Published 15th September 2017

common collocations

Collocation Problems for EFL Learners – There are many difficulties that English as a Foreign Language learners experience when learning English. While it’s pretty obvious that there are rules governing English grammar, we must also remember that there are rules which govern things like vocabulary and pronunciation too. In effect, learning English is not as straightforward as learning the different tenses and when and how to use them. Rather, it is becoming familiar with the language and understanding the nuances of the usage of the language. As a consequence of this, many students are actually unaware of everything they need to know in order to speak the language. In a nutshell, they don’t know what they don’t know. 

Collocations are one example of this. 

Collocations are an especially tricky aspect of learning English. First of all, not many learners are aware of collocations in that they don’t know they exist and they don’t know what they are – and the same can probably be said for many EFL teachers too! Secondly, there is no apparent reasoning or rule behind them. If you asked a native speaker why they use certain collocations, they won’t be able to give you any justification besides I just do, or It sounds right. Instead, in order to learn collocations, they need to be encountered in natural language and learners must familiarise themselves with the different collocations over time in order to adopt them into their own language. 

What is a collocation?

For those of us who are a bit fuzzy on collocations, a collocation is “a combination of words in a language that happens very often and more frequently than would happen by chance”, or, to put it a bit simpler, the occurrence of certain words together. This relationship can be either strong – when the link between the words is fixed – or weak – when a word collocates with a number of other words. For example, blonde hair is a strong collocation because blonde doesn’t pair with many other words (if any) but straight hair is a weak collocation because straight can, and often does, pair with a number of other words.

Moving on to the usage of collocations, to make it a little bit clearer, when you think about it, as native speakers, how do we know that we say heavy rain but not thick rain? Strong coffee but not powerful coffee? Do homework but not make homework?

Presumably it’s from our experience with the collocations in natural English and our exposure to the language, so it’s understandable that our learners, who have not had as much exposure to the language, can have difficulty with them. 

Let’s get to the bottom of this by first looking at the different types of collocations we have in English. 

collocations

Verb + noun: Delexicalised verbs

Delexicalised verbs are also known as empty verbs. These are verbs which are used frequently in English and with many nouns, so much so that they seem to have lost their meaning in the phrase. Common delexicalised verbs are get, go, take, make, do, have. If we consider the phrase have a coffee, it has the same meaning as drink a coffee, though the one is far more common than the other. 

A few examples of frequently used delexicalised verb collocations are: 

have a party

take a break

fall pregnant

keep a promise

get married

Noun + noun

A noun-noun combination includes combinations such as collective nouns and quantifiers. For example:

a herd of elephants

a bar of soap

a round of applause

Noun + verb

You might not even realise that these combinations are collocations but the fact is that these words go together and while some cannot be substituted, others can but are not used together as often. Examples are: 

dogs bark

temperatures fall

Adjective + noun

Sometimes the way we describe certain things has become so firmly entrenched in our language that they are collocations. For example:

a heavy smoker

a rough night

a light sleeper

Adverb + adjective

Similarly, the way we describe certain adjectives has also become fixed in our language, such as

highly controversial

happily married

Verb + prepositional phrase

These verb-prepositional phrases also include phrasal verbs: 

burst into tears

run out of money

Verb + adverb

There are also particular verb-adverb combinations that we use. For example: 

vaguely remember

fully appreciate

vehemently deny

Now that we know exactly what collocations are, let’s look at the common difficulties our students face when it comes to learning them. 

Common collocation problems for EFL learners

  • Randomness

As the above examples show, collocations do not seem to follow any rules nor have any reason behind their existence. If asked by a student why it is we do the homework rather than make the homework, we can try to find a flimsy reason to justify it but we are more likely than not going to reply that it just is, which is not a very satisfactory explanation. Our learners like to have a rule to be able to learn and revert to when they are not sure of a phrase; not having the rule can be frustrating. Don’t be surprised if your learners get a glazed look on their face when you mention collocations!

  • L1 transfer

Probably because of this randomness it is easy for learners to be tripped up by first language transfer. First language transfer is when similarities in a learner’s first language interfered with their learning of a second language. Italian learners of English may well take a coffee because this is how it is said in Italian. Similarly, speakers of Spanish will have comparable problems, while speakers of a completely different language, like Arabic, will have their own totally different transfer issues.

  • Volume

There are a huge number of collocations in English. Learning vocabulary is bad enough but adding in the fact that certain words are used together adds another dimension to learning the words of a language. The thing is, knowing collocations is what can mean knowing a language. Using collocations in language production will make you sound more natural. Your language will flow and your listeners won’t struggle to understand what you are trying to say. This is why collocations are so important in language learning. 

How can we teach collocations more effectively?

Encourage your learners to read English texts. Be sure to include authentic materials into your lessons so that your students are exposed to natural language as much as possible. When teaching vocabulary, don’t only focus on meaning, form and pronunciation but also focus on common collocations with the words in question. Be sure to draw your students’ attention to the occurrence and usage of collocations in any texts you use in class. 

However, there is no need to get technical when teaching collocations. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter if it’s an adverb-adjective or an adjective-noun combination. 

Encourage them to keep a collocation dictionary to keep a record. You can also make posters with common collocations on the walls around the classroom so that your students will have them front of mind when they are speaking English. 

All of these tricks will help your students learn collocations, which is not an easy thing to do. Be encouraging as students can easily become disheartened when they realise the uphill battle they are facing when it comes to collocations. And above all, don’t give up – and don’t let them give up!