Collocation in Action

Previously I wrote about the importance of focusing on lexical phrases in language, even to the point of considering them THE fundamental units of language. Lexical phrases carry meaning and imply grammatical rules.  Yes, grammar is often a function of lexis, rather than a disembodied, universal set of rules.

I volunteer as an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor and I recently had a chance to encounter this in action.  I had asked  students to write about interests, and in looking over their shoulders I saw some of them writing things like the following:

My brother interesting buy farm

To correct this, I wrote:

My brother is interested in buying a farm

Immediately, the collocation interested in popped up. Interested occurs very often with in, and is a standard form for relating a subject/object relation of interest. Therefore, I treated interested in as a single unit, rather than explaining interest on its own, then trying to justify using in. What’s more, interested in has its own grammar, specifically:

_________ is/are/etc… interested in __________ [NOUN PHRASE]
_________ is/are/etc… interested in __________ [VERB+ing PHRASE]


I am interested in sports.
My sister  is interested in running.
The people are interested in saving money to buy a private island.

I then had the class tell me about their interests (and those of the people they knew) using the above forms.

Trying to teach interest without interested in as an atomic unit means I’d have to somehow justify using in. I know of no grammatical rules that cover this. Arguing that in situates one’s attitude fails, as one can use enjoy as a counter-example. Enjoy should follow the same template, but does not:

I enjoy sports.
I enjoy running.
I enjoy saving money to buy a private island.

Where is the in?

This is where an online concordancer can do wonders. Given a vocabulary item, a concordance search can reveal collocations which can point to important uses of the word and the associated grammar. Yes, don’t teach a word in isolation, but in context. For instance, searching for interested at this site led to a large number of authentic language samples that showed interested paired with in — a sign that this form should be given extra attention.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t general grammatical rules; this is to say there are many grammatical rules that are a function of lexis. Yes, this greatly expands the set of rules and vocabulary, but what’s the alternative? Teach people wrong rules? Since rules are meant to condense information, a rule with tons of exceptions is arguably a failure.

My discussion in class was not an exhaustive treatment of interest, just an explanation of a useful pattern using authentic language. It also raised questions about what should be taught. Some grammar books have very complex forms that people don’t use. I avoid those, as my goal is practical English. Less clear-cut are other forms; when should I ignore something as too marginal?  When should I restrict the material for fear of overloading students? One rule of thumb is that students generally understand more than they can produce, so even if they have only one (good) production form, that is enough for them to sound more fluent. Chances are they can figure out the variations as they encounter them.



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