Everyone knows it’s important to master vocabulary and grammar, but what about learning phrases? In applied linguistics phrases come under the umbrella of formulaic language which describes fixed sets of words that native speakers use in everyday communication. Greetings, expressions of thanks and polite remarks tend to be in this form– which is why learning them from Day 1 means you’ll have the distinct advantage of being able to participate in conversation (although you may not necessarily understand what people are saying back to you). The frequency with which native speakers use formulaic language is remarkable — some studies suggest a staggering 70% of speech contains fixed groups of 2+ words. That makes phrases essential for language learners to study and use.
In discussing our language habits, the psycholinguist Steven Pinker points out that even though there are countless ways to express a given idea, people tend to rely on a very limited range of expressions. No one is certain exactly sure why this is, but one thing psychologists know is our brains like to be efficient about processing. In some instances equating groups of words to a more robust meaning might be a shortcut. Nonetheless, this doesn’t explain the order of collocations. Why do we say “fish & chips” and not “chips & fish”? It also doesn’t tell us about meaning, for example where “bite the bullet” originally came from.
Why you should learn phrases
Grammar – Studying phrases helps your brain pick up on the grammar rules of the language you are learning. You may not be fully conscious of the fact that you are learning grammar but that’s actually one of the best ways to go about it! Try this post for more on how to study grammar.
Vocabulary – Words learned as part of a phrase can always be extracted and used in other settings or contexts. Studying formulaic language increases your vocabulary and the more words you recognise, the easier it is to learn new ones. For more tips on building your vocabulary, visit this post.
Pronunciation – Phrases, particularly when they are longer, can help you understand more about the prosody of a language. Stress and intonation change when you are delivering a longer utterance vs. a single word. That’s why phrases can help teach language learners about the way words sound when they come together. See our post on pronunciation tips to learn more.
Fluency – Using phrases, particularly ones favored by native-speakers, enhances a listener’s perception of your fluency. Instead of building every spoken utterance from scratch, you can combine formulaic language and mix and match. This also speeds up language production so you communicate at a more native-like pace.
Ease of use – Phrases don’t usually require you to change their form much, which makes them easy to use. You can unpack their meaning when you are ready but in the beginning all you need to understand is how they function as a unit.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Phrases are great but if all you learn is phrases you will be in trouble in the long run. That’s because language is dynamic and there may not always be a phrase that captures exactly what you want to say. Learning grammar either through incidental exposure or direct study allows you to put nouns, verbs, adjectives and phrases together into meaningful utterances. That’s why the best strategy is a balanced one in which you practice creating original utterances and incorporating formulaic language as appropriate.
Another pitfall language learners should avoid is over-use of formulaic language. Research has shown that second language learners tend to know fewer overall phrases but to rely more on the ones they do know than native-speakers. Humans are sensitive to ratios and frequency of occurrence in language. Thus, if a particular phrase shows up in your speech more often than it should, it may call negative attention to your communicative abilities.
Tips for learners
Native speakers are exposed to collocations from birth thus they pick up on them without direct study. The same can’t be said for language learners who need to actively learn phrases. The good thing is, just like walking down a well trodden path, formulaic language becomes part of our brain chemistry once we use it enough!
Get a phrasebook. Head to the library and check out their selection. They tend to have phrasebooks and you’ll usually find a handful of phrases at the end of the average travel guide too. The phrases you are likely to find in a phrasebook will be practical formulations vs. figurative formulaic language.
Try a language app. You can learn phrases such as greetings and common expressions in most language apps and online programs, including the Living Language course. Don’t worry if you aren’t clear on the grammar inside the phrase right away and take advantage of a recorded audio to help you get the pronunciation right from the get-go.
Make flashcards. There’s no reason why you can’t put phrases on flashcards. Multi-modal learning in which you pair an image with a phrase and an audio helps you reinforce information and build stronger form-meaning connections in memory. There are also plenty of free apps which allow you to practice them using spaced repetition!
Listen to native speakers. Listen out for formulaic language to learn more about how to use it appropriately. Phrases are one of the best things to come out of interactions with native speakers. If you don’t have access to real people, try putting on a tv sitcom. That’s because television is scripted to mimic authentic conversation. Turn on the subtitles in the language you are learning as this will help you identify phrases that keep coming up.
Read the newspaper. Newspaper articles on a similar topic or written by the same author may reveal repeat use of certain phrases. Take out a pen and highlight sets of words you think might be a collocation then do a quick Google search to confirm your guess. If you’re reading online, copy and paste the article into a word document where you can annotate it with italics and bold formatting.
Keep a running list. Start a journal in which you record all of the formulaic language you are learning. You may want to start several different lists for spoken vs. written collocations, idioms, fillers or set phrases that are useful in a particular context. Review often and make an effort to use new language as early as possible.
Test them out. Get on a language exchange forum and start putting your phrases to good use. The more you use them, the easier they will be to learn and remember. They also sound better to native speakers so they’ll help you develop your confidence in foreign language conversations.
How about idioms?
Idioms are an example of figurative formulaic language in which the definitions of individual words don’t add up to the meaning of the phrase as a whole. They may have similar versions across languages or be unique to a given tongue. Idioms usually need to be learnt and may show up less frequently in conversation. They’re more important when you reach intermediate and advanced levels but beginners can study them too, particularly if they’re looking to impress a native speaker. Studying idioms is also a great way to learn about culture and humour.
Start learning formulaic language today
When you are learning a foreign language you often need to directly study formulaic language including collocations, phrases and idioms. There are instances in which graded readers that present repeat examples of the same phrase can help you learn. You will also benefit from native speakers who can explain meaning to you and exposure you to more native-like grammar and constructions. Above all it’s important to make a conscious effort to use formulaic language when you can to help you develop a more native-like fluency.
Have you found it useful to study phrases? Join the discussion in the comments!