The ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science has helped the University of Mosul to rebuild their language studies after the destruction by Islamic State.

In 2014, ISIS (Islamic State) closed down the University of Mosul and commandeered it as its base in the city's centre. IS fighters deliberately destroyed the university's library, burning tens of thousands of books on philosophy, science, law and poetry, in what UNESCO called "one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history".

During the hard-fought liberation of Mosul in 2016 the university was bombed and many more of its buildings and resources were destroyed. All around the university, thousands of houses, shops and businesses were laid waste and the inhabitants fled.

Determined to emerge from the rubble and its loss of facilities, the university is now seeking to rebuild its position as one of the largest education and research establishments in the Middle East, with a current student population of more than 30,000. "There is a strong need and an immense will to rebuild both structurally and academically," says Dr Ashraf Al-Allaf, senior lecturer in the English department at the university.

The completely burned Central Library by the Campus central square.
The completely burned Central Library by the Campus central square.

In response to the university's international plea for help, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University in the UK is providing assistance in the revival of the study of English and linguistics at the university. With the use of computers to analyse billions of written and spoken words, CASS provides new insights into how languages are used in both everyday life and specialist fields, and offers freely-available language datasets (corpora) for researchers.

CASS offered a toolkit of practical support from which the Mosul academic staff selected the elements that would best serve their needs and restricted circumstances. These included help with mentoring of staff and students via videoconferencing, group supervision for dissertation topics and support of PhD students using Skype video sessions.

Professor Tony McEnery and Professor Elena Semino, of CASS and the Department of Linguistics and English Language, also encouraged the staff at Mosul to take part in Lancaster's internet-based Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation course – a 'Massive Open Online Course' known as Corpus MOOC by staff and participants. Working online, specialists at Lancaster deliver the course remotely. It combines lectures, hands-on tutorials, tasks and self-assessment exercises, plus mentoring as required.

"MOOC has opened doors to people who would not normally be able to access anything like this," says Professor McEnery. "All the MOOC tools and the use of the corpora are free and easily installed on available computers."

"Courses like this provide us with exactly what's needed when it comes to modern approaches to research and tools for data collection and analysis," adds Dr Al-Allaf. "With the limited resources we have, we're doing our best to engage with the course."

Acknowledging the extreme circumstances in which the University of Mosul is operating, Professor Semino says, "People in Mosul are working in conditions that we cannot even imagine. The staff and students of the university are exceptionally enterprising and enthusiastic, and we will do everything we can to help them."