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Grammar and vocabulary

How to focus on grammar and vocabulary aspects


It happens quite often that language students are not clear about how to learn certain aspects of English grammar and vocabulary.

As far as vocabulary is concerned, you may be saying that this is just a matter of learning and memorizing. But is it really useful to learn long vocabulary lists without really putting the words into practice?


Most students of English probably remember from former school times the importance our teachers were giving to the list of irregular verbs that we were forced to learn from scratch. Irregular verb tests were an essential part of entire school courses. And I do have to admit that even though it was not the most original and creative way of learning, the importance that was given to learning the irregular verbs indeed pushed me a lot to learn them by heart.

In a certain way, I am grateful now that my teachers insisted very much on learning them. As I find myself in the situation of teaching English now, I am very aware of the importance of these verbs. This is not only for learning the past and participle forms of them; it is also for getting a good command of the meaning of the most basic verbs you are supposed to know in English.

Students at an intermediate and advanced level of English ,of course, know that knowing the past and participle forms of the irregular verbs helps you a lot to also master other aspects of English, such as the conditional clauses, the passive voice and reported speech transformations.

Nevertheless, it is important that you are not only taught the language knowledge as such. You need to be given the space to put your language aquisition into practice. Otherwise, you will soon forget what you have just learned.

It is much better to be asked to formulate an example sentence for each irregular verb that you are learning instead of just trying to remember them without putting them into practice. This is what turns passive vocabulary into active vocabulary.


Phrasal verbs, you know: those verbs that go with prepositions, is another area that most students remember very well from school times. Quite a lot of students recall them with horror for just not getting why certain verbs take certain prepositions that quite often just do not make sense. Why, the hell, do you shout at somebody and not to? Why do you sit in an armchair but on a sofa and get on a train but in a car or taxi?

And sometimes there are even differences between British and American English. In British English you live in a street and do something at the weekend. In American English you use on for both.

Getting the driver’s license was a really useful experience in my life. Not only for having learnt to drive a car, but also for the theoretical part. It was of crucial importance for that exam to know very well how to distinguish those pieces of information that you just had to learn and memorize by heart from those where it was relevant to understand the reason behind. When it comes to learning a foreign language, it is similar.

There are those bits of information that you better accept just the way they are and those where it is really useful to understand why they are this way. It helps to get a deeper understanding. Learning phrasal verbs and the use of the prepositions is exactly about distinguishing between both.

Sometimes students ask me to work on phrasal verbs. I never know exactly what to answer.

On the one hand, of course, it makes sense to practise a number of phrasal verbs. You can perfectly do this by giving students gap sentences in order to choose which phrasal verb fits in which gap. This makes sense in order to distinguish a few of them. On the other hand, there are so many of them. They are basically infinite and therefore impossible to pick up completely.

Sooner or later you come to the conclusion that you learn them by reading, speaking and listening practice and the best way is basically by linguistic immersion, that means by being really surrounded by the language. This makes you pick up phrasal verbs as any other piece of vocabulary. For this reason, I am not too fond of this kind of vocabulary exercise.

We must not ignore the importance of interaction when we learn something. The question how we learn something is as important as what we learn.

Exchange of ideas, mutual support, creativity and having fun are an essential part of learning.


Which grammar aspects may we consider as essential?

The use of the tenses and the modal verbs to start off with.

It is obvious that the beginner starts off with learning to express ideas in the present tense. He or she will soon get familiar with the present continuous form. Once the beginner has achieved a reasonably good level of using the present tense, for example by introducing himself/herself in the present tense, talking about likes and preferences as well as plans or is able to do the shopping in English and to ask for directions or a hotel room or others, he/she will soon get to practise other tenses, like the past tense or the different future forms and the conditional tense and even the past perfect.

The use of the different modal verbs is , of course, a basic part of English grammar as well. They are very important for a good command of English.

An intermediate level of English , of course, goes beyond the modal verbs and the use of the tenses. Here we are including the conditional sentences, active and passive voice, reported speech, the use of conjunctions and discourse markers, prepositions, adverbs, adjectives with their correponding comparative and superlative forms, the use of gerund or infinitive with a number of verbs and structures and others.


The good thing with a number of these grammar aspects is: You may realize that a number of them work basically the same way as in your own language, for example the rules for the conditional sentences, active/passive transformations or reported speech are almost identical by nature in Spanish. tyhey are often a matter of just putting a number of rules into practice.

Other aspects are trickier, precisely those where the word to word translation leads you to really bad language errors, for example the use of the prepositions and phrasal verbs can be quite different. The same applies to the use of the gerund form.

Here we are again with what I pointed out before. You need to associate these grammar aspects the way they work in English. The more you practise, the better you keep memorizing these differences when it comes to speaking or writing. Exercise practise as well as reading a lot provides a good help. However, you should always look for ways to interact with other people in English.

I know this is easy to say but possibly you get to know native speakers of English in your home town. Or just try to convince your friends to communicate in English at a certain time, such as every Wednesday from five to six.

And never forget: Learning a language should be a fun experience. You can learn so much by playing games. They help you to put language structures and vocabulary into practice. And ,of course, they provide a fun way of learning a language.

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El centro de idiomas Hanno Franz ( “TipTop languages” ) fue fundado en el año 1995 por Hanno Franz, un profesor alemán que se dedica desde entonces a la enseñanza de idiomas especializándose en el inglés, el alemán y el español para extranjeros.


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