Tools for Researching Vocabulary

This month we published Tools for Researching Vocabulary by Paul Meara and Imma Miralpeix. In this post, Paul discusses how computer programs have been invaluable to his research.

Tools for Researching VocabularyI first got interested in computer programs back in the 1970s when I was working on word associations. Word Association research was a moderately hot topic in psycholinguistics at the time, and I thought it would be interesting to collect some data from L2 learners and see how it differed from the associations of L1 speakers. Collecting the data was easy. I got 100 learners of French to write three responses to 100 French words, but as soon as I started to analyse this data I realised that it was a much bigger data set than I had anticipated – the 30,000 responses were as many words as you would find in a small book, and some quick arithmetic made it clear that it was going to take me several months of laborious work to get on top of it.

Fortunately, I had a couple of friends in the Computing Department, and one of them introduced me to a computer language called SNOBOL, which was particularly good at handling strings of words. My friend showed me how to write simple programs that could sort my data and count the words that appeared in it. The programs we developed were astonishing – well, they astonished me, though my friend thought they were pretty straightforward. Basically, you coded the data on IBM punch cards. Then you told the program that you were interested in response number X to stimulus word number Y. It then ran through the punch cards extracting all the relevant responses, and counted all the different responses to that particular stimulus word. The program was only a few lines long, and it took just a few minutes to extract the data you wanted before printing it all out on large sheets of tractor paper. It was an absolute revelation!

An IBM punch card. Each column represents one character and you could fit 80 characters on one card.

Ever since then, computer programs have played an increasingly important part in my research. Usually, the programs I write don’t reach the public domain. However, I’ve become increasingly aware that young researchers have access to a very limited range of free computing tools, and that it might be useful to make some of my personal research tools more widely available to young researchers. In the long term, any serious researcher needs to be able to develop their own research tools and write their own programs. I hope that this small collection of tools will inspire people to do just that. There is a lot more to vocabulary research than running questionnaires about strategy use. Hopefully, these programs will give readers a glimpse of these wider possibilities.

Check out our website for more information about our research on vocabulary acquisition. And let us know if there are questions about vocabulary acquisition that you would like to research but can’t because the tools that you need are not easily available. We might be able to develop them for you.

For further information on this book, please see our website. You might also like some of our other vocabulary titles: Insights into Non-native Vocabulary Teaching and Learning edited by Rubén Chacón-Beltrán et al, Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition by James Milton and Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Foreign Language Acquisition by Višnja Pavičić Takač.

Vocabulary titles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s