Collocational Errors In The Written English English Language Essay

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1. Introduction:

For decades teaching professionals were constantly preoccupied by how to segment the language into pieces and specify what learners actually learn when they learn a language. Pure and applied linguists often used to divide the language into such traditional units as sounds, words, and rules of grammar and discourse. But since the 1930s, a number of prominent figures have come to advise those involved in the profession against this classification and urged English teachers to recognize that there are particular words which tend to occur in the company of other words and that achieving language fluency depends on learning to use these word groups. In 1933, Palmer (as cited in Kennedy, 2003) was the first to adopt the term collocation for these recurring groups of words.

However, despite the fact that collocations (i.e. word combinations such as fragile peace, strong economy, bitter disappointment, fast colour, harsh criticism or mass destruction) are an important part of a native speaker competence, and the need for their inclusion in foreign and second language teaching is widely acknowledged today (as cited in Hussein, 1990; Bahns & Eldaw, 1993; Farghal & Obiedat, 1995; Hills, 1999; Nesselhauf, 2003), a considerable amount of efforts in applied linguistics research are still being concentrated on the grammatical and phonological levels, while the lexical level does not arouse the same degree of interest and very little attention is paid to an amazing property of lexis, i.e. a tendency on the part of some lexical items to co-occur, otherwise known as collocation.

In fact, until relatively recently, the true complexity of collocations was largely hidden. Over the past two decades, however, huge developments in computerized corpus linguistics and the availability of wide collections of text in electronic form has offered new insights into how words or groups of words are distributed in a given language. Sophisticated software for the analysis of first or second language corpora has allowed researchers and L2 professionals to explore more deeply the nature of collocations and in doing so, according to Kennedy, "challenge syntax-based approaches to language description and pedagogy." (2003, p. 469).

Wray (2002) rightly states that collocations are of particular importance for learners who wish to achieve a high degree of competence in the second language, but they are also of some importance for learners with less ambitious aspirations, as they not only enhance accuracy but also fluency. However, although some suggestions on the teaching of collocations have been made in recent years, it is largely unclear how and specially which of the great number of collocations in a language should be taught.

To answer these questions satisfactorily, it is doubtless essential to identify the problems that the EFL learners have in dealing with collocations. The present study aims at scrutinizing the issue of collocations as an important, yet largely unsearched area of linguistic competence, in Iranian EFL settings.

2. Definition and Types of Collocations:

2.1 Definition

There are actually different definitions of the notion of collocation. Most of them, however, are paraphrases of Firth's (1957, p.183) definition that collocations are "words in habitual company." Some authors in computational and statistical literature define a collocation as two or more consecutive words with a special behaviour. For example, Choueka (1988; as mentioned in Manning & Schutze, 1999) defines the concept of collocation as follows:

"A collocation is defined as a sequence of two or more consecutive words that has characteristics of a syntactic and semantic unit, and whose exact and unambiguous meaning or connotation can not be derived directly from the meaning or connotation of its components."

But in most linguistically oriented research, a phrase can be collocation even if it is not consecutive (as in the example, she knocked three times on the blue metal door). On the other hand, some experts like Benson (1989; as cited in Manning & Schutze, 1999) use three typical criteria in the linguistic treatment of collocations:


The meaning of a collocation is not a straightforward composition of the meanings of its parts. Either the meaning is completely different from the free combinations (as in the case of idioms like kick the bucket) or there is a connotation or added element of meaning that cannot be predicted from the parts.


We cannot substitute near-synonyms for the constituent parts of a collocation. For example, we cannot speak about a supernatural strength instead of supernatural power. Similarly, we cannot say at full power instead of at full strength.


Many collocations cannot be freely modified with additional lexical components or through grammatical transformations. This is especially true for frozen expressions like idioms. For example, we cannot modify frog in to get a frog in one's throat into to get an ugly frog in one's throat although usually nouns like frog can be modified by adjectives like ugly. Similarly, going from singular to plural can make an idiom or collocation ill-formed, for example as poor as church mice.

According to Manning and Schutze (1999), Collocations are characterized by limited compositionality. We call a natural language expression compositional if the meaning of the expression can be predicted from the meaning of the individual parts. Collocations are not fully compositional in that there is usually an element of meaning added to the combination. In the case of strong tea, for example, strong has acquired the meaning of rich which is closely related but slightly different from the basic sense having great physical strength. Idioms are the most extreme examples of non-compositionality. Idioms like to kick the bucket or to hear it through the grapevine only have an indirect historical relationship to the meanings of the parts of the expression. Here, an English speaker is not talking about the buckets or grapevines literally when he or she uses these idioms. Though there is considerable overlap between the concept of collocation and idiom, most collocations exhibit milder forms of non-compositionality. In fact, as Manning and Schutze conclude, "a collocation is a systematic composition of its parts but still has an element of added meaning."

On the other hand, some experts hold a rather different position on the compositionality of collocations. For example, stressing the compositional nature of collocations, Magnúsdóttir (1990, as cited in Rögnvaldsson, 2005, p. 3) defines the notion of collocation as follows:

"Collocations are a string of words that co-occur under restrictions not definable by syntax or by selectional restrictions alone. These restrictions can be referred to as lexical restrictions since the selection of the lexical unit is not conceptual, thus synonyms cannot replace any of the components of a specific collocation. Furthermore, the meaning of a collocation is compositional whereas the meaning of an idiom is not."

McKeown and Radev (2001) define collocations in contrast to free word combinations and idioms. They describe collocations as a group of words which, unlike free word combinations, occur together more often than by chance and, unlike idioms, their constituent parts can contribute to the overall semantics of the compound. According to them, a word combination is termed a collocation "when the number of words which can occur in a syntactic relation with a given headword decreases to the point where it is not possible to describe the set using semantic regularities".

Celce-Murcia (1991) defines collocation as a co-occurrence of lexical items in combinations, which can differ in frequency or acceptability. Items which collocate frequently with each other are called "habitual", e.g. congested traffic, whereas those which cannot co-occur are called "unacceptable". In her view, familiarity with the way words combine is a basic, native-like aspect of learning a second language.

To delimit collocations from other types of word combinations, Nesselhauf (2003) uses a widely accepted defining criterion for collocations, namely "arbitrary restriction on substitutability". Criticizing some of the hazy definitions whereby such combinations as alarm clock or safety belt are considered collocations, he defines the concept of collocation in a phraseological rather than in a frequency-based sense. By arbitrary restriction on substitutability, Nesselhauf means that in dealing with word combinations, a distinction should be made between combinations in which a possible restriction on the substitutability of elements is due to their semantic properties (i.e. free combinations) and combinations in which this restriction is, to some extent, arbitrary (i.e. collocations). He believes that in a combination like read a newspaper, the reason that substitutions resulting in combinations such as *drink a newspaper or *read water are not possible or at least highly unusual is that drink requires a noun with the semantic property of "liquid" and read requires a noun with the semantic property of "containing written language". In the combination reach a decision, on the other hand, decision can be substituted by a number of nouns such as conclusion, verdict, compromise, or goal but not, for example, by aim; this restriction does not seem to be a result of the semantic properties of the two elements concerned, but a somewhat arbitrary convention of the language. This arbitrariness, in Nesselhauf's words, serves to delimit collocations from free combinations. He, further, maintains that in every collocation, one element is selected purely on the basis of its meaning, while the selection of the other depends on the first element.

3.Significance of the Study:

It has recently been suggested that for the purpose of English as an international lingua franca, "idiomaticity" (i.e. use of such prefabricated forms as idioms, collocations, proverbs, catchphrases and clichés) places obstacles in the way of communication between native and non-native speakers. (Seidlhofer, 2001; as cited in Prodromou, 2003) Sinclair (1991) - the first to use corpus-based evidence - also considers idiomaticity, in all its varieties, the most important factor in reaching 'native-like fluency'. However, although it is generally accepted that collocations are both indispensable and at the same time problematic for foreign language learners and they therefore should be guaranteed a proper place in second language acquisition, especially for adult learners, learners' difficulties with collocations have not been investigated in detail by EFL practitioners so far.

In fact, while the field of language teaching and learning is relatively rich in studies of foreign language learners' linguistic and pragmatic errors, research on 'strangeness' of linguistic forms and expressions seems to be lagging behind and systematic and in-depth analyses of Iranian EFL learners' lexical errors to determine if they produce 'unnatural' word combinations are relatively rare. The need for such studies stems from the fact that although post-intermediate and advanced learners of EFL may not face structural and pragmatic problems, their language sounds 'odd' in the eyes of native speakers of English. Therefore, studies are needed such as that reported by Mahmoud (2005) where Arab university students' collocation errors were analysed.

The purpose of the present study was to collect, classify and analyse the collocational errors Iranian EFL learners made when producing collocations, to find out if knowledge of collocations could differentiate between different levels of EFL learners' proficiency (i.e. low, mid and high) and to determine the extent to which Iranian EFL learners' collocational competence is affected by their L1, thus adding one more ring to the still short chain of studies in the area of lexis in general and the area of collocations in particular. An analysis of collocational errors can reveal the problems that EFL learners make and the causes of these problems in that area and help teachers, syllabus designers and EFL specialists find appropriate ways of dealing with them in the EFL courses.

The important role that collocations play in the successful and native-like performance of EFL learners on the one hand and the problems that Iranian EFL students have with collocations of various types on the other, highlight the significance of the present study. Furthermore, there is an abundant stock of word combinations in English that represent innumerable collocations, and the mastery over them can strongly affect Iranian EFL learners' fluency as well as accuracy in both speaking and writing.

Based on the findings of this study, some suggestions can also be made on how to teach collocations. First, if the use of collocations comes to be highly correlated with EFL learners' language proficiency, collocations should be considered as an important factor in determining the overall proficiency of English students. And second, if EFL learners' L1 comes to be highly influential in the production of collocations, then not only should the selection of collocations but also their teaching should be with reference to L1.

4. Research Questions:

1. What are the most problematic types of collocations for Iranian EFL learners? In other words, are word combinations of all types (i.e. verb-preposition, noun-preposition, adjective-noun, adverb-adjective, verb-adverb and verb-noun) equally difficult for Persian-speaking learners of English?

2. Do collocations exert the same degree of difficulty for different levels of language proficiency among Iranian EFL students?

3. To what extent is the use of collocations affected by Iranian EFL learners' L1?

4. Is there more idiomaticity (particularly the use of collocations) in the language of more proficient EFL learners?

5. Conclusion and implication

By collocation is meant a tendency of a word to a certain environment; i.e. the habitual association of a word with other words in a sentence. The notion of collocation was first introduced by the founder of London School of Structural Linguistics and the representative of British Contextualism J. R Firth in 1957; however until recently, collocations constituted an area of language that was largely neglected by different traditions of linguistics and their important role in successful and native-like performance of EFL learners was hardly recognized by teaching methodologists. Thanks to the recent developments in the study of vocabulary, multi-word units are now considered a major element in the constitution of the lexicon, though in spite of the wide research on different aspects of English language, the analysis of EFL learners' use of English collocations through studying EFL corpora has not been prominent yet.

Considering Iranian EFL learners' difficulties with English collocations, this study, though limited in scope, aimed at adding to the few studies thus far conducted in the area of EFL learners' collocational errors. The goal of this study was first to evaluate adult Iranian learners of English as to their ability to collocate words correctly in English and then analyse their errors in six different categories of collocations. For this purpose, 72 EFL learners studying English at various academic institutions were selected to take part in an essay-writing task. The reason for not using tests of multiple-choice or cloze format to evaluate the learners' collocational competence was the researcher's belief that the learners' understanding of English collocations would not guarantee satisfactory productive knowledge of multi-word units. Additionally, in their studies of the second language learners' collocational competence, Bahns & Eldaw (1993) and Farghal & Obiedat (1995) found that there is a big gap between L2 learners' receptive and productive knowledge of collocations. Once the essay-writing task was over, all multi-word units were manually extracted from the corpus and then collocations were sorted out from free word combinations and arranged into six different categories including verb-preposition, noun-preposition, verb-adverb, verb-noun, adjective-noun and adverb-adjective. Finally, the collocational errors were analysed as to their source and frequency of occurrence among Iranian EFL learners.

Despite the important contributions the collocations can make to the naturalness of the learners' English, however, language teachers do not often choose to make collocational competence a priority in EFL settings. More importantly, as Gerson (2005) found out, when they begin to make corrections to students' writings, they almost always turn a blind eye to the students' collocational errors or even fail to detect them, while the grammatical errors are most probably corrected. According to him, the mysterious nature of collocations which makes them hard to teach and even to describe, as well as the teachers' belief regarding the status of English as a global tool of communication which necessitates greater linguistic tolerance for non-native-like language result in an approach to error correction whereby the only errors addressed are grammatical and rule-based, whereas language mistakes that involve rules misapplication (article usage or subject-verb agreement, for example) often do not cause as much trouble in communication between native and non-native speakers as collocational errors. These non-native-like deviations are often ignored by language teachers as unteachable or unexplainable and when faced with them, teachers may refrain from penalizing the students for lack of competence in an aspect of language that is not fully understood. Language learning and teaching, thus, have yet much to gain from the study of collocations. Perhaps, the most important contribution the teaching methodologists, syllabus designers and dictionary makers can make is to single collocations out as a central part of vocabulary learning because, as Hill (2000) states, lack of collocational competence often leads to grammatical mistakes as students tend to create longer utterances when they fail to use appropriate collocations to express themselves precisely in the second language.


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