Role That Collocations Play In Language Learning English Language Essay

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It is widely acknowledged that collocations play an important role in second language learning, particularly at the intermediate and advanced levels. Collocations enhance improvement of learners' oral communication, listening comprehension, and reading speed, and that teaching collocations enables learners to be aware of language chunks used by native speakers in speech and writing. This study investigated learners' use of collocations by analyzing the production data with multiple choice tests and writing task. Thirty Iranian postgraduate students participated in this study to determine the collocational errors they made and to identify the basis for their difficulties with collocations. The result shows that learners have difficulties with both lexical and grammatical collocations in their writing. In addition, the results show that the use of collocations, regarding both their number and their acceptability, is related to proficiency and there is a strong relationship between knowledge of collocations and overall proficiency. There are two important points. 1. If collocations are not taught, a large set of items are ignored which express complex ideas simply and precisely. 2. The fewer collocations students are able to use, the more they have to use longer expressions with more grammar to communicate something which a native speaker would express with a precise lexical phrase and correspondingly little grammar.


This paper investigates the relationship between Iranian EFL students' knowledge of collocations and their general proficiency in English. In addition this paper intends to determine the collocational errors they made and to identify the basis for their difficulties with collocations. Collocations are two or more words which have a strong tendency to co-occur in a language and prefabricated combination of two or more words in a particular context. They are one of the challenges that adult second language learners have to deal with in their journey of English language learning. They often come across quite a large number of difficulties in all language skills. These difficulties vary in their intensity and nature depending on a variety of variables such as students' native language (L1) background, age, and personality.

Native speakers of a language have at their disposal thousands of words. Using their knowledge of grammar, they are, in theory, capable of using the words to produce and understand an unlimited number of sentences that they have never said or heard before. In practice, however, they do not produce every sentence from scratch. They tend to use a great number of ready-made chunks of words and put them together in various ways according to their communicative needs. Words become tied, so to speak, to each other due to repeated use in the same chunks by members of the language community. Sometimes, though, a single use of a group of words together may be enough to link the words in one chunk in the memory of speakers of a language because of the dramatic effect of such a use or the prestige of the user.

When words are thus combined in a chunk, they have the power to predict each other's occurrence. On the other hand, due to the fact that English words are not linked in ready-made chunks in the non-native speakers' memory; inappropriate word combinations are often produced by most non-native speakers.

The majority of Iranian EFL learners to some extent have knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary; however, they seem to have serious problems with the use of collocations. For instance; "make a mistake" is an acceptable collocation in the English language. Iranian learners using the Persian language say "Eshtebah Kardan" which literally means "do a mistake" and when it comes to English they think in their first language and instead of "make a mistake" they write "do a mistake." In other words, Iranians say "Do a mistake" while English speakers say "Make a mistake".

Producing collocations in writing poses particular difficulties. To enhance EFL learners' writing competence, English teachers have been making significant efforts, spending a great deal of time devoting themselves to correcting students' writing and attempting to identify the difficult areas in students' English compositions. Despite this effort, the same errors continue to occur. In fact, as Bahn and Eldaw (1993) state, it is usually the case that the majority of EFL learners have different problems in their oral and written production. According to Hill, "Students with good ideas often lose marks because they don't know the four or five most important collocations of a key word that is central to what they are writing about" (Hill, 2000). As a result, longer, wordier ways of defining or discussing the issue increase the chance of further errors. These problems are due to inadequate knowledge about the "companies that words keep." Lexical and grammatical phrases are both numerous and functionally important in written texts. Despite this, L2 learners often find their use problematic, typically overusing a limited number of well-known phrases, while at the same time lacking a diverse enough phrasal repertoire to employ lexical phrases in a native-like manner. Hill (in Lewis, 2001) commented that "within the mental lexicon, collocation is the most powerful force in the creation and comprehension of all naturally occurring text" (p.49). Moreover, collocation knowledge helps learners to create more native-like sentences (Nation, 2001). In other words, to develop their writing ability, students need to use collocation in their writing.

Classification of collocations in this study

Based on Benson, Benson, and Ilson (1986), collocations fall into two categories: Grammatical collocations and Lexical collocations. Following Benson, Benson, and Ilson (1986), a grammatical collocation generally consists of a dominant open class word (noun, adjective or verb) and a preposition or particular structural pattern such as an infinitive or a clause. The major types of collocations are: Noun + Preposition/ to infinitive/ that clause (access to, agreement that…), Preposition + Noun (in advance, to somebody's advantage), Adjective + Preposition/ to infinitive/ that clause (aware of, necessary to, afraid that…), a verb combining in different ways with a preposition, an infinitive with to, an infinitive without to, a verb form ending in -ing, that clause (Adjust to, begin to, keep doing, think that…).

A lexical collocation, on the other hand, normally does not contain infinitive or clauses. It typically consists of open class words (Noun, Adjective, verb or adverb). According to syntactic characteristics Lewis (2001, p. 51) categorizes lexical collocations into six major types: Adjective + Noun (strong tea, major problem, key issue), Noun + Noun(a pocket calculator, sense of pride), Verb + Noun (make an impression, set an alarm), Verb + Adverb (spell accurately, live dangerously, smiled proudly), Adverb + Adjective (strictly accurate, completely soaked, happily married), and Noun + Verb ( companies merged, pose a problem).

The importance of collocations

1 Enhancing language competence

The importance and value of collocations for the development of L2 vocabulary and communicative competence has been emphasized by a number of researchers (Benson, 1985; Brown, 1974; Channel, 1981; Cowie, 1981(Robins 1967); Lewis, 1997). In an early study, Brown (1974) underscores that collocations enhance improvement of learners' oral communication, listening comprehension, and reading speed, and that teaching collocations enables learners to be aware of language chunks used by native speakers in speech and writing.

Channel (1981) supports Brown's statement and affirms that heightening learners' awareness of collocations is a very efficient way of increasing their communicative power. Nattinger (1980) asserts that language production includes "piecing together the ready-made units appropriate for particular situations and that comprehension relies on knowing which of these patterns to predict in these situations" (p. 341). Cowie (1988) further claims that institutionalized units (lexical phrases and collocations) serve communicative needs and enables individuals to reuse and create the units. He indicates that stability and creativity of institutionalized units are complementary and interactive factors in vocabulary use and suggests vocabulary teaching should keep a balance between lexical phrase and collocations.

In subsequent research, Aghbar (1990) in his study emphasizes the importance of collocations and indicates that the reason EFL learners have poor performance in the test of short formulaic expressions is not simply a lack of vocabulary but insufficient acquisition of language chunks. He argues that the knowledge of formulaic language consisting of idioms, proverbs, sayings, collocations, short set expressions, and long set expressions is a vital element of language capability and is used to distinguish native speakers from non-native speakers.

Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992), in their book Lexical Phrase and Language Teaching also regard formulaic units or lexical phrases, including collocations, as the very center of language acquisition, and they provide some applications of lexical phrases for language teaching, including teaching spoken discourse, listening comprehension, reading, and writing.

In recent years, more researchers and language teachers have advocated the significance of collocations in language development and teaching. Collocations are regarded as an important part of L2 lexical development (Ellis, 1996). Leffa (1998) points out, in his research, that collocation is superior to using encyclopedic knowledge to solve lexical ambiguities. Moreover, the book Teaching Collocation: Further Development in the Lexical Approach, (Conzett, 2000; Hill, 2000; Lewis, 2001, Woolard, 2000) presents the value of collocations and provides practical and useful ways of teaching them. As Ellis (2001) argues, collocational knowledge is the essence of language knowledge.

2 Toward Native-like fluency

Linguists and language teachers concur with the necessity of having awareness of the importance of collocations in language learning and ability of automatized use of multi-word lexical chunks used by native speakers of a language (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; Paweley & Syder, 1983; Skehan, 1996). Native-like selection, as stated by Pawley and Syder (1983), is that speakers or writers have the capability to choose and distinguish appropriate vocabulary and expressions for different social situations.

Nattinger (1988) indicates that it is relatively easier to store and memorize a new word in a network of associations, and that language chunks help learners to store information. Collocations, especially, which are useful in enhancing comprehension for the association of words, assist the learners in committing words to memory and also permit people to predict what kinds of words may be found together. Collocations are also useful for teaching language production because learners will notice certain lexical restrictions by learning collocations. For example, if learners are familiar with collocations such as a convenient situation and a convenient time but not a convenient person, they will subconsciously realize that the adjective convenient is only used with inanimate nouns. Learners will not have to reconstruct the language every time they want to say something but instead can use these collocations as "pre-packaged building blocks", and eventually, collocations will shift learners' concentration from individual words to the larger structure of the discourse.

Howarth (1996) claims that native speakers have a large and significant phraseological component in their linguistic competence and the problem that language learners encounter is how to achieve the naturalness of native-speaker use that derives from the proper selection of conventional phraseology. Therefore, collocations play an important role in L2 language learning and will help L2 learners' language to become more native-like. In recent research, Nation (2001) claims that collocational sequences are all-important in developing fluency and "all fluent and appropriate language requires collocational knowledge" (p. 318).

Collocations are therefore significant and unique, and indeed not only improve learners' language competence (both perception and production) but also help learners approach native fluency.

Literature Review

Robins (1967), claims that studies on collocations started about 2,300 years ago in Greece. The Greek Stoics related collocations to semantics and used the concept of collocation to study the meaning relationships between words. According to these ancient scholars, words "do not exist in isolation, and they may differ according to the collocation in which they are used" (Robins, 1967, p.21). The British linguist J. R. Firth, whose name is intimately associated with collocational studies in modern times, is in the tradition of the Greek Stoics. Many of his statements about collocations are reminiscent of the ancient Greek scholars; for example "words are mutually expectant and mutually prehended" (Firth, 1957, p.12) or "you shall know a word by the company it keeps" (p. 11). According to Mitchell (1971), H. E. Palmer's monograph on collocations may have influenced Firth in the selection of the term collocation; however, it is widely accepted that Firth is the first linguist in modern times who explicitly introduced the notion of collocation into a theory of meaning.

Second language teachers have looked at collocation as both an opportunity and a problem after Palmer's work in 1930s (Palmer 1933). Some factors have helped collocation in particular and 'formulaic language' in general to come into focus for learners of language in recent years: The extension of computerized texts and works of Sinclair (1987) showed the rapid spreading of the use of collocations. To Pawley and Syder (1983) multi-word 'lexicalized' phrases have the key role in producing fluent and idiomatic language; frequent and odd chunks are at the heart of those usage-based models in both language description and first language acquisition (Tomasello 2003). Smith (2005) declares it is important to include collocation in the curriculum for several reasons. The first reason is the widespread difficulty faced by non-native speakers in selecting the accurate combination of words. Even in cases where the learner knows the individual words, collocations are still likely to be problematic. The second reason, as Lewis (1993) states, is the need for learners to get beyond the 'intermediate plateau'. These students can cope in most situations, but they tend to 'avoid' or 'talk around' the more challenging tasks of advanced language learning. Collocation instruction is especially motivating for upper level students (Williams, 2002). The third reason is that having a knowledge of frequently occurring collocates deepens vocabulary knowledge and increased fluency and aids stress and intention (Williams, 2002). A final reason is that collocation errors are more divisive to the communication process than most grammatical errors. The result is unnatural sounding expressions or odd or out of date phrasing.

While the need for research on collocations has long been identified, only recently have academic investigations been conducted, A small number of recent studies on collocations show the first attempts to measure collocational competence. In one of the studies Aghbar (1990) examined 97 ESL students and 44 American students by using a blank-filling test which included 50 verb-noun collocations. The results showed that ESL students did well where 'get' was the desirable word.

In another study, Aghbar and Tang (1991) gave 205 ESL students a cloze test, which contained 30 verb-noun collocations and the found that collocations including 'take', and 'find' are early-acquired verbs and are relatively easy for low proficiency students.

In another study which is a case study, Neves Seesink (2007) investigated intermediate students with Arabic, Chinese, Japans, and Korean background to see if teaching vocabulary and collocations in particular improves the writing of the students or not. She used an online program to teach students collocations. At the end she concluded that attention to collocations had a positive impact on the students' results. But she didn't clarify that what type of collocations she used. In her study she didn't show what types of collocations are difficult for the learners. Since it is not possible to teach students all types of collocations due to the huge number of collocations, it is clear that those collocations which are more problematic to students should be recognized and taught first.

The literature review shows that collocations indeed deserve the attention of linguists and language educators. Experimental studied have been conducted to measure language learners' knowledge of collocations, to detect the development of collocational knowledge at different levels, and to find the common collocational errors that language learners make. Several studies focus on the development and relationship between collocations and language production, especially writing. Language educators also discuss the importance and methods of teaching collocations.



The participants in this study are 15 Iranian, male and female, postgraduate students at UKM University. Their age varies from twenty four to thirty five. Their level of English is intermediate and above as it is compulsory for students to have a minimum IELTS 5.5 to be able to register at the university. English language is their foreign language. Students those who do not have IELTS are required to take a placement test and they are required to score at least 80%. The university has an intensive English course program to accommodate those who score less than 80% in the placement test. Students remain in this program until they satisfy the university's admission requirement.


Writing test

Students were asked to write about the following topic: 1. Write about unforgettable experience you have had. 2. How did you spend your last Norouz holiday (Iranian New Year holiday)? In order to make it easier for students a number of aspects are considered in the selection of these titles. First, writing about an unforgettable experience is a personal matter and that is assumed to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Second, the topic related to friends, family, and culture are familiar enough to write about easily for the students. The holistic measure of writing proficiency was used to mark the papers. The rating scale for writing test was 1-6. Two expert raters, who are doctors in Linguistics and Education experienced in writing, marked the papers. One of the raters is a native of English language.

Collocation test

A multiple-choice test of collocation including 50 items selected from the Oxford Collocation Dictionary. This test, which was made up of both lexical and grammatical collocation, was divided into 4 parts. Each part offered the following types of collocations:

1. noun+verb

2. verb+noun

3. adjective+noun

4. noun+preposition

Data analysis procedure

There would be a coding procedure after data collection. All the materials will be placed into folders with an identifying number on each. To assure participants' anonymity, identifying numbers will be used instead of names.

Procedure for scoring the data from the test

The lexical collocations test will consist of 50 sentences or items in multiple choices format. The scores on the collocational test will show the participants' knowledge of collocations. The maximum score for answering 50 questions correctly will be 50 points. The researcher will score the test with the help the BBI Dictionary, Mr. Stockdale's Dictionary of collocations (2000), and Oxford Dictionary of Collocations (2009).

Statistical procedures

The subjects' scores on the Collocations test, their scores on the writing proficiency, and the frequency of Collocations analyzed to show the correlation between the language proficiency and knowledge of collocation. As a quantitative research for analyzing the data, Sciences Statistical Package for the Social (spss 19) version 19 was used for the computing sections.

Results and Discussion

The statistical measures performed clearly indicate that the relationship between students' knowledge of collocations and their language proficiency exists.

Table 1. Correlation coefficient between proficiency and collocations

Pearson correlation




Pearson Correlation



Sig. (2-tailed)






Pearson Correlation



Sig. (2-tailed)





**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).

Spearman correlation



Spearman's rho


Correlation Coefficient



Sig. (2-tailed)







Correlation Coefficient



Sig. (2-tailed)






**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).

The results of the study, presented in Table 1 above, indicate that: There is a significant positive correlation between proficiency and knowledge of collocation.

Table 2: Frequency of use






















Std. Deviation















Table 2 shows that some types of collocations have wider differences in degree of difficulty. To be precise, there is a statistically significant difference between the performance of the subjects on adjective+noun collocations and other types of collocations. The mean for adjective+noun collocations is 6.5, whereas the mean for the others is at least 7. It also illustrates that adjective+noun collocations and noun+verb collocations are the most difficult ones for the students while on the other hand verb+noun collocations are the easiest category for the subjects.


With the lack of awareness of collocations and without knowledge of collocations, as Pawly & Syder (1983) mention, which has been later supported by Lewis (2004), it is difficult to see ESL/EFL learners' English as ordinary, natural or fluent. Their expressions can be judged to be unnatural, odd, and foreign even though they are grammatically correct. However, During second language learning, particularly classroom second language learning, two practical constraints not present in L1 acquisition determine that L2 and L1 lexical development processes differ significantly. The first constraint is the poverty of input in terms of both quantity and quality. Classroom L2 learners often lack sufficient, highly contextualized input in the target language. This often makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an L2 learner to extract and create semantic, syntactic, and morphological specifications about a word and integrate such information into the lexical entry of that word. EFL learners usually focus on the individual words and disregard other important information, namely, what these individual words co-occurred with. They learn collocations as separate words rather than in chunks. As a result, when they want to produce collocation, they refer to their first language to find a suitable word for producing collocation in target language. When it happens the consequences are under the influence of L1 on L2. This phenomenon is referred to by linguists as transfer. Transfer can be positive or negative. Positive transfer occurs when the patterns of L1 and L2 are the same. Negative transfer occurs when the patterns of students' L1 and L2 are different, in which case problems may arise.

Positive transfer

It was clear that in responding to certain test items, participants were aided by positive

transfer from Persian. That is, some collocations had equivalents in Persian, and thus were easy for students to respond to. The following items are among the positively-transferred items listed by their number in the Test of Collocations:

album comes out

ball rolling

do housework

33. blank tape

36. golden opportunities

preference to

success in

Predictably, the collocations in the list above, can be classified as high-frequency collocations, which were answered by the largest number of students. Learners' reliance on their first language (L1) in learning English was examined by various SLA researchers. Such a strategy was found to be used by L2 learners in the use of collocations as well. Biskup (1992), Bahns and Eldaw (1993), and Gitsaki (1999) found that, in ESL, collocations that had equivalents in students' L1 were easier, and thus were more likely to be elicited than the ones having no equivalents in students' L1. For this reason, Bahns and Eldaw (1993) and Biskup (1992) suggested that, since the number of collocations is too large to cover, the deliberate teaching of collocations should be limited to collocations that have no equivalent in students' first language.

Negative Transfer

Like positive transfer, negative transfer/ interference, is a common phenomenon among L2 learner. The results indicated that students had problems with collocations that had no equivalents in Persian. As a result, when students did not know a certain collocation, they negatively transferred collocations from their L1. The collocation blame falls on, for instance, was one of the problematic collocations. In addition to the fact that such a collocation does not have a Persian equivalent and thus pose a difficulty to students. As such, the difficulty students had with blame falls on may be explained by either the nature of the collocation or negative transfer factors.

Another source of difficulty can be the cultural factor. Both culture and vocabulary are very closely related aspects in any language. Culture is expressed through language, and no expression of language can occur without words. It is through words that the culture of a language is transmitted from generation to generation. Therefore, learning vocabulary is also learning culture. In practice, most foreign language lessons dedicate extensive treatment to grammar and pronunciation, while vocabulary and the culture intrinsic to the language are often neglected.


This study investigated the relationship between Iranian EFL students' knowledge of collocations and their general proficiency in English. In addition this paper intended to determine the collocational errors they made and to identify the basis for their difficulties with collocations. The results of Pearson correlations showed that there was a strong correlation between students' knowledge of collocations and their general proficiency, as measured by the Writing Test. This study illustrated that adjective+noun collocations and noun+verb collocations were the most difficult ones for the students while on the other hand verb+noun collocations were the easiest category for the subjects. When there was a convergence between the English collocations and Persian equivalents, the students tended to provide the correct collocation.

Conversely, when there was a divergence between the collocations in the two languages, students found the test items difficult.

In sum, while Iranian EFL students' knowledge of collocations develops alongside their general language proficiency, they would still benefit from a curriculum that includes a variety of collocations, and one that emphasizes collocations that are linguistically and culturally distinct from those in Persian.

Based on the findings of this study it is recommended that:

1. In light of the difficulty of the production in collocations, learners are in need of more practice producing collocations. Also, they should receive as much collocation input as possible.

2. Non-congruent collocations should receive more attention in language teaching without neglecting congruent collocations as some researchers suggested (Bahns, 1993).

3. In teaching collocations, more attention should be given to teaching adjective-noun collocations, which the results showed to be more difficult, if not a challenge, to the participants, where the focus should be on the adjective that causes the greatest difficulties.

Collocations are particularly important in writing in specialized fields. Acquisition of the specialized collocations will help the learner to communicate in a professionally acceptable manner. Besides, when time is limited to formulate a message and get it across in writing, writers would feel a more pressing need to use prefabricated expressions to save processing time and energy. Training the students to use collocations effectively and appropriately in writing can contribute to efficient communication. Especially with adult ESL/EFL learners, who are particularly self-conscious about their limited structural and lexical knowledge, the

teaching of collocations can have additional advantages. This is because collocations can lower their affective filter by providing them with ready-made structural frames and prepackaged building blocks so that their worry about structure and lack of words can be reduced.


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