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Review of  Collocations in a Learner Corpus

Reviewer: Fabiana Rosi
Book Title: Collocations in a Learner Corpus
Book Author: Nadja Nesselhauf
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Computational Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.2896

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Date: Thu, 6 Oct 2005 11:42:10 +0200
From: Fabiana Rosi
Subject: Collocations in a Learner Corpus

AUTHOR: Nesselhauf, Nadja
TITLE: Collocations in a Learner Corpus
SERIES: Studies in Corpus Linguistics 14
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Fabiana Rosi, Department of Linguistics, University of Pavia, Italy


"Collocations in a Learner Corpus" is a monograph that brings together two
innovative topics: collocations' acquisition and Learner Corpus studies.
The book aims to answer some relevant questions, that have not received
much attention so far, as "which collocations or types of collocations are
most difficult for certain group of learners, what kind of mistakes occur
and why" (p. 8). In order to reach this goal the author presents and
discusses the use of collocations in a learner corpus of German-speaker
learners of English, by providing definition and classification of
collocations and by inferring implications for teaching of this specific issue.

The book consists of six chapters: the first and second introduce the
theoretical framework, the third illustrates the empirical data, the forth
and fifth interpret findings, the sixth draws implications for teaching.
Two appendixes display the learner corpus investigated, namely a list of
the essays written by advanced learners, that are the source of data, and
the collocations extracted from this corpus. The references and an index
complete the volume. In what follows, I briefly summarise the content of
each chapters.

In the first chapter "Collocations in native and non-native speaker
language" Nadja Nesselhauf focuses on the importance of collocations in
English, as natural language and as L2, and outlines psycholinguistic and
sociolinguistic reasons. The author provides an introductory overview of
previous researches on learning English collocations, from the earliest
large-scale study (Burgschmidt and Perkins 1985) to more recent
investigations (Howarth 1996, Lombard 1997), pointing out that the
literature differs widely for method of elicitation, language background,
size and scope, and thus that the results have also been rather contradictory.

In the second chapter "Investigating collocations in a learner corpus", the
author explains her theoretical and methodological motivations. First,
starting with a survey of the definitions and classifications of
collocations in previous studies (Halliday 1966, Sinclair 1991, Mel'čuk
1998), she selects the criteria to adopt in her study. Particular attention
is paid to noun-verb collocations, especially 'stretched verb
constructions' (SVCs), such as "give an answer", that are investigated in
the research. Then, she presents the Learner Corpus studies and examines
their advantages and limitations, by comparing it with other types of
language teaching research, such as elicitation data studies. Finally, she
describes the learner corpus used, the criteria in order to extract SVC, to
delimit the acceptability degree of the combinations, to distinguish SVC
from other combinations.

The learner corpus investigated is a subgroup of ICLE, the International
Corpus of Learner English. This sub-group, defined as GeCLE, the German
Corpus of Learner English, comprises 318 essays written by 207
German-speaking advanced learners of English. It is also worthy to note
that for determining the degree of acceptability of collocations,
Nesselhauf seeks the judgment of English native speakers, besides the
correspondences with monolingual English dictionaries and with native
English corpus, that is a written part of the British National Corpus.

The third chapter "The use of collocations by advanced learners" is a
detailed presentation of every types of deviations, extracted in the
learner corpus. The author provides the qualitative and quantitative
discussion of deviations involving every element of noun-verb collocations,
such as verb, noun, determiner, noun complementation, prepositional phrase,
and more global deviations. Every analysis is compared with results of the
literature and discussed in order to determine which SVCs are most
difficult for advanced learner of English. She identifies several semantic
areas of nouns and verbs, and more in general of each element of SVCs, that
pose problems for advanced learners, some consistent with previous studies'
results, some others surprising, that can be considered as the outcome of
explicit teaching of some specific types of English collocations in the

The fourth chapter "Building material of non-native-like collocations"
deals with the question: What material is used by learners to create SVCs?
Nesselhauf draws on the presentation of deviations exposed in chapter 3, in
order to illustrate how learners select and combine the elements, which
come from L2, L1 and from some linguistic sources that haven't been much
investigated to date, as other foreign languages, the classroom input and
use of dictionaries. The author examines the influence of semantic and
formal similarity between the collocation produced by the learner and the
collocation that would have been more appropriate, on the one hand, and
between the produced collocation and the correspondent collocations in L1,
on the other hand. Deviations of each element of the SVC are presented in
both semantic and formal perspectives. The author argues that "the problem
is not that learner does not know which verbs and nouns combine to create
an acceptable collocation, but that he or she does not know the precise
meaning and/or use" (p.168).

The fifth chapter "Factors correlating with learners' difficulties with
collocations" addresses the causes of deviations in collocations correlated
with intralinguistic and extralinguistic factors. The former include the
degree of restriction, the syntactic pattern, the status of a SVC among
collocations, the congruence of the collocation in L1 and L2, that emerges
as most relevant intralinguistic factor. The latter cover the circumstances
of production, namely possibility to use dictionary and presence of time
pressure in writing essays, and the setting of learning, such as classroom
teaching and study in English-speaking countries. The analyses reveal that
a longer exposure to input in English-speaking countries determines a
bigger amount of collocations and a smaller quantity of deviations, whereas
the number of years of classroom instruction does not enhance the
production of collocations. This findings stress the fact that teaching
should give more importance to this problematic issue.

The sixth chapter "Implications of findings" summarizes the results,
beginning with the most general to most specific, in the opposite direction
to the presentation provided in chapters 3, 4 and 5. Thus the author
focuses on drawing implications for second language storage and processing,
by explaining the psycholinguistic treatment of semi-prefabricated units in
learners' mental lexicon, and for teaching, by proposing concrete criteria
for the selection of material and the most efficient methods of classroom
instruction of the investigated phenomenon. Finally, some ways forward are


"Collocations in a Learner Corpus" is a notable book for anyone interested
in the acquisition of collocations, since it provides both theoretical
discussion and detailed empirical analysis. The book is well written and
follows a rational organization of chapters. First, the author introduces
the theoretical framework; second, presents the method; and finally,
illustrates and discusses the empirical data. It is an original research,
in which the amount of data is significant and the interpretation of
findings is thorough. The tables and figures enable the reader to
understand the quantitative occurrences of phenomena and their weight
within the whole corpus. In addition, the lists of collocations, both
correct and deviant, are supported with a qualitative comment of the
context, when it is required by the argumentation.

The author emphasizes the importance of drawing theoretical implications
from empirical data, because it's the only way to link second language
acquisition studies and pedagogical applications. Indeed, on the basis of
analyses of deviations extracted in the corpus, she can make concrete
proposals to help learners to master one of most difficult aspects of
English lexicon, semi-prefabricated noun-verb constructions. From data
analysis are inferred also the suggestions on the selection of material for
teaching, as the assumption to consider not only the frequency and
difficulty of collocations, but also their degree of disruption, "i.e. the
degree to which an expression if deviant draws the listener's or reader's
attention away from the message" (p.256).

The book represents a good model for learner corpus studies, a branch of
Corpus Linguistic which is constantly growing as demonstrated by the
increasing amount of contributes (Granger et al. 2002, Aston et al. 2005)
and of compilations of Learner Corpora throughout the academic
institutions. A general discussion is devoted to compare this type of
second language investigations with others, as elicitation data analysis,
that run the risk of being peculiar.

Nesselhauf intends to go beyond the scopes of previous studies and pays
attention to innovative aspects. This is an opportune method in
investigating a recent study field, such as learning collocations. For
example, she isn't satisfied by merely analysing the L1 influence, but she
wonders which element is more prone to be transferred by L1 and in which
degree of semantic or formal similarity between L1 and L2 that transfer
occurs. In order to shed light on the new research questions she poses, the
data are interpreted in a systematic way, that enable the reader to
participate in every step the author takes in her elaboration of findings.

In the introduction the author specifies that she focuses on collocations
in learning English. The book addresses this topic accurately and it paves
the way for future investigations, also on the acquisition of languages
other than English. Nesselhauf's study, indeed, stimulates the theoretical
debates on L1 and teaching influence on learning. Nevertheless, a deeper
debate needs more data, both from acquisition of different L2 with diverse
L1 background, especially from languages not so typological similar as
English and German, and from different learning settings, in order to
understand the phenomenon of acquisition of collocations.


Aston, G., Bernardini, S. and Steward, D. (Eds.) (2004), Corpora and
Language Learners), Amsterdam: Benjamins

Burgschmidt, E. and Perkins, C. (1985), EB Fehlerkartei English:
Phraseologie: Kollokationen -- Phraseme -- Idiome, Braunschweig: private

Granger, S., Hung, J. and Petch-Tyson, S. (Eds.) (2002), Computer Learner
Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching,
Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Halliday, M. A. K. (1966), Lexis as a linguistic level, in Bazell, C. E.,
Catford, J. C., Halliday, M. A. K. and Robins, R. H. (Eds.) In Memory of
J.R. Firth, London: Longmans, pp: 148-162

Howarth, P. (1996), Phraseology in English Academic Writing. Some
Implications for Language Learning and Dictionary Making, Tübingen: Niemeyer

Lombard, R. J. (1997), Non-Native Speaker Collocation: A Corpus-Driven
Characterization from the Writing of Native Speakers of Mandarin, Ann
Arbor, MI: UMI

Mel'čuk, I. (1998), Collocation and Lexical Functions, in Cowie, A. P.
(Ed.), Phraseology. Theories, Analysis, and Applications, Oxford:
Clarendon, pp. 23-53

Sinclair, J. (1991), Corpus, Concordance, Collocation, Oxford: OUP


Fabiana Rosi is a PhD student at Department of Linguistics, University of
Pavia, Italy. Her dissertation investigates the acquisition of aspectual
morphology in Italian as L2 by adult learners and by computational
simulations. Particular attention is paid to factors as frequency and
salience of the linguistic forms to acquire and to implications for
teaching, since she has experienced teaching Italian as L2. Her research
interests include Second Language Acquisition, Computational Linguistics,
Corpus Linguistics, especially Learner Corpora, Psycholinguistics,
Cognitive Science.