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Don’t Analyze the English Language Too Much – It’s Not Good for Your Fluency!

Don't Analyze the English Language

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I bet every one of us – foreign English speakers – have asked these kinds of questions at some point in time:

“What’s the difference between ‘You should do it’ and ‘You ought to do it’?”

“When should I use the preposition ‘on’ and when – ‘upon’?”

Such thirst for knowledge, however, conceals many dangers for an unsuspecting foreigner who’s trying hard to improve his English!

As you can imagine, the possible number of such and similar questions is virtually unlimited thus providing you with a never-ending supply of content to ANALYZE and file under different English grammar related categories.

Remember – analysis often leads to paralysis!

If you have to produce instant speech, all those explanations about differences between ‘should’ and ‘ought’, ‘on’ and ‘upon’ and sample sentences are only good as far as you have all the time in the world to plan what you’re going to say. Which is… NEVER going to happen in a real life situation!

Writing?

No problem! If you have to create written content you can carefully pick the proper words and arrange them accordingly because you can go back to whatever advice you received and apply logical reasoning in order to come up with the most likely solution.

But even if it takes you only a split second to make a decision as to which preposition – ‘on’ or ‘upon’ – to use, for example, it’s enough to make you stuck for words and unable to maintain a fluent, natural English conversation.

EVEN if all you have to decide is whether the noun you’re preceding with the preposition is a tangible thing (in which case ‘on’ should be used) or an abstract concept (that’s when you can use ‘upon’), it’s still way too long!

When you speak fluently, you DON’T DECIDE WHAT TO SAY. YOU JUST SAY IT!

Keep reading this article to find out HOW EXACTLY your brain works and WHAT YOU SHOULD DO instead of asking questions about differences between English words and how each of them is used!

Such Questions Appeal to Your Analytical Side Which Has Little to Do With Your Oral Fluency!

You see, every time you ask a question about differences between English words and how you should use them, you’re contributing to your analytical side which tries to standardize, structure and classify the different English nouns, verbs, participles and what not.

You’re given an answer which most likely is comprised of an explanation as to how those English words are different followed by a number of sample phrases and sentences.

It’s all nice and well until you have to actually USE those words in an actual conversation with other English speakers!

When you speak, you don’t have enough time to go back to the list of conditions determining use of ‘in’ and ‘on’ in your memory and figure out which is the correct preposition to use in that particular moment in time.

When you speak, you have to be capable of JUST SAYING THE RIGHT THING WITHOUT ANY PLANNING!

Let’s say, you’re not sure whether to use the preposition ‘on’ or ‘in’ when referring to a particular day of the week. Is it ‘Charles was shot on Monday’s episode’ or ‘Charles was shot in Monday’s episode’? (I’m talking about some TV drama series here).

Now, if you go about dealing with this issue by asking a question “what’s the difference between the preposition ‘on’ and ‘in’?”, you’re only making it more difficult for yourself.

You’re CREATING ALGORITHMS in your brain which are somewhat similar to the basic computer programming and its “IF – THEN” structure.

The problem is – it works beautifully for computers and machines, but human brain is wired differently.

We’re operating on a case-by-case basis which is fundamentally different to the seemingly more logical “IF – THEN” structure.

If it were true, you’d be capable of conducting the following reasoning:

…“’on’ is used with days of the week; however, in this particular case the noun the preposition refers to is ‘episode’ instead of ‘Monday’, so ‘in Monday’s episode’ is probably the proper way of saying it”…

…IN A SPLIT SECOND AND PRODUCE THE PROPER SENTENCE INSTANTLY.

Can you?

Believe me – no-one can! 😉

Your Brain Follows ASSOCIATIONS Instead of Algorithms! Then Why Treat it Like a Computer When Improving Your English?

You mightn’t have thought about it before, but it’s true nonetheless – our brain has evolved by adapting to environment, and the best way to do that is treat all information on a case-by-case basis.

Starting from when you’re just a baby lying in a crib, your mind is processing the surrounding world and storing hundreds of thousands of images in your mental hard drive as well as the associated sounds, smells and emotions.

You recognize everyday items such as a table, a chair and a laptop because you’ve seen those items thousands of times before and your brain classifies them as the respective item in a nanosecond ❗

Same goes with every other bit of visual and audio information we process, and we’re totally unaware of the workings behind the scenes because it’s all just natural to us.

But did you know that if a blind person having been born without eyesight, for instance, undergoes a surgery and is capable of seeing, they WON’T SEE THE WORLD THE SAME WAY other people do?

Their brain simply doesn’t know how to process all that visual information because the mapping hasn’t been done.

There are no associations created.

You would see horizontal and vertical lines at best.

You wouldn’t tell an open window from a picture hung on the wall.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true!

If the human brain was operating like a computer program, you could just put in all the necessary information and it would take effect immediately.

You could bring that person who’s regained their eyesight into a room, and he would just see everything the way it is after learning a very elaborate description of the room and everything in it.

Similarly, you could learn conditions of use of specific English nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions and draw information from that knowledge pool whenever you open your mouth and produce instant and fluent speech.

Ain’t gonna happen!

If you want to be able to speak fluently, you have to memorize SPECIFIC cases of using, for example, prepositions ‘in’ and ‘on’. You have to have not just heard and but also MEMORIZED certain word groups containing the word ‘in’ and ‘out’ to be able to use one or the other without going back to your mental lists.

IT’S ALL ABOUT ASSOCIATIONS!

Natural English Phrases, Collocations and Expressions Appeal to Your Brain’s Processes because Spoken English is a PRACTICAL SKILL!

If you memorize different phrases containing the two prepositions ‘in’ and ‘on’, you’ll imprint those speech patterns into your brain.

Once that association is created there, you’re capable of producing it instantly!

“Just in case”

“Bear in mind”

“All in all”

“Walk in the park”

If you learn the aforementioned phrases, you WON’T have to MAKE CONSCIOUS EFFORT to figure out if you have to say ‘… in the park’, ‘…at the park’, ‘…in a park’ or ‘…in park’.

You’ll just KNOW INSTINCTIVELY what to say, and that’s exactly how our brain has evolved to operate.

Imagine the pre-historic caveman trying to figure out the best way to deal with an attacking tiger by weighing up different options of weapons he could use as well as different body positions and defense techniques… By the time it would take him to analyze all available information he would have been dead already!

The only practical way of responding to such situations is by acting INSTINCTIVELY which in turn is based upon previous caveman’s encounters with wild animals – and that’s when past experience and resulting ASSOCIATIONS come into play at a subconscious level.

Over millennia of constant conditioning, human brain has developed to operate on an association basis in PRACTICAL SITUATIONS and it’s the very same when it comes to spoken English performance!

When you communicate with other English speakers, your mind mapping determines the effectiveness of the process to the same extent as the historical caveman’s fight with the tiger. If your brain has been conditioned properly (right ASSOCIATIONS have been created), you’ll instinctively know what to say at the right time.

If, on the other hand, you keep questioning and analyzing why certain things are said in a certain way without simply imprinting those speech patterns into your mind, you’ll create WRONG ASSOCIATIONS which will have a detrimental effect on your spoken English fluency.

If, for example, instead of associating the words ‘just’, ‘in’, and ‘case’ together, you will memorize a list of grammar rules pertaining to the preposition ‘in’, every time you have to choose a preposition to use, you’ll keep seeing your grammar lists in front of your eyes! 😡

It used to happen to me all the time, by the way, and only when I stopped writing down and learning such and similar lists and went for English phrase and expression memorization instead, did I notice improvement to my ability to produce instant speech.

Does That Mean I Shouldn’t Ask ANY Questions? How am I Supposed to Learn Then!?

Here’s the bottom line.

Of course it’s only natural to try to find an answer in situations when you’re unsure of this or that particular way of saying something in English.

What I’m trying the say in this article is that it’s not healthy for your oral English fluency to CONSTANTLY QUESTION almost everything and try to classify everything you learn in terms of English grammar and vocabulary according to strict rules.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not denying that human quizzical nature has been very instrumental – even crucial – in our development as a race.

All I’m saying is that if you approach the English language from the analytical perspective most of the time, you’ll create completely different associations in your brain than required for natural spoken English performance!

If you don’t have to speak with real English speaking people in real life and your lack of English fluency doesn’t bother you at all – fine!

If grammar is your hobby and you really, really LOVE putting clearly defined rules and structure onto everything you come across – I guess I won’t be able to change your habits just by this article alone.

IF, on the other hand, you’re one of those struggling foreign English speakers who’s desperate to start speaking more fluently instead of constantly questioning himself when trying to speak with others, suppressing your quizzical natural is the only way you can actually improve your fluency ❗

There are hundreds of thousands of online English grammar forum threads where people spend countless hours asking questions:

“What’s the difference between ‘the whole time’ and ‘all the time’?”

“Why do my English speaking friends say ‘in school’ when my English grammar textbook clearly states that ‘at school’ is the correct way of saying it?”

And guess what?

Their relentless pursuit of PERFECT ENGLISH is being supported by thousands of native English speaking teachers and also English language enthusiasts from both native and foreign backgrounds who are trying to do their best to unveil all intricacies of the seemingly super-complicated English grammar.

Fair enough – but then native speakers can already SPEAK in English fluently and they don’t have all those terrible fluency problems faced by so many foreigners!

Little do they know that by promoting this analytical approach they’re only contributing to the confusion of those foreign English speakers who CAN’T SPEAK FLUENTLY and are trying to fix their fluency problems by becoming really smart in terms of grammar.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with googling up certain things you’re not sure of when it comes to saying this or that particular thing in English.

In fact, I do it all the time!

Watch this video to see how I do it:

You see – I don’t question WHY native speakers say something in a certain way.

I just accept it, and I try to memorize that collocation (that’s how natural English speech patterns are called) so that I can USE IT IN MY CONVERSATIONS AND ALSO WRITING in the future.

I create natural associations in my mind because English is a practical skill, and I warmly suggest you do the same thing, my friends!

I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and please don’t hesitate to leave comments below!

Chat soon,

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

 

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks!

  • Exactly – why don’t you just start doing it? There’s no reason why you couldn’t really, is there? 😉

    Speaking of the collocation “seismic change” – it simply means “massive/monumental/extraordinary change” – but I’m sure you guessed it from the context already!

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • sunny Liu

    I am looking forward to your videos!
    Good luck!~

  • sunny Liu

    Dear Robby,

    I am very glad to get your kind reply! and i appreciate your easy-to-understand message. only “seismic” is new for me here!
    Although it is easier said than done! i will try my best to follow your good advice!

    By the way, why don’t I do anything possible to speak a lot although I know that it is benificial to speak freely as native speakers?

    Best wishes,

  • Yes Sunny, it’s mad, and I can’t see how to change the prevalent educational system in a short period of time – it would require a seismic change but considering languages have been studied in this manner at schools and colleges for hundreds of years, it’s become somewhat of a given that textbook-based grammar-translation method is viewed as the most efficient one.

    If all of a sudden we’d get rid of all those grammar-based textbooks and started to learn how to speak real English, thousands of academics would lose their jobs, and obviously they all have friends in high places who are interested that this current system doesn’t change. Plus, not many people see the truth behind the scenes, so it’s very easy to control people who blindly follow the system.

    Also, the whole school-based English teaching system is so heavily reliant on tests and exams that students see them as the end of it all, and the related success when obtaining good grades makes it all seem worthwhile – which is another reason why it’s so hard for students to see the truth.

    Speaking of your niece – well, it is a pity indeed. She might make a brilliant translator one day, but if she neglects her spoken language, she won’t be able to speak fluently, full stop – unless, of course, she starts doing some self-practice like I advise on my blog:

    http://englishharmony.com/speaking-with-yourself/

    Also, she can try and encourage some friends of hers to do some spoken practice together which would be a tremendous bonus in her fluency development!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Yes, I’m aware of the whole YouTube issue in China, so I guess I should probably start doing podcasts on top of the videos so that folks like you can gain access to all material I publish on this website – not just the written content. It’s something to bear in mind for next year! 😉

  • sunny Liu

    Have you ever noticed that we could not access to Youtube and twitter for us Chinese followers? I am long for hearing your voice not just reading!

  • sunny Liu

    Hi Robby,
    You’re dead right! I used to be among the best like you in English class and spent a lot time on the grammar and passive vocabularies. At that time I was good at differing “in” from “at” and many others and proud for it. After entering in the college, i forgot them at all! Up till now I have spent 16 years to “study” English! only reading is better!

    There are millions of peers like me! How much time and money we have spent! and the process is still on! why do not our governments in the world change the written assesment?

    My niece,11, has learned English for 3 years! She is sitting at the desk listening what her teacher says and putting down the words with explanation in Chinese in her copybook!
    How can i help her out in this kind of situation? you say we should stop using translation in Chinese when learning english! what a pity! one of homework for her is to translate the dialogue in Chinese!

    All the best,

    Sunny

  • Hi Thu Trang,

    And thanks for your comment.

    One thing that surprises me though, is that you’re speaking on behalf of EVERYONE.

    You see, the thing is that if you find this article difficult to understand, it doesn’t necessarily mean others feel the same way about it.

    I’ve re-iterated it many times on my blog that I’m writing for upper-intermediate/advanced English learners who want to develop their oral fluency, so my average visitor’s profile is a foreign English speaker who’s comfortable with reading, listening, understanding and writing in English except for the inability to speak fluently.

    I would also argue that only some people like my blog, simply because of the amount of positive feedback I’m getting through comments and e-mail, and I’ve dedicated readers who’ve been reading my articles and been watching my videos for months and years.

    I’m not saying this to brag about it, it’s just to state a simple fact that my blog’s target audience has never been an English learner – beginner who has difficulties understanding written content. Let me repeat it once more that my target audience is made of foreigners just like me who’ve spent long years in the traditional English learning setting amassing large amount of passive vocabulary with little skills to use it in real life conversations; hence all the different motivational and practical blog posts and videos I’m creating.

    Best Regards,

    Robby

  • Thu Trang

    Thanks for your sharing. But, there are some problems about your expression. You use many difficult words in English. It makes everyone feel uneasy to understand all things you want to say.
    Actually, I find that your website is very useful, but it’s only some people like it. I think the above-mentioned reason is really important to you.
    Hope many your new article!

  • You’re dead right – our fluency will experience drastic improvement if we focus on phraseology acquisition instead of studying grammar, and obviously it’s working out very well for you. Congrats on good work and you’re welcome to swing by my blog every now and then to say hi! 😉

  • Thanks a lot for positive feedback and I’m glad that you’ve changed your perspective on English improvement and learning and that you’ve taken action! Keep up the good work on your side, too! 😉

  • zahid

    I could’t agree with you more.In the beginning I also tried to memorize complicated grammatical rules to improve my English.But I realized that in fact this method was not working for me.Now a days I listen to different podcasts and BBC news and write down phrases,expressions and collocations and then memorize them.I have got the feeling that my English is improving dramatically.

  • gashaw

    You are such a person with a skill to explore people’s mind. I have spent all my age learning and battling with English language. Yet, fluency has become almost unachievable task for me. I completely buy your argument and I will act accordingly. I am free-riding your ideas and advice online. THANK YOU!!! Keep the good work!

  • You’re right, and I also ask questions to my native English friends every now and then if I’m unsure of certain things.

    I don’t, however, go on about it forever and I don’t try to extrapolate that information onto similar words etc which then becomes a real problem in terms of over-analyzation, and that’s the main message I’m trying to communicate in this article.

    Here’s a typical example:

    Q: “When should I say ‘Quite well’ and when – ‘pretty well’?”
    A: “They’re used interchangeably so it doesn’t really matter!
    Q: “If that’s the case, can I say ‘It took me pretty a while’ instead of ‘It took me quite a while’?”
    A: “No, in this particular instance it doesn’t sound right, native English speakers don’t say that. It’s only ‘It took me quite a while’!”
    Q: “But why can’t you use ‘quite’ and ‘pretty’ interchangeable in the last example? What is the difference between the two sentences?”
    A: &*^%$!

    Here’s the typical over-analysis I’m talking about, and the message is – don’t try to make generalizations from specific examples! Learn one thing at a time!

    A lot of foreigners, however, are taking it one step too far and their eagerness to make sense out of everything they hear may lead to certain fluency issues!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Thanks!

  • Francisco Javier

    Great article, Robby.

  • Francisco Javier

    Yes, but you, as a native speaker, have assimilated those differences over years of exposure to the English language.

    A learner clearly lacks all that exposure so it is quicker for them to receive an answer straight away. Of course, that in itself is not good enough; students have to become familiar with words and expressions the way native speakers use them but that takes a lot of time and exposure to the language.

  • I wholeheartedly agree. It’s tough as an English teacher because learners LOVE to ask questions like “What’s the difference between X and Y?” I don’t want to seem unhelpful, but I also know that learning the answer won’t help them very much.