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Language learning myths 2

November 10, 2008

Hello again,
I know I tend to be a bit of an individualist when it comes to teaching style but I have been in the field for a long time and have had plenty of opportunities to try things out. My...

.. second foray into language learning myths concerns vocabulary. The received wisdom I wish to challenge is that students can easily apply criteria such as frequency to the words they wish to learn. One dictionary, for example, gives 1 – 3 diamonds according to how often a word is found in its corpus. But once a student has basic vocabulary for “survival” English, does this really help? The point is that you need the right word. I think criteria involving categories and collocation are much more important. For example, take the phrase, “locked in mortal combat”. We might argue that “mortal” is a less frequently used word than “deadly”. But the collocation does not use “deadly” so it’s not much use.

I recently taught a student who was an architect. He had a fairly low level of English but his need was for some very specific vocabulary that he could use in giving technical instructions. Thus “girder” may not score high on diamonds but it was a key word for him. The inventor of Globish, a kind of simplified international English said the words “niece” and “nephew” were not necessary because you can say the “child of my brother/sister”. But I find this a spurious argument. Most students I have met want to know the precise word if it exists.

I overheard a colleague trying to explain something to a student recently using what were apparently simple words. The student looked totally puzzled. Why might this be? Because the vocabulary in question was a sequence of phrasal verbs. These may sound as if they should be simple but in fact they are exceptionally complicated. The point is that the student may know the meanings of the separate components but is far less likely to understand their combined meaning. If the student’s mother tongue is a romance language it is actually better to use a Latin-based word than a phrasal verb. In fact the more international the flavour of English becomes, the less use there is for phrasal verbs as these are potentially so confusing. Just think how many combinations there are with the verb “take” alone.

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  1. Drew Ward Says:

    You know these phrasal verbs are something that has always bothered me as an ESL teacher. I think mainly it's the fact that they are rather frowned upon in most American dialects. Some seem rather everyday and unavoidable, yet we're not taught them as phrasal verbs in school. In fact I believe I was a year or so into teaching ESL in Europe the first time I encountered the phrase. If I remember correctly we are normally taught to consider these sorts of constructions as separate qualifiers from the verb rather than part of a magic verb combo.

    For instance, looking for. Rather than learn this as a unit 'to look for' something, we are simply taught 'to look' + a qualifier (why are we looking or what is the aim of looking -- to find something).

    I just really feel that phrasal verbs are the product of someone years ago not being up to creating a proper explanation and simply coming up with some goofy thing to tell a student.

    It's just as bothersome to me as some teachers' insistence that will and going to have different connotations when in fact grammatically they are identical in every way except that going to can be conjugated to a greater extent.

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