A couple of days ago I came across a post by Svetlana Kandybovich, in which she shares some great ideas for using Google in an L2 classroom. One of the tips I particularly liked was Googlefight, a website that allows users to compare the number of search results returned by Google for two given queries.
This tool is generally used for entertainment; you type two keywords and click on the ‘Fight’ button. The winner is the one which gets the biggest number of results on Google. So, I originally planned to use the tool in class for fun too, as a warm-up after Easter holidays, but at the same time, I secretly hoped for a sudden influx of sophisticated ideas related to language learning.
What obviously first came to mind was the concept of word frequency. It occurred to me that my students would find it interesting to see the differences in frequency counts of two words belonging to the same category/lexical set. To spice the activity up, we played a bidding game – each student made a bid on one of the words before I displayed the actual results on the screen. So, for example, we found out that cat got more hits than dog. Those who had voted for cat won a point. But you can go further with this; you can develop this somewhat meaningless game into a useful linguistic exercise. If you check Longman Communication 3000, you’ll see that both cat (as a noun) and dog (as a noun) are in the list of the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English, but dog is a bit more frequent in written English than cat. If you’re brave enough to play with corpora a bit, you can go to COCA, where the word cat gets 17, 284 hits, while the word dog gets 40, 020 hits. Now, you can ask your students why they think it is so. Why the different results? Is it because there are more cats than dogs or vice versa? Does the word dog have only one meaning? Is it always a noun? What about cat? Does the fact that Google doesn’t sort out words according to parts of speech influence the frequency counts? Are the words displayed plural, singular or both? What about various abbreviations and acronyms?
The exact numbers are not terribly important, but through these activities, you can develop in your students the ability to notice some very important aspects of lexis. This can be a nice lead-in to some dictionary work. I personally like working with a paper edition of Dictionary of Contemporary English because the meanings of words are listed in order of frequency, i. e. the most common meaning is shown first. The 3000 most common words in English are printed in red letters, which shows which are the most important words to learn/know. This is a very important piece of information some dictionaries neglect, and as a result, students can’t work with it.
I was very pleased with my students because they asked me some interesting questions during today’s lesson; for example, they asked me to type in pairs such as colour/color, favourite/favorite because they wanted to see which spelling was more frequent. Once again, it was interesting to think about the why. This pushed the discussion into a different dimension. Ironically, here in the Czech Republic we like to say and believe that we teach British English, using coursebooks published in the UK, yet from the global perspective, the American way of spelling of certain words seems to be more common. This finding may subsequently lead to an interesting debate about the role of English in today’s changing world. Some other words my students were interested in were: football/soccer, black/white, film/movie, cinema/theatre, etc.