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 questioneine Frage stellen
  • ask a favorum 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.

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Pepe Rodriguez
Pepe Rodriguez
5 months ago

Are there any websites for collocations you would recommend? I couldnt find anything!

Barratt
Barratt
1 year ago

Letzter Zeit hatte ich eine ähnliche Erfahrung wie du mit der “Lichtbirne”. Ich war im Supermarkt und habe nach “Pflanzenerde” gefragt. Ich merkte, dass der Mitarbeiter für eine halbe Sekunde verwirrt aussah. Dann wusste er was ich meinte und fragte, “Sie wollen Blumenerde kaufen?” Von nun an werde ich die richtige Wortverbindung im Kopf haben. Obwohl ich mit der Erde eigentlich Gemüse anbaue…. :-)

Dorsa
Dorsa
2 years ago

Thanks a lot for this topic. I’ve been learning German for a couple of months now. When I was preparing for IELTS exam, my English teacher introduced me to “Oxford Collocation App”. I use it on a daily basis and it is really helpful. I was wondering if German has a similar app or website focused on collocations? Or should I simply use “Duden Dictionary” and read its examples?

chowb01
chowb01
2 years ago

Dieser Artikel hat mir sehr gefallen – thank you for taking the chance on the Gast-Artikel! In my native English, I definitely overlook how many of these I use every day. I’m also starting to learn Chinese.. so, I don’t know what the term is in character-symbolic languages, but there definitely is something similar even on an individual noun level. 灯泡 means light-bulb, and literally is the characters for “light” and “bubble” put together. But it’s not too helpful to call it a light bubble, but rather learn it as it is for ‘lightbulb’. And ‘bubble’ itself is a combination of the ‘water’ radical and the word for ‘package’ – like a package of air wrapped in water.

lisa
2 years ago

I am a writer (novels) and LOVE collocations (though I’d never heard of this word before), because they are a part of what give writing “a voice”. How words are combined varies somewhat in English from state to state, also affected by social class, education, age, background and upbringing. People in different professions use different phrases and word combinations. Sure, we have standard ways of saying things, but teens in inner city Seattle do not sound like the elderly in rural Vermont (and it isn’t just a matter of slang…). I’m certain that this is true in Germany, too. I read (with much effort and very very slowly) German novels, and greatly look forward to the day that I can hear “the voice” in the writing. Right now I take all collocations and word choices as standard and don’t have enough experience to say, “This person sounds… (young, elderly, uptight, laid back, Southern, from the coast, from the mountains etc…)”.

So, thank you Slavica! This was very interesting to me, and loads of fun. And perhaps it will help me to hear “the voice” in a German novel some day.

lisa
2 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Right now I am writing historical fiction, so I read very widely in the 19th century (novels, speeches, medical texts, engineering books, naval journals, sermons, autobiographies…). As I read, I take notes, writing down words and turns of phrase that are distinctive. Pages and pages of notes, that I then staple together and give a heading to, depending on the character I want to ascribe them to. When I write, I refer back to them, reading them over and playing with the phrases to make them come alive for a particular personality. It’s really really fun. I can’t express how much fun it is! (Almost as much fun as the wiles and tricks of German grammar?). Thanks for asking!

Slavica
Slavica
2 years ago
Reply to  lisa

Hey Lisa, you are right and you have touched upon a very interesting and broad issue. Language in general, not only collocations, varies greatly from community to community (geographically and temporally). Some elements and “inventions” have such a large impact, that they “cross over” or even become entrenched in standard language (Take the word “selfie” for example). And you are absolutely doing the right thing by considering this in your writing.
Thanks for your comment and best wishes to you

lisa
2 years ago
Reply to  Slavica

Thanks!

Aashish
Aashish
2 years ago

vielen Dank to you!!

sciencecw
sciencecw
2 years ago

Good English collocation dictionaries exist and they help learners a lot, especially when it comes to writing essays. Here is one example: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/collocations/condition
I wonder if one exists for German?
I also invest a bit of money in context search app such as Reverso. When you look up a phrase, for example “pass an exam”, it looks for common occurrences from online or its own literature sources, and return top sentences that suggest you use “Prufung bestehen”. The sources are translated (e.g. EU documents) and the app has an algorithm to learn which phrases match up in any pairs of languages. Because it uses close-to-native sources, it captures collocations even the ones not recorded in dictionary entries. The problem with German though is that it has too many word orders, conjugations, and case rules, so it hasn’t worked as well as french and English in my experience.

Slavica
Slavica
2 years ago
Reply to  sciencecw

Reverso is helpful and reliable. I use it very often. dwds is a very rich source and you get so much out of it. there is also Leo. Leo is awsome (leo.org). And you are absolutely right, german morphosyntax makes learner’s lives a bit harder.
good luck to you.

Joanne
Joanne
2 years ago

No typos but still some incorrect phrasing (e.g. “much far”, “unaware how weird”). It’s hard to be perfect.

Personally I found the topic interesting but the article a little useless, and the constant assumptions about everyone’s background and way of learning and thinking rather irritating. I still appreciate the effort of someone writing an article to help others learn, but I much much prefer your articles! (With crazy analogies, mnemotechnics and etymological (yep, made up, aware) backtracking rather than “that’s how it is”, “learn it by heart”…)

Jo Alex SG
Jo Alex SG
2 years ago

Loved it! Although I already knew about collocations, it´s such a useful topic in foreign language learning that I guess it can never get too much of it:-). Vielen Dank!

Turtles
Turtles
2 years ago

Ich bin züruck (ich hoffe) und zurzeit versuche ich,Sie zu ärgern (Viele Kommentaren auf alten und neuen Post. Vellicheht oder Vielleicht auch nicht ;). Sagen Sie mir Nur Ihre Zeitplan. Eh, los geht.

Notiz : ”alten,, hier bedeutet ,,ich habe schon Kommentaren geschrieben”

Ist das so gut wie “Machen”

“Darf ich ein foto aufnehmen?”

Ich habe gehört, dass das verb “Machen” Sich nicht gut anhöre,deshalb Verwende man es als letztes Mittel. Der Grund war, dass es kindisch war und verwandt mit Kacka (Kindersprache)

Bisepeile

Erfahrung Bekommen/sammeln statt machen

Brot Backen Statt Machen

Was denken Sie?

Ich Weiß, dass Kollokationen sehr wichtig sind

ich weiß

ein Vermögen erwerben, eine Wahl treffen,Vertrauen aufbauen und für etw. spät dran sein

Jetzt Habe ich 2 Fargen (Verwandt und Nicht Verwandt)

1) Wie war das

War das sprachüblich/Idiomatisch? ( Alle Text)
Könnten Sie bitte mir bewerten?

?/10

2) Gibts es einen Unterschied zweichen zugutekommen und Profitieren? Kontext?

3) Wo kann ich mehr lernen

Turtles
Turtles
2 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Thank you for the answer

1) thank you for the feedback but I was more asking with regards to whether my use was Idiomatic

2) by “Profit” orientated, you mean I am more likely to hear “Profitierien” in a context of Financial earnings and so

3) Collocations. Other than reading and listening of course. Like a Spesfic Book or a website.

With regards to your point about Machen, I did not mean to entirely avoid. I am pretty sure there are phrasing where you cannot avoid it. What I am meant is when there is another natural alternative, go for it.

Jinnie
Jinnie
2 years ago

I forgot to say that I found the article really useful. Thank you Emanuel and Slavica.

Jinnie
Jinnie
2 years ago

I had heard of collocations, thanks to a useful book of vocabulary exercices called ‘Da fehlen mir die Worte’. It has a long chapter on colocations with lots of exercices, as well as others on synonyms, homonyms word families etc.

stosselgg
2 years ago

Lots to think about in this article. Thanks for including it.

Cynthia Busbee
Cynthia Busbee
2 years ago

“Glow pears” cracked me up – have been studying and speaking German for 30 years and I still have the “glowing pear” image in my head every time I say it in German ! Glad I am not alone !
Great article !

Francesca Greenoak
Francesca Greenoak
2 years ago

My German teacher has just come back from Germany. She told us she was several times pulled up with ‘ ah we know what you mean but we would no longer say it like that’. Thank you Slavica for a really interesting post.

Rocky
Rocky
2 years ago

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!

Wing
Wing
2 years ago

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!

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
2 years ago

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
2 years ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

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.

Elizabet*
Elizabet*
2 years ago

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)

Germanyisprettyneat88
Germanyisprettyneat88
2 years ago

Great article