Language Learning, Article 21: Those Frustrating Phrasal Verbs! By David Bolton
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Those Frustrating Phrasal Verbs!

For those of us who are native speakers of English, the term "phrasal verb" may have little meaning, and we have probably never seen the necessity of seeking a phrasal verb list for the purpose of memorizing it, or indeed for any other purpose.

Yet for non-native speakers of our language, these infamous combinations are a source of frustration, dismay and countless hours of hard work.

Just what is a phrasal verb, anyway?

One common definition is that it is a verb plus a particle - preposition or adverb - that, as a unit, has a meaning that is not equivalent to the verb and complement alone.

For example: "to look up". We often "look up" a word in the dictionary, that is, we seek its meaning. Yet when we do so, we are not really casting our gaze upwards at all.  "Look up" therefore has a specific meaning that actually has nothing to do with "looking up(wards)".

"To get in" is another example. "Get in the car!" We all understand that, yet in fact "to get" usually means "to receive". You get a present. You get a new cat. But to get "in"? Doesn't seem to make sense when you think about it, does it? Here, the phrasal verb "to get in" simply means to enter, when we are entering a rather confined space: get in the elevator, get in the car, get in the closet.

Anyone who has taught English to foreigners, as I have for many years, knows how much trouble they can have with these constructions. Since their meanings cannot be divined logically, (and since foreigners have not been exposed to these units since childhood, as we have), they feel that their only recourse is to memorize long lists of phrasal verbs, in the hope that they will pass their next English test. Unfortunately for them, due to translation subtleties, memorizing doesn't guarantee that they will be able to use them properly.

Here's a concrete example from one of my classes that I taught in Granada, Spain.

I was giving a private conversation class to Maria, a college student whose English level was relatively good. She was telling me about something that had happened to her a few days before...

"I went to the department store with my little brother, and he got lost. It took me a half hour to look him up!"

I laughed, but I knew what she meant, and why she had made this mistake. She had learned that the  English phrasal verb "to look up", in Spanish, means "buscar/encontrar" (equivalent to "seek/find"). After all, when you "look up" a word in the dictionary, you seek and find it, right?

I had to explain to her that while "look up" does mean "seek and find" when we are talking about words in a dictionary, articles in an encyclopedia, or numbers in a telephone book, it does not mean this when we are talking about finding someone who is lost.

Her problem was that she didn't realize just how specifically these expressions must often be used in order for them to make any sense at all.

Thus, even after a non-native speaker of English has memorized a list of phrasal verbs together with an approximate translation of each one into his/her own language, there is no guarantee that he/she will use them correctly: when they use these verb constructions in a conversation with a native speaker, they may end up getting laughed at.  No wonder that learners of English get so frustrated!

Often, foreigners will adopt what seems to them to be a practical strategy: they will memorize a phrasal verbs list in order to pass their English exams, but when conversing, they will use alternatives instead.

For example, instead of trying to say " I called up my mother", they will say "I phoned my mother"; for "I ran out of sugar", they will say "I didn't have any more sugar."

I had an advanced pupil named Enrique whose English was rather good, yet he almost never used phrasal verbs, which made his speech sound a bit strange. After all, no native English speaker would speak for even a few minutes without using one or more of them!

In order to help these, and other students, master such expressions, I recorded a series of mp3 files, in which I spoke about the one hundred most common phrasal verbs, giving not only their meanings, but also examples of their correct usage (see the section after this article for details on how you can purchase this product). This seemed to do the trick: after listening to these files a number of times on their mp3 players, my students gradually were able to incorporate them into their speech and writing, which of course greatly improved their level of English.

Over thirty years of teaching English to people of many countries has shown me some of the best ways to help foreigners master the phrasal verbs:

- use phrasal verb lists only as guidelines, to make sure that the most important ones are indeed learned. Do not insist upon having your students memorize such lists, for that process is long and tedious, and in the end, will not assure that they use them properly anyway.

- When conversing with your students, point out the phrasal verbs that occur, give further examples of their usage, and above all, tell them just how specifically they often must be used if they are to make any sense at all.

- Encourage the use of audio. I use a series of mp3 files that I have made available, and this approach has had excellent results: students master the most common phrasal verbs with a minimum of effort.  The key here is to use audio conversation that has a lot of phrasal verbs, and preferably repeats them, so that the learner may assimilate them more quickly and efficiently.

Above all, take pity on all those millions of people who, because they are learning English, have no choice but to undertake a monumental struggle to learn the notorious English phrasal verbs.

If you are a native speaker, be glad that you have learned them from early childhood on, so that they don't cause you any problems at all.

And if you are a non-native speaker of English who still makes mistakes with phrasal verbs, take heart: patience, persistence and continual practice will solve your problems, not only where these linguistic demons are concerned, but in many other areas of your life as well!


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Keep up your momentum! Read the next article:
Second-Language learning Challenge: Word Order

English for Spanish Speakers

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