It is said that it is rather impossible to tell some language students from native speakers. There is, however, little truth to that. As this article states, explains and exemplifies, collocational errors are the mark of the foreign learner, both in text and in speech. Just how much do collocations influence one's foreign language?
COLLOCATIONS AND THE FOREIGN LEARNER, by Ricardo Maciel dos Anjos
The term “collocation” was first employed by Firth in 1957, to define a combination of words associated with each other. As described by MARTYŃSKA (2004), “The term ‘collocation’ has its origin in the Latin verb ‘collocare’ which means ‘to set in order/to arrange’.” She further elaborates:
It is Firth who is widely regarded as the father of collocation and the developer of a lexical and the most traditional approach to this phenomenon. Advocates of the lexical approach claim that the meaning of a word is determined by the co-occurring words. Consequently, lexis is considered to be independent and separable from grammar. Thus, a part of the meaning of a word is the fact that it collocates with another word. However, those combinations are often strictly limited, e.g. make an omelette but do your homework while both the verbs do and make have only one Polish equivalent robić. One of the Firth’s revolutionary concepts was to perceive lexical relations as syntagmatic rather than paradigmatic ones.
Collocations, as per FONTENELLE (1992, p.222), can be described as “the idiosyncratic syntagmatic combination of lexical items and is independent of word class or syntactic structure” or, in simpler terms, specific combinations of linguistic elements that co-occur more often than would be attributable to chance, and that forsake different terms, placing arbitrary restrictions on the linguistic corpus of a language. For instance, one may say “commit murder”, but saying “perform murder” is considered wrong and unsoundly by native speakers. As such, the correct usage of collocations is one of the chief characteristics of a native speaker of any language, often being a great source of difficulty for foreign learners and students alike.
For those who do not have a lifetime of contact with a language, the correct usage of collocations is often impossible, their incorrect use often being the marker of non-natives, “a foreign accent in writing” (WALLER, 1993, p.224), a concept that also applies to speech. Although only having been subject to study recently, this issue has become a source of various research attempts, which confirm that students attempting to learn a second language do indeed have the most difficulty with collocations. According to LEŚNIEWSKA (2006), a 1993 experiment by Waller, involving the collection of written material from both native and near-native writers which, in turn, was handed in to specialists, concluded that:
In many cases, the raters could not distinguish between native and near-native texts. Among “lexical problems”, collocational errors formed the largest category. What is even more interesting, however, is that problems in collocational usage were found to be restricted to the texts written by non-native speakers, whereas other problems (e.g. syntactic errors, or lexical errors other than collocational) were found in both groups of texts. This means that, of all the features that could be pinpointed about the non-native speakers’ texts, collocations emerge as the most tangible marker of non-nativeness, “a foreign accent in writing” (Waller 1993: 224).
The experiment performed by MARTYŃSKA (2004), involving fifty-three Polish students of the English language, aiming at “identifying the level of collocational competence of intermediate English learners” concluded that, in average, students achieved 55% correct answers, a result that is independent of the amount of time they had been studying the language: “Some of the students who have been studying for a shorter time scored better, which proves that the efficiency of a second language learning is determined by a number of various factors.”
What can be concluded by these and a multitude of other pieces of research, as highlighted and exemplified by LEŚNIEWSKA (2006), is that the process of language-learning goes far beyond mere memorization of grammar patterns and the meaning of different words – according to MARTYŃSKA (2004), unless students are able to learn how to develop the sensibilities require to combine words into “chunks”, they will never approach native-like levels of proficiency. LEŚNIEWSKA (2006) has reached similar conclusions, stating that, although the extent of the difficulties that students might have with collocations have not yet been fully quantified, it is a fact that some aspects of collocational knowledge seems beyond even the most advanced, “native-like” foreign language learners.
· FIRTH, J.R. A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory, 1957. apud MARTYŃSKA, Malgorzata. Do English Language Learners Know Collocations? Available at www.inveling.amu.edu.pl/pdf/malgorzata_martynska_inve11.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.
· FONTENELLE, Thierry. Collocation acquisition from a corpus or from a dictionary: a comparison, 1992. apud SERETAN, Violeta. Induction of Syntactic Collocation Patterns from Generic Syntactic Relations. Available at www.latl.unige.ch/personal/vseretan/publ/IJCAI2005_VS.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.
· LEŚNIEWSKA, Justyna. Collocations and Second Language Use. Available at www.filg.uj.edu.pl/StudiaLinguistica/pdf/12306-Lesniewska.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.
· MARTYŃSKA, Malgorzata. Do English Language Learners Know Collocations? Available at www.inveling.amu.edu.pl/pdf/malgorzata_martynska_inve11.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.
· SERETAN, Violeta. Induction of Syntactic Collocation Patterns from Generic Syntactic Relations. Available at www.latl.unige.ch/personal/vseretan/publ/IJCAI2005_VS.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.
· WALLER, T. Characteristics of Near-Native Proficiency in Writing, 1992. apud LEŚNIEWSKA, Justyna. Collocations and Second Language Use. Available at www.filg.uj.edu.pl/StudiaLinguistica/pdf/12306-Lesniewska.pdf, access on 11/09/2010.