Use Of Collocations By Iranian Postgraduate Students

1. Introduction

Identifying what people learn while learning a language has long been an important issue in language teaching. The major units of language learning have often been assumed to be similar to the traditional levels and units of language description, namely, the sounds, words, and rules of grammar and discourse (Kennedy, 2003).Since 1930s, English language teachers have been persuaded to take into account the co-occurrence of particular words and they have also come to know that the fluent use of a language depends on learning to use these co-occurring words. Different terms are used for the above phenomenon but it is the word idiom which has been highly familiar to and used by language teachers (Kennedy, 2003). Palmer (1933) used the term collocation and defined it as two or more words which co-occur and must be learned as an integral whole (e.g., on the whole). Palmer also claimed that even a "selection of common collocations . . . exceeds by far the popular estimate of the number of single words contained in an everyday vocabulary" (p. 13). Bahns (1993) points out that there are tens of thousands of collocations and this is an obstacle to teaching collocations systematically.

Following Palmer's (1933) pioneering work on collocations in English language teaching, Firth (1957) described language in both linguistic and situational context in his words, "You shall know a word by the company it keeps" (p. 195). Peters (1977, 1983) also emphasized learning words as groups which comprise the units of first and second language acquisition. Hakuta (1974) and Wong-Fillmore (1976) studied the learning of routinized or formulaic speech by L2 learners. Pawley and Syders (1983) proposed a collocational model of lexicalized clauses for fluency in spoken language.

In line with the above mentioned studies, Anderson and Nagy (1991) elaborated on the significance of deep meanings including collocational properties in words. They also claimed that students have to know how the words are put together.

1.1. Statement of the problem

Despite the importance of collocation awareness and its impact on nativelikeness, no one has yet carried out a comprehensive study to see whether Iranian language learners in general and postgraduate students in particular are aware of the accurate use of collocation patterns in their writings or not. In English as a Foreign Language ( EFL) settings such as Iran, students tend to use individual words which form collocations but they are not often exposed to these words in the form of collocations (Farghal & Obiedant, 1995). Furthermore, in EFL contexts, as Shehatta (2008) points out, teachers do not pay due attention to the collocations in the classroom. The focus in the classroom is, for the most part, on drills and repetition of individual words. Therefore, students are not able to use collocations efficiently to communicate or express themselves.

1.2. Significance of the Study

Many studies have been conducted to reveal the importance of collocational knowledge in both speech and writing (e.g. Bahns & Eldaw, 1993; Fontenelle, 1994; Herbst, 1996). Inappropriate teaching and learning of collocational associations will result in irregularities marking the learner's speech or writing as problematic and non-native. (Shokouhi & Mirsalari, 2010). The present study will, however, be different from previous studies in at least two ways: (a) it will investigate both receptive and productive collocational knowledge of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students. That is, students whose major is not English. (b) the participants in this study are postgraduate students studying English as a module requirement.

The results of this study may help language teachers, particularly EAP teachers, and curriculum designers become aware of different types of collocation errors made by the students and decide on how to incorporate them into EFL curriculum in Iranian language institutes, high schools and universities. The results of this study may also help students produce sentences using both grammatical features and word combinations appropriately.

1.3. Objectives of the Study

This study is an attempt to study the collocations used by Iranian postgraduate language learners in their translations. To do so, the following research questions are raised:

1. What kind of collocational errors do language learners make in their translations?

2. Is there any significant correlation between the language learners' general English proficiency and their accurate use of collocations or not?

3. Is there any difference in using collocations across different fields of study?

4. Does the type of test (receptive or productive) have any impact on the use of collocations by the language learners?

1.4. Definitions of key terms

Even though a number of definitions of collocations have been offered in the literature it seems that there is no single definition of collocation among the applied linguists. Generally speaking collocation is an expression made up of two or more words that correspond to some conventional ways of expressing thing. Firth (1951) refers to collocations as the habitual places of words. That is, where we find one of the collocating words we can expect to find the other. To use the words of Sinclair (1991), a collocation is often defined as either a recurring combination of words that is often arbitrary, or just a recurring combination of a few words without emphasizing its arbitrariness.

1.4.1. Classification of collocations

Collocations fall into two major groups: grammatical collocations and lexical collocations (Benson, Benson & Ilson, 1997, p. xx).

Grammatical collocations consist of a noun, an adjective, or a verb plus a preposition or a grammatical structure such as an infinitive or a clause. Examples of grammatical collocations include; account for, adjacent to, by accident, to be afraid that.

Unlike the grammatical collocations, lexical collocations do not contain propositions, infinitives or clauses. They consist of various combinations of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Benson et al. (1997) distinguish several structural types of lexical collocations: verb+noun (inflict a wound), adjective+noun (a crushing defeat), noun+verb (storms rage), noun+noun (a world capital), adverb+adjective (deeply absorbed), verb+adverb (appreciate sincerely).

1.5. Outline of the study

The present study will be arranged into five chapters. Chapter One includes an introduction, the statement of the problem, the significance of the study, the research questions, the definition of key terms and an outline of the study. Chapter Two provides a theoretical review of the literature relevant to this study. Therefore, it includes a historical overview of the collocation research, the importance and issues in learning English collocations. Chapter Three outlines the method for the study, including the participants, the materials, and the data collection procedures that are used. Also, this chapter presents the ways the data are analyzed. In chapter Four, the results of the data analysis and interpretations of these results will be presented and discussed. Chapter five, the conclusion, summarizes the study, explores the teaching implications of the study and makes recommendations for further research.

2. Literature Review

Collocation has been investigated using three major approaches. The oldest approach is the lexical approach. Firth (1951) maintains that meaning by collocation is an “abstraction at the syntagmatic level” and is indirectly related to the “conceptual or idea approach to the meaning of words” (p. 196). Halliday (1966) and Sinclair (1991) also used the same framework in their studies. Another approach, the semantic approach, provides an answer to questions such as what determines the specific shape of collocations or why words are put together with certain other words. In this approach, the collocates of a lexical item is determined by its semantic properties (Katz & Fodor, 1963, p. 175). The focus of the third approach to the study of collocations, the structural approach, is on lexis and grammar. Lexis and grammar are distinctive but related aspects of one phenomenon. Therefore, they cannot be separated from each other (Bahns, 1993, p. 57).

Kjellmer (1990) suggested that all individual word classes are not collocational in nature. Articles, prepositions, singular and mass nouns, as well as the base form of verbs are collocational in nature. In contrast, adjectives, singular proper nouns, and adverbs are not. In Kjellmer's view, English words are scattered across a continuum with those items whose contextual company is entirely predictable at one end and those whose contextual company is completely unpredictable at the other.

Gitsaki (1996) was able to distinguish 37 categories of collocation including 8 lexical and 29 grammatical collocations. Categorizing these collocations, Lewis and Hill (1997) suggested these combinations: adjective+noun, verb+noun, noun+verb, adverb+adjective, and verb+adverb.

Dechert and Lennon (1989) found that even after studying English for ten years and having extensive contact with native speakers, advanced English major participants were not able to produce the language that met the native speaker criteria (p. 103). Furthermore, they maintain that lexical errors and not grammatical errors led to misunderstanding and interrupted comprehension. They concluded that a careful consideration should be given to the collocation as a neglected area of research and language acquisition.

Focusing on the main causes of collocational errors, Biskup (1992) compared advanced students whose L1 was genetically close to English (i.e., German) with those whose L1 was more distant (polish). The participants, from both language groups, were asked to translate native language collocations into English. Analyzing the data, Biskup found that Polish language students produced fewer incorrect variants than the German language participants although they relied more on transfer from their L1. German learners of English seemed to look for more ‘creative' strategies (leading to other error types).

Similarly, Bahns and Eldaw (1993) used translation and cloze tests to investigate 58 German advanced EFL students' productive knowledge of English verb+noun collocations. The German university EFL students participating in the study were divided into two groups. One group of students took a cloze test including 10 sentences. Each sentence had a verb+noun collocation with the verb missing. The other group took a German-English translation test consisting of 15 sentences with each sentence having a verb+noun collocation. Only about half of English collocations used by students in both tests were found to be acceptable. Even in the translation test, in which there was more freedom to paraphrase, students produced more than twice as many errors in their translations of verbal collocates as in their translations of general lexical words. The researchers came to the conclusion that collocation is a problem, even for advanced students. (p. 102).

In a study on ESL students, Gitsaki (1996) divided students into three levels of post-beginner, intermediate, and post-intermediate. He made an attempt to measure learners' knowledge of collocation in three tasks: essay writing, translation, and fill-in-the-blank. In this study a positive correlation was found between proficiency and the knowledge of collocation.

Nesselhauf (2003) studied the use of verb+noun collocations by advanced German learners of English. The analysis of thirty-two essays written by the participants of this study showed that the learners' L1 had a great influence on the use of collocations. Nesselhauf found that the wrong choice of the verb is the most frequent source of collocational errors. They attributed this problem to the restricted sense of a verb in a collocational set. (p. 239)

In a study carried out by Shokouhi & Mirsalari (2010), 35 Iranian university students were given both a proficiency test and a multiple-choice collocation test including grammatical and lexical collocations. They found that there was no significant correlation between general linguistic knowledge and collocational knowledge. The results also showed that grammatical collocations were more difficult than lexical collocations for learners.

3. Methodology

3.1. Participants

A multi-stage random sampling will be used to select a representative sample of participants of the study. All participants will be selected among the master students of humanities, biological sciences and basic sciences majors studying at Iranian universities in which postgraduate courses are taught. In order to select the sample, first, three universities will be chosen randomly. Then, from each of the above majors one discipline will be selected randomly. Next, from each of the three science disciplines, namely chemistry, biology, and political sciences 40 students will be chosen randomly. In total, 120 students will be selected from different disciplines at different universities.

3.2. Instrumentation

Two instruments will be needed to carry out the present study: First, General English proficiency of the students will be measured by a general English test which will be adapted from one of the standardized tests such as paper and pencil TOEFL test. Reliability of the test will be estimated through reliability estimates such as Kuder-Richardson formula 20 (K-R20).

In order to see whether the type of test has any impact on using collocations the second test will be administered. This test is developed by the researcher delineating collocation patterns. The test will consist of two subparts: productive and receptive components. The productive test will be a translation test including 60 Persian sentences. The students are supposed to render sentences into English. The receptive test will be a multiple-choice test including 60 items collected from Oxford Collocation Dictionary (2009) and Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (2006). This test will be made up of both grammatical (verb+preposition) and lexical (Adjective+noun and verb+ noun) collocations. To make sure that the subjects will make use of collocations in their translations the collocations used in the multiple-choice items will be translated into Persian. The reliability of the second test will be estimated through Cronbach alpha coefficient (α).

3.3. Data analysis

The data of the study will be analyzed through descriptive and inferential statistics including Analysis of Variance (ANOVA), Pearson Product-moment correlation and t-test. The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) for Windows (version16.0) will be used in order to analyze all the data. The results of each question will be represented separately.

3.4. Procedure of the study

First, the participants will be given the General proficiency test. The students will not be basically allowed to use any dictionaries to check the meaning of words. The students will be simply told that their English general proficiency would be tested. Then the developed collocation tests will be administered to the participants. After finishing all the tests, the answer sheets will be distributed to students, because it is felt that they should know their results from an instructive perspective. After collecting the data and entering them into SPSS they will be analyzed.