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Review of  Applied Linguistics and Semantic Web Apps: Cases of Mediated Discursive Practices

Reviewer: Sandra Petroni
Book Title: Applied Linguistics and Semantic Web Apps: Cases of Mediated Discursive Practices
Book Author: Anna Franca Plastina
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Computational Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.399

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“Applied Linguistics and Semantic Web Apps” provides a general analysis of Semantic Web Apps through which new discursive practices are mediated in digital environments. The three case studies presented show how Applied Linguistics research can be integrated into Semantic Web enquiry. In fact, the main research question posited by the author is: “How would an Applied Linguist respond to discursive practices mediated through Semantic Web Apps?” (p. 18).

The book includes eight chapters, preceded by a list of figures, tables, and a list of Semantic Web Apps. These chapters are organized in two main parts, preceded in turn by an introduction.

The first part, ‘Sharpening Research in Applied Linguistics: the Role of Semantic Web Apps’ (pp. 21-73), is composed of three chapters and each chapter includes an exhaustive and well supported presentation of the topics. The second part, ‘Mediated Discursive Practices on the Semantic Web’ (pp. 75-173), is composed of five chapters. With the exception of Chapters 4 and 8, the chapters provide both the theoretical background and the research issue in terms of research methodology, tools, method and procedure; show findings on each single simulation; offer comments on data triangulation; and conclude by describing the implications for mediated practices. The book ends with References.

Chapter 1, ‘Applying Linguistics’ (pp. 23-36), traces the evolution of Applied Linguistics over the past few decades. The author makes reference to Weidemann’s (2003) classification of the six generations of this discipline to illustrate its diverse models and traditions - such as the behaviourist model, linguistic extended paradigm model, multi-disciplinary model, second language acquisition research, constructivism, and post-modernism - with their specific approaches and consequential changes. As the author states, thanks to the sixth generation, “the work of applied linguistics [is conceived of] as directed both towards investigation on language learning/teaching in all its different facets, and as committed to research in a multi-disciplinary perspective” (p. 28). Thus, the pivotal aspects of Applied Linguistics are “openness” deriving from “the permeable boundaries of the discipline”; “interdisciplinarity” in terms of “interdisciplinary collaboration and integration with other different disciplines”; and “real-world enquiry” that is “its engagement in solving real-world language-based problems” (p. 28). All these three facets have made the osmosis between applied linguistics and computational linguistics not only possible but also necessary. Apart from the fully-integrated use of computers in language learning/teaching and the rise of new branches, such as Internet Linguistics or Netlinguistics, the author underlines that the attention of applied linguists should be directed to the new emergent semantic web technologies that have been decidedly affecting computational linguistics.

Chapter 2, ‘The Semantic Web’ (pp. 37-51), posits two main issues: to motivate the need to design an ‘intelligent’ Semantic Web and to identify those main components that can have a significant impact on Applied Linguistics. The first issue delineates a topic that has been analysed from different points of view in the last decades: information overload, or rather, “the overwhelming amount of unstructured information [that] hinders effective information retrieval and management” due to the fact that “on the one hand, this exponential quantity of information is currently intelligible only to humans, while on the other, it is only processable by machines” (p. 51). After depicting the evolution and the mission of the Semantic Web, the second issue identifies its components, i.e. Natural Language Processing (NLP), machine-based learning and reasoning, and intelligent applications. The author offers an exhaustive explanation of these three areas of investigation mostly related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Science.

Chapter 3, ‘Semantic Web Apps: Text Mining’ (pp. 53-73), focuses on the role played by Semantic Web Apps, their main purposes of use and operational effectiveness. As the author states, “[…], a key feature of all these applications is that they attempt to determine the meaning of texts and/or of other data in order to create connections which are meaningful to users” (p. 54). Their functions then are to process and manage information and to facilitate and optimize information retrieval in terms of time and effectiveness. In order to meet the last condition, two main factors are necessary: the availability of ontologies, “frameworks of knowledge representation, describing a specific area of knowledge through the concepts of the domain, and their properties and relationships” (p. 58); and the potentialities of semantic search engines that, differently from the common search engines, exploit semantics to generate more appropriate results by disambiguating polysemy and synonymy. Text mining permits these Semantic Web Apps to “semantize” (p. 72) information and to examine meaning at different language levels (e.g., a Web annotation app for information extraction implies operating at the morphological level; a text clouding app for text summarization works on the semantic level; a sentiment classification app for sentiment analysis looks at the pragmatic level).

Chapter 4, ‘Setting up Research Enquiry’ (pp. 78-95), provides “a detailed description of how research enquiry was set up to conduct mediated practices with Semantic Web Apps for language-related enquiry” (p. 78). Based on a semantic-web app approach - rather than the NLP approach, the corpus-based approach, the Web-as-Corpus approach, and the search engine approach - research enquiry can move beyond the classical fields of computational linguistics, corpus linguistics and lexicography, can access resources directly online and make use of open-source tools. The research framework utilized here starts from the following research question: “To which extent does the use of Semantic Web Apps add new theoretical insight into language-based enquiry in different sub-fields of applied linguistics?” (p. 82). Computer simulation is used as research method and qualitative empirical investigation is undertaken as research methodology. The research procedure follows three phases: Orientation (selection of strands of Applied Linguistics, refinement of research questions, selection of Semantic Web Apps); Focused Exploration (collection of data); Verification (data triangulation). The rigorous respect that the author has for this research framework aims at legitimating research processes.

Chapter 5, ‘Enhancing Consumer Health Vocabulary: The Case of Ontology-based Searches’ (pp. 97-122), focuses on mediated discursive practices grounded in professional and specialised domains (health communication in this case). The author hypothesises that, first, an ontology-based approach to health consumer queries helps users improve their knowledge of specialised terminology, and, second, it offers more effective semantic results than those offered by common search engines (e.g. Google).The theoretical background provided then by the author is based on Frame Semantics (Fillmore 1982, 1985) and Frame-Based Terminology (Faber et al. 2005). Research tools are respectively a sample medical transcription of a discharge summary, including clinical information, and NLMplus (, a semantic search engine which make use of 60 medical ontologies related to verbal and visual resources. The author shows that the Focused Exploration phase (selecting ‘obscure’ medical terms and simulating semantic searches in NLMplus) confirms the first hypothesis, and the Verification phase (simulating the same queries in Google and comparing data with results of the previous phase) confirms the second hypothesis. Findings demonstrate that “NLMplus is a powerful Semantic Web App as it is capable of extracting biomedical concepts across different specialized ontologies, ensuring trust and reliability” (p. 113), more than online dictionaries or Wikipedia. The author calls attention to some limitations to this approach, i.e. the user’s digital and medical literacy and his/her English language competence.

Chapter 6, ‘Developing L2 Readers’ Comprehension Strategies: The Case of the Text Clouding Approach’ (pp. 123-144), “seeks to understand how learners can manipulate English L2 texts via Semantic Web Apps in order to develop their cognitive strategies for better reading comprehension” (p. 125). The author posits two hypotheses: first, Semantic Web Apps based on the text-clouding technique can be used as “effective scaffolds for the development of EFL readers’ higher-level reading comprehension strategies” (p. 131); second, this technique is more effectual than linear post-reading activities. The theoretical background here is based, on the one hand, on Dual Coding Theory (Paivio 1986, 2006) that claims that human cognition works simultaneously on two subsystems (verbal for language processing and visual for imagery processing); on the other hand, on Text Visualization, the transformation of written texts into graphical representations. Research tools are respectively a sample reading text (Common European Framework B1 level) with five traditional post-reading activities and VocabGrabber (, an online word cloud generator. The Focused Exploration phase (learners interact and familiarise themselves with the learning context; they transform the text into a word cloud; they are engaged in speculating on the visual representation) aims at confirming the first hypothesis while the Verification phase (learners analyse the new output for comprehension and then they are requested to report on the essential meaning of the text) confirms the second one. Findings reveal that text-clouding supports L2 students in reading the original text by visualizing the cloud of keywords, in identifying main ideas through the options of relevance and occurrence provided by the app, and in expanding schemata. Last but not least, as stated by the author, text-clouding develops students’ digital literacy.

Chapter 7, ‘Attitude Detection in Hotel Reviews: The Case of Sentiment Analyzers’ (pp. 145-168), deals with mediated discursive practices where emotional experience plays a strategic role. For this reason, the author focuses on the language of emotion and appraisal used in textual practice, such as hotel reviews available online, and on the opportunity to detect it computationally. The hypotheses of this enquiry then are: first, sentiment detection can be effective if the Semantic Web Apps involved are based on Appraisal Theory and in particular on the appraisal Framework; second, this approach allows users to discriminate biased or unbiased stances present respectively in hotel homepages or reviews. As theoretical background, the author refers to Aronson et al. (2005) for Appraisal Theory and to Martin (2000) and Martin & White (2005) for the Appraisal Framework. Affective Computing (Picard 1997) is briefly mentioned. Research tools are, respectively, a corpus of customer reviews taken from and an online sentiment analyzer, OpenDover (, whose automatic tasks are: classifying features of opinionated text by positioning them along a continuum between sentiment polarities, such as negative/positive appraisal; extracting the components or attributes of the attitude in terms of lexicogrammatical token (noun, verb, adverb, adjective); labelling features according to the attitudes comprised in the Appraisal Framework (affect, judgment, appreciation). The Focused Exploration phase is sustained by these tasks and confirms the first hypothesis. The Verification phase shows data triangulation and the comparative analysis to confirm the second hypothesis. The author concludes that “sentiment analyzers open doors for advanced uses of techniques already adopted in information extraction and text analysis in different disciplinary domains” (p. 168).

Chapter 8, ‘Reflections on Discursive Practices Mediated by Semantic Web Apps’ (pp. 169-173), briefly summarizes the main issues of this work and offers insights not only into how discursive practices on the Web produce meaning but also “how the global context of the Web is providing more interactional resources which enable a wider audience to craft new meaningful discursive processes” (p. 171). Future work needs to look at language-related facets regarding Web 3.0 and Web 4.0 phenomena such as multiple-authored texts, mashup applications, and intelligent personal agents.


“Applied Linguistics and Semantics Web Apps” is an authoritative and rigorous inquiry in two fields of study: Applied Linguistics and Semantic Web, two territories that in the age of the Web 2.0 - but 3.0 and 4.0 very shortly - necessitate a reciprocal osmosis since they are ancillary to each other. Most discursive practices, in fact, occur on the Web and Semantic Web Apps can play a strategic role of ‘sharpening applied linguistics research’. This innovative hypothesis is widely discussed across the seven chapters, both theoretically and practically. The first part of the book shows an extensive knowledge of the major issues and theories as well as theoretical approaches to the two research fields. The second part tests the hypotheses by putting into practice theoretical concepts via three different but meaningful case studies.

In addition to being written in a clear and accessible style, the book provides the reader with all necessary tools, including resources available free online, data, tables, examples, screenshots, and finally an extensive bibliography to orient the reader within the enquiry. A specialised glossary and/or indexes of name and subject at the end of the book would have added to its usability.

The book will appeal to scholars and researchers in Applied Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Corpus Linguistics and Computational Linguistics. It can also be used by language and content engineers as a theoretical and practical source thanks to which future innovations of web technology could be exploited to improve Natural Language Processing systems. Furthermore, the book provides an excellent and much needed resource for post-graduate students and teachers who already possess a well-developed digital literacy.

One of two slight limitations lies in this last claim. The scope of this research enquiry and especially its practical applications require the reader to be digitally ‘literate’ (or “multiliterate” as Lemke 1998 puts it) in order to use, apply and interpret Semantic Web Apps in professional, educational and social contexts. The author herself underlines this problem in Chapter 5 (p. 120). It is therefore necessary to make a distinction between potential addressees of these apps whose aim is to speculate on language use and representation on the Web (e.g., applied linguists) and those whose aim is simply to search for information on the Internet (e.g., patients or hotel consumers). Conversely, the exploitation of Semantic Web Apps technology in educational settings is more innovative and challenging for all participants involved, i.e. students, teachers, applied linguists and, last but not least, software developers.

The second limitation is that a more detailed investigation on Affective Computing models in Chapter 7 would have been complementary to the sentiment detection approach and would have offered a wider perspective as they have been widely influencing many areas of research, such as education, L2 learning/teaching, medicine, professional training, marketing, entertainment, etc. (cf. Picard 2000; Picard et al. 2001, 2004; Wehrle 2000; Woolf et al. 2009; Kopecek 2000).

To conclude, “Applied Linguistics and Semantics Web Apps” is noteworthy in its combination of density and breadth of topics. Its novelty lies in having shown the interesting challenge of integrating two different and apparently distant fields of research and exploring the potential for cross-permeability between Applied Linguistics and Semantic Web.


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Sandra Petroni is a tenured researcher in English Language and Linguistics. She teaches at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, on the Languages in the Information Society Degree Course. She is the author of several research articles and two books, Self-Study. La multimedialità e l'apprendimento della lingua inglese nel nuovo sistema universitario italiano (2004) and Language in the Multimodal Web Domain (2011). She is also a member of national and international Scientific Associations. Her research fields are: multimodality, specialized discourse - in particular the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) domain, cognitive semiotics and psycholinguistics.