It is true that "pack in" collocates with other nouns/noun phrases, but "job" is one of the most frequent collocates. I've consulted two dictionaries - I often look up a word in different online dictionaries to glean its most typical use - and both Oxford Advanced Learners and Macmillan dictionaries give an example with "job", a fact you can't just brush aside when teaching lexis! If two authoritative dictionaries complied by lexicographers using corpora provide similar, if not identical, examples, it surely tells us something about the word usage. What follows are my thoughts on how word usage shapes word meaning and why it's more effective to start with ONE prototypical use.
The linguistic equivalence fallacyThe initial challenge learners face when encountering a new L2 word the first time is to get a grasp of its meaning. One of the easiest ways to 'unlock' the meaning is via L1. Learners tend to mentally translate new items into L1 regardless of whether the teacher uses translation in class or not. L1 mediation is often inevitable and sometimes actually necessary to clarify meaning. Try explaining the word "(to) happen" without translation!
Unfortunately, when mapping a new English word on the existing L1 word or its nearest equivalent, everything that students know about the L1 word - its semantic relations, collocational field, grammatical behaviour - tends to be copied and assigned to the new L2 word. Learners seem to erroneously believe that since both new L2 word and its L1 counterpart refer to the same concept, they will function more or less alike. This assumption, referred to by psycholinguists as semantic equivalence hypothesis (Ijaz 1986, Ringbom 2007), is succinctly summarised by Michael Swan (1997) as follows: "Foreign words look different from mother-tongue words, but work in the same way (semantically and grammatically)".
There are a number of problems with relying on mediation via L1. First, semantic boundaries of seemingly corresponding words in the L1 and L2 do not overlap (as discussed extensively HERE). Second, the corresponding word in the learner's mother tongue may be of low frequency and utility. For example, "burden", a two-star word according to Macmillan Dictionary, which indicates that the word is in the medium-frequency band (5000 most common words in English), is rendered into Russian as бремя (bremya), a rare and even somewhat archaic word. Learners therefore may mentally file the word "burden" under "infrequent and not very useful". The biggest problem, however, with relying on access to L2 words via L1 translation is that it often results in transfer of collocational pateterns from learners' mother tongue to L2.
A lateral road with genuine squaresA student once asked me if she could say a "lateral road" (she must have wanted to say a "bypass"). In the previous lesson, "lateral thinking" had come up and I had encouraged learners to record it as a single item, without breaking it down. I don't know what mental processes she went through to arrive at "lateral road". I do know that learners (especially adults) have a tendency to approach new lexis analytically in that they tease chunks apart and zero in on their components, as opposed to native speakers who are more holistic learners (Wray 2002). I can imagine "lateral" meaning something like "side", "branch" or "offshoot" in other languages, hence my student's conclusion that a "lateral road" would be a possible collocation in English.
Such miscollocations (lexical mismatches) are common among learners at all levels (Laufer & Waldman 2011) and are usually a result of what used to be referred to as interference (in the Behaviorist tradition), but is now known as transfer; the more neutral, all encompassing term cross-linguistic influence is also used today. Research shows that over 50% mistakes learners make with collocations exhibit signs of transfer from their L1 (Nesselhauf 2003).
While we, teachers, cannot exert much control over learners' internal mental processes, we can do a lot about the way we present and practice new vocabulary. The common practice of clarifying meaning using synonyms should be used with caution. The meaning of "conceal" can be clarified through its near-synonym "hide", but can you *conceal under the table? And "trapped" means to be stuck, but you wouldn't say that your key was *trapped in the door, would you? The other day a student spoke of "a genuine square" while desribing a city. I guess I shouldn't have used "authentic" to explain "genuine" a week earlier; but then, Oxford Learners Dictionaries does the same :)
|A "genuine" square in Rome ?|
Photo by Tzvi Meller
Does the word 'synonym' have a synonym?Using synonyms to clarify meaning is problematic also because it gives learners a false sense that any of the two words - the new item and the already familiar synonym - can be substituted for each other in a sentence in any context. I qualified the previous sentence with "in any context" because in some contexts they can indeed be interchangeable - they are synonyms, after all! Like in my example She's packed in her job, "pack in" can be substituted by "quit". Because synonyms only exist in certain contexts, it would be more accurate to talk about synonymous collocations rather than synonymous words, for example:
severe punishment = harsh punishment
severe expression = stern face
severe disability = (very) serious disability
Unfortunately very few coursebooks treat synonymy this way and instead offer exercises where students have to match synonymous words out of context. This is especially common with multi-part verbs:
find out = discover
look into = investigate
If a new word is clarified by means of a synonym, without any co-text (textual context - see HERE), students might not know how to collocate it; in fact, they might end up not using the new word at all. Several researchers have pointed out that learners tend to avoid synonyms (Liao & Fukuya 2004, Siyanova & Schmitt 2007). Batia Laufer, for example, refers to synonymy as one of the difficulty-inducing factors in L2 vocabulary acquisition (1997: 172). The reason - the way I see it - is that learners fall back on already known vocabulary. To illustrate, let's take "conceal". If it means the same as "hide", why do I, as a learner, need it if I can get by with "hide"?
One rather than noneHow can we make learners incorporate more sophisticated, less common, medium frequency vocabulary into their production and thus push them past the intermediate plateau? Start with one, archetypal use of the word - like I did with "She's packed in her job". Consulting a dictionary or two is a good idea, looking it up in a corpus is even better, but you can also make do with the context the new item first came up in - in a reading text, a podcast, video or any other classroom activity. Review and practice the new item in the original, restricted context until learners commit it to memory and can recall it when needed. Gradually expose them to other uses of the word - the chances are that they will encounter it themselves in other contexts. My students often tell me how they start encountering what at first seemed to be rare, not very useful words everywhere. In fact, there is a name for this process: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon - look it up! :)
You might say that I'm impeding my students' progress* by deliberately restricting their ability to use a new word. I say it's better to get ONE typical usage right than end up with NONE and have the new word consigned to your passive vocabulary, lying dormant at the back of your mind. Besides, too much information in the early stages of learning may overwhelm the learner and unnecessarily increase the learning burden. Many L2 vocabulary researchers make similar claims suggesting that the depth of knowledge should be increased gradually (Nation 2001; Schmitt 2010); only of course they believe the meaning should be learned first and collocations acquired later from exposure, whereas I think that at least one useful collocation should be provided - as a crutch - from the outset.
Have you tried a similar approach?
Do your learners struggle to integrate new lexis into their production?
What do you do about it?
I'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
I'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
*Incidentally, I recently taught "impede" initially as impede the progress although, of course, other things can be impeded too, e.g. development, process.Ijaz, I. H. (1986). Linguistic and cognitive determinants of lexical acquisition in a second language. Language Learning, 36(4): 401-451
Laufer, B. (1997). The lexical plight in second language reading: Words you don’t know, words you think you know, and words you can’t guess. In Coady, J. & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (pp 20-34). Cambridge: CUP
Laufer, B. & Waldman, T. (2011). Verb-noun collocations in second language writing: a corpus analysis of learners’ English. Language Learning, 61(2): 647-672
Liao, Y.D. & Fukuya, Y.J. (2004). Avoidance of phrasal verbs: The case of Chinese learners of English. Language Learning 54 (2): 193–226
Nesselhauf, N. (2003). The use of collocations by advanced learners of English and some implications for teaching. Applied Linguistics, 24(2): 223–242
Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: CUP
Ringbom, H. (2007). Cross-linguistic similarity in foreign language learning (Vol. 21). Multilingual Matters.
Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed L2 vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research 12(3): 329-363
Siyanova, A. & Schmitt, N. (2007). Native and nonnative use of multi-word vs. one-word verbs. IRAL 45: 119-139
Swan, M. (1997). The influence of the mother tongue on second language vocabulary acquisition and use. In McCarthy, M (Ed.) Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy (pp 156-180). Cambridge: CUP
Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: CUP