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Review of  Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

Reviewer: Rachele De Felice
Book Title: Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching
Book Author: Fanny Meunier Sylviane Ganger
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 21.3031

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EDITORS: Meunier, Fanny; Granger, Sylviane
TITLE: Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Rachele De Felice, Educational Testing Service


The twelve papers in this volume originate from the conference ''Phraseology
2005. The many faces of phraseology'' held in Louvain-la-Neuve in 2005. As the
editors explain in the introduction, it is one of three volumes to have followed
the conference, and focuses, as the title makes clear, on the role of
phraseology in foreign language learning and teaching. The contributions have
been divided into three sections, corresponding to three perspectives on the
topic. The variety of research discussed makes this book invaluable for anyone
with an interest in corpus linguistics, lexicography, foreign language learning
and teaching, and English for specific purposes.

The volume opens with a preface by Nick C. Ellis entitled ''Phraseology - the
periphery and heart of language'', which gives an overview of the fortunes of the
concept of phraseology and collocation over time. A trawl of Social Science
publications for papers relating to the term 'phraseology' shows that after a
decline in the 1960s and 1970s, we find renewed interest in recent decades. The
reasons suggested for this revival refer to advances in disciplines including
grammatical theory, cognitive linguistics, language acquisition, and
psycholinguistics. This forms a concise but excellent primer on the many
concurrent factors underpinning research on phraseology. In my opinion,
however, we should also consider advances in computing power, data storage, and
related technologies which have enabled much of this novel research, allowing
the creation and analysis of increasingly large corpora, leading in turn to more
robust generalisations.

SECTION 1 is on the extraction and description of phraseological units; it
contains five articles.

In ''Phraseology and language pedagogy'', Graeme Kennedy explores the behaviour of
eight high-frequency lexical verbs ('enjoy',' give', 'receive', 'start',
'begin', 'stop', 'end', 'finish') to understand whether their collocates are
arbitrary or share common features of form and meaning. This is done by querying
the British National Corpus (BNC) and gathering information about the
collocates' frequency and mutual information (MI). The inclusion of the latter
is well advised, since it is a good way of measuring the strength of association
between two words by highlighting those combinations which occur together more
often than the frequencies of their individual components would suggest. For
each verb, the author provides a table with the top 80 collocates for each of
the two measures. MI draws our attention to combinations which involve less
frequent words but are nonetheless strongly attached to the verb: for example,
with the verb 'enjoy', 'immensely' is the first collocate by MI but only the
68th by frequency. Analysis of the data also leads to insights into the
preferred semantic domains of the verbs, especially with regard to near-synonyms
such as 'begin' and 'start' or 'stop', 'end', 'finish'. Corpus analysis allows
one to capture aspects of language which are often only implicitly known to the
native speaker, but not easily set out for the learner. However the methodology
is only as strong as the underlying corpus. For example, in looking at the
objects of 'receive', high MI values are shown by words such as 'knighthood',
'commendation', 'OBE', 'MBE', which are arguably not the most relevant
collocates for the verb, especially from an L2 perspective. The article
concludes with a number of observations on why phraseology still does not always
feature prominently in language pedagogy. In particular, with regard to the
distinction between explicit and implicit learning, it is suggested that an
effective approach might be for teachers to maximise opportunities for implicit
learning, while providing explicit instruction for high-frequency collocations.

''Essential collocations for learners of English'' (Susanne Handl) introduces a
concern also shared by other contributors, namely that it is not always
immediately clear where a learner can find a particular collocation in a
dictionary: for example, would 'foreseeable future' be found under 'future',
'foreseeable', or both? We then have an overview of the numerous definitions for
the concept of 'collocation', another example of the brief but informative
summaries of key theoretical issues present in this volume. An important
observation is that one characteristic of collocations is predictability, such
that some words strongly evoke others and ''native speakers often only become
aware of collocations when they are used creatively or inappropriately'' (p.53).
Many collocations are unmarked structures for native speakers, which is one of
the reasons why it can be difficult for instructors or lexicographers to
identify their presence. The author introduces her own multi-dimensional
framework to characterise collocations along semantic, lexical, and statistical
dimensions. I found it somewhat cumbersome and counterintuitive, despite the
detailed explanations, and am not sure it is the best approach to this task.

In ''Phraseology effects as triggers for errors in L2 English'', John Osborne
investigates possible reasons for grammatical errors in the production of
advanced English learners. This is examined in two corpora of native (L1) French
students. Phraseology effects are suggested as a potential cause of the errors.
For example, 60% of pluralised adjectives appear in ''collocational or other
phraseological units'' (p.71; e.g. errors like 'in theses cases', 'mains
features'), suggesting that the strong associations between words are causing
the characteristics of one word of the unit to be transferred to the other. The
author acknowledges that several different factors may be involved in erroneous
productions, but highlights three main contextual effects which may be causing
errors. These are blending, where the components of a multi-word unit all take
on the same characteristics (cf. pluralised adjectives); bonding, where lexical
or grammatical items have become so tightly associated in the learner's lexicon
that they always co-occur in adjacent positions, leading to verb-adverb-object
order violations (e.g. 'follow blindly everything'); and burying, where elements
within larger units lose their regular grammatical features, e.g. verbs far
removed from their subject. This is an interesting approach to the analysis of
errors in learner language, showing that instruction on phrases and collocations
must also include advice on how to avoid using these units erroneously.
Unfortunately, no concrete suggestions as to how to address this problem are

''Contrasting English-Spanish interpersonal discourse phrases'' (JoAnne Neff van
Aertselaer) looks at phrases denoting certainty, attitude, and evaluation of
arguments in novice and expert writing in English and Spanish. The presence of
several phrases and lexical items is analysed. The author is careful to
distinguish between L2, transfer, and novice writer effects by comparing several
different corpora. Some issues relating to Spanish EFL writers are highlighted:
in particular, incomplete mastery of modals and the overuse of evaluative
adjectives in constructions such as 'it is + adj + that', which may give a more
forceful effect than is typical in English academic writing. These findings can
support the teaching of academic writing.

Magali Paquot's ''Exemplification in learner writing'' concludes this section by
focusing on a particular aspect of learner academic writing, the phraseology
associated with exemplification. The author looks at the use of 'for example',
'for instance', 'example', 'illustrate' and 'exemplify' in five sub-corpora of
ICLE (International Corpus of Learner English), and asks whether any differences
found are due to L1 effects. The question is approached very systematically,
with comparisons not just between the learner English of different populations,
but within native writing, too. It is found that there is a tendency to overuse
'for example/instance' and less use of the phrases involving the verbs. The
word-like phrasal units are especially prone to being overused when there is a
similar form in the L1. An important conclusion refers to how to best use these
findings: knowledge of what items are over- and under-used can inform learning
materials to ensure that L2 writers are aware of the full range of strategies
available to them. This is an excellent example of how research outcomes can
lead to practical applications.

SECTION 2 is on learning phraseological units and contains three articles.

In ''Why can't you just leave it alone?'', Alison Wray and Tess Fitzpatrick
investigate whether memorization of linguistic material can improve performance.
The study involved close monitoring of six intermediate/advanced English
learners who memorized complete sentences and were encouraged to use them in
real conversations. The authors focus on the deviations from the memorized
materials, and the insights these can offer on the role of multiword structures
in the L2 lexicon. 'Deviation profiling' is introduced as a way of understanding
a learner's active knowledge by examining his or her repairs when memorization
fails. The analysis of the six subjects' deviations is very detailed, but, with
only six subjects, the authors acknowledge that any insights should be
interpreted as directions rather than conclusive. However, deviation profiling
could be a valuable tool for a better assessment of the strengths and weaknesses
of a learner's command of the L2. It is also suggested that it can be used for
placement testing in language schools, since it offers no advantage to those who
are more imaginative or more diligent in their preparation, but I think a
clearer categorisation of the deviations is required before this can occur.

''Phraseology and English for academic purposes'' (Averil Coxhead) is an overview
of some of the challenges and opportunities currently surrounding this topic. An
important point is that phrases are important in EAP because not using or
knowing them raises a barrier to accessing the academic community (this holds
for both L1 and L2). However, with a growing body of resources on which to draw,
it can be challenging to identify what phrases are most relevant for learners in
their chosen discipline. The author also reports on a small pilot study
recording six students' explanations of why they did not use recently learned
phrases. A prominent reason was risk avoidance, for example if there is
uncertainty about the meaning and usage of a word. Coxhead concludes by
advocating further research on the pedagogical aspects of phraseology and,
crucially, encourages us to take the time to listen to learners' feedback to
deepen our understanding of how they use phrases.

David Wible's ''Multiword expressions and the digital turn'' discusses the role of
digital resources in supporting the acquisition of multiword expressions. He
points to a key difference between L1 and L2 acquisition: while the challenge
for L1 acquisition is to segment a stream of mostly spoken language to
understand its boundaries, for L2 acquisition the problem is reversed. Much of
the learning occurs from written material, where one has to understand how
individual units can be grouped together as larger chunks. Traditional
lexicographical resources, the author feels, are not the best way to support
this learning because they are static and passive. Digital resources enable a
more interactive appreciation of how words relate to each other, providing
richer examples of usage patterns. However, these resources are only useful if
the user acknowledges a gap in his or her knowledge and a need for them. To
address this, Wible and his colleagues introduce a tool called 'Collocator',
which automatically identifies multiword expressions on a webpage on the basis
of a model developed using a 20 million word section of the BNC. The automated
nature of the tool circumvents the problem of the user's lack of awareness of
the collocations' presence. There are some outstanding technical challenges
(e.g. sometimes words that make up a collocation can also appear together
independently, and morphological variation needs to be taken into account), but
it is an interesting solution to the problem of meeting learners' unexpressed needs.

SECTION 3 is on recording and exploiting phraseological units and also contains
three chapters.

''Phraseology in learners' dictionaries'' (Dirk Siepmann) assesses whether
semantically transparent 'routine formulae' ('lexical items of regular
syntactic-semantic composition whose co-occurrence is statistically
significant') receive adequate treatment in four major learners' dictionaries.
He identifies two sets of ten such phrases, for spoken and written English
respectively (e.g. 'my thoughts exactly', 'this brings me/us to'). Coverage is
found to be rather patchy, though somewhat better for written than for spoken
English. This raises the question of whether spoken language is poorly served by
lexicographical resources, which is alarming since phraseological knowledge in
conversation can greatly contribute towards appearing fluent and confident in
the L2. The author also wonders whether these omissions are due to the fact that
lexicographers are likely to be L1 English speakers, and therefore less aware of
the need for explicit explanation of semantically transparent items. At the same
time, this study was quite limited in scope so its conclusions have to be
interpreted cautiously. The author suggests that web data such as emails and
blogs might be a good approximation of spoken language, but, while this may be
true, there are many problems associated with the reliability of the web as
corpus (cf. the annual Web as Corpus workshops, or Hundt et al. 2007), such as
the difficulty of verifying the writers' L1.

In ''Compilation, formalisation and presentation of bilingual phraseology'', Mojca
Pecman presents an empirical study of English-French phraseology in the academic
domain. The chapter includes a good overview of the issues related to
phraseology in bilingual lexicography. Some of these are shared by all
dictionaries, mono- and bi-lingual (e.g. deciding what information or examples
to include), while other are peculiar to the bilingual domain, such as the fact
that phrases do not always translate literally. More problematic are differences
in register and frequency. It is not enough to establish equivalence of meaning:
awareness of usage is also needed, as the same phrase can be colloquial in one
language and formal in the other, or less frequently used. The author notes that
while general purpose dictionaries (monolingual, bilingual, learners') may be
sufficient for phraseological information, especially if recent research
advances are taken into account, it may be useful to have domain-specific
phraseological dictionaries to draw attention to the phraseological and
stylistic conventions of particular disciplines. As the large body of research
on English for specific purposes shows, there is certainly much scope for this
kind of resource. An electronic dictionary for physics, biology, and chemistry,
developed by the author, is described; a strength of this tool is its
presentation of data as clusters around semantically related nodes, allowing a
more comprehensive view of the combinatorial properties of the phrases.

Finally, Celine Gouverneur's ''The phraseological patterns of high-frequency
verbs in advanced English for general purposes'' looks at the treatment of the
verbs 'take' and 'make' in three sets of English textbooks. The use of these
verbs is found to be a stumbling block for learners, and the author wonders if
this is due to the way they are presented in teaching materials. To this end,
she analyses a corpus of textbooks which contains material from leading ELT
publishers. The data is richly annotated; the tags, among other things, identify
the type of pedagogical material in great detail, noting the kind of task and
answer expected (e.g. 'sentence completion with words from a box'). This
annotation allows for a very in-depth automated analysis. Textbook corpora are
still rare, but this work shows their potential to shed light on many research
questions, and identify significant differences in the treatment of particular
topics. I hope this research direction continues to grow, though the corpus
annotation scheme is very complex, which could slow down corpus development.

The volume ends with some remarks from the two editors, who ask, ''Where to from
here?''. They observe that while there undoubtedly is a lot we now know about
this topic, how best to use this knowledge is still unclear. The main challenges
outlined centre around the pedagogical aspects of phraseology, such as raising
both teachers' and learners' awareness of the importance of phrases in improving
language learning and promoting fluency. This of course has to be accompanied by
good training for teachers, and reliable resources to support the learning
process, such as the electronic tools introduced in this volume. Further
empirical evidence about the merits of phrase-based teaching may also be
necessary. Finally, researchers in natural language processing as well as corpus
linguistics are called on to continue work on automated approaches to the
discovery of meaningful multiword units (which are the object of an annual
dedicated workshop) and on the creation of user-friendly interfaces to
resources. It is crucial to keep an open dialogue between the two disciplines,
as the strengths of each complement each other so well.


This volume is an excellent and up-to-date overview of the many issues currently
affecting the teaching and learning of phraseology in L2 English. The thoughtful
contributions are accompanied by comprehensive reference sections, which are one
of the strong points of the book. The presence of informative summaries of
debated issues in many of the chapters make the text accessible to linguists who
do not have a detailed knowledge of the field and enables them to better
appreciate the topics under discussion.

The problems raised make it clear that one of the great challenges for language
learners is that often there is no single response to the question 'how do you
say [some L1 phrase] in English?' since frequency and register considerations
must also be considered. It is crucial, as many of the contributions highlight
(e.g. Neff van Aertselaer, Paquot, Pecman), that we devote attention not just to
the ways the words in a phrase fit together, but also to how they are used.

As the wealth of research in this volume demonstrates, the importance of
phraseology can no longer be doubted. The multiple ways of defining a 'phrase'
or a 'collocation' can be frustrating for researchers trying to establish a
common ground, or constructing persuasive arguments for teachers,
lexicographers, and textbook developers. However, my view is that we are
unlikely to ever achieve a general consensus on the precise scope of these
terms; like any fuzzy area of linguistics, the key thing is to ensure that
within one's research the terms are used clearly and consistently.

Many of the chapters (e.g. Neff van Aertselaer, Paquot, Wray and Fitzpatrick,
Wible, Pecman) combine theoretical and quantitative studies with practical
outcomes such as resources or suggestions to improve teaching. As Pecman notes,
it is work that aims to ''yield concrete results which should help non-native
speakers in their second language productions'' (p. 204). This is of crucial
importance: there is no value in extracting frequency statistics and other
information from a text if we do not then build on these numbers in a meaningful
way. Related to this point is an observation about the use of the BNC as the
primary source of data for L1 comparisons (e.g. Kennedy, Wible). I am not sure
that this is still the best resource, as the material in it is now about 30
years old and perhaps no longer fully representative of current English usage.
Other more recent corpora are available (e.g. Corpus of Contemporary American
English, Gigaword Corpus); though they do not focus exclusively on British
English, it may still be worth considering their potential as alternative resources.

A frequent topic of debate is on the merits of explicit vs. implicit teaching of
phrases. While I agree it is important to raise learners' awareness of the
importance of phrases in their language production, especially if specific
particular sub-domains of language are involved, I wonder if intense explicit
instruction is the best approach: we must be wary of developing in learners the
conviction that using several newly acquired phrases is the best way to show
their proficiency, as this can also lead to stilted and un-natural language.

Overall, this is a volume which will give food for thought to researchers in a
wide range of disciplines; it is made all the more enjoyable by the high-quality
typesetting and almost total lack of typos.


M. Hundt, N. Nesselhauf, and C. Biewer (2007). Corpus linguistics and the web,
Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Special interest group of the Association for Computational Linguistics on Web
as Corpus:

Multiword expressions workshops:

Rachele De Felice is a postdoctoral fellow at Educational Testing Service, working on automated speech act identification and pragmatic analysis in L2 emails. Her interests are in learner language and the use of corpus analysis and natural language processing to develop applications of assistance to learners.