Collocation, and knowing when not to explain things

“There’s an explanation for everything.” Perhaps so, but this doesn’t mean teachers should always try to explain, or that students should always look for reasons. Sometimes, the best answer is “That’s just the way it is – no reason”. If a small child asks “Why does that cloud look like a bunny?”, you don’t dig deep into your knowledge of chemistry, physics and meteorology to search for an answer. It’s not worth it. The cloud looks like a rabbit; that’s just the way it is. If you try to explain, you will no doubt be utterly wrong, and the child will certainly regret ever asking you about the funny bunny cloud.

We can apply this same thinking to linguistics. I once heard an English teacher try to explain why we say “it belongs to me” and not “it belongs at me”. He was clearly striving to be helpful, but he was also clearly making stuff up on the spot (something about “motion towards” the owner, and keeping “possessions nearby”!). When well-meaning but inexperienced teachers try to provide answers to every single question students ask, confusion can quickly follow. The fact is that the word pair “belong to” is an example of a phenomenon called “collocation”, whereby certain words are often found together in a language, more often than they would be just by chance. In the case of “belong to”, there is no logical, accessible, or interesting reason why the word pair exists, and for the language learner, there is no useful explanation for it; you just have to know it, remember it as a phrase – learn “belong to” instead of just “belong” – job done.

Collocation is responsible for a fair amount of waffle in language classrooms as teachers attempt to do the right thing by their students. The problem is that, whereas some word pairs are logical and can be explained easily, others cannot. The tendency among inexperienced teachers is, unfortunately, to assume that there always is an explanation, that their students expect to hear it, and that they should try to provide it – there and then. The teacher doesn’t want to say “there’s no reason” or “I don’t know”, and waffle quickly ensues.

The term “collocation” covers several types of word pairs and phrases. For example:

Logical collocations – can be usefully explained thanks to the meanings of the words “send to”, “mobile phone”, “stand up”, “top score” etc.
Phrasal verbs – some may have interesting origins, but most are best learned just as phrases without explanation “give up”, “get over”, “count on” etc.
Irreversible word pairs (phrases that can’t be switched round) & fixed phrases – again, most are best learned as phrases “fish and chips”, “black and white”, “tit for tat”, “in the long run” etc.
Adjective + noun pairs & adverb + adjective pairs – some adjectives and adverbs just ‘go with’ certain words and not with others “heavy cold” (but not “heavy headache”), “utterly ridiculous” (but not “utterly tall”) etc.

… and the list goes on. Phrasal verbs, especially, are fascinating for many students (and horrifying for others), and they make a common breeding ground for “why” questions. Tread carefully, as attempting to explain why the words go together often ends in disaster. Some phrasal verbs have logical and/or interesting origins (e.g. “pull up” and “pull over” originating from the way a rider moves reins when controlling a horse), but many are best learned simply as fixed phrases (e.g. “get on with” means “have a good relationship with”).

Until a teacher has acquired knowledge and experience, and consequently the confidence to say “there’s no reason” or “that’s just how it is”, perhaps a good piece of advice is this: when you don’t know the answer to a “why” question, resist the urge to come up with something. Just tell the student that you’ll look into it and get back to them about it next lesson. Then do exactly that. Most of the time, you’ll find some useful information, and other times you won’t. Either way, you’ve side-stepped the risk of waffle, and your students will definitely respect your honesty and admire the fact that you care enough to go away and investigate for them.

So what can we take away from all this? Well, I’d suggest that language learning is a simpler thing when both the teacher and the student are aware of the phenomenon of collocation, and that some word pairs and phrases cannot (or perhaps should not) be explained. I’m not for a second suggesting that teachers shouldn’t be knowledgeable, or that students shouldn’t be curious; I am saying, however, that accepting the fact that sometimes certain words just go together for no apparent reason can help everyone relax a bit, and can lead to better teaching and better learning.


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