Learn Phrases, Not Words | TROLL 016

Olly Richards here and I’m back with another rule of language learning. And this one is an absolute belter!

But, before we go any further, I want you to think about what I just said… I talked about this rule being an “absolute belter”.

Now, “belter” is a word we say quite a lot here in the UK, I don't know about elsewhere…

But I want you to imagine you’re learning English. And you come across that wonderful word “belter” for the first time. Judging by the context, you could probably guess it’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing…

“An absolute belter…” does it mean good or bad? Hard to tell.

So what do you do?

A “Belter” Of A Word

You reach for the dictionary, flick all the way to B and look up the word “belter”, where of course you discover the true meaning, which is something absolutely stunning, amazing, incredible

Now, having looked up the word “belter”, our imaginary English learner is probably feeling quite pleased with himself. He’s learnt a cool new word. And he can’t wait to try it out in real life.

So on the way home, as he's reaching for his Metro pass, his keys fall out of his pocket and a stranger picks up the keys off the floor, hands them to him, and says “Here, you dropped your keys!”

“Thank you,” the student replies. “Thank you for doing the belter!”

The man looks back, confused, but smiles anyway and walks off.

Later that night, our friend is watching TV with his flatmate. They're watching a news report on an earthquake relief effort. There's an amazing segment where they show the rescue team miraculously pulling a little child alive from the rubble.

Our friend watching TV turns to his flatmate and says “Look, isn't that a belter?” Not exactly what his friend was expecting, and not entirely appropriate. But he smiles and says, “yes that’s incredibly lucky, isn’t it!”

And on and on this situation goes…

Our English learner friend tries harder and harder to use this elusive word “belter” every time he sees something that’s really great…

But unfortunately, he just can’t seem to get it right.

Our Imaginary Learner's Mistake

He doesn’t really understand what he's getting wrong, so he goes back to using a different word, great, which he understands quite nicely and can use over and over again without too much trouble.

Of course, the big mistake that our student friend made was to try to learn the word “belter” all by itself. Because it is, in fact, quite hard to use properly. There aren't all that many situations where you can use the word “belter” appropriately.

What can we say without sounding weird?

In fact, if you stray too far from these common phrases, pretty much any way you use the word “belter” is just going to sound a little bit odd.

And so the reason that our friend struggled so much to use this particular word was that he was treating the word like…


…like a word!

I’ll tell you exactly what he should’ve done instead in just a minute.

Words Go Together


But look…

Words very rarely exist in isolation.

Some words do – the word “table”, or “book”, for example. Those are quite descriptive, and you won’t get into too much trouble using them.

But there are tonnes and tonnes of words in any language which are actually used fairly infrequently. And whenever they are used, it is always within a particular phrase, or a variation of a phrase.

In fact, if you looked at all the stuff you say over the course of a normal day, you'd be absolutely amazed how few decisions you actually had to make about the words you used.

You see, a staggering number of things we say are not cleverly concocted in the moment…

We don't construct the grammar as we go, cleverly choosing our prepositions and verb tenses to conform to the rules of English…

We might like to think it’s that…

And if you're a teacher, you might like to pretend to your students that all your “perfect” grammar is down to your personal genius…

But in reality, a huge amount of what we say is nothing more than a bunch of phrases we have used thousands of times in the past… adapted a bit to fit the situation.

This is well established in linguistics, and one of the main proponents of this was Michael Lewis who passed away recently.

Phrases like this, or blocks of language that we can use and reuse, are commonly referred to as “chunks”.

Some of these chunks are quite long, like the phrase “you’ll never believe what happened yesterday”.

Think about it…

If you've ever said these words… did you make any grammatical decisions as you spoke?

No… you didn't.

You just spoke the phrase – the complete phrase – that was lodged in your brain somewhere.

Other chunks are quite short such as ”How are you?”, which you say every single day.

Again, you don't construct that sentence… you just rattle it off.

So, one way or another, we don’t tend to speak by gluing together individual words. But rather by rolling out much longer phrases, or chunks, and just adapting them a bit to fit the situation by changing a word here or there:

It’s a bit depressing when you think about it.

And that’s precisely why our English learner friend, who was trying to master the word “belter”, never got it quite right.


What Our Imaginary English Learner Should Have Done

What he should have done, was to just learn the complete phrase that he heard that day.

So if he heard the phrase “Today is going to be an absolute belter…”, then that’s exactly what he should have committed to memory.

“Today is going to be an absolute belter.”

He should have learnt the entire phrase!

Not only does learning the whole phrase ensure you're using the word properly, but it also saves you a lot of time and makes it easier to remember in the first place.

There's something very satisfying and wholesome about learning a whole phrase, because you really can start to use it with confidence right away, without worrying about what to do with it, or what words it goes with.

There is no need to walk about trying out the word in lots of different situations, wondering why you’re getting it wrong.

Simply learn the phrase, use the phrase, and sit back and enjoy the reactions of the people around you when you whip it out!

Now, you might be thinking that this only applies to certain unusual words…

But actually, you can apply this technique of learning chunks, or phrases, to everything you do.

I’ve been through entire periods in my language learning where all I learn is phrases.

No single words – phrases.

I pick phrases out of the material I’m reading or listening to, and I put them into my flashcards and learn those.

That’s right, I would actually memorise whole sets of phrases…

Phrases For Fluency


And I promise you it is far easier than you think.

Most importantly, though, it has an immediate impact on your speaking, because you are now no longer thinking in single words, but rather in phrases…

And what does it mean if you think in phrases?

It means that you start to speak in phrases – longer more flowing phrases, and you sound a lot more fluent.

So it’s win-win.

In fact, you could say this is an absolute “belter” of a language tip!

And, remember…

If you ever find yourself a little bit unsure about how to use the words that you’ve learnt, do yourself a favour, and…

Learn phrases, not words.

And if you think this is a belter of a language tip, then type the word “belter” into the comments to let me know! Seriously though, let me know if you already learn “phrases” and “chunks” or if you're planning to. 

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