Published: 07th February 2018
Why Collocation is problematic for most English learners. Here's how to fix it
Albert Rayan, Professor of English believes that it is imperative that one know not just the word's meaning, but also its combinations for a healthier and effective use of the language
Recently, a teacher of English shared with her experience of teaching writing. She said, “Many students have difficulty in using correct collocations in their writings. I am not able to figure out why they make many collocation errors. Is there any way for our students to learn English collocations on their own?”
I have discussed the importance of raising awareness of collocations in some of my previous columns. Yes, collocation is a problematic area for most English language learners. Why is it so? It is because they do not have adequate exposure to the language. Those who have the habit of reading newspapers/magazines/ novels, listening to the news, watching TV programs in the target language develop strong receptive skills (listening and reading) which help them acquire collocation competence which is manifested in their speaking and writing.
Ever since English Language Teaching (ELT) experts started giving importance to the lexical approach to language teaching, the need to teach collocations to the learners of English has been much emphasised. The concept of this method is that to learn a language effectively, learners should have a proper understanding of words and word combinations, also known as collocations. This, in turn, will enable them to produce correct word combinations. Michael Lewis, who introduced the term “lexical approach” in 1993, states that “language consists of grammaticalized texts, not lexicalised grammar”. In simple terms, the focus is not on the teaching of grammar but on the teaching of word chunks. It implies that emphasis is on listening and reading skills. Even grammar should be treated as a receptive skill.
Let us discuss the importance of raising learners’ awareness of collocations. Why do we say ‘heavy lunch’ and ‘strong tea’ and not ‘strong lunch’ and ‘heavy tea’? Why are the word combinations ‘by train’, ‘by car’ considered acceptable but the chunk ‘by foot’ is unacceptable? The answer is the first set of collocations sounds natural and the second set sounds unnatural. So, it is important to know not only the meanings of words but also the natural combination of words. Below are examples of collocations.
Which is correct: “have a rest” or “have rest” and “take a rest” or “take rest”? According to the British National Corpus (BNC), “have a rest” and “take a rest” are commonly used by native speakers of English though “have a rest” is more common than “take a rest”. In India, both the phrases are used without the article “a”.
· The time was now late afternoon. I decided to have a rest.
· Take a rest and try again.
The adjectives that collocate with “tea” include fresh, stewed (very strong), strong, weak, cold, hot, lukewarm, scalding, milky, white, black, sugary, sweet, fragrant, iced, lemon, mint.
· I would like to have some fresh tea after lunch.
· Is it lemon tea or mint tea?
Though the adjective ‘milky’ is used before ‘tea’, ‘white’ is usually used after ‘tea’ as in this example:
· Can I have some tea, white, please?
Here are some adjectives that collocate with “rain”: heavy, lashing, pouring, torrential, steady, fine, gentle, light, patchy.
· Patchy rain over certain parts of Tamil Nadu will be followed by bright weather.
· The sound of torrential rain disturbed my sleep last night.
How can we check whether a particular word collocation is correct? Oxford Online Collocation (http://www.freecollocation.com) is a new type of dictionary. Users can type a particular word in the search box and know all its word combinations. The dictionary helps learners effectively study, write and speak natural-sounding English.
Another useful online source is Free Online Collocations Dictionary available at https://prowritingaid.com/Free-Online-Collocations-Dictionary.aspx. This free collocations dictionary allows users to find words that are commonly found together.