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«English language students’ productive and receptive knowledge of collocations Mirna Begagić University of Zenica Abstract The importance of ...»

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ExELL (Explorations in English Language and Linguistics)

2.1 (2014): 46-67

DOI: 10.1515/exell-2016-0003


UDC 811.111’243’367.4=111

Original scientific article

English language students’ productive and

receptive knowledge of collocations

Mirna Begagić

University of Zenica


The importance of collocations in second language learning has been recognized  in the past few decades. There have been numerous studies in L2 acquisition research that investigated how the knowledge and use of collocations at different levels of proficiency affect learners’ communicative competence and language performance. Moreover, it seems important to mention that most of the studies investigating the collocational knowledge of students learning English as their L2, indicated students’ poor performance (Fayez-Hussein 1990; Aghbar 1990; Bahns and Eldaw 1993; Stubbs 2002;

Wray 2002; Nasselhauf 2005; Ozaki 2011). The aim of this paper is to explain the notion of collocation as well as its most common classification, and to point out the importance of its proper use for English language students who are native speakers of the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS) language. Furthermore, this study examines the productive and receptive knowledge of lexical collocations in order to access students’ collocational competence. The results indicate students’ poor collocational knowledge.

This can be due to the fact that collocations of the language students are learning are interfering with the collocations of their mother tongue, but also due to the way students are taught English (vocabulary negligence in comparison with grammar and unawareness of the importance of collocations in language learning).

Key words: collocation; collocational competence; receptive and productive collocations.

1. Introduction

1.1. Collocations The term collocation was first introduced by Firth (1957). Firth’s attempt to describe the meaning of a word at the collocational level was something completely new in that it looked at the meaning relations between lexical items from the level of syntagmatic relations, i.e. a word’s ability to combine with other words. Most of the linguists interested in the topic still define collocation as the tendency of a lexical item to co-occur with one or more words (Halliday, McIntosh & Strevens, 1964;

Ridout & Waldo-Clarke, 1970; Backlund 1973, 1976; Seaton, 1982; Crystal, 1985;

Cruse, 1986; Sinclair, 1991; Zhang, 1993). Consider the following examples:

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Mirna Begagić: English language students’ productive and receptive knowledge of collocations (1) a. This heavy rain will probably cause flooding.

b. *This strong rain will probably cause flooding.

(2) a. She has a strong will to survive.

b. *She has a heavy will to survive.

Examples (1) and (2) indicate that nouns rain and will collocate with different adjectives – in (1a) rain choosing the adjective heavy, and in (2a) will choosing the adjective strong. The resulting combinations are grammatically correct and sound natural to native speakers. However, in (1b) and (2b) the combinations strong rain and heavy will are unacceptable1. They would be considered incorrect by native speakers, due to the fact that these are not natural collocations, and these combinations might have been influenced by the speaker’s first language. A collocation that is acceptable in one language might not be acceptable in another (strong rain – unacceptable in the English language, but its literal translation jaka kiša is acceptable and very frequent collocation in the BCS language).

1.2. Grammatical and lexical collocations

Although collocations can be classified in many different ways, the most common classification is the one into grammatical and lexical collocations. The former category consists of a noun, an adjective or a verb plus a preposition or a grammatical structure such as ’to + infinitive’ or ‘that-clause’, e.g. by accident, to be afraid that… The latter category does not contain grammatical elements, but presents a combination of lexical items, i.e. nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs (Benson, Benson and Ilson, 1986).

According to The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English there are 8 basic types of

grammatical and 7 types of lexical collocations:

Grammatical collocations:

G1=noun + preposition e.g. blockade against, apathy towards  G2=noun + to-infinitive e.g. He was a fool to do it.

 G3=noun + that-clause e.g. We reached an agreement that she would join our  team.

G4=preposition + noun e.g. by accident, in agony  G5=adjective + preposition e.g. fond of children, hungry for news  G6=adjective + to-infinitive e.g. it was necessary to work, it's nice to be here 


1 Example (1b) 'strong rain' is a less serious collocational error than example (2b) 'heavy will', but is still considered odd by native speakers, and should not be used.

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1.3. The importance of the proper use of collocations for English language students English language students, more often than not, face difficulties while acquiring collocations due to several reasons: the fact that they are mostly taught grammar rules, negative transfer of L1 (collocates of a certain word in one language – language A, may not be used for the same translation equivalent in the other language – language B) and their unawareness of the importance of collocations in the process of language learning (Begagić & Dubravac, 2014).

The immense influence of the mother tongue on speaking or writing in the second language and the influence of the second language on the mother tongue when doing translations should also be mentioned. This is evident in the example provided by Riđanović (2007), regarding a statement a foreign politician made in

an interview for the local newspapers. The statement (in the BCS language):

(3) *Snažno se ne slažem sa Terzićevim potezom.

This statement sounds odd and seems incorrect to the native speaker of the BCS language. What happened here was that the interview was conducted in English because the politician who made the statement is a native speaker of English, but


 For a complete list of 19 different patterns see Benson, Benson and Ilson (1986).

–  –  –

    Mirna Begagić: English language students’ productive and receptive knowledge of collocations the translator made an error translating the statement word for word, without paying attention to the collocational differences between the two languages. The

English original probably sounded like this:

(4) I strongly disagree with Terzić’s move, which is a natural-sounding, grammatically and semantically correct sentence in English. Riđanović (2007) says that this type of error could not be made by the person familiar with modern linguistics because such a person is aware of the presence of collocations in language as well as the fact that collocations are different from language to language. Therefore, the focus of their attention would automatically be the recognition of the collocations in the source-language and finding suitable translation equivalents in the target-language. This suggests that learners' awareness of the importance of collocations, as well as the problems they might encounter must be raised from the early beginnings of language learning.

Many researchers suggest that unlike native speakers, English language students hardly use prefabricated units in language production:

In building his utterances, he (the native speaker) makes use of large prefabricated sections. The learner, on the other hand, having automated few collocations, continually has to create structures that he can only hope will be acceptable to native speakers (…).

His building material is individual bricks rather than prefabricated sections. (Kjellmer 1991: 124) This is probably due to the fact that students are encouraged to think of grammar as the bones of the language and vocabulary as the flesh – and knowing the grammar and vocabulary, you have the whole skeleton - you ‘know’ the language.

This is an outdated principle now, because the current view is that the language consists largely of prefabricated 'chunks' of lexis – collocations (Cowie, 1994; Hill, 1999; Riđanović, 2007; Islam, 2006).

Native speakers produce language easily and with a greater speed than language learners, because they are calling on a vast repertoire of ready-made language in their mental lexicons. This works for their reading and listening comprehension, too. The main difference between native speakers and non-native speakers is that native speakers have met more examples of language and this fact enables them to process and produce language at a much faster rate than the average student (Hill, 1999). This suggests that learning to say something the way native speakers do is essential to fluency. It is easier to recall ‘chunks’ of language from your memory, than to actually create ‘chunks’ yourself – it takes less time, and the chance that a collocational error will occur is diminished.

Most collocational errors occur because unacceptable items are created rather than misunderstood. Non-native speakers, when faced with what is a new collocation to them, are able to derive and process its meaning correctly. On the other hand, when they have to express a certain concept, they are most likely going to

–  –  –

    Mirna Begagić: English language students’ productive and receptive knowledge of collocations use sequences that are not acceptable in second language.3 Therefore, it can be stated that collocation is the key to fluency.

A new concept of collocational competence should be introduced as it is very important for the English language students. According to Hill (1999) any analysis of students' speech or writing shows that this lack of collocational competence is one of the most obvious weaknesses. He states that students with good ideas often lose marks because they do not know the four or five most important collocates of a key word that is central to what they are writing about. When students do not know the collocations which express precisely what they want to say, they create longer utterances which increase the likelihood of further errors. With regard to the above mentioned, it can be stated that learning collocations will give students alternative ways of saying something, and considerably improve their language performance.

2. Methodology

2.1. The Present Study The present study examines the productive and receptive knowledge of lexical collocations amongst the students of English language and literature whose native language is the BCS language. It examines the possible differences in collocational competence between first and fourth year students, as well as the difference between participants' performance on three types of collocations: verb + noun, adjective + noun, and verb + adverb.

This study addresses the following research questions:

1. Is there a significant difference in the collocational competence between first and fourth year students?

2. Is there a significant difference between the participants' knowledge of productive and receptive collocations?

3. Which type of collocation, among the selected ones, was the most difficult for the participants - is there a difference between first and fourth year students?


 Although there is a general agreement on the fact that the production of correct collocations is more problematic than their comprehension, some studies stress the importance of comprehension of prefabricated expressions, and consequently of collocations, for the correct processing of a message (Cowie and Howarth, 1996; Hunston and Francis 2000).

–  –  –

    Mirna Begagić: English language students’ productive and receptive knowledge of collocations

2.2. The choice of the examined collocations Collocations that are examined in this study belong to the group of lexical collocations, and more specifically, three types of lexical collocations are chosen: verb + noun, adjective + noun, and verb + adverb. These collocations are chosen because some of the earlier studies have shown that lexical collocations are easier to acquire than grammatical collocations, and the chance that students being tested in this study are more familiar with these types of collocations, as opposed to other types, is higher. This diminishes the risk of students guessing the collocation, which apart from improving the chances for answering the research questions more accurately, also increases the reliability of the data collected from this study.

2.3. Participants

Participants in this study are 40 students at the Department of English language and literature in Zenica. The first group consists of 20 first year students at the beginning of their studies, and the second group consists of 20 fourth year students in their last semester of studies. At the moment of testing, the first group had been learning English for 9 years, and the second group for 12 years. Since all of the participants are students at the Department of English Language and Literature, their English levels are at upper-intermediate or advanced level.

3. Research

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