Besser im Englischabitur: Spot-on with your vocabulary? - Unleash your secret weapon (for advanced learners)
Checking A Dictionary Is Not Always Enough
If you are an upper-intermediate and advanced students of a foreign language you might find it difficult at times to choose the right vocabulary in your speaking, but especially in their writing, when you want to use more ‘difficult’, abstract or academic language or when you want to be more creative with the language.
You end up checking a dictionary and using words that do not really work well together or which make the language sound unnatural. But there is an easy way for advanced language learners to solve this problem and it does not cost you anything.
Make Use Of Corpora
What is a corpus? A corpus is a collection of samples of spoken and written language from a variety of sources that have been feed into a computer to create a database of words. There are different corpora that you as a learner of English as a foreign language can access. Find a summary here. There are corpora for languages other than English, too.
What Is A Collocation?
Without wanting to go into too much detail about vocabulary learning, I am sure you are all aware that words cannot be put together completely randomly in a language. Just to give you an example, you cannot use the adjective ‘handsome’ when describing a woman. In English, the adjective ‘handsome’ collocates with ‘man’. So it is possible to say a handsome man but if you want to express the same idea for a woman, you need to use the adjective ‘beautiful’. This is an example of a collocation. A collocation refers to how words are put together or form fixed relationships. Any language is full of these including your native language.
The Benefits Of A Corpus And How to Use It
A corpus can help you to find the right collocations. Here is how. Once you have accessed a corpus, you can type in any word or a number of connected words. For example, if you want to find out if you can say a ‘big’ burden or if ‘heavy’ or ‘great’ are better alternatives, you would check how many entries each adjective produces in the corpus. In the BYU Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), there are 53 entries for ‘big’ burden, ‘great’ burden has 65 entries and ‘heavy’ burden has 292 entries.
So what do you think? Which adjective is the best match for burden? Exactly, the adjective ‘heavy’ because of its much higher frequency. You can say that heavy and burden form a strong collocation. Or you can just see if the collocation you are thinking of actually is a collocation. Type it in and if there are less than 30 entries, chances are that it is not a collocation or not a strong one anyway and you should not use it.
But there is more, you can go to the individual entries in the corpus and read the contexts in which the collocation is used to make absolutely sure that this is exactly the context for which you wanted to use the word. Job done!
Practice Makes Perfect!
This method will not work well for beginners or intermediate students as they are lacking the necessary proficiency in the language to use it effectively. But you can still give it a try. After doing this a couple of times you will get the hang of it and you will always choose the right words for what you want to say.