University language: A Corpus-based Study of Spoken and Written Registers

Douglas Biber
Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2006. Pp. 261.

Reviewed by Jim Bame
Utah State University
Utah, USA

Biber s University Language: A study of spoken and written registersis one of several publications which examine the corpus produced for the TOEFL 2000 Spoken and Written Academic Language Project (T2K-SWAL), a result of two Educational Testing Service (ETS) grants. In this book, Biber reexamines the corpus and offers entirely new descriptions and extensions to those prior publications.

The book’s focus is on reporting research of academic and non-academic spoken and written registers which students encounter while they study in American universities and offers a great deal of new and insightful information about L1 academic language for various audiences: graduate students studying TEFL/SL or Applied Linguistics, teachers of pre-university students and ESP and EAP students, course designers, and textbook writers.

To set up the importance of this research, Biber gives an example of the gap between written (textbook) and spoken (lecture) language in chapter 1. He then backgrounds the recent research of academic language very completely. Afterwards, he reviews recent research concerning register and offers his working definition of register as “situationally defined lexico-grammatical features (p. 11).”

Co-authors of chapter 2, Susan Conrad, Randi Reppen, Pat Byrd, and Marie Helt, offer a summary of the corpus’s design and construction. In this chapter they explain the corpus’s sampling of academic language as natural discourse and describe how the corpus was gathered. They then describe the nuts and bolts of the process and rationale of transcription and grammatical tagging by computer. What is particular about this corpus, they note, is that for spoken register it not only has the expected classroom teaching register but also includes classroom management, office hour and service encounters, and study groups, as well as other academic conversations. Also for written registers, the expected textbook register is present, along with syllabi, university catalogues, and course reading packets. These are real texts in real situations which students encounter while studying, but researchers do not often analyze them this rigorously.

In chapter 3, Biber surveys the previous research of vocabulary use in university registers and gives the methodology of this study. Biber depicts vocabulary use in terms of the distribution of all words in the corpus and their frequency. He then compares the parts of speech and their use across classroom teaching and textbook registers of various fields of study.

Chapter 4 reports on aspects of grammatical variation: content word classes, semantic classes for nouns and verbs, tense aspect and voice, discourse connectors, and dependent clauses. Biber does this by comparing their frequency in various spoken and written registers and across academic disciplines. Chapter 5 looks at the academic concept of stance across spoken and written registers and discusses the features of stance, their grammatical, lexical, and paralinguistic markings, along with their distribution.

The next chapter discusses lexical bundles, or multiword sequences of words (e.g. an important part of, tells us that, on the basis of, etc.), in both academic and non-academic, spoken and written registers. Here, Biber outlines the functional classification and distribution of these lexical bundles with the main nodes being stance, discourse organizers, referential expressions and special functions (politeness, longer expressions in service encounters).

In chapter 7, Biber uses a factor analysis statistical method, first used in his 1988 monumental study on language variation, and looks at the overall patterns in university texts. He then identifies specific registers in this specific corpus along continuum line graphs of oral/literate discourse, procedural/content-focused discourse, reconstructed account of events, and teacher centered stance. The final chapter summarizes the six major findings of the study and future research directions and possible applications.

This book is not without its difficulties. For readers new to corpus linguistics, it will most likely be a difficult read, or rather a slow read–one which requires careful thought and time to digest new concepts, somewhat dry analyses, and many tables. Also, the corpus is only from US rather than English medium universities throughout the world, thereby possibly limiting its appeal. Despite these minor challenges, this is an important book which contributes greatly to corpus linguistics and helps to further define and exemplify just what academic language truly is in real world settings.

Biber, D. (1988). Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.