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Abstract Graf & Handl

Collocation, anchoring, and the mental lexicon – an ontogenetic perspective

It has been generally accepted that collocations are an integral part of language and are responsible for fluency and native-like communicative competence (cf. Romaine 1984, Nattinger/DeCarrico 1992). In addition collocations play an important role in ontogenetic language development. Here they function as “acquisitional aid” (Wray 2002: 119) in terms of word meaning, which according to Aitchison (2003: 197) is “probably learned by noting the words which come alongside”. Despite their overall relevance in language, collocations have been a rather neglected field in language acquisition research. The few available studies (e.g. Brown & Berko 1960; Palermo & Jenkins 1963; Entwisle 1966; Cruttenden 1981) date back at least 25 years.

The purpose of this paper is to bring (back) collocations into the focus of language acquisition research by concentrating on their involvement in the building-up of the mental lexicon. Such collocational involvement seems to change its status in the course of time from unanalyzable chunks to weaker or stronger links. This is reflected - on the lexical level – in the following manner: During the holophrastic stage, children first acquire extralinguistic collocations, i.e. combinations of single lexical items with the contextual or situational information that together functions as earliest units of meaning. In the course of development children substitute the extralinguistic element by lexical material forming unitary utterances that are still perceived as holistic chunks. A decisive next step for the proper acquisition of collocations is children’s growing awareness of the separability of these chunks. Such awareness is the necessary prerequisite for using the separate elements in more and more adult-like collocations. The question remains whether such lexical development is paralleled on the mental level, i.e. how collocations are anchored in the developing mind of the speaker.

This paper is part of a project that aims at uncovering the relation between storing, retrieving, and producing collocations. As a first step, we analyze the collocational development on the lexical level with the help of corpus material ranging from 2 to 19 years of age. These findings shall in a next step be verified with the help of association tests in order to draw conclusions about the collocational organization of the mental lexicon.



Aitchison J. (2003), Words in the mind, Oxford: Blackwell.

Brown, R. & J. Berko (1960), “Word association and the acquisition of grammar”, Child Development 31, 1-14.

Cruttenden, A. (1981), “Item-Learning and System-Learning”, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 10(1), 79-88.

Entwisle, D.R. (1966), Word association responses in young children, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Nattinger, J.R. & J.S. DeCarrico (1992), Lexical phrases and language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palermo, D.S. & J.J. Jenkins (1963), Word association norms. Grade school through college, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Romaine, S. (1984), The language of children and adolescents: The acquisition of communicative competence, Oxford: Blackwell.

Wray, A. (2002), Formulaic language and the lexicon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.