"Beginning in the 1980s, computer-based studies (mainly of English) began to provide us with powerful insights into the workings of our language. Linguists fed millions of English documents into software programs to scan them and see what they might yield about their patterns of behavior. These studies were known as ‘corpora’ studies. From the beginning, the corpora studies began to reveal surprising insights into how words interact and behave with other.
The studies offered empirical data, based on a very broad range of English language sources. They allowed us to take a given word or expression and look at how it behaved over the course of thousands of examples - how it was used grammatically, where it was likely to be used, with whom it as most likely to keep company, etc. The results were often startling and they began to challenge traditional ideas about the role of grammar and even about how we defined grammar.
One outgrowth of these studies was the development of the ‘lexical approach’ to language teaching. The first description of a lexical approach is attributed to Michael Lewis, who wrote a book of that title in 1993. This book became a classic amongst language teachers and I myself have been greatly influenced by it over the years. I convinced that the lexical approach (with some revisions) offers very useful insights into how we might approach the study of Mandarin, so let me explain a little about what it is.
The most striking revelation from the corpora concerns how words tend to associate strongly with other words in the form of chunks, fixed expressions, collocations, etc. As an example, let’s take a look at collocation. The word ‘collocation’ refers to the tendency amongst words to collocate, or ‘co-locate’ (appear close to) certain other words. Some random examples (out of millions of possibilities):
commit a crime
If you typed the word ’seriously’, into the corpora software, it would yield thousands of sentences (taken from original documents) and show you the words that ’seriously’ was most likely to appear next to. In this case, ’seriously’ occurred much more frequently with the word ‘ill’ than with any other word. We can therefore say that ’seriously’ collocates with ‘ill’. The word ’serious’, meanwhile, is more likely to appear next to ‘problem’ or ‘accusation’ than with any other words, and so on.
The other phrases on the list above are every day expressions (or collocations) that every native speaker of English knows. But here’s the really interesting thing: even advanced level non-native speakers are unlikely to know these expressions! In fact a non-native speaker is more likely to make a mistake when using such expressions than to use bad grammar. (If ever you are in doubt about whether someone is a native speaker of English, just test his/her knowledge of these kinds of expressions.)
To non-language teachers, the examples of collocations I offer may seem trite, but let me tell you that they set off a firestorm of innovation and debate in the language teaching world that has continued unabated to this day. (Actually, while we’re at it, ‘to this day’ is a nice fixed expression, while the word ‘unabated’ tends to occur with ‘floods’ or ‘firestorms’ or things like that, for some reason!)"