corpora – a whole new world of lexical learning

I just learned about corpora (maybe I’m behind the times) and the very idea of a data base of a billion plus words which one can instantly see in context takes learning to a new level.
I never liked dictionary definitions too much. Firstly, language is subject to nuances and subtleties not reflected in dictionaries, and secondly and more importantly dictionaries don’t show us HOW to use language.
Let’s take a practical example. The word ‘farewell’. It’s goodbye, right? Well no, not exactly. Let’s go to the dictionary:

Used to express good wishes on parting:
Farewell Albert!

An act of parting or of marking someone’s departure:
the dinner had been arranged as a farewell
1.1 [MASS NOUN] Parting good wishes:
he had come on the pretext of bidding her farewell

Australian /NZ Back to top
Mark the departure or retirement of (someone) with a ceremony or party.

OK so now we know it’s an exclamation, noun and adjective. We use it to express good wishes on parting. Would an EFL learner still know how to use it correctly without making it sound wooden? ‘Hi, I came to wish you farewell.’ This is correct but we simply don’t say it.

Now let’s go to corpora and see what we can find. 9663 sentences with the word ‘farewell’. Here are a few:


Does this help our learner more? It certainly does. We’ve got some fantastic collocations to learn like ‘farewell dinner, farewell address, farewell song’. We can see from the context how it is used and therefore how it isn’t.

We see living language as it is used, today, on the net and not how it is subjectively defined (no matter what the level of expertise)

There are also some great activities our students can do with corpora which end up being much more fun and much more REAL than searching for definitions. Plus they are learning living language all the time. Feedback? Comments?


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