LANGUAGE FOCUS: Breaking Gap - The Chemistry of Collocations

By StoryPaul

What if there was a bond between language and chemistry?

In my years as an English language trainer and content creator, I’ve often had to answer the question, “Why doesn’t my English sound like yours?” It’s a difficult one to answer as there may be different reasons. But generally speaking, learners feel frustrated when they realize that to say something, a native speaker will often use different words than they do. Same idea. Same language. Different Coding.

Welcome to the Gap, a language coding gap or difference in the choice of words which is perceived by both the speaker of English as a second language as well as the native English speaker. But is the gap really a problem? Well, that just really depends on what a learner wants out of his or her English. If the grammar is correct, then it’s a question of how learners wish to use the language, how much they mind the gap. Or perhaps how deep it is.

The interesting thing about this is that many learners who perceive the gap mistakenly believe their problem is that they don't know enough vocabulary words. “If I knew more words, I could speak more like a native”, they say. And they believe the solution is to learn tons of vocabulary. Some even get obsessed with how many words they use. And the market responds with products reminiscent of weight loss infomercials.

The truth? Memorizing lots of words may be useful for a test, a television game show or to impress people who are not really your friends, but it has little practicality in real life. What really matters is the language you use spontaneously when you write or speak - in other words, when you code language to say whatever it is you want to say. "Fine. But is there a way to acquire vocabulary so that you use it spontaneously?", some might ask. Sure there is. People who get a lot of meaningful input (reading, research, media) about the same subject, generally learn the vocabulary of that subject. If not, ask your friend who loves crime stories in English what the difference between alibi and clue is. They'll know. But knowing vocabulary alone does not narrow the gap. Sorry.

Deep into the Gap

To figure out how we can bridge the gap between the way native speakers say something and the way non-native speakers do it, we need to understand where the gap comes from. First, though, keep in mind there is also a gap among native speakers, as there is one among non-native speakers. But generally speaking, the gap between the way native and non-native English speakers code language boils down to how the language is acquired.

A native speaker of any language (including English) learns to speak naturally as an infant by being exposed to endless hours of input from his or her closest beings. In this context, the brain (yes, the brain) recognizes patterns in language and begins the process of decoding what they mean in relation to real and basic life situations. Food, play, potty, the 5 senses, discipline or sleep. In this process of decoding, the brain begins its life-long habit of acquiring meaning through chunks or groups of words. The best part: it all happens before they ever set foot in school. That's the place where the process of natural acquisition is by and large not strongly encouraged. (Chomsky, Krashen)

From Pink Floyd - The Wall
So then, what does the language acquisition process look like for a non-native speaker of English or of any other language? It usually happens in a context of formal education. So it is anything but natural. In the traditional model, foreign language is taught through grammar, vocabulary, and listening comprehension. Examples are usually out of context, as is reading and writing. Speaking opportunities tend to be limited. Regulations override communication.

Those who still manage to acquire the language to some degree often feel that any inadequacy is the result of poor grammar and insufficient vocabulary. While those who - despite all the obstacles - manage to become proficient in English perceive the gap when speaking to native English speakers. If it's any consolation, they should know that if native English speakers were learning their language, they'd run into the same challenges.

So then, how do native speakers code language in order to construct a message? For starters, they don’t do it word for word. They think in terms of chunks of language. Remember, that's how they learned it. These chunks or groups of words commonly used together for a similar purpose are what we call collocations. Language is full of collocations or ways in which words can be chunked together. Here are six main types.
  • adjective + noun: tough life, strong accent
  • noun + noun: glass of water, bar of soap
  • verb + noun: do my taxes, make a call
  • adverb + adjective: highly productive, deeply concerned
  • verb + prepositional phrase (phrasal verb): make up your mind, look for the answer
  • verb + adverb: spoke quietly, waited patiently

Collocations or chunks are a lot like chemical compounds. In other words, they are made of separate proportions of basic elements, but they exist as a whole.

Think about water, also known by its chemical shorthand, H2O.  As a chemical compound, a single water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds.

But imagine going up to the bar and saying to the guy there, "Hi, I'd like a glass of oxygen and hydrogen, please."  Technically, you'd be correct in saying it, but it would sound pretty strange to the bartender. There would be a gap between the conventional way of saying it and the alternate way you proposed. The alternate would not be easily recognized and possibly lead to a misunderstanding. Even though school didn't emphasize the fact, language is above all communication; therefore, recognition is vital.

But because that's the case, most language produced by intermediate and above learners is easily recognizable to native speakers - especially if they're willing to meet the non-native speaker halfway across the bridge, which they should. So like we stated before, it mostly comes down to how much you mind the gap.

A real life example with a fin

Since I introduced the example of water, it brings to mind a conversation I recently had with a student. We were speaking about the ocean and sharks. Seeing as I am from Florida, he figured I might know about the fearsome finned fish. So he asked me, “How many people are hurt by sharks in one year in Florida?” Naturally, like you reading this, I understood him and answered the question, but took notes for the feedback later. His grammar and vocabulary were correct. But was there a gap in the way he phrased the question?

When I provided him with feedback, I modeled an alternate version of his question more likely used by a native speaker: “How many shark attacks are there in Florida every year?” I offered alternate versions of other parts of our talk. Finally, we looked at the breakdown of the chunks (or collocations) for each model version I provided:
  • How many >> correct
  • To be hurt by >> passive voice, more uncommon in English and used when referring to being hurt by someone emotionally, rather than physically. Ex. I was hurt by what you said to me. 
  • Shark attacks >> just like snake attack, dog attack and cat attack, the most commonly-used collocation when referring to animals attacking people or other animals
  • are there >> plural of is there: commonly used to ask about the existence of things, a very underused collocation by non-native speakers
  • every year >> alternate way of saying “in one year” (also correct)
  • in Florida >> correct

Breaking Gap

So then, what is a good way to narrow the gap and sound more like a native speaker? Here is a road map.

  • Find meaningful content (reading, listening, viewing) - something you really like
  • Divide into short segments (a chapter, 5 minutes, a scene)
  • Text: if it's audio or video, get a copy of the dialogue or transcript (easy to find that on the internet these days)
  • Repeat input many times: If it's a chapter of a book or an article, read it over a few times. If it's audio or video, listen to it or view it repeatedly. 2 or 3 times
  • Identify chunks or collocations from the input that you understand but would say differently and copy them into a notebook, file or wherever you want to keep them. Make it a place you will go back to. 
  • Do not write the meaning. Instead, write a few sentences using that collocation.
  • Read, listen to or view again.
  • Review your examples. Add more
  • If possible, tell another English speaker (native or non-native) about what you read, heard or watched. Use the collocations you acquired. Discuss. Don't get stressed. Have fun.
  • Repeat with NEW INPUT
Remember. Have fun!


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