The PIXI project

Fostering awareness and critical reflection in the language learner

By Gillian Mansfield (formerly, Università di Parma, Italy)

©inTRAlinea & Gillian Mansfield (2018).
"The PIXI project Fostering awareness and critical reflection in the language learner"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2330

Over the years, when people have come up to me at conferences and mentioned that I was a Pixie, it has always felt rewarding to be reminded of my collaboration in the PIXI project, co-ordinated by Guy and with Anna and Daniela prominent members on the team. Furthermore, when I enrolled on a Tuscan Word Centre course that focused on corpus linguistics, John Sinclair immediately associated me with the PIXI project too. In this light, I would like to thank the editors for asking us veteran Pixies to contribute to this volume in honour of Anna, Daniela and Guy.  

The PIXI project made a timely entry into my professional career as a language teacher and researcher. Indeed, becoming a Pixie in my early days of teaching language and translation to students reading for a degree in Modern Languages served as a springboard from which to learn to bridge the gap between simply teaching the language tout court (albeit keeping up to date with the latest methodologies) and teaching about the language. Furthermore, it helped me focus more distinctly on pragmatic devices deployed in everyday communication with regards not only to myself as a native speaker of English in the UK, but also as a non-native speaker of Italian in Italy. It is by observing how we communicate in our own language, comparing how things are done in one’s mother tongue with how similar communicative acts are performed in the foreign language, that we develop our lifelong lasting language skills. Having access to corpora or being able to compile them for this purpose is half the battle.

Recording bookshop encounters in Parma and in London was a forerunner for me of my later interest in intercultural competence, in investigating English and Italian from the point of view of the other’s gaze (and of the other’s ear, thanks to my earlier studies in intonation).  Gathering a corpus of spoken data, as we Pixies surreptitiously did way back in the late 1980’s, set me thinking about the relevance of intercultural competence in applied language study. Thanks initially to the PIXI days with our transcript data of British and Italian bookshop encounters, and later as I extended my own research to other more or less formal areas of language and text genres, I began to think more critically about cultural differences -  about the way we communicate and how we go about things in all walks of life. And, as an offshoot, the implications for developing skills in translation. My contribution here thus focusses on research-based learning achieved through interrogating corpora according to the Firthian “You shall know a word by the company it keeps” (1957:11); I will also highlight the relevance of general and specialist corpora in the language classroom as invaluable reference materials in writing and in the translation process.

Widdowson’s (1978) dichotomy language use versus language usage foregrounds the justification for investigating corpora as part of the language teaching/learning process, where the need to have access to authentic data is indisputable. The reasoning behind my own particular use of corpus investigation in language teaching and learning centres on three key concepts: noticing language (cf. Schmidt 1993; 1995) and awareness raising, which in turn provokes (3) critical reflection. Tim Johns’ (1990) data-driven approach and his definition of students as “language detectives” are particularly significant in this research-based approach to language learning, where the clue to the exact use and meaning of a word is more often than not discovered in its co-text. In fact, what did John Sinclair (2004) write? – Trust the Text!

Language students must thus notice, be aware and reflect critically in order to recognise the subtleties in the semantics and pragmatics of meaning, not only in their native language but in the second or foreign language as well. A corpus presents concrete evidence for them to discover by themselves, once they have learned how to identify their research question, whether they are carrying out data-based research to confirm their hunches or whether they are resorting to a data-driven approach to discover and learn something new from a particular kind of text.

Having made this premise, I will very briefly point to some of the areas in corpus investigation that, in my opinion, have given added value to my didactic approach to practical language study, particularly in master degree courses. As far as lexis is concerned, asking students to carry out simple concordance searches of common words, for example, has proved beneficial by taking them beyond the limits of a dictionary definition, which too often is taken at face value and applied incorrectly, whether in writing or in translating. Introducing them to frequency lists in ready-made general or specialised corpora sharpens their awareness of potentially significant content words that may take on another meaning. Helping learners to pinpoint neutral, positive and negative semantic prosody improves their accuracy and fluency in identifying content meaning and the use of an appropriate register. Likewise checking collocation and colligation, identifying units and patterns of meaning moves them away from a final translation product that otherwise smacks of translationese.

Drawing on the PIXI corpus, students can be guided towards identifying openings and closings in service encounters, and in doing so learning to recognise pragmatic features, such as how to gain the attention of the shop assistant, how to close an encounter or who usually closes it. This kind of study can be extended to an infinite number of text types such as academic lectures, political speeches, TV talk shows, and so on.  Once they have focussed on their research question, learners can be encouraged to create a small corpus of their own (e.g. film reviews, political speeches, promotional language, About Us texts on company websites), thereby giving them a clear sense of purpose.  They can then trust their corpora to give them an answer. Finally, from an intercultural point of view, students acquiring both translation skills and consequent intercultural pragmatic competence have a wealth of information at their fingertips in parallel and comparable corpora too.

The PIXI corpus set the wheels in motion for me to learn by discovery, by becoming a “language detective” in both Italian and English. It seemed only natural to transfer these skills to my students and to encourage them to develop an awareness and critical reflection about their mother tongue with respect to the second or foreign language, and viceversa. Answers to so many language questions and queries can be found by accessing authentic data and using the appropriate software. Such software was just starting to emerge in PIXI days, so it was a slower process for us, but rewarding all the same. The PIXI corpus made a significant contribution to carrying out a methodical study of real language before electronic corpora made life easier to do the same job. It taught us to pose questions and look for clues. It was good to be part of the team.

References

Firth J.R. (1957), A synopsis of linguistic theory 1930-1955, in Special Volume of the Philological Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Johns T. (1997), Contexts: the background, development and trialling of a concordance-based CALL program, in Wichmann A., Fligelstone, S., McEnery T. & Knowles G. (eds), Teaching and Language Corpora, Addison Wesley Longman, Harlow: 100-115.

Schmidt R. (1993), Consciousness and interlanguage pragmatics, in Kasper G. & Blum-Kulka S. (eds), Interlanguage pragmatics, Oxford University Press, New York: 21–42.

Schmidt R. (1995), Consciousness and foreign language learning: A tutorial on the role of attention and awareness in learning, in Schmidt R. (ed.), Attention and awareness in foreign language learning (Technical Report 9), Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center: 1–63.

Sinclair J. 2004, Trust the Text, Routledge, London.

Widdowson H. G. 1978. Teaching language as communication. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

About the author(s)

Gillian Mansfield’s main areas of research focus on Discourse Analysis, the teaching and practising of translation skills from English into Italian and Italian into English using general and specialised corpora in a technology enhanced collaborative learning environment. She is also interested in critical reflection and awareness-raising activities for her students with which they can bridge the gap between language competence gained during their university studies and their future professions with a view developing lifelong learning skills that incorporate intercultural competence. Her recent publications centre firstly on the search for meaning in context in various types of media text, as well as interaction and wordplay in the situation comedy with particular reference to the rendering of cultural identity and the translating of humour into Italian, and secondly on technology enhanced collaborative language learning in general. In past years, she has been director of the University of Parma Language Centre, treasurer and secretary of AICLU (Associazione Italiana dei Centri Linguistici Universitari). From 2008-2012, she was Secretary General of CercleS (European Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education) and then President until September 2016.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Gillian Mansfield (2018).
"The PIXI project Fostering awareness and critical reflection in the language learner"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2330

Go to top of page