business letters showed the presence of distinct modification patterns which in turn signals an influence of discourse type and methodology. Prof. Geluykens, based on the study, pointed that “there is evidence that both the type of elicitation method (controlled versus spontaneous) as well as the discourse type or genre (spoken/conversational versus written/formal) have a strong impact on the way speakers/writers produce requests.” Therefore, the researchers cautioned against making generalization about ‘requesting’ based on one type of data.

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