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How Do You Learn Phrasal Verbs in English?

Hello all!

When I am trying to explain phrasal verbs in English to people learning English, I always struggle.  It's very difficult to translate them into another language, and some of them are quite difficult to explain.  What are some ways that you have found helpful teaching or learning phrasal verbs in English?

For example, there is this phrasal verb that I heard a lot when I was a kid.  The phrasal verb is "to talk back."  It means when your parents tell you to do something, and you try to argue with them.  The classic line from a mother is, "Don't you talk back to me."  I find it quite difficult to explain to non-native speakers.

Here is a video explaining the phrasal verb a little better:

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVh_Q82M6TM&t=17s">Phrasal Verb - To Talk Back In English</a>


This one phrasal verb is just an example, but I find myself struggling in a similar way when it comes to explaining most phrasal verbs, and I was wondering what effective ways English students have used to learn them, and what effective ways teachers have used to teach them. 


Apr 21, 2018 4:56 AM
Comments · 6

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the video! I had a good laugh at the son-talking-back-to-his-dad scene. :D

Just on that particular phrasal verb, something you hinted at several times but really needed to make crystal clear is that someone who talks back "shouldn't" be doing so, ie. they don't have the authority (no matter if they're in the right). So children, students, and football players can try to talk back to their parents, teachers or referees, but the reverse - eg. a teacher talking back to a student - doesn't make any sense.

Learners really want these clear examples so they don't get confused by what-ifs and maybes. You could also remove the "back" part and compare "don't talk to me" with "don't talk back to me". Students also often wonder if the second word is redundant.

I think students expect a straightforward dictionary definition, but phrasal verbs often depend on the situation or the rest of the sentence for their meaning (thinking of "go off" and "make out" here). So I think it's worth taking a few full-sentence examples to show how the context can change the meaning - such as when milk, a bomb, a person or a celebration "goes off".

Phrasal verbs tend to be a nightmare for students, so good on you for tacking this topic. :)

April 21, 2018
In such cases it is very useful to use the Internet service http://context.reverso.net
There it is usually possible to find an analogue of a phrasal verb in the language of the one you are teaching, and this is the simplest way to explain a phrasal verb or an idiom, a proverb, etc.
May 18, 2018

Hello Mike :)
This is a very important question you covered in the discussion. Now I have a hard work in English learning to understand at least some basic supply of these expressions. Actually as Peachey said, it's truth that learners have an intention to receive the only direct translation of a verb (or any word either), and of course, they just pray not to get a lot of synonyms according to that verb. And actually when a phrasal verb or an idiom has been joined as an addition to the main verb, it becomes a real nightmare for learners. 

I think there is a solution, and actually you use it partially. I mean, it's necessary to give examples, where, in which situations one or another expression has been applied. But if a learner is expecting at first for a definitive translation, you should give it him to understand the general meaning. After that you can say your certain and professional "but" and represent all the cases where the meaning of the word can have some another form and definition. These phrasal verbs or idioms can be compared and written like synonyms to another existing verbs for better understanding, and then you can explain it more exactly if somebody didn't figure it out.

For example:

to look ---> translation             "but"             to look for = to search / your explanation     
to ask ---> translation               "but"            to ask out = to invite smb on a date

April 21, 2018
Thank you Serg!  Awesome website.  I didn't know about that one.  Great suggestion.
May 27, 2018

Thank you for all your feedback and great suggestions.  I will definitely apply those to the videos.  Phrasal verbs are a real nightmare for students indeed, and I also find them difficult to translate into other languages.  Like what Peachey said, the challenge is that the context is so important, and the implications the phrasal verbs have in order to make sense are necessary to explain.  It just makes sense to me about the relationship dynamics when discussing the phrasal verb "to talk back," but it wouldn't to a non-native speaker.  

I also like the idea of starting from the initial verb and adding the phrasal verbs from there.  They are so complicated to explain that I have so far just stuck to one at a time as not to get too confusing and lose peoples attention.  

Thanks again for your feedback!

May 18, 2018
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