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LINGUIST List 17.1900

Wed Jun 28 2006

FYI: Offer of Research Resource

Editor for this issue: Svetlana Aksenova <svetlanalinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Geoffrey Sampson, Offer of Research Resource

Message 1: Offer of Research Resource
Date: 27-Jun-2006
From: Geoffrey Sampson <grs2sussex.ac.uk>
Subject: Offer of Research Resource

Dear Colleagues,

I am looking for someone who would be interested in taking over
responsibility for a valuable research resource I have been in charge of in
recent years.

During the 1960s, a team of linguists sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation
assembled a collection of the spontaneous spoken and written English of
children and young people aged between 8+ and 15+ attending a variety of
schools of diverse types in different urban and rural English regions: the
''Child Language Survey''. (This was initially intended as part of a
multinational effort directed at improving foreign-language teaching in
Europe, but I understand that parallel efforts in other countries fell
through; the material has essentially been gathering dust more or less ever
since it was compiled.) The leading member of the team was Richard
Handscombe, now long since retired from a Canadian university and in
indifferent health. After I used a small portion of the Survey for my LUCY
treebank (www.grsampson.net/RLucy.html), Richard generously suggested that
I should take charge of the entire Survey material, and arranged for it to
be transported to my workplace in Sussex, where it now is.

Since then, I have made repeated attempts to get funding to computerize
this material, clearly a necessary first step to unlocking the research
potential it contains. Although referees' reports on my various grant
applications have been outstandingly positive, unfortunately no application
has finally succeeded. I now find myself too close to retirement for a
further application to be worth making; even if I secured funding now, I
would not have time to see the work through to completion. Hence I would
be interested in hearing from anyone younger who might succeed where I have

In my view the collection has unparalleled potential scientific value. In
the first place, it creates a possibility (which otherwise scarcely exists)
of comparing spontaneous English usage across several decades of time --
children of the 1960s with children now, and/or the usage of a generation
in childhood with the usage of the same generation now it is middle-aged.
One can envisage many significant applications to the study of
language-skills education, for instance. One anonymous grant referee in
2005 commented:

''there is a yawning gap where there should be a research literature on
grammatical development at school age (contrasting with a rich supply of
research on both pre-school children and adults). What is needed more than
anything else is precisely what this project offers: age-related data on
speech and writing from the same children ...''

The written portion of the material represents children's spontaneous
writing abilities in a way which in my experience is hard to match even for
present-day children. Collections of child writing often turn out to be
heavily influenced by the adult prose they have consulted, but the Child
Language Survey compilers found clever ways to get at what the children
could do under their own steam. And the quality of the collection is
extremely high. The spoken material has been transcribed with an accuracy
that compares very favourably with the speech transcriptions in the British
National Corpus (and I have the original tape-recordings as well as the
transcriptions). The written material has been converted from the
children's handwriting into typescript with astonishing care, so that for
instance every crossed-out letter is identified. As a very rough estimate,
the whole might comprise about 800,000 words of speech and about 200,000
words of writing.

It will be a minor scientific tragedy, to my mind, if this material is lost
to scholarship. Yet, if I cannot find a suitable home for it fairly soon,
that fate looks unavoidable.

Accordingly, I should be very happy to hear from anyone who feels able to
rescue the Child Language Survey from oblivion. After handing it over, I
would be willing, indeed eager, to retain an involvement, to the extent of
advising on what I know about it, etc., but decisions would be for the new
owner to make: I have no wish to be a back-seat driver. I would be quite
willing to transfer the collection out of Britain -- I have the impression
that scholarly values may be in a better state in some Continental European
countries, for instance, than they are in British universities nowadays.
(And I would be glad to supply documentation on my grant applications,
referee reports, etc., if they would help someone else construct a case for

Anyone who would like to be considered is invited to contact me, commenting
briefly on how he or she would hope to publish and/or exploit the material,
and we can take it from there.

Geoffrey Sampson

Prof. Geoffrey Sampson MA PhD MBCS CITP ILTM

author of ''The 'Language Instinct' Debate''

Department of Informatics, University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, England

www.grsampson.net +44 1273 678525

Linguistic Field(s): Text/Corpus Linguistics

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