We all know that the smartest place to start with learning a new language is with the most commonly used words. Word frequency dictionaries exist for the most common 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, etc. words. Grammar and language books begin with simple more common vocabulary. Websites and mobile phone apps such as Duolingo and Memrise as well as language courses such as Assimil, Pimsleur and Glossika, which are based around the most common words.
In my opinion, proper time allocation is an important aspect of language learning (see point 1. below). You should spend the majority of your time focusing on what you will use the most, and the minority of your time on what you will use the least. So evidently focusing on the most common seems to be considered a good place to start when learning your target language. In my limited experience learning foreign languages I’ve managed to use a wide range of materials (check out ‘How’ I Learn French article for specifics). However, aside from phrase books teaching you often awkward, sometimes awkward or just plain unsaid phrases you can use to get a hotel room on a holiday, few resources pay any lip service to the importance of learning and developing YOUR own most commonly used phrases. That’s not to take anything away from these resources as they all give you access to 100s even 1000s of real grammatically correct sentences as examples with the words you’re learning. This is an incredibly important aspect of learning a foreign language.
Language learning resources have to cater to the masses in order to be a successful product, but ultimately we use them to develop our own unique use of the language, our own ‘persona’ in the language they’re teaching us. Considering we’re all unique with different interests, hobbies and occupations, not all common words are equally common to all of us. Along the same vein, not all common phrases are equally common to all of us.
In this article I want to present to you the case that developing YOUR own specific most common phrases is an incredibly effective way of boosting yourself to fluency, especially through that frustrating intermediate stage. Ultimately, this happens for every language learner as they reach fluency. However, in my opinion as with learning grammar applying a little conscious effort will accelerate the process much faster than learning things subconsciously. This is what happened with me in French. Every word I had to look up the definition of I would add to the spaced-repetition system Anki. Likewise, every phrase I didn’t know but wanted to say I would look up, pick an option(s), and add it to Anki. I call this process Following the Breadcrumbs and will go over it in a future post (see point 2. below).
How do you know if the phrase is correct? Well, the best case scenario would be asking a native speaker, but if you don’t have access to one then you can also use sentence searching websites such as Reverso, Linguee or Tatoeba to find examples (see image below). Even if these turn out to be uncommonly said or even incorrect the way you learn them you’ll find this out relatively quickly when you first use them in conversation and get corrected. Don’t be too afraid of starting with something incorrect as it will eventually be corrected by someone. The more an error is corrected the harder it will be to forget.
One specific example of this I experienced with French included using “au moment” for “at the moment“, i.e. right now. I thought this was correct as I remembered it from high school. However, a French friend soon corrected it to “en ce moment” meaning “at the (present) moment / right now” where as “au moment” meant “at the (specific) moment / then“. It took a few weeks before I stopped confusing the two in conversations, but it happened none the less. Mistakes forge long lasting memories and aversions to making the same error again.
Back to the point of the article and developing YOUR own most common phrases. Doing this is incredibly important as you learn to fill in a lot of conversation dead-space as well as to navigate through sticky ‘influent’ situations in your target language without reverting back to English. I used to always do this. When I came up against an obstacle, e.g. when I forgot a word or didn’t understand something I’d get frustrated and ask in English: “What’s the word for ‘plate’ again?“, “Can you say that again?“, “I don’t understand.“, etc.
Also, you don’t realise but even in your native language you fill in a lot of space with small phrases while giving yourself time to think of what you’ll say next. Once I learnt to say small ‘filler’ phrases automatically such as: “I guess that…“, “You know what I think? I think that…“, “That’s so strange…“, “Ah, I get you. So…“, “What do you mean by… because I thought that…“, etc. it gave me time to think of what I’d say next while continuing the conversation more fluidly.
So make things easy. Focus on the phrases you already use naturally in your native language and find their equivalent in your target language. For example, in English I often notice myself saying “Ah ok, I guess that…” when I agree with someone’s point and want to add my own opinion. So I learnt the equivalent in French “Ah d’accord, j’imagine que…” and now anytime I’m speaking French it slots in naturally and effortlessly in those situations. Another example is, “What’s on for today?“. I learnt “Qu’est-ce que t’as prévu pour ta journée?”. In both of these examples there are numerous ways of expressing these chunks information, but in each case I learnt the one I liked and could remember. Both phrases then became a part of my unique persona in French. You just keep repeating this process with every obstacle that comes your way. As you develop a well-rounded set of phrases unique to you in your target language, your language web grows and the patchiness of your vocabulary fills out. This is a great way of pushing through the intermediate stage to the advanced stage (see point 3. below). I’ll go over this in another post soon.
Below are some examples of the kind of phrases I learnt, but you should come up with your own list of unique things you say and use in conversation. I try to always find at least way of saying a phrase, one option, and learn it until I can say it naturally when I reach that part of the conversation naturally.
- What’s up mate!?
- I don’t know / stuffed if I know!
- I don’t understand.
- Can you repeat that (more slowly) please?
- What is this?
- What does that mean?
- How do you say…?
- Where is…?
- What the f*&^?
- I don’t give a rat’s arse / I don’t care / I don’t give a s*&^!
- No kidding? / Fairdinkum? / Seriously?
- I’m pulling your leg! / I’m kidding / I’m joking
- Why do…? / Why is it that…?
- Exactly! / Absolutely! / Of course!
- Ultimately / in the end / eventually
- Obviously! / I know! / I can see that!
- I see / I understand / I get it.
- The funny thing is… / What’s funny is…
- What I don’t like… / What I hate is…
- I (just) feel (so)…
- I imagine that…
- I’ve found that…
- I (just) think that…
- I (just) want to…
- …at the moment.
- What do you think of…?
- What do you want to do / talk about?
- How has your day been / what have you done today?
As you start learning foreign languages you soon realise that you will always be trying to convey the same messages, you’ll just be using different mediums, i.e. languages. The information communicated stays the same, the language is what changes. So developing YOUR own most commonly used phrases is something well worth focusing your attention on particularly in order to increase your fluency, i.e. the fluidity of your conversations. If you keep good track of your phrases you might be able to speed up acquisition of your next language too because you’ll know what you use a lot and how to learn it.
So what phrases do you say quite often that you will learn, or have already learnt in your target languages? Tell me in the comments below. I’d love to know!
All the best,
This post ties in with three other topics I hope to cover in future posts:
- Proper time allocation: spend 80% of your time practicing what you use 80% of the time, and 20% of your time on the things you use 20% of the time. Focus on learning the most common words, but also YOUR most common phrases, especially from a late-beginner stage / early-intermediate because you’re going to use them every day.
- Following the breadcrumbs: try and focus on the breadcrumb trail directly in front of you and follow it. What do I mean? Focus more on passing the obstacles (i.e. learning the words/phrases) that directly block your path rather than searching off the path for obstacles that may be much more rarely on your path, or maybe never.
- Pushing through intermediate to advanced speaking: Focusing on learning these phrases is important as they will quickly start to fill out your conversations and add personality and colour to your ‘insert language’ persona. These common phrases along with the most common words you’ll learn act as a kind of ‘spider web’ that you the spider in this metaphor build that will catch all the new words that fly your way. This rapidly pushes you through the intermediate stage where your vocabulary is patchy and loosely linked and into the more filled in advanced stage.