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Throughout the years while I’ve been running this blog, I’ve always focused upon needs of those non-native English speakers who find themselves in a situation I was in a number of years ago – unable to speak fluently despite possessing fairly good grammar, reading, writing and comprehension skills in English.
In other words, I’m catering to those foreigners who are long past the beginners English level in terms of general English knowledge and they’ve developed what I like to call a “writing mode” syndrome.
But what about those who only start the journey into the English language now?
Obviously, they wouldn’t be able to read and understand this article for the simple reason that they haven’t built and developed their vocabulary and all the rest, but I can definitely imagine a scenario whereby someone who just starts learning the English language is receiving some useful info from a person having read this article.
Maybe it’s YOU who can help some friend of yours to acquire the English language the right way and AVOID all the pitfalls that we’ve been falling for and that have prevented us from developing natural English fluency from the outset:
- Learning meanings of individual words;
- Learning grammar rules and creating sentences by applying them;
- Translating directly from our native languages;
- and many more!
Well, I know only too well that the worldwide dominance of the traditional grammar-translation way of teaching languages – English included – is so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that you’ll find it very hard (on most occasions – even impossible!) to convince people NOT TO learn vocabulary lists, NOT TO try to understand the exact meaning of new words and NOT TO analyze the syntax of sentences too deeply by trying to find the exact equivalent of the given English sentence in their native languages.
It’s a constant uphill battle, and most of the times you’ll fail.
It’s worth a try, however, because if you do succeed in persuading your friend to try out the contextual way of learning the English language right from the start, they will NEVER develop the English fluency issues in the first place!
So, where to begin?
Well, I guess a very good place to start would be by understanding that it’s SUPER-IMPORTANT to learn English word combinations right from the start – there’s no need to learn individual English words ❗
OK, here we go! 😉
Our Brain Works Based on Associations
The thing is, our human brain is wired to function based on associations. Anything we see, touch, feel or think about is perceived through associated memories of what those things go together with. Let’s take a very simple everyday item such as a coffee mug – you think you perceive this simple thing for what it is (an item fulfilling function of holding coffee) just because it IS a coffee mug.
Well, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated. There’s thousands of memories deeply ingrained in your memory of you and other people using the coffee mug in a particular way – filling it with water, adding coffee, sugar and milk and then bringing it up to your mouth – and THAT’S what makes the item for what it is.
All those ASSOCIATED ACTIONS create the unique perception of the mug, and the very same way any individual word in any human language associates with other words describing certain actions, concepts, items, humans and animals.
English is Best Acquired Contextually – Even at Beginners Level!
Let’s say, for example, if your friend wants to learn a new English word “to run”, it’s not the best idea to let them learn the word “to run” just on its own in its indefinite form “TO run”.
You see – typically what happens is the following. The word “to run” gets written down with its translation in the native language, and the beginner English learner creates a wrong association in his or her mind: “to run” – “to run (in their native language)”
Is that useful? Not really.
If you learn a new vocabulary word this way, you simply won’t teach your brain how this word “to run” acts in the English language and you’ll be permanently STUCK IN THE TRANSLATION MINDSET whereby every time you want to use a particular word, you refer to its translation in your language which is not how natural language acquisition is supposed to happen.
It’s best to start to learn how to think in English from day one.
In order to learn the new word “to run” and also start learning how it would be used in real life, it’s best to learn it as part of a very simple word combination:
Now, please bear in mind it’s NOT NECESSARY for a total English learning beginner to understand that the word “running” is a Present Progressive form of the verb “to run”.
It’s not necessary to understand that “I’m” is an abbreviated version of “I am”. If the beginner learner goes down the road of analyzing the language and trying to understand WHY this or that particular word is said a certain way, it will simply put them into a perpetual cycle of over-analyzing and being unable to speak and write in English spontaneously later in their lives.
It’s best to keep the beginner learner blissfully unaware of other variations of the verbs “to be” and “to run” when they’re saying the simple sentence “I’m running” for the simple reason that all they have to be thinking about at that moment in time is the activity of them running, nothing else!
Don’t Analyze Too Much!
There’s no need for the beginner English student to analyze verbs, conjugate them and then create sentences – that process is totally unnatural and does nothing but start the “writing mode” formation in their mind.
Instead, the simple sentence “I’m running” needs to be repeated many times over till it’s embedded into student’s mind and they can produce it automatically, without any thinking whatsoever.
Same applies on everything that the beginner English learner would be learning – if it’s a word “the sun”, they should learn a simple word combination “The sun is shining”.
“Love” – “I love you”.
“Speak” – “I speak English”.
“Friend” – “You’re my friend”.
And so on and so forth, till the person in question has acquired a good few English phrases they can actually start using from the very start and that will provide a solid foundation for further English studies whereby they’ll be able to learn more advanced sentences and vocabulary.
Unfortunately, in real life in happens much differently.
The English language gets broken down to the basic grammar concepts, and the inevitable process of cramming verb conjugation tables begins:
I am, you are, he, she it is. We are, you are, they are.
I was, you were, he, she it was…
Then the poor English learner is required to create English sentences by sticking individual words together while translating from their native language and that’s the WORST part of it all!
NEVER Translate Word-by-word From Native Language!
You see, even if some translation is indeed needed to learn basic English concepts such as “They’re my family” (how else would you explain to a person who doesn’t understand a single word in the English language what it means, right?), it’s of the utmost importance to translate and help the student understand the meaning of FULL SENTENCES rather than individual words.
That way they’ll be encouraged to use word combinations and that’s something they can already work with as opposed to telling them – “Now you have to say “I came home at 9 o’clock last night” in English!”
If you do that, the poor English learner has no other option but to perform a word-by-word translation process in their heads, and it inevitably leads to English fluency issues down the line.
So, to wrap this all up, here’s the main points that should be applied when a newbie English learner makes their first steps into the English language:
1. Translation from/to English is needed at this stage indeed, but without much focus on individual words. Learn simple word combinations, and translate them without analyzing as to why certain things are said a certain way. It has to suffice that English speakers simply say it that way, the end of story!
3. Never encourage the English learner to create sentences – provide sentences they can MIMIC and then use when they speak or write in English! Basically don’t give them vocabulary lists to learn and then don’t ask to create something from those words; provide them with real life English collocations so that they can memorize them and use them!
4. Mindset is a very important factor – you have to persuade the beginner English student not to try to understand the exact meaning of English words. Explain to them that they don’t have to try to equate English and their native language by producing word-by-word translations. And most importantly – teach them that they don’t have to be afraid to trust their instinct when speaking and writing and also they don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes!
And now, some questions that I’m pretty sure you’re going to ask in relation to this article:
Q: OK, you’re saying, Robby, not to translate and learn individual English words. But how then is it even remotely possible to learn words such as “perseverance” if they’re not translated into the exact equivalent in the student’s native language? You just can’t learn what it means without translation?!
A: Not really! Even such relatively complicated abstract concepts don’t require an exact translation in the native language! First of all – there’s no need for a beginner English learner to learn such sophisticated vocabulary – it wouldn’t serve any practical purpose. Secondly, when the English learner can say things like “I always work hard”, the concept of perseverance can be explained by saying it means to work hard on something, simple as that! And remember – it’s not necessary to know what the exact equivalent of the word “perseverance” is in the learner’s native language. It’s best to keep the two languages – English and the native tongue – in two separate compartments in one’s brain.
Q: You’re saying not to teach the beginner student that the basic form of the word “running” is “to run”; also you’re saying not to teach them how it’s conjugated – “run, ran, run”. But how will they be able to use the word in different contexts? They’ll be able to say “I’m running home” but when they want to say “I ran home yesterday” – they won’t know how to say it!!!
A: Treat EVERY new situation, every new grammar construct INDIVIDUALLY! “I’m running” is something a person would say in a situation when they’re actually running right now – and with combination with other words (which also needs to be learned separately on another occasion – not all at once!) would also describe a future action: “I’m running a 10 K race tomorrow”. “I ran home yesterday”, however, is a phrase for a totally different situation, and at some stage the beginner learner is going to learn it. Same goes with other form of the verb – “I’m run down”, for example, would be used when a person is very tired and it includes the Past Participle of the verb “to run” – “run”. So, the answer is – over time the student will learn how to use all the necessary forms of the verb “to run” (and other verbs, of course!) in different contexts and situations, and all the frustration that is caused by conjugating verbs and creating sentences from scratch is going to be spared.
Q: A child who starts learning English as their first language begins by learning an individual word – a noun or verb, then a noun and a verb combination, then a short sentence by mimicking what an adult teaches them before learning A-Z , writing and grammar. Surely if a beginner English student want to do the same, they still need dictionary from their native language in order to understand a noun or verb in English, right?
A: This is one of the greatest misconceptions about learning the English language! You just can’t compare an ADULT with a TODDLER who’s just learning how to produce sounds!!! We, adults, are perfectly able to grasp abstract concepts and learn word combinations right from the start whereas a small child simply doesn’t have the mental capacity to do the same – and that’s why it’s not necessary for an adult non-native English speaking person to mimic what a child is going through and start by learning individual words. We can jump right into the next stage of natural language acquisition – learning short sentences, and it’s actually exactly what native English speaking children do as soon as they’re mentally fit for it. Speaking of learning A – Z, writing and grammar – it’s not part of natural English learning process; it’s just stipulated by the school system and any human being actually learns to speak any language FIRST and only then they go to school where all this formal education is forced upon them.
Any more questions?
Just post them in the comments section!
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!