1. Collocations are Different in Different Languages
Let’s look at an example: do you know the verb catch? How do you say it in your language?
Now, think about the phrase: catch a bus. How do you say it in your language? Do you use the same verb? Maybe you do, but most probably, you use a different verb.
What about catch a cold? Do you use the same verb as catch a bus? What about these:
- I didn’t catch what you said.
- I came in late and caught the end of the match.
- I caught a huge fish last weekend!
I can’t speak for every language around the world, of course. Maybe you speak a language which can use the same verb in all of these examples.
But at least in the languages I know, you would need to use different verbs in at least some of these examples.
This is one of the reasons why this is difficult: when you think in your language, you’ll use certain collocations. When you speak English, you have to put words together in a different way.
2. You Can’t Always Guess Collocations
If you hear the collocation strong coffee, it’s easy to understand even if you’ve never heard it or used it before. Many word combinations are like this: you can understand them easily when you hear them.
Think about this question: how could you complete this sentence?
- There was some __________ rain, but it stopped after five minutes.
We need an adjective, but what could we use? Slight? Light? Thin?
Light is the only possibility which makes sense. Did you get the right answer?
If you don’t know the answer, it can be very hard to guess. That’s because collocations aren’t really logical or regular; either you know them or you don’t.
This can be dangerous for your spoken English. If you don’t learn collocations, it’s possible to understand a lot of spoken English, but when you speak, you’ll make a lot of mistakes, and your English won’t sound very natural.
3. Different Types of Collocations
There are many different types of collocations. The most common are:
Verb + noun:
- catch a bus
- make a mistake
Adjective + noun:
- strong coffee
- heavy traffic
Adverb + adjective:
- terribly sorry
- absolutely awful
Verb + adverb:
Verb + preposition:
Adjective + preposition:
4. How to Learn Collocations
Generally, learning collocations is like learning any other vocabulary. If you want more details on how to remember vocabulary, check out this video lesson. However, here are some tips which are specific to learning collocations:
- 1. Remember that collocations are not usually logical or regular—it’s not helpful to ask why something is this way and not that way.
- 2. Most dictionaries, especially learner’s dictionaries, will give examples of collocations after the explanation of a word. For example, if you look up the word make, you can find examples of common combinations with make.
- 3. Focus on collocations which are different in your own language. For example, where English has two verbs make and do, many languages have one verb which has both of these meanings. Because of this, phrases with make and do are difficult to remember for many English learners. Of course, this means you’ll need to think a bit about collocations in your own language, and which are different from English.
- 4. Study collocations in groups. For example, you could learn five combinations with the verb take, five adjectives which collocate with chocolate, or five collocations connected with doing housework. There are many possibilities, but learning vocabulary in groups like this will help you to remember them.
5. Why Learning Collocations is So Useful
When I see most students learn vocabulary, they mostly try to learn single words. That can be useful, but it also makes things difficult. If you just learn a single word, by itself, that doesn’t help you to use the word.
Generally, if you try to learn a word but you can’t/don’t use the word, you’ll forget it again.
When you learn how to put words together, it gives you some context and meaning which will help you to use the words in your speaking or writing.
There’s another big advantage to learning collocations: imagine that you are speaking and you want to say catch a bus, but you can’t remember which verb to use. You’ll have to stop and think about it, which will affect your fluency.
If you remember the phrase as a unit, as if it was one word, you won’t have to stop and think, and you’ll be able to speak more fluently.