As a result of
globalization and the expansion of superpowers, British Empire in the past and
the United States in the present, English has become the second most spoken
language in the world and has the largest non-native speakers1.
According to Crystal (2000, p.69), there are 1.5 billion of English speakers in
the world, 750 million of them use English as the first and second language and
the others use English as a foreign language (EFL). It is widely accepted that “English
is the global language” (Crystal, 2000, p.1). Learning English is the
compulsory task for anyone who wish to participate in global activities,
especially the young generation. Whether you want to acquire more knowledge, study
aboard, have a well-paid job or simply just to communicate with people from all
parts of the world, you need to learn English.

In Vietnam, thanks to
several reasons including the 1986 Doi Moi policy and the normalization of US-Vietnam
relations in 1995, English language flourished and grew with an unprecedented
speed to become the most popular foreign language in Vietnam (Nguyen, 2012). In
Vietnam educational system, English is an optional subject at primary level;
whereas at secondary level and tertiary level, it is a compulsory subject. However,
vocabulary learning remains a tough problem among Vietnamese EFL learners.  

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It is undeniable
that vocabulary plays a crucial role in learning and using English. Wilkins
(1978, p.111) wrote that “…without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary
nothing can be conveyed”. Schmitt (2000, p.55) also stressed the importance of
vocabulary as “lexical knowledge is central to communicative competence and to
the acquisition of a second language”.  There are cases when an utterance is produced
ungrammatically, people can still grasp its meaning if the key words are used
appropriately and accurately. Therefore, learning vocabulary will help to create
an effective communication (Nguyen & Khuat, 2003).

Despite the
importance of vocabulary learning, the English language curriculum in Vietnam
tends to focus more on grammar since the majority of English tests and English
textbooks are mostly grammar-dominated, from the writer’s personal experiences.
Even if vocabulary is taught, it is only restricted to the contexts in the
textbooks. Students may
feel that they fully acknowledge the word but in fact, when it is placed in different
context, the learner may not understand it correctly (Nguyen & Khuat, 2003). Consequently,
many learners cannot communicate successfully with other people due to lack of
sufficient vocabulary.

When learning a
new word, learners tend to concentrate more on its definition and its
grammatical usage and neglect an important, yet complicate, aspect of vocabulary learning: collocation.
Collocations help EFL learners to use English in the most natural and
native-like way and help to improve the learners’ fluency in both writing and
speaking skills. (Shin & Nation, 2008, p. 340). However, despite the
importance of collocation learning, Vietnamese EFL learners do not receive any
specific instruction on learning collocation. Futhermore, Chan and Liou (2005)
claimed that the collocation competence of EFL learners is limited because the
teaching of collocation does not get enough attention. 

Collocation
acquisition can significantly influence the writing skill of EFL learners.
Collocation awareness can help students to write more fluently and improve
their writing abilities (Eidian, Gorjian, &
Aghvami, 2013). The
writing used in EFL learning is academic writing and academic writing can be
related with collocation (Cortes, 2004, as cited by Saad, 2009, p.4). Cortes
also consider a competent academic writer is the one who can express their
opinion precisely in brief sentences and “the use of collocation is considered
a marker of proficient language use between writers including academic
writing”. Further, it is widely accepted that using collocations help increase
IETLS writing score. Yet, little has been studied on the use of collocation in
academic writing by EFL learners, especially on the use of a specific type of
collocation. Benson, Benson and Ilson (1986) divided collocations into two
types. One is grammatical collocation and the other is lexical collocation. Between
those two, lexical collocation is said to be used more frequent than
grammatical collocation (Bahardoust & Moeini, 2012).

Therefore,
to raise the awareness of EFL learners and teachers about using lexical
collocations in academic writing and assess the current situation of using them,
this research is conducted on a small group of university students from DAV and
FTU, whose English level need to be equivalent to (at least) 5.0 IELTS in order
to graduate2.
Additionally, based on the results of this study, some solutions are proposed
in order to improve the knowledge of collocation in general and lexical
collocation in specific.

1.1. Aims and objectives of
the study

This paper is
written with the aim of exploring in detail the current use of lexical collocations in academic
writing by EFL learners,
specifically a small
proportion of undergraduate students in Hanoi. Along with this aim,
three following objectives need to be fulfilled:

1. Investigate the
attitude and knowledge of a small group of Vietnamese EFL learners regarding
collocation.

2. Analyze the
ratio, frequency and errors of lexical collocation in their academic writing.

3. Identify the
problems encountered by the subjects when using lexical collocations to produce
academic writing.

1.2. Research questions

With the above
mentioned objectives, the study focuses on answering these research questions:

1.     What are the
attitudes and knowledge of Vietnamese EFL learners towards collocations?

2.     How do the
learners use lexical collocations in their academic writing?

3.     What are the
difficulties of using lexical collocations in their academic writing?

1.3. Research methods

The study mainly uses
qualitative, descriptive and analytic methods. This research involves using
multiple sources during data gathering process in order to increase the
validity of the research through triangulation. The data collecting instruments
include questionnaires, interviews, multiple-choice tests and analysis the
written essays of the subjects. Reasons for choosing these instruments are clearly
explained in the chapter 3 of this paper. The subjects are chosen using convenient
cluster sampling.

At the first stage of the
research, questionnaire and multiple-choice tests in paper forms are handed out
to the subjects to have an overview of the situation. Questions about learners’
language proficiency, learning strategies, attitude, difficulties regarding collocation
learning are included in the closed-ended questionnaire. The multiple-choice
tests are designed to test the collocation knowledge of the subjects. In-depth
interviews focused on learners’ opinion and difficulties are conducted among a
smaller group of subjects. The construction of the questionnaire and the
collocation tests are fully described in Chapter 3.

The second stage involves
analyzing the short written essays and the final exams collected to discover
the ratio and the frequency of lexical collocation in the writing of the
subjects and to identify the most common lexical collocation errors and the
most common types of lexical collocation produced by the subjects. The results
of this stage, together with the results of the first stage, are compiled to
respond to the research questions.

1.4. Scope of the study

Due to the
researcher’s limited time and knowledge, this study solely mentions the lexical
type of collocation and the current situation of its use in academic writing,
one of the four English skills. Errors and difficulties analyzed in the research
also refers to the lexical collocation ones.

The subject of the
study is a small group of undergraduate students, not the majority of
Vietnamese ELF learners, from DAV and FTU, whose English are assumed to be
above intermediate level as they need to meet the English standard in order to
graduate.

1.5. Significance of the study

Firstly, the study provides
the students a better understanding about the importance of collocation
learning, especially the lexical collocation. Students will have the chance to
recognize their common lexical collocation errors, reflect themselves and draw
valuable lessons in academic writing.

Secondly, the study is
expected to be a reference for EFL teachers, especially those teaching in
Vietnam, or anyone who is concerned with the topic. They can acquire an overall
image of the problem, identify students’ errors and discover effective
strategies in using lexical collocation. Hence, they can help the students
overcome the problems of using lexical collocation in academic writing.

Last but not least, due to the
limited researches studying on the lexical collocation aspects of writing
skill, this study helps to fill the gap of research and knowledge in this area.

1.6. Organization of the study

The paper consists of four chapters.

Chapter 1 (Introduction) presents an overview of the
research including the rationale, aims, objectives and research questions of
the study. This chapter also mentions the research methods, scope, and the
significance of the study.

Chapter 2 (Literature review) provides a theoretical
framework for this research. Key concepts related to the topic being studied
and previous researches on can be found here.

Chapter 3 (The research) presents specific details of
the research design of the study, the data gathering and analyzing process as
well as research results and discussion.

Chapter 4 (Conclusions and Recommendations) summarize
the major findings of the study, suggests some solutions to the overcome the
problem, discuss the implications, points out the study’s limitations and
recommends suggestions for further research.

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