Phraseology and the Foreign Language Learner

This month we published Perspectives on the L2 Phrasicon edited by Sylviane Granger. In this post Sylviane explains how interest in the study of phraseology has grown.

We do not speak in single, independent words. As soon as we select one word, the number of words by which it can be followed or preceded becomes severely restricted. For example, the gap in I’m staying at home today because I have a ___ cold will typically be filled by adjectives such as bad, nasty or terrible, not by large, big or considerable. Such word partnerships come naturally to native speakers of English, but represent a major difficulty for foreign language learners. However, for a long time the study of lexis was largely confined to the study of single words. Multiword units were considered peripheral features of language, and the only units that were given prominence in foreign language teaching were semantically non-compositional units, i.e. units whose meaning could not be deduced from the meaning of their parts, in particular figurative idioms (to spill the beans), proverbs (the early bird catches the worm) and phrasal verbs (to give in).

Interest in phraseology, which can be roughly defined as the study of multiword units of various kinds, took a sharp upward turn with the advent of corpus linguistics, i.e. the study of language on the basis of large electronic collections of authentic language and automated methods and tools to investigate them. This major development opened up a brand-new world, in which phraseology took centre stage. Corpus studies have shown that opaque, figurative units are fairly infrequent compared with other units, in particular collocations, i.e. strongly associated pairs of words such as bad cold, and lexical bundles, i.e. longer recurrent word sequences, such as you know what I mean in speech and as a result of in writing. Unlike idioms, these two types of unit pose no particular problem of comprehension. However, they are very frequent and constitute a major hurdle for productive purposes. The reason is that these units, being semantically compositional, tend to go unnoticed: learners are often not aware of their formulaic nature and tend to transfer the literal equivalent from their mother tongue to the target language.

This widening of the scope of phraseology led to a greater focus on non-idiomatic multiword units in reference and teaching materials. For a number of years now, large corpora of native English have been used to show the company that words prefer to keep, in particular collocations, and, on that basis, to ‘phrase up’ dictionary entries, word lists and vocabulary exercises. The problem is that this exclusive focus on native use tells us nothing about the difficulty that learners experience with these units. Does learner use differ from native speaker use and if so, in what way? Do some types of unit cause learners more difficulty than others? Is use of these units greatly influenced by the learner’s mother tongue? Does phraseological use vary with proficiency and if so, how? Does phraseology function differently in speech and writing? These types of question can only be answered by analysing authentic learner data.

The main objective of this book is to make the voice of language learners heard. It does so by relying on learner corpora, i.e. electronic collections of writing and/or speech produced by foreign/second language learners. Scholars started compiling learner corpora in the early 1990s with the twofold objective of, first, contributing to Second Language Acquisition theory by providing a better description of learner language and a better understanding of the factors that influence it and, second, of producing pedagogical tools and methods that more accurately target the needs of language learners. In this book, learner corpora are used to investigate the impact of a range of variables (target language, language background, proficiency level, spoken vs written mode, degree of exposure to the foreign language, topic, time span) on learners’ use of multiword units, mainly collocations but also lexical bundles and lexico-grammatical patterns. The multiword units are extracted automatically from learner corpora on the basis of their frequency and strength of association. The studies in the volume highlight the power of new phraseological indices to assess the quality of learner texts, thus offering great potential for language assessment and automated scoring. Altogether, the book provides a unique window on the learner phrasicon and prompts further studies in this exciting and important research field.

Prof. Dr Sylviane Granger

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Idiomatic Mastery in a First and Second Language by Monica Karlsson.

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