The Importance of Learning Collocations instead of Individual Words

As Randy from Yearlyglot pointed out recently, word pattern recognition is an important concept in language learning and attaining fluency. Word patterns or collocations are simply the way certain words (whether function or content) habitually occur together. These conventional sequences are instantly recognizable to native speakers of a language, but remain difficult for second language learners to acquire and use properly.

It is usually recommend to learn the gender along with the noun or the plural along with the singular or the feminine form of adjectives when studying vocabulary. But we should go a step further and include collocational information (as well as alternate meanings) for every word we learn. Every time you learn a new adjective or verb, make sure to learn if a preposition follows it before a noun and/or a verb. In French we say se marier avec quelqu’un while in Engish we get married to someone, not with someone. Even with closely related languages, such as French and Italian, the prepositions can differ. In French we are intéréssé par quelque chose, in Italian we are interessato a qualcosa and in English we are interested in something. The verbal counterparts of “to be interested in” in French and Italian are s’intéresser à and interessarsi di. Don’t you just love prepositions?

Translating collocations is also problematic even when there are no prepositions involved. In English we say safe and sound whereas in French it’s sain et sauf (healthy and safe).  Students who are unfamiliar with the concept of collocations will most likely attempt to translate literally from their native language, which results in the common mistakes that language teachers hear over and over again. Even after a year of university English, a lot of my students still said I listen music even though to listen to is one of the most basic verbs that is taught in their middle and high school classes. It is certainly not possible that they had never been exposed to this verb before freshman year of college. And yet, they still had not learned to express themselves properly in English by using fixed phrases instead of translating word for word.

Common two-word collocations in English

I remember learning vocabulary from my textbooks in college and being surprised that collocational information was often not included in the glossaries. In my first grammar class, I was confused that Je lui ai dit (I told him/her) was grammatically correct instead of Je l’ai dit because my textbook simply taught that dire meant to say/tell and did not specify that the correct phrase was dire quelque chose à quelqu’un (to say/tell something to someone or to say/tell someone something). I was also confused about seeing demander à and demander de and not understanding why both prepositions were used. Then I learned the expressions demander à faire quelque chose (to ask to do something) and demander à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose (to ask someone to do something) and the little light bulbs in my head went on all over the place. Why couldn’t my textbooks have taught those full expressions immediately instead of just the verbs dire and demander?


If only all uses of prepositions were this easy to learn…

Prepositions are highly idiomatic in all languages and therefore, can be quite unpredictable. Why does French say prêt à faire quelque chose (ready to do something) but content de faire quelque chose (happy to do something)? I suppose it doesn’t really matter why, the point is to simply memorize the collocation instead of the adjective. This also helps with verbs that change their meaning depending on what preposition and/or complement follow them. If you only learn that défendre means to defend, then the expression défendre à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose will make no sense until you learn that it actually means to forbid someone to do something. The same goes for assister – it doesn’t just mean to help. Assister à quelque chose means to attend something (an event, a performance, etc.)

A good dictionary will always include this information for each entry. There are also collocation dictionaries like Robert’s Dictionnaire des Combinaison de Mots that are useful for quick reference. And if you have no other resources, try Google or Google Battle to see which preposition you think should follow a certain word. Not that everything written on the internet is grammatically correct, but it’s at least something!

For other linguistics nerds who are interested in the lexical approach to language learning (i.e. that lexical items, such as collocations, and not simply individual words and definitely not grammar alone, is the basis of language and therefore should play a central role in language teaching and learning), check out books by Michael Lewis, Paul Nation, Alison Wray and Ann M. Peters. Related to collocations is the research done in the field of corpus linguistics and how we use concordance analysis of authentic language to create frequency lists of these lexical units. If you’re confused by this last sentence, read John Sinclair’s Corpus, Concordance, Collocation.  There is a lot of research in this area nowadays, especially with the emergence of CALL (computer-assisted language learning).

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  • http://52languages.blogspot.com J

    Thanks Jennie! Very insightful, and I learned a new word today!

    Studying word lists does have the unintended consequence of breaking up collocated pairs of words. The learning of whole sentences, if not whole conversations, should minimize that somewhat, no? At the very least I should learn expressions in context.

  • http://52languages.blogspot.com J

    Also, I was thinking about the “safe and sound” versus “sain et sauf.” Steven Pinker I think somewhere talks about paired expressions in many languages starting with a vowel closer to the front of the mouth and ending with a vowel towards the back (e.g., “pitter-patter,” “ping pong,” “this and that,” “comme ci, comme ça”). That could be why the French say “healthy and safe” instead of the other way round.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Completely agreed, this is one of those text books vs. the real world issues that keeps popping up over and over again in language learning.

    Movies (as you mentioned previously) and novels are great ways of picking up these things (collocations, idioms, sayings, proverbs, slang, etc.), and when you do see/hear one in a movie or book, the first thing you should do is stop and enter it into your SRS (e.g. Anki, which is what I like–do you use something like this?) or write it down on a flashcard if you prefer. Either way it should be immediately noted for later review.

    Good post, cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    I do have Anki but I honestly haven't used it much because I'm always on my computer for my website and translation work so I don't feel like using the computer even more than I have to. I still tend to use old-fashioned flashcards.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Yes, learning expressions in context is best for vocabulary and even grammar. The bulk of language is essentially collocations, whether noun, prepositional or verb phrases. In languages such as French, it's reflected in the pronunciation because sentences are pronounced with pauses between phrases rather than individual words, and liaison occurs frequently among these phrases making them one fluid unit.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    I had no idea these were called collocations (eh, you are the specialist!) but this is exactly how I learned English, Mandarin and Spanish. It just so much easier to learn a group of words/ expressions rather than the stupid vocabulary lists we got in high school…

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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