When learning a foreign language, it is important to have the ability to clarify meanings and ask questions to accelerate your learning. After learning Chinese for six years and studying Korean, Japanese, and Spanish, I have noticed that there are essential phrases that every language learner must have in his or her toolbox to speed up the acquisition of new words and work through linguistic challenges that one might encounter.
Moreover, as a Chinese instructor at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), I saw firsthand students who struggled to master one of the hardest languages in the world. However, I also noticed how having a set of core phrases in their arsenal helped them approach such a difficult language.
MMLA is a four week long full immersion summer academy where students must maintain the language throughout the whole day (including their personal interactions). This can be a very frustrating and exhausting experience for students if they do not have the necessary linguistic tools to navigate the uncharted waters of a foreign language. However, when equipped with a set of core phrases in the target language, I have found that students are able to handle any difficult situation as well as gain a deeper understanding of words and sentences.
The first indispensable phrase is, “Can you please speak a little slower?” When starting to learn a language, it is extremely difficult to interpret and understand everything that a native speaker says the first time. One of the mains reasons is that after about ten months, your brain begins to specialize in hearing the sounds (called phonemes) of your mother tongue.
For example, the difference between the r and l in English is barely recognizable to native Japanese speakers, but to Japanese babies these two sounds are distinct. This specialization makes you more effective at learning your native language but also makes it very difficult to interpret foreign sounds when you are first learning a language at a later age.
As a beginning language student, it is perfectly acceptable to ask speakers to slow down and even repeat themselves multiple times. Often times, native speakers are unaware of how fast they are speaking and their speed is just a force of habit. Another great method of clarifying meaning is to ask someone to repeat themselves. For example, “Can you please repeat what you just said? I didn't catch the last part.” This is a common phrase that native speakers use all the time when communicating. It is not a sign of linguistic weakness, but rather a sign of strength since the student can eliminate confusion.
This phrase along with two others are essential at the beginning and intermediate levels because they allow one to hear the words slowly over again. This gives your brain time to process the many new sounds and grammatical patterns that you are learning. The next two phrases are “What does X mean?” and “Can you use X in a sentence?” These are vital phrases to help you understand words that are unfamiliar to you. When you encounter a word that you don't understand, the best strategy is to ask the meaning of the word and how to use it in a sentence. Another way of saying this is, “Can you give me an example of X used in a sentence?”
Effective language learners carry around a notepad with them (or nowadays use a notepad on their phone), to write down words and phrases to review later. Learning a foreign language is mentally draining. It is impossible for your brain to remember exactly what someone said the first time you hear it. For this reason, it is essential for you to write down every new word or phrase that you encounter along with an example sentence in order to review later.
Another great habit of effective language learners is to look up every new word that you encounter. Now what if you do not know how to spell the word? You can easily say, “How do you spell the word that you just said?” or “Can you write that word down for me?” Training your ears to spell words that you hear is an important part of the language learning process, but sometimes there are words that you simply cannot spell or even hear in a foreign language. By having your friend or tutor write down words that are unfamiliar to you, you can gradually build up the ability to spell words that you hear, further compounding the learning process.
What if you encounter a word when you are reading or out on the street and don't know how to pronounce the word? You can say “How do you say this word?” or “How do you pronounce this word?” Clear pronunciation is important for reaching fluency, and these phrases help you learn how to pronounce words correctly.
When you reach an upper-intermediate or advanced level, you will encounter many words that are similar or are very close in meaning (synonyms), but that are used in a wide range of contexts. The two best ways to clarify these differences are to read more and to ask native speakers the difference between the words. For example, “What's the difference between A and B?” and “Can you use them each in a sentence?” Now, native speakers are sometimes unaware of the differences between words and might only be able to give you a general explanation. However, the examples that they provide are still important because they offer real sentences and explain how to use the word correctly, which is the ultimate goal.
True fluency is being able to use the right words at the right time in the right situation. It is not impressive to know fancy words if you use them incorrectly or in the wrong situation. Two important phrases for determining the appropriate context for a word are, “How formal is this word?” and “Is this word used in formal or informal situations?” Also, “Is this word only used in writing or can it be used in any context?”
Lastly, there are some words that you learn in a textbook that native speakers never use. It is important to identify common ways of saying something and focus on learning the most frequently used words, rather than the most complicated or complex words. In everyday speech, the most frequently used words are repeated over and over. If you master these words, then it will accelerate your learning potential.
Focus on learning the 2,000 most common words as they make up almost 80% of the words used in English. In a future post, I will delve deeper into specific strategies for learning this vocabulary, but for now concentrate on mastering these core phrases. I promise you will reap many benefits from these phrases throughout your language-learning journey.