Published 15th September 2017

Last Updated on

There are many difficulties that English as a Foreign Language learners experience when learning English. Collocations are an especially tricky aspect of learning English because there is no apparent reasoning or rule behind them. Instead, collocations 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. 

To recap, a collocation is “the habitual juxtaposition of a particular word with another word or words with a frequency greater than 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 but straight hair is a weak collocation.

When you think about it, how do we know that we say heavy rain but not thick rain?

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

What problems exactly do our English language learners have with collocations?

  • 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 this is not what we would say and the use of have does not necessarily equate to drink. It’s quite clear from this why our EFL learners would have difficulties with this.

  • Randomness

As the above example shows, 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.

  • L1 transfer

Probably because of this randomness it is easy for learners to be tripped up by first language transfer. 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.

These are just a few problems our learners can have with collocations. Bear these in mind the next time you are planning a lesson for your TEFL classroom and you may anticipate a few problems before they appear!