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Do We Talk Funny?

A look at prepositions, phrasal verbs and learning English.

Ever since those early years in Fenton I have heard different stories about either the difficulty or easiness of learning English. Teaching English as a second language (ESL) for eight years as well has learning Spanish as a second language for myself has given me a better perspective on the debate.

To begin with, regular verbs in English are rather easy compared to many other languages. To know the present, past and future tense for each regular English verb used with the six voices a person needs to only learn four different words. Heck and one of those words is even used for the future tense of all the other verbs.

Now, in such languages as Spanish, for those same three tenses and six voices it is necessary to learn 18 different words. Figure that to be somewhat able to communicate in a language you need to know a minimum of 300 verbs. That translates into 901 words to learn in English and 5,400 unique words in Spanish. So in terms of regular verbs English wins.

But now comes a couple killers for our native language. What gives those learning English a difficult time is both prepositions and phrasal verbs. In case you slept through English class a preposition is basically a word that links nouns, pronouns and phrases. These parts of speech usually indicate a temporal, spatial or logical relationship of the object in the sentence to the rest of the sentence.

Huh? Ok, let me try clarifying this by telling you what a few of those words are: at, above, beside, on, under, past. There are many more. Here is a page with many of them listed.

Now what causes ESL students problems is that our prepositions frequently make no sense. We sit in a chair, but we sit on a sofa. However if we decide to use the chair to get up higher then we stand on the chair. We watch a movie on the television, but at the theater. Not to mention that we live in a city on a street and at an address. We have only looked at prepositions of location, those of time, direction and position cause equal confusion.

It is the phrasal verbs that really cause problems. Say what? I know that is one of those things that seemed to slip through the cracks in English class for many of us. In the most simplistic sense a phrasal verb is a verb made up of a verb and a preposition or adverb. However, its meaning is completely foreign to the definition of the verb by itself. 

Yes, for you grammatical purists out there I know there are prepositional verbs and phrasal prepositional verbs. But like many people, I like to link them all as phrasal verbs since they are made of a phrase.

OK let’s take a gander at one of them. The verb “look,” means to direct your eyes to a certain location. However “look after” means to take care of someone or something, such as look after your brother. Now by changing the preposition the definition changes to finding something in a book. Example: If you do not know what it means then look up the definition in the dictionary.

Now to further confuse ESL students we have the same phrasal verb with more than one definition. Take for example the following three sentences using “broke down.”

 My car broke down on the highway. (Stopped working)

When told that our cousin died in Iraq my sister broke down and cried for hours. (Became upset)

The gunsmith broke down the gun into its components. (Put into pieces)

And if that is not enough, we confuse people by sometimes sticking the object between the two or three words of the phrasal verb. Example: John asked Jane out on a date.

There are just over 200 phrasal verbs that most Americans use in everyday speech. And there are a few hundred more that get heard occasionally.

The problem is that to learn prepositions and phrasal verbs is pretty much through memorization and use. So I do not envy those learning English as their second language. When you really analyze it, we talk funny.

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Terri White July 31, 2012 at 11:52 PM
I agree as well. While studying French for 7 years, I took a hard look at my own language. Some of these baffled me : how read was the same in more than one tense, and learning that sometimes the same spelling has multiple meanings such as the word "bow". It can be a verb : to bow out or relinquish, a noun, as in a bow and arrow, or to take a bow. It can also be an adverb, as in the wood was bowing from the strain. It can also be confused with bough which can sound the same, but refers to a tree limb. I don't envy anyone who teaches ESL; it is tricky enough for people who were born into families who speak it to learn it properly. Just check any social media site on the internet for proof of how poorly it is spoken by natives. I am sure it doesn't help though, that English is not taught in our schools the same way that foreign languages are taught. I learned ten or twelve new tenses by learning French. While I used those tenses in my speech, they had never been taught to me in any classroom. There is a lot to be said for those that learn English outside of American schools.
Joe Kershaw August 01, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Jason, Laura and Terri - thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Jason - I enjoyed the way you worked that phrasal verb in. Laura -Great that you took in exchange students. It is one of the best things people can do to help others and better understand the world. Terri- I can't speak about Fenton Schools, but when I taught writing for adult education about 75% of my students (including many university graduates) could not even form correct sentences when given a list of ten nouns and ten verbs and told to make sentences using them. With so much direct media writing and citizen journalists, in my opinion high school English classes should include both "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk and E.B. White and "The Associated Press Style Book." And yes, students should know what third person present tense means.
Terri White August 02, 2012 at 02:08 AM
I can't speak for Fenton Public Schools either, I attended schools in the Walled Lake Consolidated district. I am sure that there are not many differences though.
Fady Elias August 03, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Nice article! Love the analysis... I always spoke english but it only got batter when I married an american wife and moved here in 2007, I remember when I was trying to setup the open sign for Gatsby Grind, I needed something to hook the chains on, I told my wife I need to run to Home Depot and get me couple Hookers... my thought process was like this, a runner runs, a player plays, a hooker is something to hook... Sometimes we do speak funny!
Joe Kershaw August 03, 2012 at 09:23 PM
Fady - you left me laughing. Great story.

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