Collocations – and how to learn them

Hello everyone,

this week I’m having a guest on here :).
Her name is Slavica, and a while back, she reached out to me about something relating to her final paper in linguistics.
She has since graduated, but she obviously didn’t stop studying and being fascinated by languages. And not so long ago she reached out again and asked if I was interested in a guest post.
Usually, when people ask if one is interested in guest posts it’s because they want to place text links to their own websites in there. And the posts are usually super generic and boring, because the author doesn’t really care about the material. That’s why I don’t usually take guest posts.
But with Slavica it’s different. She REALLY loves languages and she just wanted to share her passion with you, not a link.
That’s why I have decided to give it a try.
Also… I have done quite a bit of work behind the scenes these past weeks. Specifically, I am giving old articles a much needed do over… I just got done editing the one about “sondern” and I have to say… that was a mess. Like… what was I even thinking :D. It’s MUCH better now.
Anyway, so … the topic Slavica is going to talk about is

collocations

And if you’re now like “Cool… uh… collo-what?” then you’re just like me.
I didn’t know what it was either. But we all use them literally everyday.
So… Slavica, I pass the mic on to you…

***

Collocations

Did you know that taking pictures in German shops is not necessarily allowed and it could even end up with a fine?
A single “excuse me, can I take a picture” could save us trouble and money.
Better safe than sorry, and always ask, because ignorance can be expensive.
So what does the German version of asking for permission look like? A solution logical to an English mind might sound something like:

  • Entschuldigung, darf ich hier ein Foto nehmen?

But this would not quite match the German reality. Native speakers of German don’t take pictures in this context, they make pictures. So the standard expression would be:

  • Entschuldigung, darf ich hier ein Foto machen?
Don’t get me wrong, Fotos nehmen is not an incorrect phrase. A native speaker is very likely to understand what you mean by that. But, in a native German mind, the phrase Fotos nehmen triggers a whole different concept, and not the one you had in mind.
The question “Entschuldigung, darf ich ein Foto nehmen?” evokes the image of a pile of photos from which you want to take one, so don’t be surprised if you get a reply:
  • Von welchen Fotos meinen Sie?
What we are dealing with here is a case of a collocation. Collocations fall under the category of multi-word chunks and share some properties with other multi-word expressions like idioms. Collocations and idioms are not rarely confused, but they do differentiate, so let’s tell them apart real quick.
Idiomatic expressions such as clean out my closet in English or aus dem Ruder laufen are often unrelated to the meanings of the individual words they are composed of. What I am saying is, if you try to figure out the meaning of the phrase by analyzing the meanings of the individual words, you wouldn’t get much far. You need to really learn them by heart the way they are.
Furthermore, getting them wrong could easily lead to misunderstanding or not being understood at all.
Now, collocations on the other hand are ALSO combinations of words that frequently go together. Unlike idioms though, collocations are semantically more transparent and flexible. And also, getting collocations wrong would less likely lead to missing the point.
Let’s look at some examples and see that they come in all colors and forms:
  • adjectives + nouns (große Sorge, harte Arbeit, schwere Prüfung)
  • verb + noun (Abstand nehmen, Fahrrad fahren, Geschäft führen, Pause machen)
  • adverb + adjective / participle (weit entfernt, stark gesunken),
  • verbs + prepositional phrases or Funktionsverbgefüge in German (in Betracht ziehen, in Anspruch nehmen, auf Ablehnung stoßen, etc.),
  • noun + noun, which in German often occur in form of compund nouns (das Sommerloch, die Affenhitze, die Hungernot)

The meaning of at least one of the components in a collocation is usually pretty much related to the meaning of the whole chunk.
The other component has a usually more vague profile. Its meaning is rounded up by the element they are combined with. For example, machen is specified when you add the Fotos or Pause to it.
I would therefore name Fotos or Pause the carriers of the meaning in the chunks.
Having Fotos and Pause already stored in our mental dictionary, the meaning of the less flamboyant item machen is more dependent and – and this is important – remains outside of our conscious radar. You don’t even consider it as a separate item.
It’s like when you are eating a pizza. You probably wouldn’t say “I ate a piece of bread with toppings on it”. Unless you are a professional chef or a cooking enthusiast, it is very unlikely you would care about the individual ingredients. What matters is if the pizza itself tastes well, and not what it’s made of. You think of it in terms of a complete unit, and not in terms of its components.
So, collocations somehow sneak away unnoticed by a learner’s mind.
I mean, for example, you are having a chat with a friend who is a German native speaker, and you guys are planning an afternoon walk downtown Munich.
She says:

“Wenn das Wetter schön ist, spazieren wir an der Isar entlang.
Wir können ja auch ein paar Fotos machen.”

As a B1-2 learner, you have very little trouble understanding each separate word in the sentence, and processing the information. So your mind doesn’t even register the structure and the choice of words.
Therefore, all goes unnoticed.
Now, a few days go by and your photo safari comes up in a conversation. You have the afternoon from that day in a form of a concept in your memory, and your English-shaped mind reports it in a language produced by your English logic. You say:

“Das sind die Fotos, die wir an der Isar genommen haben.”

Correct grammar, correct lexical choice, but still not idiomatic.
We missed out on the collocation, because our minds process information in form of concepts, or ideas, and not words. If we understand the meaning behind a chunk, our mind doesn’t bother analyzing or memorizing the parts.

The takeaway from this would be, treating collocations as chunks instead of viewing them in terms of their components: learning ein starker Regen as a single unit is less demanding than learning it disassembled.

Personally, I find collocations fascinating, and I absolutely love them. They are usually the source of the wildest metaphors. When we use collocations specific to our native language, we are absolutely unaware how weird they may sound to a speaker of a language other than ours.
For example, you are learning the meaning of the verb erhöhen in German. Trusting our good old dictionary, we see the meaning of erhöhen is to raise. So it is not surprising if we consider it absolutely reasonable to combine erhöhen with nouns to raise in English combines with: prices, voice, hopes, money, children.
But you could get a few pairs of raised eyebrows if you say:

“Ich will nicht, dass du dir deine Hoffnungen erhöhst.” (nope)

or even weirder:

“Ich habe meine Kinder im Ausland erhöht.” (even more nope)

To ask is another example where we find several collocations in German:

  • ask a question  –    eine Frage stellen
  • ask a favor         –    um einen Gefallen bitten
  • ask a person      –    jdn. fragen

It goes the other way around as well, i.e. from German to English. Take for example the verb fahren. Fahren goes with much more means of transport than the English counterparts:

  • Fahrrad fahren        –  ride a bicycle
  • Auto fahren              –  drive a car
  • Ski fahren                 –  to ski
  • Zug fahren                – ride on a train, or go by train

You find collocations at all levels of language learning. For example,by the time we reach level B1 we should already have heard the phrase Kinder erziehen so many times that it is already memorized as a single unit.
At a later stage, you learn that the German company (Gesellschaft) goes with leisten. You can never say you are done and you’ve become an expert on collocations in German.

Collocations are worth learning, if you ask me. They are part of the very fine layers that make each language unique. They are part of our intuition and we have learnt them implicitly at a very young age in our native language. Learning collocations in a non-native language is not an easy task and it means overcoming two challenges.
First we need to pay attention and notice words that often go together.
And second we need to learn and use these chunks in context which is a bit harder task.
Exposure to the language in its natural environment, among native speakers would be ideal. Since this is often not the case, reading, reading and reading is the next best thing.
Written texts give us the chance to stop and go back. Researchers have found that learning a new word and storing it in your mental dictionary happens after it has been encountered 8 – 10 times. I would take this claim with a grain of salt. It takes much more to memorize and learn how to use a language than a simple exposure.
As I have pointed out earlier, you have to be able to notice and you need to be aware of the words that often occur together (the first challenge). And what’s most effective is the feedback (ideally from native speakers).
In my case, I had to cause a few chuckles and be corrected each time I said Lichtbirne to finally get it that it is actually Glühbirne, and not Lichtbirne. Glühbirne is now stored in my vocabulary as a single unit denoting simply a light bulb without evoking the image of a glowing pear in my mind.
I won’t be caught confusing the glowing pear with a shining pear anymore because I don’t even think of it in terms of a pear (Birne) that glows (Glüh). It’s only a light bulb (Glühbirne).

To wrap it up, collocations are those combinations of words that for some reason go together and sound more “natural” than other combinations. When using them, we cannot rely 100% on the knowledge we have about the individual words. This is because collocations are less formal, have no patterns, and are more related to the intuitive knowledge and cultural aspect of a language. They are a special part of language that requires a little bit of a different approach in learning. Collocations are always present from the beginner stages all throughout the whole journey of language learning. Being aware of them can ease up our journey to the next level of learning.

Sources:

Pellicer-Sánchez, Ana (2015) Learning L2 collocations incidentally from reading. Language Teaching Research. pp. 1-22. The University of Nottingham
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286744272_Learning_L2_collocations_incidentally_from_reading
Flood, Jay R. (2018) Developing collocational competence in English learners
https://www.academia.edu/40949356/Developing_collocational_competence_in_English_learners
https://www.dwds.de/
https://www1.ids-mannheim.de/

***

As usual, if you have any questions about this, leave a comment below and we’ll try to clear it up. And of course also share your thoughts about the post. Did you like it? Would you like more posts like this that are about language and language learning in general.
I’m looking forward to reading from you, as usual. Have a great week and bis zum nächsten Mal.

for members :)

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Elsa
Elsa

Hi,
NO TYPOS!!!!!!!
Great!!!! I really enjoyed this post and agree 100% with everything that’s been said! As a German learner I often “translate” English collocations into German just to be told by my teacher that Germans don’t “Sport machen”, but “Sport treiben” and don’t “eine Entscheidung machen”, but “treffen”.
It actually goes beyond collocations to the very way we build our sentences. The other day I was trying to say “this is the reason why I do something or other” and my teacher told me that a literal translation, albeit understandable, would be an overly complicated way to express the idea in German and that I should go for a different phrasing altogether.
So yeah, I totally get this article and I suppose it takes years of contact with the language (and tons of reading) to actually get most collocations right!
Many thanks to Svetlana and bis bald!

Jake
Jake

I found one: “you wouldn’t get much far” should be “you wouldn’t get very far”.

Thanks for the article, Slavica. I agree that collocations are sweet and learning them is helped by reading carefully.

0fqj3
0fqj3

Also, I feel bad bringing it up because at a technical level it is more correct, but in an idiomatic sense, we want pizza to taste good, rather than to taste well.

P.S. loved, loved, loved the guest article. Glow pears!

Slavica
Slavica

thanks :))))

and yes, pizza tastes good, and not well in this sense. my mistake.
thanks for pointing this out

Slavica
Slavica

Thanks for the tip, Jake…you are right :)

marko
marko

For someone who cares so much about typos, her name was Slavica, not Svetlana. Svetlana is a frequently Russian name and has to do with the last topic she discussed–the Glühbirne. Slavica has nothing to do with light, but shows her to be a woman of Slavic origin. Or at least so her parents wanted her to be seen, it it is her parents who chose her name.

Having now said that, I agree with the sentiment–this was a fascinating, useful post that despite her name not being Svetlana, sheds a ton of light on this very interesting topic.

BTW another Slavic language has the word for Education as “prosvjeta” where “svjetlo” is light and so education is “enlightenment”, and Sv(j)etlana is the the illuminated one. It’s actually the same word as for “lighthouse” to ward ships off shoals. And it’s super similar to “Gradska Prosvjeta” which has to do with all the illumination in a city. But I digress…

Elsa
Elsa

I just want to point out that I’ve already apologised to Slavica for getting her name wrong!
I’m not a typo-freak or an arrogant, mean person, I’ve just offered about a year ago to help Emanuel by correcting any typos on his posts, so that’s why I do it… Like everyone else, I make mistakes, miss typos, make typos myself, we ALL do, we’re all human.
And yes, this was indeed a fascinating post and I’m very grateful to Slavica for her effort :)

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak

Great digression

Slavica
Slavica

Interesting, and it is true, “prosveta” means “enlightment” and is also used to denote “education”. But I never saw it from this angle before.
Thanks

Gary
Gary

Collocation is a new word to me too so thanks for this.

A few things sound weird to my US English ears:
rounded up – sounds like math. should it be “rounded out”?
tastes well – doesn’t taste sick. should it be “tastes good”?
Are those collocations?
A lot of British English sounds weird to me too.

Also” wouldn’t get much far” should probably be “wouldn’t get very far”

Franziska
Franziska

Thank you so very much, Slavica. I am finding several websites, which I desperately need, to master German verbs with their paired prepositions. Now if only you could direct me to some helpful websites for German collocations, life would be super excellent. (your short bibliography seems to offer English collocations, but I’ll check out the two sources with German domains)

武汉加油

coleussanctus
coleussanctus

I use dict.cc and context.reverso.net a lot. So for example, if you go on dict.cc and type “get one’s hopes up,” it comes back with “sich (dat.) Hoffnungen machen.” (Sorry for no links, on mobile.) It also shows up if you search “hopes,” along with a list of other useful expressions. Sometimes I scan these when I’m looking up a word. Even if I don’t remember everything, it might at least give me a glimmer later on of, oh wait, I think I saw something before about how to say that. Then I’ll go back.

It’s similar on context.reverso.net, except you have to watch out for translations that aren’t always correct. If you’re a little more advanced or don’t mind googling around, you can usually get close to the right path.

I keep a couple tabs open on my phone and just search away whenever I’m trying to figure out how to say something. Ok, I know the word for dishwasher, but how do you say “unload the dishwasher”? Den Geschirrspüler / die Spülmaschine* ausräumen, cool. While I’m here, I might as well learn how to say “load the dishwasher” (einräumen, and a couple other options that I may or may not be able to cram in my head; aus/ein is a nice, easy to remember pair).

Where the asterisk is, I’ll make a note to pay attention to which word is used more often. It’s not a very sophisticated solution and it can be kind of exhausting, but over time it has been working out ok.

Slavica
Slavica

Hi Franziska, I mostly rely on dwds for many uncertainties and curiosities in the German language. It’s an amazing extensive work and it helps with collocations as well. I had a look at the book Rebecca recommends “Feste Wortverbindungen des Deutschen” … It seems to be worth giving it a try.
Good luck to you :)

Poyma
Poyma

Danke Slavica. I will be on the look out for these in my travels through german podcasts and texts.

aoind
aoind

Thanks Slavica what a lovely article. I hope you won’t mind if I mention that pizzas taste “good”, not “well” (unless the pizza has a tongue and olfactory senses of its own anyway).

Rebecca
Rebecca

Have a look at:
Feste Wortverbindungen des Deutschen
Kollokationenwörterbuch für den Alltag
1003 pages of them

Clint
Clint

Really excellent resource. On Amazon, only available in hardcover. When it comes out in e-format, I’ll buy it again. Thanks for the tip.

Slavica
Slavica

Thanks for this :))

Lamb
Lamb

Thanks just purchased the book awaiting its arrival.

DaveJeigh
DaveJeigh

Never heard the term collocation in this linguistic context – thought we were going to hear about some Berlin WeWork facility :-) So learned to place a name to a vague concept that creeps in from time to time – “we don’t really say it that way”. So loved the piece and the invoked thoughts.

Only slightly disappointed when told “nope” and “more nope” (love that), to not find an approved solution. To my ear, neither construction would sound right, but I cannot think of a “correct” construction. You got our hopes up (see what I did?) – and left us hanging. It’s like finishing a song with a 7th chord – I need closure!!

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

Great article on a really useful topic.

I wouldn’t be against more guest articles, but I do think that in general I’d prefer either editing them into an interview format or including some commentary or response from you (Emanuel), just so your voice is in there a bit too.

My preferred way to learn collocations is to form a Nebensatz with the “carrier of meaning” in it, then look helpless when I get to where the verb should be…

fairyhedgehog
fairyhedgehog

This was an interesting post.

What I would have liked more of is translations for any German used (I had to copy and paste into DeepL a fair bit and I still don’t know what Gesellschaft leisen means); and examples that get tested in exercises would also be good.

As far as learning language in chunks goes, I think that’s an important idea to get hold of right from the beginning of language learning so this post could easily be aimed at absolute beginners in German (with suitable translations). In my mind it goes with the way that suffixes change verbs and the need to not get hung up on the individual parts of a verb.

So, an important topic and thank you for covering it.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers

“Gesellschaft leisten” is “keep (someone) company” – think “Gesellschaft” as “companionship” rather than “society.” So in English “company” is something you “keep,” while in German it’s something you “render” (“leisten” is hard to give a one-word gloss).

Slavica
Slavica

Yes, maybe it would have been better to add the English translation to the German versions. Sorry for this. I will keep it in mind next time. Exercises were not meant to be included in this article. But it’s a great idea for one more article “Collocations – part two” ;))
thanks for suggesting it

Alan
Alan

Danke Slavica, aber gibt es keine Kollokationen in Bezug auf Einhörner?

Slavica
Slavica

Im Deutschen? Die Frage überlasse ich den Muttersprachlern ;)

PT
PT

Great article! I would just like to add, that when one does not have a chance to be in a natural environment, listening to the radio might do the work. I personally do a lot of SRF 4 and it`s helping me to memorize not only the collocations.

Veena
Veena

Wowww! Superb…this is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks so much. It would be great to learn more such collocations so that we become better German speakers. Thanks for your wonderful efforts to help people like me who need those extra inputs from time to time which will help me like with magic one day , that I speak.perfect super Deutsch!!! Thanks Slavica.

yourdailygerman.com is the Best!!!

Best Wishes,

Veena

Pentatomidae
Pentatomidae

Loved the post. So German shop-keepers don’t like photos? I ran into difficulties taking photographs in a Christmas market once, and was puzzled. This might explain the misunderstanding.

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri

I would like thank Slavic and you Emanuel for this lovely post on an important notion about Colloaction . I enjoyed reading this article, perhaps I was looking for it since long time ago, a bit unconsciously ! Because I learn german offen by reading every thing I find: DW News, die Zeit online , Sürddeutsche Zeitung,….. etc .
I have often asked myself how the german make an expression like Aus der Rudder geraten , oder Einen Entscheiden treffen . Obviously i learned such a expression intuitively by heart without a deep understanding of
Their significance.
I feel now one should pay attention to what accompany a verb to understand the global sense of a structure ( collocation or syntagm,…) . What puzzles me is that the meaning of such a structure is more important than sum of its single parts!
I would like to know the collocation in other area of daily life; travail, education, Diskussion,……etc and a Methode how to interpret such a structure to unterstand their true hidden meaning.
Herzlichen Dank und bis nächstes Mal

skypod
skypod

Thanks, Slavica, for an enlightening read! I became aware of this issue some time ago but didn’t know the term ‘collocations’. Trouble is, I find they are really hard to get into the memory ….

Germanyisprettyneat88
Germanyisprettyneat88

Great article

Elizabet*
Elizabet*

Very nice article! I had never heard of the word “collocations” before, but I’ve long been fascinated by the topic! I was reminded of something I read years ago about how different languages collocate “attention”:

English, to pay attention
Spanish, prestar atención (lend attention)
French, faire attention (do attention)
German, Aufmerksamkeit schenken (give attention)

coleussanctus
coleussanctus

A fascinating and well written article. I’ve very slowly and painfully come to realize that it’s better to learn language in chunks as opposed to individual words, but I never knew there was a name for it or studies done about it. It is interesting, though, to try to understand why certain expressions are the way they are. Language is more than just words, it says a lot about how we see the world, and there really are so many different ways of looking at things. I guess that’s kind of philosophical, but it’s one of the things that keeps language learning fun for me.

Clint
Clint

As I was reading this post, a message from one of my Word of the Day sources popped up. How great it would be to have a collocation of the week! Just the phrase in a sentence and its translation. These are hugely important to sounding like a good speaker of a foreign language.

Wing
Wing

I 100% agree collocation learning is a life long thing. When I chat online with German natives, I have to often cross reference sites like linguee.de to see if what I’m writing exists idiomatically – is the configuration I have come up with even a thing in German, or am I translating from English, or even just stringing random words together in an unfamiliar pattern. Thanks for putting in words the struggle!

Rocky
Rocky

Hallo,

Auf Englisch, sagt man nicht “wouldn’t get much far.” Sie wissen genau aber der Unterschied ist wie “viel” und “sehr” klein. . . wir verstehen ubrigens, was Sie gemeint haben. Man kann “much further” sagen, wenn nicht weitergehen kann. Ach, ich bin muede und fahrt not much further. Kennen Sie “macaronic”?
Sport treiben – Sport machen. Es ist mir egal. Ich schwimme.
And I liked this article a lot!