When are Phrase Guides OK?

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I understand why people want to use phrase guides, follow phrase-posting Twitter accounts, etc. Here are some reasons I thought of.

  1. You want to memorize correct language and use it exactly the way you learned it with no mistakes.
  2. You know it’s easier to remember language in “chunks” (larger pieces) instead of single words
  3. You want to see lots of examples of correct language use.
  4. You know that some kinds of words usually go with other words, and you want to learn about it.
  5. You are curious about the language.
  6. You don’t have time to really learn a language, but you need to use it.
  7. You need to know about a certain kind of language for a certain kind of purpose/You need to “fill in a hole” in your speaking/writing abilities.

I really understand these reasons. I’ve bought phrase books and subscribed to Japanese-teaching mailing lists, too! Let’s look at these reasons for a minute and see if they are good reasons or bad reasons, and whether phrase guides are useful in each case.

#1 is probably the most common reason. Most of us want to sound correct. However, this is a bad reason, since we are not computers. You can’t just use memorized phrases all the time. Language is creative, and you have to learn to create your own sentences in order to communicate. In addition, as we discussed last time, many phrase books and guides are full of errors, and it’s not easy to memorize that way, anyway.

#2 is true: it’s easier to remember things in “chunks” rather than one at a time. For example, if you’re trying to learn phrasal verbs, it’s much better to learn them inside of sentences. However, phrase guides won’t really help with this. It’s better to either get these chunks by reading (such as in fiction), or by writing your own examples that are easy to remember (use people from your life, favorite characters, etc.). So learning things in chunks is a good idea, but not a good reason to use phrase guides.

#3 is another good idea, but it doesn’t work well with phrase guides. It’s true that getting lots of “input” is great, but phrase guides are not a good source. It’s better to read and listen to lots of correct, natural English! Before, we talked about how phrase guides are often full of mistakes. Even if they are well-written, the phrases aren’t connected, so they are hard to remember. Unlike fiction, the phrases aren’t repeated (fiction writers often use favorite words and phrases several times).

#4 refers to something called “collocations,” which is the way some words are often found with other words. For example, “hot” goes with “coffee,” but “warm” goes with “blanket.” For some simple things, such as pairs (where the order may be different from your language, such as “men and women,” “mother and father,” “you and I,” and “black and white,”) it might be useful to look at a list. The list of collocations is so big, however, that you could look at phrase lists forever and not learn them all! To learn collocations, it’s definitely better to pick them up by reading, not by looking at phrase guides.

#5 is actually a good reason! If you are just curious about the language and you have a found a phrase guide that you can trust, then phrase guides can be fun to read! You might learn something new, correct a mistake you had been making, etc. I don’t think you will learn lots and lots of phrases, because this is not an effective way to learn lots of things quickly. But you may learn some things that are interesting or useful. This is one reason why I enjoy some of the Kodansha Japanese phrase books that I have. However, don’t spend too much time doing this.

#6 is also a good reason. If you don’t have time to learn another language, a phrase guide can be very useful. When I went to Japan for my honeymoon, I really didn’t speak any Japanese, so I memorized some phrases like “May I take your picture?” The biggest problem with English travel phrase books is that some of them contain really awful, old-fashioned English that’s not understandable, so you still have to be careful. Also, some of the ones made in Japan and Korea give pronunciation in katakana and hangul. That’s pretty bad, because we usually can’t understand that–it doesn’t sound like English at all.

#7 is probably the best reason. Whether you are studying nursing or learning to use Twitter, there are times when you need to learn about special vocabulary. I think that the more limited a phrase guide is, the more useful it is. So “English phrases for daily life”? Not very useful for memorization. “English phrases for the telephone”? Maybe… “Casual English telephone greetings?” “Common Twitter abbreviations?” Okay, those might be helpful to look at–if the lists are correct and natural.

Related to #7: You might also want to use a guide if you realize that there are “holes” in your vocabulary. I’ve been using a couple of books on “frequently used English phrases” with some students who learned English in Japanese schools. They didn’t know many common conversational English phrases like “Guess what?” I chose the books after looking at about 20 different books in Kinokuniya. We looked at about 5-10 phrases per week. We spent a lot of time discussing each phrase. The books didn’t include enough information on whether a phrase was casual, rude, etc. (Dangerous!) They didn’t include enough examples, either. If you tried to learn from these books without a teacher or very fluent friend, you would need to combine it with a lot of TV- and movie-watching practice to learn how to use the phrases. Sometimes, phrase guides just “heighten your awareness” (increases your knowledge that a certain kind of thing exists). However, that’s still useful, I think. You’ll start to be aware of it and notice it, and gradually learn how to use it.

Overall, I think it’s best to focus on reading and listening to books and other material at your level. This way, you know the language is natural, and it has context, etc. However, phrase guides are useful for some purposes. Check out the PhraseMix blog and Twitter account for an example of a good phrase guide with correct English.

If I missed (forgot to include) some reasons, let me know! The discussion on the other post was really great. Thank you!

P. S. I’m sorry this post is so long! I’ll try to write a short, interesting post soon.

A rant!

I am going to take a minute to do something different. I’m going to write a “rant.” A rant is when people write or talk about something in an angry way. Usually, they talk about something that bothers them personally. They don’t just yell and scream. They explain why they are upset.

Here is something that really bothers me: Books, websites, and Twitter accounts that teach totally useless or incorrect English.

It’s OK if it’s funny, and the learner knows it’s funny. But when it’s mixed in with normal English, how can you tell?

Here are some phrases that I have seen on “English-teaching” Twitter accounts recently:

  • It just eats up electricity and frosts up really quickly. (I guess it’s about a refrigerator. When would you need to say this, though?)
  • I could make a glitter ball out of tinfoil. (Why?!)
  • I dreamt you chucked me. (What? I’m not even sure what this means.)
  • He was in the true sense of the word culture. (This is just wrong. The correct sentence would be very formal, anyway.)
  • I had my wife die. (Not impossible, but extremely strange and rarely used.)
  • I don’t know both of them. (We don’t say this. It sounds very, very strange. I contacted the account that posted this and asked them about it. They didn’t answer me.)

I guess some of these accounts are using lists of phrases that come from very old books or dictionaries. Some of these sentences might have been OK 100 years ago. They’re not OK now. Other phrases have mistakes in them. I think somebody who’s really fluent in English should check the phrases to make sure they’re correct. It should be someone who has really used English a lot. It shouldn’t be someone who’s just learned English from a book. If you’ve just learned English from books (or Japanese from anime, etc.), then you can’t judge what is OK, realistic, old-fashioned, etc. EDIT: Idiom guides are particularly bad, even ones written in the US or UK. Many of them teach idioms that are almost never used in modern English. Why waste your time trying to memorize them?

I’m not upset about just a couple of mistakes or strange phrases. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I’ve probably made mistakes somewhere in this post. I also don’t mean mistakes in #twinglish users’ accounts or English-learners’ accounts or blogs. I am talking about blogs, Twitter accounts, and books are supposed to help you learn English, but that have lots of serious errors or strange phrases that no modern English-speaker would say or write.

I have a travel phrase book from JAL that is full of strange phrases. When I look at English books at Kinokuniya, I see lots of mistakes and strange phrases, too. Some of my Japanese and Taiwanese friends have dozens of books that are totally useless! They must have spent a lot of money on those books. (And yes, that’s true for books about Japanese and so on in America, too! One popular book on Japanese slang is full of words from the 80s!)

This sort of thing drives me crazy (makes me annoyed/angry) because learners often can’t tell what’s useful and what is completely strange or wrong. These writers, bloggers, and tweeters are supposed to be helping you. However, they are actually giving you useless information that wastes your time. These people are taking your time or money, but giving you something bad in return. It’s like they’re selling you rotten food, but you can’t smell it or see it.

Don’t just go to the bookstore or use things you find online. If you can, get a fluent friend to check it out first. Read Amazon.com reviews very carefully. (Reviews that just say “It’s great!” are not helpful. Look for details.) If you have fluent or native-speaker friends online, ask them to look at books/blogs/Twitter accounts and tell you what they think.

Anyway, just memorizing phrases with no context is not very helpful. It’s better to learn them from a novel–even an easy kids’ book–than to just try to memorize them one at a time. If you read them in a story, they’re probably going to be correct. You will also get more information about who says that kind of thing, why, when, if it’s polite or casual or rude, etc. (especially as you read more and see phrases over and over again).

Still, there are some good Twitter accounts, blogs, and phrase books out there. You just have to be careful.

Okay…my rant is over! Phew. :)

If you have any questions or comments, or if you’ve had bad experiences with this kind of thing, please tell me!

Where I’ve Lived

Today’s post is just a little bit about me. It’s not as interesting as baby squirrels, I think…

View Where I’ve Lived in a larger map

Both of my parents are from California, but I was born in a small town in Missouri. Missouri is a state near the middle of the US. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The weather is kind of like Okayama, Japan, but the town I lived in is colder in the winter, and not as rainy in the summer. Compared to Pusan, Korea, the weather is warmer in the summer (but still not as rainy), and almost the same in the winter. (You can compare weather at Weather.com’s comparison site, but they don’t have information for every city outside the US. Wikipedia has information, too.) The town I was born in is very small–only about 12,500 people live there.

When I was little, we moved to Alabama, North Carolina, and then Kansas. This was because of my dad’s work.

Finally, we moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I lived there for about 12 years, and I went to college there. It had about 50,000 people then, but it’s bigger now.

All of these states have similar weather. There four seasons including a spring with pretty flowers, a hot and humid summer, an autumn with beautifully colored leaves, and a cool or cold winter. Sometimes there are bad storms. These states have a few big cities, but there’s a lot of countryside. You can see a lot of farms and natural areas.

Now I live in Fremont, California. It’s kind of near San Jose and San Francisco. The population of Fremont is about 220,000, but our city is next to a lot of other cities. It’s part of the San Francisco Bay Area (Wikipedia link — or Simple English version), which has more than 7 million people. The weather is totally different. This part of California has a special climate, which is similar to the area near the Mediterranean Sea. I’ll explain it more sometime, but for me, it was really strange at first!

Anyway, I’ve lived in California since 2000, although I spent 3 months in Taipei, Taiwan.

Where have you lived? You can tell me in the comments. I’d like to know.

If you have any questions about where I’ve lived, please feel free to ask.

Similar (adj.): Almost the same, very close. Ex. “That painting looks similar to the one we saw before.” (A more casual way to say it is “That painting looks like the one we saw before.”) “Some people say that song was copied from another band, but I don’t think the songs are very similar.”
Humid (adj.): This is when the air has a lot of water in it. The noun is “humidity.” Ex.: “It’s hotter in the desert than in the rain forest, but the rain forest is more humid.” “I try not to use my air conditioner, but when it’s hot and humid, I turn it on.”
Climate (n.): Average weather conditions and patterns (of a place). Weather is what’s happening this week; climate is what happens over years. Ex.: “Italy’s climate is perfect for growing grapes.” “She’s from a country with a hot climate, and she’s not used to snow.”