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Oct 9, 2013

Learners' use of collocations: insights from the research

By jjpacres via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
I often cite research in my talks so in this series of posts I would like to share some interesting studies which looked at how second language (L2) learners use collocations. This post reviews three studies which sought to answer, among others, the following questions:

1. At what level of proficiency are learners more likely to make collocational errors? 

2. To what extent are learner’s errors caused by negative transfer (aka interference) from L1?


One of the most widely cited studies on the topic (283 citations according to Google Scholar) was conducted in Germany by Nadja Nesselhauf. Nesselhauf investigated how advanced level students use verb+noun collocations (e.g. raise the question of, perform a task or conduct a study - from the previous sentence). After analysing more than 30 essays which were written by L2 German students and judged by native speakers she concluded that advanced learners have considerable difficulties producing correct verbs in verb-noun collocations. Their essays often included infelicitous combinations such as *make homework and *close lacks which she attributes to the negative transfer from L1 much more than earlier studies had suggested. In fact, L1 influence was responsible for more than half of all the learner errors in the essays under study.

In their study of Hebrew and Arabic-speaking students of different levels of proficiency Batia Laufer and Tina Waldman also concluded that negative transfer from L1 was one of the main factors in producing incorrect L2 collocations. About 1/3 of all (attempted) collocations produced in the large sample of learner writing were deviant. The sample included argumentative and descriptive essays by learners at three levels of proficiency (basic – Middle school, intermediate – High school and advanced – University). What is interesting is that the number of collocational errors increased with the level of proficiencyThe researchers attribute it to the fact that collocations are often semantically transparent when encountered in texts and learners tend to overlook them. They stress the importance of contrastive analysis in class in order to raise learners' awareness of different collocational patterns in L1 and English, for example drawing students' attention that in English we make a decision while the same meaning is expressed by prendre une decision ("take a decision) in French or prinyat resheniye ("receive/host a decision") in Russian. See more examples in the tables below:


English
Russian
German
make a decision
prinyat resheniye
eine Entscheidung treffen

receive/host a decision
meet a decision


English
French
Hebrew
meet requirements
répondre aux exigences
la'amod bedrishot

respond to the requirements
stand in the requirements


Despite seemingly convincing evidence that collocational errors are almost always caused by L1 transfer, Ying Wang and Philip Shaw came to a different conclusion in their study. Once again the focus was on verb+noun collocations but this time two groups were compared: Swedish and Chinese learners of English. Their results revealed that learners’ mistakes were quite similar despite their vastly different L1s. The researchers attribute it to intralingual factors, i.e. factors inherent in the language being learnt, for example overgeneralization or misapplication of a rule, rather than stemming from L1 transfer. One such factor could be the learners’ tendency to resort to general words (e.g. do, make, put) rather than words of specific meaning, which sometimes works just as fine, for example make a visit as an alternative to pay a visit but oftentimes result in an error, for example *do a threat instead of pose a threat.

L1 transfer or inadequate teaching?
So where does this leave us? Certainly L1 has a role to play and transfer is inevitable especially when learners aren’t aware that certain words that can be combined in their L1 cannot be combined in English. Not having the right English collocation in their lexicon, they resort to word-for-word translation from L1 producing as a result such infelicities as *strong rain or *use a chance.

But the reason may also be their lack of awareness of the phenomenon of collocation, specifically collocational restrictions on word use and collocational differences between English and their L1. So while it’s easy to blame L1, lexical errors may also stem from the lack of explicit focus on collocations in the class or teaching materials. So teachers should take some responsibility too.

References
Laufer, B. & Waldman, T. (2011). Verb-noun collocations in second language writing: a corpus analysis of learners’ English. Language Learning, 61(2), 647-672

Nesselhauf, N. (2003). The use of collocations by advanced learners of English and some implications for teaching. Applied Linguistics, 24(2), 223–242

Wang, Y. & Shaw, P. (2008). Transfer and universality: Collocation use in advanced Chinese and Swedish learner English. ICAME Journal 32, 201-228


13 comments:

  1. Hi Leo - you may want to check out A. Barfield & H. Gyllstad (eds) Researching Collocations in Another Language: Multiple Interpretations, Palgrave Macmillan 2009; "Researching Collocations in Another Language helps us understand more deeply why collocation knowledge and performance are one of the most fascinating (and at times frustrating) challenges that second language users face. This volume brings together 12 studies from Asia, Europe and North America, divided into four sets: (i) using learner corpora to identify patterns of L2 collocation use, (ii) developing appropriate L2 collocation dictionary and classroom materials, (iii) investigating how learners' L2 collocation knowledge can be assessed, and (iv) exploring how learners develop their L2 collocation knowledge and use. Each set of studies includes three research chapters and a critical commentary written by experts in the respective field. The book also features an introduction to second language collocation research, and a thought-provoking conclusion chapter on wider issues and challenges. The volume thus offers teachers, researchers, and graduate students a highly valuable and critical focus on second language collocation knowledge and performance." http://www.amazon.co.uk/Researching-Collocations-Another-Language-Interpretations/dp/0230203485
    best
    Ramesh

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    1. Ramesh thank you for the reference.

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    2. Hi Ramesh
      Thank you for the comment and the link. Yes I've come across this volume - an impressive collection of studies indeed. But like with all Palgrave publications it's ridiculously overpriced (nice adv+adj collocation there! :)
      L

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  2. Another great and interesting post. I think the conclusion drawn by the research are very interesting. Often my teacher trainees are so afraid of using the L1 in any context in the classroom, but this demonstrates the need to sometimes use it to avoid errors in collocations. In addition, it supports something I try to suggest - teaching chunks of language in context. I think that pupils overgeneralise words like 'do', 'make' and 'put' because we often teach those words in large doses when teaching collocations and phrasal verbs. Thanks - I will be directing my students to this post in a couple weeks.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, John.

      I remember when my DOS once waltzed into the classroom in the middle of a lesson and heard me using students' L1 and yelled, "Target language! Target language, Leo!". But those days are gone and L1, if used judiciously, is back in.

      As regards delexicalised verbs like 'do, 'make', 'put' etc. Wang and Shaw (the last study I reviewed), among others, suggest revisiting them with higher levels and learning chunks and collocations with these verbs used figuratively, e.g. let me put it this way, to put it bluntly, put somebody out of business etc.

      Thank you for reading my post(s) and referring your teacher trainees to my blog.

      L

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  3. Hi Leo, great post. I think collocation is the hidden gem in the process of teaching and learning phrase stuctures and vocabulary. It is so sad that this lexical approach has been overlooked by many material designers. Raising awareness on this topic is crucial if there is real interest in increasing students´ speaking performance. I also came across with a Collocations Dictionary which has helped me move a bit forward in my own awareness. I also believe that in this time and age there is no better opportunity to achieve so much if we consider all the software and multimedia available in the field for the purpose of teaching and learning chunks and other combinations of words. Thank you Leo for your useful insights.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Julio,

      Thank you for visiting again. I am glad you liked the post.

      The lexical approach has been totally overlooked by materials designers but Michael Lewis himself said at the Lexical Conference in London this year that a true lexical syllabus would be impossible - see here

      So it's really up to teachers to "lexicalise" their teaching by providing collocations when they teach new words, teaching words in chunks and drawing students' attention to recurring patterns.

      L

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  4. Hi Leo
    My master thesis is about similar topic " Collocation Use in Third Year College Students' Essay Writings"

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    Replies
    1. Sounds good. Where are you doing it?
      L

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  5. Really interesting post Leo. I've often wondered about how much is L1 and how much is a result of the challenges inherent in the TL. I've been too lazy so far to do the research myself, so your summaries are amazing.

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    1. Seems it's both L1 and TL plus inadequate teaching :)
      Thank you for stopping by. And your kind words too!
      L

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  6. Hi Leo! I've recently used collocations in IELTS teaching. It has helped my students tremendously rather than learning vocabulary words in isolation.Students learn vocabulary through constant exposure which is done through media or through books. Thanks for this post.

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    1. I keep meaning to blog my about thoughts on IELTS teaching and role of lexis in all four skills. Thank you for reading and commenting, Larry!

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