Kathrin Kircili

(University of Giessen)

The Effect of Learner Variables on Phraseological Proficiency

When acquiring a foreign language, it is the ultimate aim of most students to develop a native-like knowledge of the respective L2. This encompasses proficiency not only with regard to grammar but also concerning vocabulary, since a rich vocabulary knowledge is the most important basis to enable communication. However, the mere acquisition of individual words does often not suffice, firstly, because the context in which a word is used has an influence on its meaning, and secondly, because “much of communication makes use of fixed expressions memorized as formulaic chunks” (Ellis 2008: 6). These so-called phraseological units, which, according to Erman and Warren, comprise more than 55 percent of spoken and written English (cf. 2000: 37), often give away non-native speakers and pose a major difficulty – even to advanced learners of English.

The effect of learner variables on phraseological proficiency is actually a topic that has mostly been neglected so far (cf. Granger 2011: 135). In second language acquisition it is a known fact that personal variables have an influence on a learner’s overall performance, but when it comes to phraseological proficiency, learners “suddenly become a homogeneous group” (Wray 2002: 144). This empirical study broke with this habit and aimed at the investigation of learner variables and their effects on a student’s proficiency in this important linguistic field, which – due to its close connection to other linguistic areas – has long been neglected in linguistic research to find out which personal factors actually influence our productive and receptive knowledge of certain phraseological phenomena. The questionnaire used was comprised of three parts. The first section served to obtain personal information on, for example, the participants’ age, gender, field of studies, experience abroad or general exposure to the English language while the second part tested the theoretical knowledge of phraseology by asking for definitions and/or examples of the phenomena relevant for the study. The final part consisted of 40 sentences in which the productive and receptive knowledge of collocations and phrasal verbs was tested, all of which were made up of high-frequency verbs, such as do, have or make.

A total number of 161 EFL learners participated in the survey. It revealed that learner variables, such as the subject of studies, abroad experience, and spare time exposure to the L2, can have a considerable influence on a student’s phraseological proficiency. Although studying English generally had a notable effect on the participants’ performances, not all areas showed equally clear differences. Going abroad as well as a regular contact with the language by reading, writing, watching TV or talking to native speakers, however, proved to be important for EFL learners in order to expand their knowledge in this area. It was also confirmed that the native language of a learner can lead to confusion, especially when it comes to collocations, and that the generally high frequency of a certain verb does not necessarily imply that their various functions in a collocation or phrasal verb are equally known to EFL learners.



Ellis, Nick (2008). “Phraseology: The periphery and the heart of language.” Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching. Ed. Fanny Meunier and Sylviane Granger. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 1-13. Print.

Erman, Britt and Beatrice Warren (2000). “The idiom principle and the open choice principle.” Text and Talk – An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies, 20(1): 29-62. Print.

Granger, Sylviane (2011). “From phraseology to pedagogy: challenges and prospects.” The Phraseological View of Language: A Tribute to John Sinclair. Ed. Thomas Herbst, Susen Faulhaber, and Peter Uhrig. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH. 123- 146. Print. 2

Wray, Alison (2002) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.