Linguistics

Why good language teachers should take collocations seriously

Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics in the School of English, University of Nottingham, UK. He has been involved in the study and teaching of English for more than 50 years. For the last 30 years, he has worked with large, computerised corpora of English texts, investigating them to establish how the vocabulary and grammar of English are really used at the present time and how they are evolving and changing. Michael is also the author of English Collocations in Use and, in this article, he explores why good language teachers should take collocations seriously!

Collocations are pairs of words that occur regularly together, with a high degree of probability. They don’t have to be used next to one another; they just have to occur in the same environment. Here are some examples:

She has blond hair. His hair is dyed blond.

She drives a beige car. His car is a sort of light beige.

The internet has played a crucial role in globalisation. The role played by the internet in globalisation has been crucial.

We say that blond collocates with hair and words connected with hair (tresses, curls). Beige can collocate with lots of nouns (car, jacket, wallpaper, floor-covering, etc.) where blond does not (we don’t say a blond car or a blond jacket). On the other hand, we don’t say beige hair. We say that decisions, roles, factors can be crucial, but we do not normally say a crucial man/woman. Collocations reveal restrictions on which words can go together and which words do not.

Collocations are not like grammar rules; they depend on probability rather than being absolute and fixed. They are examples of how languages normally or typically put words together.

But why are collocations so important in language learning? For one thing, research has shown that knowledge of collocations is a good indication of general ESL proficiency. Other research suggests that natural use of collocation is a distinguishing feature when native-speaker texts are compared with texts written by expert users or near-native speakers. So, we can say that acquiring collocations is an integral part of acquiring proficiency in the target language.

Another important point is that, if we had to create every word, one single word after another, every time we speak or write, we could never achieve fluency. Fluency depends on being able to produce combinations of words automatically. Collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms and everyday chunks such as bitterly cold, set off, get rid of and at the moment, are used as ready-made pieces of language. They are not assembled every time we use them; they have ‘addresses’ in our minds that we can access quickly when we need them.

Every language has thousands of collocations. But how do we know which ones are the most commonly used and most useful for learners? And how can we discover the sorts of problems learners experience with collocations? To find the most common collocations, we need good, up-to-date corpora of spoken and written language and to know more about learners’ use of collocations, we need corpora of learners’ language.

Corpora show us that English has a set of verbs that are extremely common, such as do, make, get, have, go, etc. and it is precisely these verbs that often cause learners problems with collocation. The Cambridge Learner Corpus shows that learners often say get a baby/an accident/fun instead of have a baby/an accident/fun, and make some shopping/research/work, instead of do some shopping/research/work.

There are several ways of approaching this common problem with collocations. One is to say that learners must simply learn each new collocation as they encounter them. To do this, vocabulary notebook strategies are important, and a good rule of thumb is when you learn a new word, write down not just its meaning or translation, but also its common collocations (e.g. have an accident, go for/take a stroll). Another way to approach the problem of these common, everyday collocations is to group together the collocations of individual verbs: make often collocates with something that has a result (make a cake, a mistake, a plan, a list). Do often collocates with activities and emphasises actions (do the shopping, business, exercise, research). Get often collocates with adjectives that indicate that something has changed (get better, get old, get ready, get tired). By grouping the collocations together, learners can develop a better ‘feel’ for what is appropriate.

Above all, in the language class, we should (a) raise learners’ awareness of collocation (e.g. by asking them to think of their own language or other language(s) they know) and (b) give learners repeated exposure to typical collocations in spoken and written texts. Good teaching materials take collocation seriously and offer examples and practice in using collocations. If we teach vocabulary but don’t pay attention to collocation, we are giving learners an incomplete picture of how the language works.

If you want to read more about collocations, check out Matt Norton’s article, entitled Chips and fish: word order in English Collocations.


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