Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Collocations: Digging for Language Nuggets

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


As a teenaged language learner I did not see much point in spending most of my pocket money on a monolingual English dictionary.  “It’s all in English” I reasoned, questioning the usefulness of definitions written in the language of the headwords.  It seemed circular and otherworldly to me.  Nevertheless, my English teacher’s arguments for having such a reference work seemed impossible to refute, and the dictionary’s glossy and colorful hard back cover definitely caught my teen attention!  So I bought that 1987 edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and took it home, still a bit skeptical.  I warmed up to the book before long, however, but not only because its definitions were clear and helpful.

Collocations: What are they?

As in most learner’s dictionaries, the definitions in that 1987 Longman were accompanied by sentences exemplifying the usage of words.  To my (language learner’s) delight, there were whole phrases, multi-word nuggets that I could “snatch” and use in my own speech and writing.  I started to notice that some words co-occurred repeatedly, apparently naturally; they collocated.

Wondering one day if I could use the same verb with both doorbell and churchbell, I looked up both nouns and found an answer.  The example sentences indicated that the verb ring was used with both types of bells, but also that the verb toll was used with only churchbell.  (In Polish, my first language, the same verb, dzwonic, is always used with both of these nouns.)

Collocations: Why am I so fond of them?

  • Learning these chunks of English has made me feel more confident about my usage, more confident that such “pairings” have been done correctly.  Collocations have relieved me from having to experiment, or to rely on my intuition, or, often worse, to resort to translating straight from my first language of Polish.  A knowledge of various English collocations has helped me answer questions such as
    • Do we speak of “weak ventilation” or “poor ventilation”? and
    • Does a problem “happen” or “occur”?
  • An awareness of collocations has shown me that myriad words may more profitably, and more easily, be learned in relation to other specific (and collocating) words.  This awareness has fostered my learning of many English word-pairs.  It has allowed me to gather many language nuggets!  I once came across the word slashing in an article about floods.  Unsure of its meaning at the time, I looked it up and I learned what it meant.  Returning to the article, I noticed that the word’s “text neighbor” was rain in the collocation slashing rain and I thought three things: “So, I see that slashing can occur with (modify) rain,” “Having learned the word in that way, I probably won’t forget it anytime soon,” and “Wow, that must have been some rain!”.

Collocations: Do we emphasize them enough in the ESL/EFL classroom?

How often do we direct students’ attention to collocations?  I’m fairly sure that many of us have, at one time or another, devoted a whole lesson to certain idiomatic expressions.  I’m also fairly sure that many collocations are used much more frequently than many English idioms are.  So how many whole lessons have we, as a group of ESL/EFL instructors, devoted to collocations?  I’d guess far fewer.  Of course, most of us have had to spend real class time on typically problematic phrases including the verbs do and make, routinely difficult phrasal verbs, phrasal prepositions, and so on.  But how much emphasis do we, as a group, place on collocations?  I’d guess too little.

Collocations: Should we emphasize them in the ESL/EFL classroom?

Obviously, since I’m fond of them, my answer to this question will be “yes.”  Still, I’d add a few words here.  Phrases that students create themselves, but that have collocation-equivalents, are often unnaturally lengthy (a person who smokes a lot vs. a chain smoker), strikingly odd to some extent (light hair vs. fair hair), or, at times, funny (to untie a problem vs. to solve a problem).  (Not that humor is a bad thing- in fact I hear that it’s good for our health!)  Certainly, collocational proficiency plays a part in, provides a measure for, general language proficiency, so a limited knowledge of frequently occurring “word pairs” is a minus.

Sometimes a grammar mistake is not nearly as detrimental as a mis-collocation.  For example, which of these sentences would you think represents a lower level of proficiency?

  • They have voiced their opinion yesterday.
  • They told their opinion yesterday.

Collocations: How can we teach them?

►Some very simple tasks can be used to draw students’ attention to the presence of collocations, tasks which prompt them to focus on both new vocabulary and the “natural phrase buddies” of new vocabulary items.

A matching exercise in which students are asked to pair words to create already familiar phrases can be a good (and reinforcing) start.

They can also be asked to complete phrases such as:

  • to ______ a fire (start, light, etc.)
  • a ______ store (grocery, hardware, etc.)

►Worksheets which feature specific vocabulary fields and which contain incomplete lists of collocating words can be used to encourage students to explore collocations and to learn new phrases.  Students are meant to fill in the gaps in the lists, and they may be provided with the first letter or two of each missing word.

A worksheet featuring the vocabulary of education, for example, might contain lists like these:

a passing grade to sign up for a course
a f_________ grade to ta_________ a course
a g_________ grade to att ________a course
a b_________ grade to drop a course
a sa________ grade to com_______ a course

For “collocation inspiration” I have recently been turning to the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English (2009).  It strikes me as a trusty source.

Speaking of dictionaries, what do we do with them, anyway?  According to this one, we compile them, we edit them, we consult them, etc.  If I’m not mistaken, I think someone once told me that we may even put them under our pillows (for some reason…).

Happy New Year!  And happy collocating!


Comment from oriel ortega
January 18, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I think “collocating” represents a very important part of English language learning.In my personal opinion “collocating” means: good input; because it makes possible to learn English without memorizing isolated words. By matching meanings, we can avoid using translation and using the language with muh effort.Learning English by using complete phrases is a goog help for ESL students.As a matter of fact, I will try using this “method” this year with my students. I hope it will work!!! Good article.

Oriel Ortega(Panama)

Comment from Ela Newman
January 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Thanks, Oriel, for sharing your ideas. I particularly like your statement about considering teaching collocations as “good Input.” Sometimes this “good input” can take a simple form of pointing out phrases or “word buddies” rather than focusing exclusively on unfamiliar words. It’s great to hear that you’re planning to work on collocations with your students. I’m sure they’ll find it helpful.

Comment from Tamara
January 19, 2011 at 12:52 am

I agree about the importance of teaching collocations. In fact, I was at the IATEFL conference last year and one of the speakers said successful use of collocations is one of the biggest markers of an advanced student. I am not sure how he landed at that conclusion, but I tend to agree. This stuff is SO important!

Comment from Ela Newman
January 19, 2011 at 11:40 am

Yes, it does seem to be very important. As I mention in the article, some mistakes in collocations may be much more striking than some grammar issues. Thanks for your comment, Tamara!

Comment from Carol
January 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I’m so glad you addressed this topic, because it is problematic. At the moment I teach an advanced class. Every morning I devote half an hour to ‘Expressions & Vocabulary’, which can be phrasal verbs, idioms, or just new words. I ALWAYS include collocations to my list of expressions on the board, because in my experience students really need to know collocations. It’s the habitual use of words with each other in recognizable chunks that help students become truly comfortable in their adopted language.

Comment from Ela Newman
January 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

Hi Carol! Yes, I’ve noticed that advanced groups seem to love collocations. I suppose that by the time they reach an advanced level, they recognize the true usefulness of being able to come up with “language nuggets” almost effortlessly. Quite often when I introduce a new noun, I ask students what we “do” with it or what it can “do.” They seem to enjoy it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Comment from Kasie Lam
March 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays..

Comment from Ela Newman
March 15, 2011 at 9:18 am

Thank you very much for your nice comment, Kasie. No, I don’t have a “ghost writer.” I do revise each blog draft numerous times, though, hoping that the final version conveys my main point effectively and that I do not bore the reader with too many details. Again, thanks for your encouragement.

Comment from Dr. Naquib
June 18, 2011 at 4:47 am

Highly useful blogs are being produced to help us enrich our English, we being non-native learners.

Comment from Ela Newman
June 19, 2011 at 10:21 am

Thank you for your kind words. I hope that our future blogs will also prove to be useful.

Comment from Dr. Naquib
July 2, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Ela: You are likely to be a Joseph Conrad in grammar, if not in novels. Carry on. I thank you for mastering English and now for helping us master it!

Comment from Ela Newman
July 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

I truly appreciate your comment and am flattered by the comparison to a fellow Pole, Joseph Conrad (about whom, by the way, I wrote my MA thesis). The mastery level of English that he demonstrated is definitely hard to achieve for non-native speakers, but his success is inspiring.

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