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Some Thoughts on the Problem of Representing ESP through Small Corpora

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Chapter Summary

Studies on representativeness have shown that the size and the content of a corpus are strictly interdependent factors and that while a small corpus cannot guarantee adequate representation of general language, it is equally true that “specialist” language, characterising a register or a genre, may not be adequately represented in large corpora. However, while issues related to the representativeness of large corpora have been widely discussed in the literature, no such discussion has been carried out for small corpora and these have implicitly been considered as “non-representative”. In this paper, I pose the problem of small corpus representativeness and of criteria used particularly in the design of small corpora of specialist language used in ESP teaching and learning environments. While general language corpora are characterised by the necessity of achieving a balanced representation of the greatest possible variety of text-types and registers, with specialised corpora there seems to be a tension between the need to obtain large enough quantities of “specific” language features and that of checking how far those features are generalizable both inside the domain of the specialised language and beyond. Within the ESP domain, moreover, specific teaching/learning needs may contrast with the necessity of providing an adequate representation of the type(s) of language involved and while on the one hand the material needs to be limited and controlled for teaching purposes, on the other it has to be such as to allow confident linguistic hypotheses. I argue for a necessity of discussing criteria related to the design of small specialized corpora used in ESP to distinguish, at least, between criteria related to representativeness of the specialist langue and those related to teaching/learning needs or purposes. I suggest that, as such criteria often contrast, a plurality of corpora of varying degrees of specificity, with different design criteria may contribute to a more comprehensive representation of specialist language for ESP.



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