The learning burden of collocations: The role of interlexical and intralexical factorsby E. Peters

Language Teaching Research


Education / Linguistics and Language / Language and Linguistics


Language Teaching Research 1 –26 © The Author(s) 2015

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DOI: 10.1177/1362168814568131




The learning burden of collocations: The role of interlexical and intralexical factors

Elke Peters

University of Leuven, Belgium


This study investigates whether congruency (+/– literal translation equivalent), collocate–node relationship (adjective–noun, verb–noun, phrasal-verb–noun collocations), and word length influence the learning burden of EFL learners’ learning collocations at the initial stage of form– meaning mapping. Eighteen collocations were selected on the basis of a pretest. They were divided into 9 congruent and 9 incongruent collocations and into 6 verb–noun collocations, 6 phrasal-verb–noun collocations and 6 adjective–noun collocations. Forty-one EFL learners (first language: Dutch) were asked to read a word list containing the 18 target collocations, their translation and a sample sentence and to complete four online exercises, in which the 18 collocations were presented twice. Learning gains were measured at three levels of sensitivity: form recall test 1, form recall test 2 (+ clue), form recognition test. Although mixed findings were revealed, all factors seemed to affect the learning difficultly of the collocations.

Incongruent collocations appeared to be more difficult to recall than congruent ones. Adjective– noun collocations were better recalled and recognized than (phrasal) verb–noun collocations.

Depending on the posttest, participants’ vocabulary size and word length of the individual constituents making up the collocation also affected the learning process.

Keywords collocate–node relationship, collocations, congruency, EFL, lexicon, vocabulary

I Introduction

Foreign language (FL) learners are faced with the enormous task of acquiring a large vocabulary. One of the biggest lexical challenges is the acquisition of collocations (e.g. to throw a party, gross misconduct). However, analyses of learner corpora have revealed

Corresponding author:

Elke Peters, University of Leuven, Campus Antwerpen, Sint-Andriesstraat 2, Antwerp, 2000, Belgium

Email: 568131 LTR0010.1177/1362168814568131Language Teaching ResearchPeters research-article2015

Full Research Article at Apollo Group - UOP on February 7, 2015ltr.sagepub.comDownloaded from 2 Language Teaching Research that FL learners tend to make collocation errors, of which many are influenced by their first language (L1). Although corpus studies (Laufer & Waldman, 2011; Nesselhauf, 2003; Wolter & Gyllstad, 2013) have revealed that two types of collocations – viz. incongruent (no literal L1 translation equivalent) and verb–noun collocations – present a particular challenge to FL learners, no study has investigated empirically whether congruency (= presence or absence of literal L1 equivalent) and the type of collocation (e.g. verb– noun compared to adjective–noun collocations) also play a role in the initial form–meaning mapping of unfamiliar collocations. In addition, little is known about the role of other intralexical factors such as word length. Therefore, this study sets out to explore whether congruency and the intralexical factors collocation type (= collocate–node relationship) and word length affect the likelihood that learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) will learn a new collocation. In particular, the focus is on EFL learners’ initial form– meaning mapping of new collocations in a vocabulary-focused learning session.

II Background 1 Interlexical factors: L1 influence and congruency

Learner corpus studies have shown the influence of congruency on learners’ use of collocations. Congruency is defined as the presence or absence of a literal L1 translation equivalent (Nesselhauf, 2003). An example of a congruent collocation for

Dutch-speaking EFL learners would be to close a deal, an example of an incongruent collocation would be to make an effort because a word-for-word translation from

Dutch would be to do an effort.

Nesselhauf (2003) investigated the use of English verb–noun collocations by Germanspeaking university students. She found that 56% of the collocation errors were L1-based, e.g. make homework (‘do homework’ Hausaufgaben machen) or close lacks (‘close gaps’ Lücken schlieβen). A comparison of congruent and incongruent collocations clearly showed that second language (L2) learners produced far more infelicitous incongruent than congruent collocations. In another study, Laufer and Waldman (2011) analysed the use of English verb–noun collocations by L1 Hebrew speakers at three proficiency levels. Their findings showed that L2 learners at all levels produced errors and that

L1-induced errors in particular continued to persist at the most advanced level. Finally,

Wolter and Gyllstad (2011, 2013) also found that congruency played a role in L1 Swedish

EFL learners’ processing collocations as measured by their reaction times in a primed lexical decision task. In addition, their results revealed that these learners were familiar with more congruent than incongruent collocations and that they produced more errors on the incongruent than on the congruent collocations.

One explanation for FL learners’ difficulty in using L2 collocations correctly might be that FL learners do not notice the formal differences between the L1 and L2 collocation when encountering it in the input because the collocation’s meaning is transparent (Laufer & Girsai, 2008; Laufer & Waldman, 2011; Peters, 2012). As a result, such semantically transparent collocations do not tend to cause comprehension problems but they might lead to problems in the production process (Laufer & Girsai, 2008; Laufer & Waldman, 2011).

For instance, Dutch-speaking learners of English will easily understand the semantically transparent but incongruent collocation to make an effort. However, they might not notice at Apollo Group - UOP on February 7, 2015ltr.sagepub.comDownloaded from