I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person who strongly believes that nothing in life is really arbitrary. If nothing in life is arbitrary, then nothing concerning language is either. However, when a student asks me why Bronx is used with the definite article but Brooklyn isn’t, even though they are both boroughs of the same city, I brush them off by saying: “It’s just the way it is”. The truth is, though, that I know that there is probably a solid explanation; according to Wikipedia, the use of the definite article is attributed to the style of referring to rivers or to the fact that the borough’s name stems from the phrase “visiting the Broncks”, referring to the settler’s family. However, explaining the story of every seemingly illogical definite article would be a bit too time-consuming. After all, we have better things to do in the few lessons of English a week.
The same goes for collocations. Mura Nava wrote an interesting post about collocations and how, contrary to a popular belief, they need not be arbitrary at all. Collocation is the behaviour of the language by which two or more words go together, in speech or writing. Honestly, it no longer surprises me that a word prefers the company of specific words but the implication that language ‘behaves’ in a certain way is thrilling. It suggests that language has some of the properties of human beings. Sorry if I’m crossing the line here; actually, I’m aware that language would not exist without human beings and it’s obviously not a living entity of its own. What I’m trying to say is that if one human being prefers (or avoids) the company of another human being, it’s not arbitrary at all; there must be an explanation and there certainly always is one, even though it may not be obvious at first sight. So we either accept the fact that there is a reason and we’ll leave the subject for good, or we become psychologists and start digging deeper into mysteries of human nature. As far as language is concerned, in order to find answers to some of the most burning questions, we can become linguists and start poking our noses into the origins of bits and pieces of language.
My conviction that there is a logical explanation for every aspect of life and language is comforting. And I don’t even mind that some truths will remain hidden forever. But I’m glad to know that at each and every point, I am free to decide which secrets I choose to uncover and which I will ignore. The same freedom applies to language teaching; I believe some things should be left alone, no matter how exciting they may appear to the teacher. The teacher’s job is mainly to help students communicate in the language effectively. If they want to dig deeper and think harder about the hows and whys, they’ll certainly find ways to do so outside of the classroom.
Caveat: the above conclusion doesn’t mean that I do not believe that generalization of what students have learned is useful; the thing is that one has to think twice before investing time into lengthy explanations of why something works this or that way.