Features on ELTNEWS.com View All Features
How good is your English? Free test app from Oxford University Press

Interview with Ronald Carter

ronald_carter.jpg Professor Ronald Carter is a professor of modern English language, Chair of the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL) and Fellow of the British Academy for Social Sciences. His main interests are in the broad field of applied linguistics, working on the relationship between language and education, linguistics, language learning and teaching and the interface between language and literature. He is an acclaimed author of over forty books and one hundred articles. He has been at the University of Nottingham, U.K. since 1979, director of the Centre for English Language Education and head of the School of English Studies.

He gave this interview in July, 2004 with Gui Qingyang, a visiting scholar at The University of Nottingham from The School of Foreign Languages, China Jiliang University, Hangzhou, China.

Gui Qingyang
As you know, the latter half of the twentieth century and onwards is a remarkable time for linguistics in the world and you are one of those most centrally involved in linguistics in this period. Will you please reflect on how and why you went into linguistics, what branches of the subject attracted you, what formative influences you were exposed to and how you reacted to them?
There are two names that stand out for me as major influences, as colleagues with whom I have worked and as linguists who have shaped the subject in their interesting way. One of them is Prof. Michael Halliday and the second is Prof. John Sinclair. Both of them are significant in that they have taken a view of language as essentially social in meaning. They have both worked against the background of a very powerful tradition of mentalistic and psycholinguistic views of language developed primarily by Noam Chomsky whose influence has been extensive throughout the world and who has quite explicitly stated that he is interested rather more in how the mind works to process language.

Sinclair and Halliday operate in different traditions in that they are interested in how people communicate using the language. They are interested in the functions of the language and above all, they are interested in real language. Chomsky is really only interested in producing language, if necessary, he is interested in making up, inventing the language, which tells us something about the structure of the brain. Halliday and Sinclair are both linguists who have spent a lot of time working with real language with all its complications and messiness. They don't like the idea of inventing language, making things up. They want to see how people really use it. And I have been influenced by that tradition of real language use and of examining the functions of language in society, and social meanings and social purposes, and cultural meanings and cultural purposes.

Now both of them have been influential in other ways, too. They have been influential in the description of a language and how language works. They have always tried to recognize the levels of discourse, discourse organization and discourse patterning. Much linguistics in the early years of the subject looked at rather small units of language, morphemes, phonemes, individual words and so on. Sinclair and Halliday are always interested in the large patterns of meaning that are communicated by small units of language.

So most linguists in the early part of 1950s and 1960s worked in what is called a bottom-up way. They worked from the smallest units of language up to the largest units of language. Sinclair and Halliday are interested in working bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. So they are interested in language variation, language and culture, language and literature, language and society and then how the smaller units of language reveal larger patterns of meaning. And I have been someone I think who has worked much in that tradition. Hence my interests primarily in language and society, language and culture, language and literature and discourse analysis and in how language works in real situations.

The other contribution that Sinclair has made and Halliday to a lesser extent is in obtaining large quantities of evidence about the language, so that when they describe the language, they do so on the basis of analysis which is comprehensive. Sinclair in particular has been probably one of the fathers of corpus linguistics in the world, where he in the early 1980s built one of the largest corpora of spoken and written language anywhere in the world and used computational methods to isolate the most frequent patterns of the language and try to help better understand how the most frequent patterns of the language work.

This approach through corpus linguistics gives us more information about the language than we have ever had before. If you have, like Sinclair developed at the University of Birmingham, a 450 million-word corpus of the English language, spoken and written, then your statements about the nature of a language, about grammar, about vocabulary use, about discourse organization are very authoritative. Sinclair, I think, has probably shaped the way that all linguists will eventually have to work in the 21st century. They will not be able easily to say things about language without referring to evidence about how it is actually used by lots of people in everyday contexts of use.

Both of these figures are particularly important therefore for teaching English as second or foreign language, because what learners need is evidence about the most frequent words of the language, how they work, why they work the way they do. They need to be able to handle of course the smallest units of the language, but they also need to know how the smallest units of the language contribute to discourse, culture and functional meanings.

This is very important for learners of English, because if you can only communicate at the lowest level of words, you can only reach a certain level of competence. It is very important that you develop discourse competence, an ability to handle interaction in language. And we are learning more and more about this from corpora, from particularly corpora of spoken English.

So those are the two figures who have most influenced me and they have also influenced linguistics institutionally so that in the last 20 years in England there are now more and more courses for undergraduates and postgraduates which embrace social-linguistics, discourse analysis, language and culture, corpus linguistics and MAs in applied linguistics and language teaching which pay attention to these views of language. Dictionaries, grammars, lexicons of English are now increasingly being written for non-native speakers of English, for learners of English around the world whether it be English as a second language or foreign language. And these materials are being increasingly informed by functional approaches of language and by corpus-informed approaches of language.
Gui Qingyang
Would you please talk briefly about the ten-year CANCODE research project into spoken and written grammars which were funded by Cambridge University Press? In corpora studies, we usually do much recording without the subjects' knowledge. Don't you think it will lead to any ethical problems? Is there any possibility of establishing audio-visual corpora in that speaking activity is both verbal and non-verbal so that we can have an insight into the nature of human speech?
Influenced by Sinclair in particular, my colleague Michael McCarthy and I have developed here in Nottingham the CANCODE corpus which is a corpus of naturally occurring authentic spoken English which has been computerized and software developed to enable us to read and understand better the way in which everyday spoken English works. That corpus has also informed work with QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) and DfES (Department for Education and Skills). And it is also working its way into the latest language teaching materials.

For example, Professor McCarthy and I have just finished The Cambridge Grammar of English (Cambridge University Press, 2005), which is looking at spoken grammar alongside written grammar, and taking spoken grammar very seriously, arguing that when we speak, we use slightly different grammars from when we write. There is continuity of course, but if you only learn written grammar, then you are not learning the whole of the language. So we feel that as applied linguists, we have to apply this knowledge from corpus linguistics to teaching and learning contexts of English.

Now there are difficulties in producing a spoken corpus that you could imagine. You have to persuade people to cooperate. They have to not object to be recorded. They need to be unself-conscious when they speak if we are to catch something that is really natural in their speech. It has taken about ten years to produce this corpus. Because getting the data is difficult, getting the data from different parts of the country is difficult and getting the data from both men and women in different social contexts, different age groups is a very complex procedure. You need to be very systematic if you are to catch the real functions of the language in use around the country. And it then has to be transcribed and then we may have the problems of computerizing the data so that it can be read by software and interpreted by software so that we get the most frequent spoken information.

There have been times when we have had ethical problems. Sometimes we recorded people without their knowing. We had to get permission retrospectively. Sometimes people haven't wanted to give permission. Sometimes they gave the permission, but they wanted us to anonymize them as speakers and anonymize the places where it was recorded. So we have authentic language, but a lot have been changed in terms of names and places and dates and so on, because people are very protective of how they speak.

The next phase, as you quite rightly suggest in your question, is to produce a spoken corpus that is non-verbal as well as verbal, to produce a video corpus where the camera captures all the features of interpersonal communication that are non-verbal, just as you are doing at the moment, nodding in agreement, smiling, moving your hand and leaning your body forward, indicating through eye movements and so on that you are listening, agreeing, objecting, interpolating comment and so on.

And you are quite right to say that, although we have taken ten years collecting a spoken corpus, the really big job is to spend the next ten years to put a video corpus together so that we have a video record to show how people talk. This will be very interesting to learners of English throughout the world because visually people talk differently according to the culture with which they feel most familiar. So some cultures have people communicating together, some cultures prefer people to lean back when they talk, not get very close. Some cultures nod in very different ways, some provide back channeling words like yes, right, OK, mmm, that kind of back channeling, but some cultures don't provide that channeling. So perceptions of politeness are different in different cultures. Misunderstanding can occur even in the use of English across different cultures.

And it is important therefore to have the further information to complement the linguistic information so that we can essentially provide better language teaching materials. To go back to Halliday and Sinclair, better language material is more authentic, more discourse-driven, more corpus-informed, more rooted in real language as it is actually used.
Gui Qingyang
In terms of literature and language, your main interest is in the relationship between language and creativity, especially with reference to spoken discourse. Do you think your newly published book Language and Creativity the Art of Common Talk is your representative works in this realm? What is most striking to me in this book is the application of systems theory to this study. Can you elaborate on the concepts of line and cline?
Literary language is a very important part of applied linguistics and natural language studies. There are many courses throughout the world that investigate English literature, American literature, Chinese literature, lots of different world literatures. Very few actually look closely at how language is used in literary texts. And both Halliday and Sinclair have written articles in their time about stylistics that link between literature and language and they are undertaking literary linguistics study. That is the area I am particularly interested in.

I am interested in applying linguistics to the analysis of poetry, novels and drama to help us better understand how language works in that text. The basic starting point is that literature is made from language and therefore the more we can understand about how the language in the literary text works, the better we will be in a position to begin to interpret that text. It is also clear to me, too, that literary language is not absolute. It is not a yes-no category. You can't say that something is literary and something isn't literary, because every day we find examples in newspaper headlines, in advertisements, in jokes, in everyday conversations of people being creative, of playing with the words, of being inventive with language. They develop new strategies for interpersonal communication which is playful, witty, funny, clever and creative.

And in the book that I have just finished, the one you mentioned, Language and Creativity, I've looked in particular at corpus here in Nottingham, the 5 million-word spoken corpus and how that corpus demonstrates on a daily basis that we are all quite regularly creative and playful in the way we use the language. Language is not simply the preserve of major literary writers, but is also something that all people possess and are capable of when they use the language.

Therefore literary language is probably best described as a continuum from literary to non-literary. Maybe there is a theory to clines. Different users, different readers, different people and different contexts will view the use of language accordingly. Sometimes, if the language lasts over several years, we might consider it to be more literary because it is valued by people in our community. But sometimes something can be creative just in one moment, in one exchange, in one witty remark. It is ephemeral, it gets lost, but it is still creative, but it is more likely to be along the non-literary end of the cline. When we write a letter to a bank manager or a credit card company or a garage about the service of our car, that language will be probably non-literary.

So language is constantly moving along the cline from non-literary to literary and from literary to non-literary. And these clines are clines of creativity. So we are not saying only certain people are creative, we are saying that everybody can be creative. Creativity is the preserve not just of special individuals, but the special property of all individuals.
Gui Qingyang
You have written over forty books and one hundred articles in the applied linguistics field. How do you find ways to motivate yourself as a teacher, lecturer and researcher? What do you see as the relationship between research and teaching? Do you have any suggestions for teachers doing research?
In terms of my own work in applied linguistics, I am interested in literary linguistics, in applied linguistics and language teaching, in corpus linguistics and in the differences between spoken grammars and written grammars. I am lucky in that as an academic researcher, I have a lot of time to study many of these things. Now you ask what would I suggest for teachers to do as research. I think there are two things.

First I think it is very important always for teachers to look closely at language. The best language teachers are those who have most language awareness. So they can learn from the grammars and publications and corpora that are now available, but they must also trust their own instinct, trust their own capacity to analyze language, to choose their own text to teach their students. It is very important that teachers are not only aware of existing research, but also develop their competence and confidence to undertake their own research, to investigate language themselves and collect examples of the language from magazines, from newspapers, from all kinds of sources which they then say are theirs, not something that someone else gives them, but something they have developed themselves for their students. So becoming a language investigator, I think, is very important as a part of research that teachers might undertake.

The second thing, I think, that teachers must try to do is to become very good observers of their own classrooms, action researchers in their own classrooms. They haven't got time to collect a 5 million-word corpus; that is something academic researchers have the time to do. But teachers have a lot of time to observe the language of their students, to record the language of their students, to transcribe the language of their students, to better understand what their students' difficulties are in trying to learn English. And make them know some needs and set up questions, investigate these questions and become explorers of their own classrooms, become experts in their own classrooms. That is very important for the teachers to do, because they should not always rely on things that come from outside. They must know what is there, they must know what is outside, but the most important thing is to develop what is inside, inside themselves as teachers and inside their own classrooms so that they can become investigators, researchers and explorers in their own right.
Gui Qingyang
What are your goals in your term as Chair of BAAL?
One of the things I have been doing recently is leading the British Association for Applied Linguistics as Chair. I think the goals are again to try to get balance in applied linguistics. We must have a better balance between psychological approaches and social approaches, between different modes of learning. So BAAL is an organization that is made up of 700 members with different experiences, different backgrounds and different traditions. And it is important therefore that we respect and try to integrate those traditions so that we can better understand how different approaches contribute to successful language learning and successful study of language and better understanding of language.

It is politically important that BAAL becomes more powerful nationally so that applied linguistics gets a larger share of research grants, and it is better represented on research bodies and research assessment in this country. It is a discipline that is still very new, still very recent. Linguistics has a longer history, but applied linguistics has a quite recent history. It is a quite new discipline that is still finding its feet. So I want to try to develop the organization and help it to mature as an organization. Those are my two main goals.

The third main goal is to try to encourage younger academics, younger applied linguists to fulfill their potential as teachers, learners, researchers and representatives of the field.
Gui Qingyang
Away from the educational field and CANCODE, how do you spend the remainder of your time? What hobbies do you engage in?
I don't have time for hobbies, too busy really. But when I spend time, my family is really social time. I have a daughter who is at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is studying psychology. So my wife and I try to make time each year to go to visit her in the United States. My other two children live in Nottingham, so they live a lot nearer. Therefore we try to spend time together with the family, but I wouldn't call it a hobby. Because I am working seven days a week, I find that work is my hobby and my hobby is my work. I think a lot of people find that. I enjoy doing what I do. And therefore if you enjoy it and find it fulfilling, then in one sense, it is also a hobby.

« Interview with Vaughan Jones | Main | Interview with Richard Day & Junko Yamanaka »


How important is Applied Linguistics in your daily activity?

1. Would you ever use any of the Methods of analysis of a sentence in your classes? Why or why not?

2. How could Generative Grammar be useful to you?

3. Como podría la gramática generativa ser util para ud?
What real positive use could you make of the P-Marker Method of Analysis?

Recent Entries

Recent Comments



World Today