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EFL learners’ interlanguage can be distinguished from the native speakers’ language by the fact that their interlanguage consists of features which show the incomplete mastery of the language. It is characterized by deviations called ‘errors’. As they go through the process of language learning, they make a lot of mistakes in their speech and writings. One of their areas of difficulty relates to ‘collocations’, a concept which was first put forth by J. R. Firth in 1957 who defined them as “actual words in habitual company” (Firth, 1957, p. 183).
EFL learners do not seem to pay attention to collocations; they usually focus on the individual words, disregarding sets of other words with which these individual words co-occur (Mirsalari and Shokouhi, 2010). Bahns (1993) sees the notion of collocation as an ignored element in syllabus design which results in learners’ deficiency of the knowledge of collocations.
L2 learners often have particular problems with word combinations, even at a relatively advanced level (Brown, 1974; Channell, 1981; Cowie, 1978b). Most students would, for example, have no difficulty producing the word diary when the meaning they wish to express requires it. They, however, have considerable difficulty in trying to figure out whether they should say *maintain a diary, *conduct a diary, or keep a diary?
This deficiency seems to be, to some extent, due to the lack of collocational knowledge among EFL learners, and to a large extent, the inadequate emphasis given to collocational patterns in their textbooks, and the type of instruction they receive. Bahns (1993) believes that when learners lack collocational knowledge, they resort to the L1 as the only resource, and thus perform well on those collocations that have L1 equals than on others. Lewis (2000) contends that EFL learners not only need to know what is right to say, but also what is wrong to say. Finding out the learners’ collocation errors and informing them of their errors by their teachers can raise their awareness of collocations and thus improve their knowledge of collocations. Therefore, the present study investigated English majors’ grammatical collocation errors and explored types of grammatical collocation errors which appear to be more persistent in their performance as EFL learners.
The importance of collocations and the difficulty they pose on EFL learners has been the center of attention by several researchers in the field of EFL/ESL. They believe that the knowledge of collocations is essential for EFL learners in order to have a mastery of the language (Brown, 1974; Channell, 1981, Howarth, 1998; Nattinger, 1980). Accordingly, they have argued that teaching collocations has an important role in helping EFL learners improve their level of mastery in English. However, few studies have been conducted in Iran about errors in the performance of Iranian EFL learners on different types of grammatical collocations. Thus, the present study was planned to investigate the distribution of 6 types of grammatical collocation errors in Iranian EFL learners’ performance, to find the most frequent types of grammatical collocation errors, and to see how their knowledge of grammatical collocations develops as they advance to higher levels of proficiency so that practical solutions can be offered to minimize the types of grammatical collocation errors which are persistent in EFL learners’ interlanguage.
The present study was an attempt to find possible answers to the following interrelated questions:
- What is the distribution of grammatical collocation errors in Iranian EFL learners’ performance by their level of proficiency?
- Which types of grammatical collocation errors are more persistent in Iranian EFL learners’ performance?
- How does Iranian EFL learners’ knowledge of grammatical collocations improve with their level of proficiency?
Learning the grammar of a language in general, and the grammatical collocations of that language in particular, is one of the most important aspects of learning a foreign language. According to Shokouhi and Mirsalari (2010), if collocational associations are not properly taught and learned, the resulting irregularities may mark the learners’ language problematic and non-native like. Most Iranian EFL learners seem to have good knowledge of English grammar, but they have many problems with production of grammatical collocations. They need to know which words co-occur and how we can use them in our actual communication. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) emphasize the importance of collocations for language acquisition and use. They believe that learners’ attention should be drawn to word combinations from the beginning stages of learning.
Those who doubt the value of teaching collocations might argue that collocations need not be explicitly taught as learners will simply acquire them along with relevant vocabulary (Mackin, 1978). However, many studies, such as that of Bahns and Eldaw (1993), have responded to this argument by showing that learners’ knowledge of collocations lags far behind their knowledge of vocabulary in general.
Iranian EFL learners commit errors when producing English collocations, especially grammatical ones. Their errors show that they tend to depend on their personal language strategies which facilitate their learning. Their problems seem to be in part due to their lack of knowledge of grammatical collocations and, to a greater extent, to insufficient emphasis given to collocations in their textbooks as well as the kind of instruction they receive. Therefore, grammatical collocations must be given sufficient pedagogical significance in Iranian EFL/ESL programs (Shokouhi & Mirsalari, 2010)
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