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A cluster of excellence in the heart of England

Melanie Butler investigates the story of the UK Midlands and how its strength in applied linguistics has lead to a myriad of well-regarded Master’s courses

The idea that a single geographic region can, by combining its expertise and resources, become a superpower in a particular field or industry is not new, especially in the digital era. Think of Silicon Valley in California, which inspired Scotland’s Silicon Glen and Silicon Fen in Cambridge.

The same things happen with universities, as we see on page 25, where the close co-operation between universities, private language schools and state colleges has helped the area’s universities to dominate the league tables.

If we were looking for a cluster of universities which had the same kind of advantage in terms of research and Master’s degrees, then one of the top candidates would be the Midlands, the region which stretches from the east above East Anglia to the Humber estuary

in the north and the counties that border Wales – Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire – in the west. The region encompasses the ancient Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

The regions

For historic and administrative reasons, it’s split into the West Midlands, which is clustered around the city of Birmingham, and

the East Midlands, which is centred on the three county towns of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby. Together these two regions represent not only the heart of England, but the heart of Corpus Linguistics.

In Birmingham it began with the arrival of Professor John Sinclair and, in the late 1870s, the Cobuild project, with the publisher Collins, which resulted in the world’s first corpus-based dictionary in 1987.

But Sinclair was not the only ELT innovator in the city. Across town, at Aston University, Professor John Swales was busy investigating language genres and introducing first the idea of English for specific purposes and then, after he had moved to the University of Michigan in the USA, English for academic purposes.

“Major cities in the West Midlands have also caught the applied linguistic bug”

If the two universities were rivals, it was a friendly rivalry, with lecturers moving between the two or moving out to the neighbouring universities. When task-based pioneers and course-book writers Jane and Dave Willis arrived in the city, one took a job at Birmingham and the other at Aston.

Both universities still excel in the field of linguistics. As well as its TESOL Master’s, Aston is also a national leader in the field of forensic linguistics. Birmingham now has two research centres, both offering Master’s: one in Sinclair’s Department of English Language and Linguistics, renowned for work on discourse analysis, and it also offers one in its high-ranking Department of Education.

Meanwhile, a third university, Birmingham City, also offers a BA in English language and linguistics, as well as a Master’s in the related field of international education.

The cities

The two other major cities in the West Midlands have also caught the applied linguistic bug. In Wolverhampton, along with English and applied linguistics, they offer Master’s in computational linguistics, deaf studies and linguistics, as well as one in practical corpus linguistics for ELT, lexicography and translation. In the West Midlands’ third major city, Coventry University offers English language teaching and applied linguistics.

Go into the East Midlands and the story repeats itself. In 1979, a young lecturer named Ron Carter arrived at the University of Nottingham to do research in the area of poetics and linguistics. He kept his interest in literature throughout his career, but in the 1980s he teamed up with Mike McCarthy to work on the Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English, which they used as a base to write a new grammar of English. As in Birmingham, the University now also offers ELT-related Master’s both in the School of English, the home turf of Mike McCarthy and the late Ron Carter, and in the renowned School of Education.

Down the road at Nottingham Trent University, American linguist Dianne Larsen Freeman helped to build a strong TESOL faculty with a successful Master’s, while her husband, Norbert Schmitt, with whom she wrote one of the best-known introductions to applied linguistics, taught at Nottingham University.

In nearby Leicester, a Master’s in applied linguistics offered in the School of Education has long been popular with students from around the world and in the same county, De Montfort offers a first degree in English language and TESOL, and a Master’s in ELT.

The Midlands has developed an ecosystem for research and teaching not only in English language and corpus linguistics but, over the years, into a variety of areas, from the forensic linguistics used in court cases to poetics. Students come, they exchange ideas, some stay and take a job at a nearby university, they marry, they mingle and create a market for ideas.

If California has Silicon Valley, then the Midlands has the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Applied Linguistics and its strength still appears to be growing.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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