When students used to ask me about how long it would take to learn English, I’d usually mumble something about an appointment and hurry away.
I didn’t want to tell them the cold facts: conventional wisdom, as well as research, suggests that it takes about 3 years for conversational proficiency and 5 years to learn a second language at a level to function in an academic setting. And while knowing these facts has kept me from investing in programs that claim a second language can be learned in two weeks, it has also somewhat discouraged me from pursuing further study in my own second languages, knowing the amount of time involved. And while I would certainly want to dissuade my students from investing in dubious language programs, I don’t want to discourage them from studying a second language altogether. Most of all, I want them to experience some immediate success with English. Small, immediate success helps students communicate in their second language and also motivates the learner to keep studying—necessary because language learning is a long, arduous task that requires persistence.
One way to help students with some immediate success in second language learning is through teaching some useful phrases.
So instead of the first lessons in English being taken up with learning the verb “to be,” students should learn some language that is used a lot in speaking or writing, that students need to understand, and that they can take out that day and use and actually simulate some fluency in doing so. Prefabricated phrases, or ready-made phrases, like “How’s it going?” help toward these ends; in fact, research suggests language is actually learned and stored in memory in these phrases.
10 Most Useful Academic and Conversational Phrases
Methods for Teaching Phrases
There are numerous ways to teach the frequently used phrases of our language. One such method is simply to call attention to the phrases we use in speaking and writing: “Why did the actor in the TV show say ‘at any rate’? Why does the author use ‘on the other hand’ here?” Part of language learning is to understand speakers and writers actually do use the language learned in the classroom: it is not just an academic exercise.
Language is learned mostly in phrases that are used again and again.
It is also probably stored in memory in phrases: when I think of my second languages, for example, what comes to mind are a few often-used phrases: “Ya ne znayu,” in Russian (“I don’t know”); “comment dit en francais—“ (“How do you say in French—“) and “Viyudaber Moishe” in biblical Hebrew (“And Moses said—“). Even today, if I throw out one of these phrases, I’ll get compliments from native speakers on my strong second language skills. I’ve actually plateaued at a low intermediate level in those languages, but I’ve learned a few phrases very well. And if I go to a Russian or French speaking country, I can get around and could advance further with study. Learning often-used phrases in your second language has strong practical, academic, cognitive, and motivational value.
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