Formal Revised Prospectus For Synthesis Paper English Language Essay

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Throughout my 12 years of experience in teaching I have sadly come to the conclusion that most learners with a wide range of vocabulary storage and an excellent control of grammar may have problems with fluency in writing and speaking. Besides, when listening to something they have a tendency to try to catch every word they hear, whereas native speakers can understand utterances even in a noisy environment without hearing every word because they can predict and anticipate all the possible alternatives to come after a certain word. Learners, especially after reaching "advanced level", are supposed to be able to produce native-like and natural utterances and understand long stretches of discourse. Then there should be a difference in the way native speakers and EFL/ESL learners process lexical and syntactical structures.

We now know that vocabulary is not stored only as individual words, but also as parts of phrases and larger chunks, which can be retrieved from memory as a whole, reducing processing difficulties. On the other hand, learners who only learn individual words will need a lot more time and effort to express themselves. This explains why native speakers are fluent in speech and writing and can understand everything they listen to whereas non-natives cannot. Consequently, it is essential to make students aware of chunks, giving them opportunities to identify, organize and record these, and thus build an understanding of collocational learning, which is not always easy, so students need a lot of guidance.

 Can collocational competence truly heal the EFL/ESL learners' problems and enhance their proficiency? Along with this question, by virtue of this synthesis paper, I wish to find an answer to why a learner, even at advanced levels, fails to bring together words that make sense. Some of the literature on collocations suggests that lack of collocational competence stems from L1 influence, yet there is also research ascribing this to such factors, other than L1 interference, as paucity of collocational input and ineffective approaches to teaching and learning vocabulary.

The idea that languages are made up of frozen, formulaic phrases, has recently occupied the central focus of current approaches to language teaching, yet how such formulaic language is learned has not satisfactorily been comprehended. The attempts to answer this question fall into two distinct categories. While some researchers have the opinion that L2 learners acquire lexical items in chunks, just as the native speakers do (Ellis, 2003), others believe that, L2 learners, unlike L1 speakers, perceive and learn language input as isolated, individual words (Wray, 2002).

In one of the studies reviewed for this paper Durrant and Schmitt (2010) claim that second language learners do not, as Wray claims, totally rely on individual words, but retain memory of words that often appear together. "Any deficit in learners' knowledge of collocation" according to their findings stems more likely from "insufficient exposure to the language", than from the different ways learners are taught collocations (Durrant & Schmitt, 2010, p. 182). Sticking to Ellis' model, Keshavarz and Salimi (2007) report that vocabulary teaching should capitalize not on "semantic isolates", but on "semi-preconstructed phrases". This standpoint implicitly blames learners' poor collocational competence on ineffective teaching approaches. M. M. Jean (2007), having found out that university students have more serious problems in productive collocational competence, states as an implication of the study that this can be overcome by an efficient pedagogical intervention program.

According to some other research, some creative cognitive processes, which mostly result from L1 transfer, are held liable for incompetence in collocations even at advanced levels (Zughoul & Abdul-Fettah, 2001). Their study on Arabic learners of English concludes that even advanced learners produce collocations inadequately on account of direct translation from NL to TL. Huang (2001) and Nesselhauf (2003), too, emphasize that L1 transfer has a more profound effect on collocational errors.

Definitions of Collocations in the Literature

The literature synthesized here agrees on the significance of collocations for both L1 speakers and L2 learners. Duran and Schmitt (2010), for instance, enumerate a couple of reasons as to why collocations occupy a central position in language research. Some of these are their pervasiveness, salience and the already developed quantitative methods to study them. However, there is not a unanimous definition of this construct. Duran and Schmitt (2010) admit that there is not a universally accepted definition of collocations. Referring to different researchers, they tap on such terms as "semi-preconstructed phrases", "linguistic chunking" and "psychological association between words" (Durrant & Schmitt, 2010, p. 164). Their definition depend upon two broader terms of "formulaic language" and "construction", classifying collocations under the former, which is defined, by Wray (2002, p. 9), as "a sequence, continuous or discontinuous of words or other elements which is … stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar".

Keshavarz and Salimi (2007) also contend that "we still lack a clear, non-controversial and all-embracing definition of collocation" (p. 85). Stating various researchers' dissimilar terms or definitions, they adopt a "categorization model of collocation", since it is more thorough in its exposition and unequivocal with its easy-to-follow examples. This continuum based model consists of "free combinations, restricted collocations, figurative idioms, and pure idioms" (Keshavarz & Salimi, 2007, p. 85).

Huang (2001), accepting the diversity in definitions, places collocations on a continuum, too, ranging from free combinations to pure idioms. He further touches a few criteria for this classification which include "semantic transparency, degree of substitutability and degree of productivity." In this approach, free combinations are the most transparent and have the highest degree of substitutability and productivity whereas idioms are the most semantically opaque with the lowest degree of productivity and substitutability (Huang, 2001, p. 114). Nesselhauf (2003) is concerned about delimiting the collocations from other types of word combinations and asserts that these criteria do not help remove these concerns. In order to overcome this problem, she develops a notion, called "restricted sense", on which she bases her classification of word combinations and definition of collocations. On the basis of this notion, she mentions three categories of word combinations, "free combinations, collocations and idioms" (Nesselhauf, 2003, p. 225). As one final researcher who puts forth that there are different approaches to collocations by different researchers, Jean (2007) does not try to give a complete account of collocations and merely talks about "formal and functional features" of collocations (p. 129).

Within the literature reviewed for this study, Zughoul and Abdul-Fettah, (2001) are the only authors who believe that there is not debate on the definition of collocations. They contend that "the definition of collocation is not seriously a matter of controversy. The idea of what a collocation is involves much more agreement among linguists than disagreement" (2001, p. 3).

The Origins of Collocational Errors

Different researchers may define collocations in distinct terms, yet there seems to be a unanimous agreement on the fact that L2 learners are not adequately proficient in their collocational competence. All the literature reviewed in this study concludes that learners, even at advanced levels, produce awkward utterances due to incompetent use of collocations. Lack of collocational competence may, as some of the literature asserts, stem from interlingual transfer, while in some other research this incompetence is ascribed to such factors, other than L1 interference, as paucity of collocational input and ineffective approaches to teaching lexis.

The origins of collocational errors are best revealed through a careful look at how collocations are learnt. Ellis (2003) contends that native speakers learn, store and retain formulaic language as single items through a process called chunking. The basic principle in this model is the "law of contiguity", which states that "objects once experienced together tend to become associated in the imagination, so that when any one of them is thought of, the others are likely to be thought of also" (p. 43). Frequent co-occurrence of words triggers associative learning in long term memory. All this chunking process, Ellis claims, takes place implicitly, that is without learners' conscious attention. This model of collocation learning developed for L1 learners, according to Ellis, works also for adult L2 learners. Wray (2002), however, claims that adult learners follow a non-formulaic approach to language learning, learning vocabulary as separate items and not retaining information about what words appear together. According to this view, when adult L2 learners are exposed to language input, they primarily notice not chunks but individual words. Although Wray also states that native speakers would note a string of formulaic utterances as a single item, second language learners, different from what Ellis believes, break it down and store the words separately without paying any attention to the fact that they appear together (p. 206).

Depending on which edge of this continuum they are, different researchers contend different reasons for the origins of collocational errors. Durant and Schmitt (2010), for example, believe that adult second language learners do retain language input as items that frequently go together. In their study, they selected some adjective-noun combinations from British National Corpus (BNC) and used them in three training sessions with 84 non-native speakers of English at the University of Nottingham, which was followed by a test. According to the test results, all the participants, even those who saw adjective-noun pairs only once in the training session, retained some memory of collocations. Therefore, they concluded that adult L2 learners "do, in contrast to Wray's claims, retain some memory of which words go together in the language they meet", a process which takes place implicitly without learners' paying attention to word pairs consciously (p. 179). Learners should, then, pick up collocations as they are exposed to language input regardless of specific teaching or learning techniques. This, they contend, suggests that any deficiency in non-natives' collocational competence stems from lack of exposure to language rather than instructional approaches to vocabulary learning.

Keshavarz & Salimi (2007) looked into the relationship between collocational competence and cloze test performance, the latter being a measure of learners' overall proficiency level. They found out that "learners' collocational competence and proficiency level are closely and positively associated", which, according to them, suggests that "proficient language users know a large number of collocational patterns" (p. 88). The participants, Iranian university students majoring in English Language and Literature or English Translation categorized as being at the intermediate level based on a TOEFL test administered as part of the study, were found to have insufficient command of English collocations. The authors, relying on Iranian EFL teachers' experience, commented that this should be due to instructional approaches adopted. They conclude this discussion asserting that "vocabulary teaching needs to be seen as being concerned not only with the meaning of words as semantic isolates, but as elements in semi-preconstructed phrases" (p. 89). The study, though implicitly, ascribes the poor collocational performance to how vocabulary is handled in classrooms, suggesting that words that go together should be taught together.

Another investigation with similar findings in that learners, no matter how much progress they may have achieved in their linguistic proficiency, fail to reach a satisfactory collocational competence due to ineffective approaches to vocabulary teaching is a corpus-based study by Jean (2007), who reports an assessment of the collocational proficiency of students of English Linguistics at the University of Granada. Relying on three English corpora - the Bank of English, the British National Corpus and the Longman Corpus Network, the study aims at measuring the collocational competence of 63 Spanish speakers of English in 80 adjective-noun combinations. Jean found significant differences among participants's scores on receptive and productive collocational tests. The findings also "indicate that students may fall short in the social and academic demands made on their command of L2" and this can be overcome through a pedagogical intervention program (p. 143). This study, too, relates the deficiencies in learning formulaic language to instructional approaches, so input or L1 influence alone cannot account for poor collocational competence.

Zughoul & Abdul-Fettah (2001) studied the collocational competence of Arabic EFL learners studying at English department at a university. They used an Arabic word "kasara" - broke - to measure participants' receptive and productive skills in two individual tasks. One task depended on participants' success at recognizing the correct English collocations equivalent to those of the verb "kasara", and the other task was based on traslation of the same collocations to measure subjects' productive proficiency in collocations. The data analysis showed that Arabic learners' overall proficiency in colllocations is far from being satisfactory, the productive one being even worse. In their discussion on what might this poor performance originate from, the researchers came up with 11 distinct strategies mostly based on traslation from NL to TL. Consequently they maintain that "on the whole, the study has subscribed to the role of NL in the FL acquisition", indicating that it is the L1 transfer that accounts for the insufficient collocational competence even at advanced levels (p. 14).

Huang (2001) looked into 60 Taiwanese EFL students' knowledge of collocations and their collocational errors using a Simple Completion Task which contains spesific food and animal collocations or idioms. The scores were analyzed quantitatively in order to find out the relative difficulty of different lexical categories, and qualitatively with a view to revealing "which words caused confusion in terms of collacability" and which collocations were the most challenging for subjects (p. 120). The test bore the most correct answers in free combinations and the least in pure idioms categories of collocations. A qualitative analysis of the test scores in terms of detecting the origins of the participants' collocation errors indicated the influence of native language. For instance, "the subjects chose eat to collocate with a bite", which is a direct translation from Chinese (p. 123). The participants also transfered cultural stereotypes to replace missing items in idioms. Where learners could not transfer negatively or positively, they provided their own alternatives, failing to recognize the idea of fixed expressions and collocational restrictions. As a result of findings, Huang suggests that teachers, with a variety of examples, compare and contrast similar collocations in L1 and L2, and in this way "learners attend to the lexico-semantic distinctions between the two languages and reduce errors caused by L1 interference" (p. 125). The study concludes that EFL learners' phraseological competence can be increased only by incorporating collocations into vocabulary teaching.

Nesselhauf (2003) investigated advanced learners's difficulty in collocations and the factors which might contribute to these difficulties relying on some verb-noun combinations selected from the German subcorpus of The International Corpus of Learner English. She studied 32 essays of German EFL students at university mainly in their 3rd or 4th year. The researcher extracted 1072 verb-noun combinations, 213 of which were classified as collocations, 846 as free combinations and 13 as idioms. 255 out of these 1072 combinations were found to have one or several mistakes and 56 of these were collocations. Analyzing these mistakes Nesselhauf discusses whether it is the degree of collocational restriction that causes nonstandard use. This analysis of wrong combinations revealed that it is not the degree of restriction but the role of L1 that leads to errors. Interference, Nesselhauf believes, plays a much more critical role in learenrs' insufficient production of collocations. The study concludes that "collocations do deserve a place in language teaching" and that although rote learning turned into a passing fad with the fall of behaviorism, "it seems indispensable that a number of collocations be taught and learnt explicitly" through route learning (p. 238). Considering the substantial influence of L1 on collocational competence, the study suggests that collocations to be taught be selected on the basis on native language, and this selection be taught with reference to L1.


It is fairly clear in the literature regarding learners' retention of collocations that collocations have increasingly occupied more and more place in language research. All the literature sythesized in this paper, agreeing that even advanced learners of English are rather poor in their phraseological competence, accepts that there is a tendency among researchers and curriculum developers to include more collocations in vocabulary teaching programs. Another similarity in the literature is that vocabulary knowledge of learners does not parallel to their knowledge of collocations, yet collocational competence is a crucial determiner of learners' overall level of English.

Despite this agreement, there are also dissimilarities such as the one as to how collocations should be taught. Although some researchers contend that it is enough to expose learners to as much input as possible, many stress that collocations should be taught explicitly. The actual differences in collocation studies relate to the origins of poor collocational competence of learners. The findings fall into three categories in this respect. While some researchers assert that this deficiency stems from ineffective instructional approaches to vocabulary teaching and lack of exposure to input, many others assertively put the blame on negative transfer from L1. Consequently, wherever the collocational errors might be rooted, they certainly deserve more place in our language teaching programs, especially if we want our learners to produce more natural and fluent utterances both in speech and writing.