'According to the equation...': key words and clusters in Chinese and British Students' undergraduate assignments from UK universities

Leedham, Maria (2009). 'According to the equation...': key words and clusters in Chinese and British Students' undergraduate assignments from UK universities. In: Corpus Linguistics Conference, 21-23 Jul 2009, Liverpool.

URL: http://www.liv.ac.uk/english/CL2009/


Chinese students are now the largest non-native English group in UK universities (British Council, 2008), yet relatively little is known of this group’s undergraduate-level writing. This paper describes a corpus study of Chinese and British students’ undergraduate assignments from UK universities. A corpus of 267,000 words from first language (L1) Mandarin and Cantonese students is compared with a reference corpus of 1.3 million words of L1 English students’ writing. Both corpora were compiled from the 6.5 million- word British Academic Written English (Bawe) corpus with some additionally-collected texts. Each corpus contains successful assignments from the same disciplines and from a similar range of genres (such as essays, empathy writing, laboratory reports and case studies).
The aims of this study are to explore similarities and differences in the writing of the two student groups, and to track development from year 1 to year 3 of undergraduate study with a view to making pedagogical recommendations. WordSmith Tools was used to extract key words, key key words and key clusters from the Chinese corpus, and compare these with the British students’ writing within different disciplines. Clusters were further explored using WordSmith’s Concgram feature to consider non-contiguous n-grams. Both key words and clusters were assigned to categories based on Halliday’s metafunctions (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004).
The key word findings showed the influence of the discipline of study in the writing of both student groups, even at first year level and with topic-specific key words excluded. This has implications for the teaching of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) for both native and non-native speakers, as discipline-specific teaching is still the exception rather than the norm in EAP classes.
The comparison of cluster usage suggests that Chinese students use fewer clusters within the textual and interpersonal categories and many more topic-based clusters. One reason for this may be the students’ strategy of using features other than connected text to display information: for example the greater use of lists and pseudo lists in methodology sections and tables in the results sections of scientific reports. The Chinese students also employed three times as many “listlike” text sections as the British students; these consist of text within paragraphs in a pseudo list format (Heuboeck et al, 2007:29).

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