In recent years, the development of new teaching methods and corpus linguistics has highlighted the role of lexicon in English language teaching (ELT). Great part of the studies concentrate on collocations. This essay focuses on the importance of collocations to language learning.
The importance of collocations to language learning
Traditional teaching has often adopted a structuralist view of language, placing a greater value to syntax than to lexicon. The recent development of corpus linguistics, however, has brought forth the awareness of language as a predominantly lexical phenomenon. Grammar and vocabulary are not considered isolated parts of English as they once were. Grammar now assumes a subordinate role as various methods and approaches such as Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach put vocabulary in the center of language discussions. Hill (2000, p.68) writes about the dynamics of language learning and what role collocations play in that regard:
Language has proven to be mixture of the totally novel, the absolutely fixed, the relatively fixed, and all held together with fairly simple structures which we call grammar. The largest learning load and the one which is never complete – even for native speakers – is mastering the lexicon. Within the lexicon, collocation is one of the biggest definable areas to which all learners need to be introduced from lesson one
Collocations are not easily defined. The term is used in a variety of senses in the fields of linguistics and language teaching. Nesselhaulf (2004) identifies two main views of the word collocation: the “frequency-based approach” and the “phraseological approach”. In the frequency-based view, it designates two or more words that occur together in a sample of language. They can appear more often than expected or not. Because it occurs repeatedly, a collocation can be identified through corpus analysis. The phraseological view considers collocations a type of word combination, distinct from idioms on one side and free word combinations on the other, as McKeown and Radev (1999, p.1) assert:
Idiomatic expressions are those in which the semantics of the whole cannot be deduced from the meanings of the individual constituents. Free word combinations have the properties that each of the words can be replaced by another without seriously modifying the overall meaning of the composite unit and if one of the words is omitted, a reader cannot easily infer it from the remaining ones. Unlike free word combinations, a collocation is a group of words that occur together more often than by chance. On the other hand, unlike idioms, individual words in a collocation can contribute to the overall semantics of the compound.
Woolard (2000) attempts to define the term in a simpler, more pedagogical way. He considers collocations as groups of words that language students do not usually expect to find together. From that perspective, the expression heavy furniture/loads would not be considered a collocation, whereas heavy seas/smoker would. He also restricts the use of the term to relations between nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs only. In that view, guilty of, dependent on and reason for would not be called collocations.
A hundred different authors could come up with a hundred different ways to describe the term. Regardless of the definition, collocation acquisition is a major step in the English learning process and should be given greater attention in class. Hill (2000) points out several reasons why it is important to teach collocations, three of which are mentioned bellow. Further, he proposes a new approach to teaching the subject.
One reason why collocations should play a central role in ELT has to do with the predictability of vocabulary use. When a speaker thinks of drinking, s/he might say have. Automatically, the listener conjures up a list of possible continuations – coffee, water, tea, whisky, but not oil or shampoo. Similarly, when someone says do, the listener might expect something like the right thing or his best, but never a mistake. The way words combine in collocations is fundamental to language use.
Another reason to teach collocations is the fact that they improve thought processing and lead to effective communication. Native speakers read, talk and listen to quick-paced discourses because they have a vast repertoire of chunks of language in storage, ready to be produced and recognized. Having these ready-made pieces of speech makes it easier for us to express complex ideas and think faster, since all our brainspace is not occupied searching for words.
Thirdly, collocations facilitate the acquisition of correct pronunciation. Producing speech from individual words often results in bad stress and intonation because the speaker cannot utter correct chunks of language. On the other hand, fixed expressions provide the students with the stress pattern of the phrase as a whole, allowing for a better pronunciation. Besides, students cannot recognize and store chunks if they do not know them correctly.
In addition to what has been said, Hill (2000) emphasizes that collocations should be given the same emphasis in class as individual words. In fact, students cannot really learn a new word unless they learn how to use it. That is why teachers should teach new words along with their most common collocates. If the word is ferry, the teacher must also mention go on the car ferry, a roll-on roll-off ferry, take the ferry from_____ to _____. To higher level students it is interesting to mention that less common vocabulary – like impetuous and initiative – is used in very few collocations – impetuous behavior, take the initiative.
Syntax and lexicon together are two central aspects of language learning. Through collocation acquisition a student is able to enhance vocabulary skills as well as gain knowledge on how English is structured. Slowly but steadily, collocations are proving to be a major facilitator to ELT and should be further explored inside the classroom.
HILL, J. Revising priorities: from grammarical failure to collocational success. In: LEWIS, M. Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications, 2000, ch.3, pp.47-69.
MCKEOWN, K.R.; RADEV, D.R. Collocations.1999. Available at <http://clair.si.umich.edu/~radev/papers/handbook00.pdf>, retrieved 24-11-2010.
NESSELHAUF, N. Collocations in a Learner Corpus. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2004, vol.14, pp.1-9,12-21. Available at <http://freebooksfrom.net/wp-content/themes/default/books/collocations/Collocations%20in%20a%20Learner%20Corpus.pdf>, retrieved 24-11-2010.
WOOLARD, G. Collocation: encouraging learner independence. In: LEWIS, M. Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications, 2000, ch.2, pp.28-46.