The role of collcations in language teaching

Seminar Paper, 2009

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining collocations
2.1 Statistically oriented approach
2.2 Semantic approach

3. Collocations in language pedagogy
3.1 The need for teaching and learning collocations
3.2 Methodology for teaching and learning collocations

4. Sample exercises for the teaching and learning of collocations


List of figures

Figure 1: Total Environment Table for money, pay, ticket. (Sinclair 1966: 416)

Figure 2: Wortverbindungen. (Hausmann 1984: 399)

Figure 3: Find the pairs; Collocations and free combinations (Bahns 1997: 48)

Figure 4: Collocation grid rich, wealthy, aJJluent and opulent. (Bahns 1997: 88)

Figure 5: Usage of certain verbs. (Bahns 1997: 88)

Figure 6: In each case provide one or two nouns that can collocate with the following: (Bahns 1997: 95)

Figure 7: Find appropriate adjectives to fill in the blanks. (Bahns 1997: 95)

Figure 8: Explain the different senses of the collocations. (Bahns 1997: 96)

Figure 9: Change the word in brackets for a word or a phrase giving the opposite meaning. (Bahns 1997: 100)

Figure 10: Look at the circles below. Do you know which adjectives you can use with the nouns in the boxes? Cross out the ones which you think are not correct. (Bahns 1997: 152)

Figure 11: Write down three things you can… (Bahns 1997: 159)

Figure 12: Find adjectives for the nouns. (Bahns 1997: 161)

Figure 13: Which noun can be combined with the group of adjectives. (Bahns 1997: 16f)

1. Introduction

Collocations are frequently used in everyday life (Hausmann 2003: 318). They can be found in literally every conversation or in written texts. The good thing about collocations is that they are quite easy to understand (Hausmann 2003: 312). Few German learners of English would have problems understanding what to take a picture or to catch a train means.

But on the other hand, when producing oral or written language, knowing the idiomatic way to express one's thoughts proves to be a lot tougher. It might take German learners of English quite some time to learn that you can say blond hair but not *blond car or that a good looking woman is not a *handsome woman, like a man would be called, but a beautiJul or pretty woman (Herbst, Stoll, Westermayr 199f: 164).

So we can see that, in order to be able to produce idiomatic English and using words appropriately, collocations are needed, mostly for naming actions of everyday life or for specific language, like business English (Hausmann 2004: 318). This is the harder part regarding collocations; after learning some basic vocabulary, particularly nouns, students of English need to learn which adjectives or verbs can be used together with the nouns (Hausmann 2004: 3f0).

Besides being important for young learners, collocations are also an important issue for advanced learners of a language. Researches showed that even students at a higher collegiate level who had good knowledge of English and knew grammar rules very well, had problems producing text that sounds idiomatic, especially regarding collocations. The collocation−mistakes they made were often the result of the influence of their mother tongue on their English texts (Bahns 1997: 69ff.).

The relevance of collocations is clear to see, but precisely defining what a collocation is, is not. There are many different approaches to defining collocations. Among them, two approaches have emerged. The elder one is a computer−linguistic approach that, generally speaking, looks at how frequently words appear together (Herbst, Stoll, Westermayr 199f: 164).

The other one looks at collocations from a semantic approach, and sees collocations as half−finished products which the speaker takes as one piece out of his memory (Bahns 1996: 24).

This paper, which is part of the Proseminar ”English Words”, will first look at how collocations are defined by the two approaches mentioned above and will then look at the role of collocations in the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language. The last chapter will provide some types of exercises which are useful for the teaching and learning of collocations.

For the research part of this paper, I would like to thank my Professor, Dr. Michael Klotz, for helping me with some hints for finding the right specialised literature.

2. Defining collocations

2.1 Statistically oriented approach

One of the most famous advocates of the statistically oriented approach is John Sinclair.1 In the mid 1960ies he was the first to regard computer−based corpora as a very useful tool for analysing collocations (Sinclair 1966: 428), because he thought that the ”patterns perceived by a trained linguist examining a text are unreliable and usually extremely tentative” (Sinclair 1966: 413). Collocations are defined as the ”occurrence of two or more words within a short space of each other” (Sinclair 199f: 170).

This short space is called ”span” (Sinclair 1966: 415), and describes the range which is being looked at starting from the word that is being studied, which is called ”node” (415). The words inside the span are called ”collocates” (415). The range of the span was first set to 3 words to every side of the node, mostly for practical reasons (Sinclair 1966: 415). In later studies the collocational span was set to 4 (Sinclair 199f: f17).

In a first step Sinclair started looking at the words that occur within the span of certain nodes and counted how often they occurred. As Figure f shows, these results could be shown in ”Total Environment Tables” (Sinclair 1966: 416). The table shows which words appeared within the span and the frequency of how often the collocates appeared within the span of the nodes money, pay and ticket.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Total Environment Table for money, gay, ticket. (Sinclair 1966: 416)

After this first step of analysing collocations, Sinclair (1966: 418f.) pointed out that it is important to distinguish collocations which occur occasionally from those which are ”significant collocations” (Sinclair 1966: 418). The significance of collocations can be scrutinized by looking at a large amount of texts and studying ”the frequency of repetition of the collocates in several occurrences of an item” (Sinclair 1966: 418). In order to discover significance, it is also necessary to look at how often the parts of a collocation appear in total in a corpus, and how often they appear together and put those numbers in relation to each other (Bahns 1996: ff).

Sinclair (199f: f09) also points out that the choices of combining words are not free, like the ”open−choice principle” (Sinclair 199f: f09) would suggest. This principle suggests that if you follow grammar rules you can use any word in any space while producing a text. But, collocational restrictions show that the open−choice principle is not enough to explain why certain composures of words do not fit together and make texts sound non−idiomatic. This phenomenon that mirrors the restrictions can be characterised as the ”idiom principle” (Sinclair 199f: ff0). This principle explains that after one choice is made in the selection of words while producing text, the following or preceding words follow certain restrictions and can not be freely chosen. In other words, the speaker or writer ”has available to him or her a large number of semi− preconstructed phrases that constitute single choices” (Sinclair 199f: ff0).

Sinclair (199f: f13) concludes that ”normal text […] appears to be formed by exercise of the idiom principle, with occasional switching to the open−choice principle”.

2.2 Semantic approach

The second approach to defining collocations is represented by Hausmann. In his opinion, the definition by Sinclair is too broad and needs to be more precise, a fact which is offered by the approach of the significance oriented approach (Hausmann 2004: 32f).

Hausmann says that a collocation consists of a ”Basis” and a ”Kollokator” (1984: 40f). The Basis is autonomous, which means that different things could be said about it, if you took a bachelor for example. But the Kollokator needs to be affine to the Basis. Figure 2 shows where Hausmann sees collocations in the area of phrases. We can see that collocations are non−fixed combinations which have a great affinity to occur together. This distinguishes them from free Ko−Kreationen which basically have no restrictions in terms of combining them and Konter−Kreationen which are often used in literary works, as they are combinations that are not very common (Hausmann 1984: 399).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Wortverbindungen. (Hausmann 1984: 399)

In addition he states that collocations can be regarded as ”Halbfertigprodukte der Sprache” (Hausmann 1984: 398) which the speaker uses as one piece and does not have to think about every part of the collocation while producing it (Hausmann 1984: 399). Furthermore, the parts of a collocation have a great affinity to occur together (Hausmann 1984: 398).

Hausmann explains that especially for the learning of a language his approach to collocations is a lot more helpful (2004: 320). As his main focus is on the learning of a language and of collocations, Hausmann lobbies for collocations to always be listed under the Basis in dictionaries, because that is the place where learners will look for it, as they usually know the nouns, but lack the right adjectives or verbs to explain their thoughts (Hausmann 1984: 40f).

3. Collocations in language pedagogy

3.1 The need for teaching and learning collocations

In order to be able to speak idiomatic English, learners of the language need to know many collocations. Bahns (1997: 62ff.) points out that it is not very important for learners to use many idioms when producing oral or written language, but that knowing the right collocations and using them in a right way is by far more important. So the necessity of teaching collocations arises from the need for collocation knowledge in order to know how to articulate oneself in a right way.

As I pointed out in the introduction, not only learners at a basic level often do not know the right collocations, as they first have to learn basic vocabulary. But many advanced learners at collegiate levels also lack the ability of producing right collocations (Bahns 1997: 68ff.). Better collocation knowledge would help advanced learners with proper knowledge of English improve their language skills, despite them having good grammatical and vocabulary knowledge, in terms of their ability to sound idiomatic, which is the goal of learning a language. Bahns (1997: 66) says that many mistakes arise from not knowing what the right collocation is. The following examples for regularly made mistakes are mentioned by Bahns (1997: 67):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Bahns and Eldaw (1993), who also tested students´ collocation knowledge, concluded ”that collocations should indeed be taught” (f09). They suggest that those collocations which can not be paraphrased easily should be regarded as important when deciding which collocations to teach (Bahns 1997: 73). Furthermore, as many of the mistakes made in producing collocations are influenced by the learners' mother tongue, the contrast between how things are said in the mother tongue (Lf) and the target language (L2) should be important when choosing which collocations to teach (Bahns 1997: f07).

Examples for mistakes influenced by the mother tongue with German as Lf, where either the verb or the noun differs in L2, are also illustrated in Bahns (1997: f08f.):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As Hausmann (1984: 400) points out, trying to freely create phrases or chunks by freely combining words following grammar rules, will not work, and a speaker should only use combinations which he knows that a native speaker would use. Therefore he suggests paying special attention to the learning of collocations, instead of purely learning words.


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The role of collcations in language teaching
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
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Englisch, Kollokationen;, Collocations;, Teaching;, Unterricht, Semantic approach, computer-linguistic approach
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Daniel Mehburger (Author), 2009, The role of collcations in language teaching, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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