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June 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Everything is a Collocation, Believe Me!

William Godoy De La Rosa is an English language teacher from Chile. He has written on corpus linguistics and material design. He is especially interested in language teaching and acquisition, formulaic language and cognitive neuroscience. Email:


Types of lexical collocations

To be honest, “Everything is a Collocation” is the straightforward answer I give to all my students when teaching vocabulary. Collocations, i.e. “the way individual words co-occur with others” (Lewis, 1993), play a crucial role in developing L2 competence especially when dealing with lexical collocations. These word combinations are:




verb + noun

to reach a verdict


adjective + noun

reckless abandon


noun + verb

alarms go off


noun + of + noun

a piece of advice


adverb + adjective

closely acquainted


verb + adverb

to apologize humbly

Source taken from Benson (1997)


The importance of the L1

They are of great importance in every context where English language is being taught. In an EFL context, teachers who know the learners’ L1 have a significant advantage: they can make use the learner´s mother tongue in order to raise awareness of the differences in word combinations.

Different studies in the field of vocabulary have shown that not only difficulties, but also facilitation of lexical collocations is due to the influence of the learner’s L1. On the one hand, Nesselhauf (2005) found that the most common types of error were in the wrong choice of verbs in verb+noun combinations due to the German L1 influence. Granger (1998), on the other hand, found that lexical collocations in English with direct translation equivalents in French facilitated positive influence.

I have encountered those situations of difficulties and facilitation not only as a former English language learner, but also as an English language teacher. As English language learner I adopted the L1 translation strategy (Liao, 2006) in order to learn vocabulary and as non-native English language teacher teaching Spanish speakers, I make use of our mother tongue in order to emphasize the contrast between both languages in relation to lexical collocations. This is due to the fact that my students will automatically adopt the L1 translation strategy.


Friend or foe?

A clear difficulty of word combination may be caused “when a structure in one language does not have one but two (or more) counterpart in another language” (Odlin, 1989: 30). In English, this split difficulty for instance, with verbs such as:  do/make; win/earn/gain; use/wear may cause problems to language learners whose equivalent in his or her mother tongue is rendered by one translation when choosing a verb in order to form an acceptable verb + noun combination. Between English and Spanish, for example, there are at least 4 verbs in English and one equivalent in Spanish. E.g.:

ganar dinero

earn/make money

ganar la lotería

win the lottery

ganar un partido de tenis

win a tennis match

ganar el reconocimiento

earn/win recognition

ganar experience

gain experience

On the other hand, when there is a direct translation equivalent in the L2, the correspondence difficulty (Odlin, 1989) may facilitate the successful formation of a word combination. This may be due to the psychotypology phenomenon (Kellerman, 1983) which refers to the learner´s perception about closeness or distance between the L1 and L2. In this case, however, cognates and false cognates may help or hinder the formation of a verb + noun combination such as: 

  • Cognate words (help)

cometer un crimen

commit a crime

usar un computador

use a computer

aceptar la posibilidad

accept the possibility

reduce stress

reducir el estrés

  • False cognates (hinder)

L1 Spanish

L2 unacceptable

L2 acceptable

asistir a clases

assist classes

attend classes

definir su future

define their future

shape their future

motivación interna

internal motivation

inner motivation

sistema obsoleto

obsolete system

outdated system

When contrasting lexical collocations, it is also possible to apply the idea of congruency and incongruency in word combinations (Yamashita and Jiang, 2010). Congruent collocations are those that have a word for word translation equivalent in the L1. However, non-congruent collocations are those that do not have a translation equivalent in the L1 and cannot be translated word for word.  Non congruent collocations are said to require more processing effort and in an EFL context learners can commit more errors with them.

  • Congruent collocations

trabajo soñado

dream job

seguro de salud

health insurance

aliviar el dolor

relieve the pain

cambiar dinero

change money

  • Non congruent collocations

L1 Spanish

L2 unacceptable

L2 acceptable

poner/prestar atención

put attention

pay attention

sacar un titulo

win a degree

take a degree

usar un vestido

use a dress

wear a dress

hacer una ampliación

make/do an extension

add an extension

These examples are taken from L1 Spanish learners of English


L1 translation strategy in the EFL classroom

In order to use the L1 to facilitate awareness-raising and practice of English collocations, teachers can do the following exercise to practice non-congruent collocations:

  • Write verbs on one side and nouns on the other side in English. Add distractors in the verbs. E.g:
  • Then, ask your students to match the verbs and nouns in order to form an acceptable collocation in L2 that matches the L1 equivalent.


L2  equivalent

1.- tomar un decisión

(make a decision)

2.- sacar un titulo

(take a degree)

3.- usar un vestido

(wear a dress)

Another exercise is the one I call “inverse dictation”

  • Choose lexical collocations you want to practice.
  • Include them in the text you will dictate in your mother tongue.
  • With elementary learners, give them time to translate and with advanced learners, they should translate meanwhile you dictate.
  • Check the translation and focus on the similarities and differences of word combinations.



The exercises mentioned above can raise the students’ awareness of the differences of word combinations in English not only the ones that are different between languages, but also the ones that are similar. Therefore, English teachers should be able to identify lexical collocations that can cause problems such as the split difficulty, false cognate and non-congruent collocations in order to teach the collocational differences explicitly (Laufer and Girsai, 2008) so as to raise students´ awareness of collocations.



Benson, Morton (1997) The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations / compiled by Morton Benson, Evelyn Benson, Robert Ilson. Amsterdam : John Benjamins.

Granger, S. (1998). Prefabricated patterns in advanced EFL writing: Collocations and formulae. In Phraseology. Ed. A. P. Cowie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kellerman, E. (1983) Now you see it, now you don’t. In Language Transfer in Language Learning.  Ed.  Gass ,S. and Selinker, L. Rowley, MA: Newbury House

Laufer, B., & Girsai, N. (2008). Form focused instruction in second language learning: a case of contrastive analysis and translation. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 694-716.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove, Brighton: Language Teaching Publications.

Liao, P. (2006). EFL learners’ beliefs about and strategy use of translation in English learning. RELC Journal, 37(2), 191-215.

Nesselhauf, N. (2005) Collocations in a Learner Corpus.  Amsterdam : John Benjamins

Odlin, T. (1989) Language Transfer : cross-linguistic influence in language learning Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Yamashita, J., & Jiang, N. (2010). L1 influence on the acquisition of L2 collocations: Japanese ESL users and EFL learners acquiring English collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44(4), 647-668.


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