When are Phrase Guides OK?

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.

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  1. A rant!

4 thoughts on “When are Phrase Guides OK?”

  1. Hi Clarissa,

    Thank you again for a very practical discussion. I’m now able to tell in some degree that some of the phrase books are fairly useful and some are just rubbish, but before I’ve read certain amount of natural English, it was just impossible to tell the difference and I had to judge the value of those textbooks by the name of the publishers.

    The same thing can be applied to the textbooks of Japanese. One time I skimmed through some textbooks for Japanese learners and I was literally appalled at the long lists of strange very formal expressions I barely use in daily life.
    If you’re made to learn Japanese with those difficult textbooks, you’re likely to shrink the passion to learn Japanese in a short while.

  2. Hi, emmie, thanks for commenting again!

    Yes, it must be nice to get to the level where you can tell! It’s difficult when you just have to rely on publishers’ names, because even NHK has some materials that are not very good. I don’t know who the specialists are in Japan, though, so I hope there are some better ones.

    There are a lot of Japanese-learning materials in the US, but I don’t think we have the variety of materials that are available for English learners in Japan. Finding anything that focuses on communication for daily life is nearly impossible. For example, the textbooks we’ve been using in the Japanese class I’ve been taking … well, we’ve just finished Book 3. It’s the end of the second year. At the very end of the book, it introduced how to say things like たべる? and 私、行った and so on. (Actually, we learned おみおつけ in the same chapter. I don’t really think that’s very useful.)

    It’s really hard to get authentic input at my level. There’s only one series of graded/leveled readers that I know of in Japanese. ドラマ are way too hard without subtitles, and so on. :/ So I really feel the temptation to buy more books, haha.

  3. LOL おみおつけ!!! I don’t remember when the last time was I’ve used that word. I even have to ask you what it measn…omiotuke is Japanese pickles right?, no no, miso-soup??? I’m serious here.^^; I’m quite positive that my children, I want to believe they’re properly educated in the compulsory education, don’t know that word.

    Your comments concerning NHK is highly controversial in Japan, I think, because there are still many people, especially older ones, who blindly believe what NHK produces are all the best of the bests.

    mmm, so it’s hard for you to find easy Japanese books. If you and your classmates are really in need of easy but authentic Japanese books such as picture books or children’s books, then I can send you some, so don’t hesitate to ask me.

    Good day!

  4. LOL!!! Yeah, it’s miso soup! My 20-year-old Japanese student didn’t know what it was. I’m sure she’s well educated! Her parents (who are over 40) knew what it was, but it took them a minute. A Japanese friend from Kyushu, who’s around my age, said he thought it was both a very polite/old-fashioned word and kind of a Tokyo-dialect word.

    Well, the reason I said “even” NHK is because most of NHK’s materials really are pretty good, I think, at least in terms of correctness and relatively few mistakes. I think they’re more reliable than many other publishers. (Who are their rivals? I don’t know…ALC?) I’ll have to look at them again next time I’m at Kinokuniya and see if I can find some examples of any mistakes…

    I wish there were a Book Off here. There’s one in LA and one in San Diego, but there isn’t one in the SF area anymore. :/ However, I’m going to San Diego soon, so maybe I can spend a little money there. It’s too expensive to ship books from Japan! But maybe we can have a “book exchange” around New Year’s. :) That would be fun. I would trust you to be able to pick out something I can read. I just blindly picked out some kids’ books a couple of years ago, but they had a lot of baby talk and stuff I couldn’t understand. Also, to be honest, all hiragana is kind of difficult to read compared to some kanji with furigana. (Partly, this is because I studied Chinese before; partly, it’s because sometimes I’ve forgotten the sound but the kanji reminds me of the meaning.) So it has to be the right kind of kids’ book, which is hard for my other Japanese friends to pick out…

    Thanks for the offer!

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