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“Can you teach me phrasal verbs?”

“Sure, of course,” was my reply, but inside I was scrambling. “What the hell were phrasal verbs?” Here I was, a 12-year veteran of teaching English in high school with a Masters of Arts degree in English literature and writing, with no clue what a “phrasal verb” meant.

For native speakers, understanding the grammatical terms for what we say and how we speak is of little use. We simply say what we want. So why is it that when we begin learning a new language, the first thing we begin with is grammar structures?

Sure, grammar terms can help us categorize what we know and don’t know about a language. After all, as a Spanish-language learner, knowing I don’t fully understand the usage of the prepositions para and por can be helpful when asking for clarity. Or learning that the conditional verb tense is formed with another verb conjugation as opposed to helping verbs can help straighten out my difficulties.

But, in all reality, I really don’t think about these struggles in terms of grammatical ideas. I dissect them and listen to the examples because my end goal is communication. The next time I want to say “thank you” for something, I will know I need to say “gracias por…” (not para) Or when I want to express what movie I would like to see, I can say “me gustaría ver…” And so now, with a motivation, I learn the correct grammar structures.

If we approach language learning as rules to learn, the enjoyment of communication is lost. This truth about education is actually greater than language acquisition as well. When I taught English literature in the U.S., most students came into class hating reading and despising writing, because they had not been exposed to either of these skills for pleasure. The students who already enjoyed reading were the ones who would check out books from the library on the weekend, not because they were forced to read Mark Twain in the 5th grade.

Over the past two years, as I have shifted my teaching focus to educating English Language Learners (ELL), the rule of enjoyment holds true. I work primarily online with students, and they each come with their own unique struggles and challenges. But what I have to do is find out what each of them enjoys talking about. Maybe João wants to talk about automation, and Sunkyung wants to talk about booking a hotel, while Viktoryia really wants to learn how to open a checking account and Leandro enjoys finding symbolism in short stories.

No matter what it is, once you have a topic that the student wants to learn, the reason for understanding the grammar makes sense.

And even though I can now tell you the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb — I finally figured it out my sophomore year of college — you don’t need to understand the labels. You just need to understand how to use those verbs in a sentence.

If you’re learning a second language, you might be spending a lot of time understanding the difference between action verbs, linking verbs, helping verbs, and (possibly) phrasal verbs. But please understand, the goal is to understand how to use verbs to communicate, not their labels.

And, yes, I do have a whole lesson for my ELL students dedicated to phrasal verbs such as “put on, get over, throw out” and the like. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably use these verbs on a daily basis without ever batting an eye. But if you are acquiring English as an adult, realize that while it may seem relevant to understand that prepositions join some action verbs to create a new meaning, there is no need to stress about it. You’ll figure it out with time, once you learn WHY we use them and HOW you want to use them to communicate.

If you’re a native English speaker picking up a new language, remember that each language is different, and there is no need to try to translate word for word. Focus on the overall meaning (not the rules), and take it from there. Remember, communication and enjoyment are the key.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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