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Chapter 09: The First Rule - Learn Phrases Not Words


If you've taken English classes, chances are you've had plenty of experience memorizing lists of vocabulary words.

With Effortless English you are not going to do that anymore. Why? Because vocabulary lists are a waste of time. Yes, you heard me right. Trying to memorize a bunch of random individual words is not an effective way to learn. Instead, you're going to use the first rule of the Effortless English method and learn phrases, not words.

What do I mean by "phrases?" Phrases are groups of words that are related, and focus on an idea. Another way to describe phrases is as "natural chunks of language." In any language, certain words naturally go together in a certain way. For example, in English, we say "I am on an island." We don't say, "I am at an island." Why? There is no logical reason. One is simply a common and acceptable phrase and the other is not.

Here's another example. Let's say that hate is one of the new words you want to learn. In a traditional class, you'd write down the word hate and then go look it up in the dictionary to find its meaning. You'd see that it means to have a strong and intense dislike for something; to loathe or detest. Then you'd memorize it – hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.

That's the old way – kind of the textbook way, right? In school, you probably used this strategy to remember a lot of individual words. You had those big vocabulary lists, and you tried to memorize all of them for the test. For verbs, you also tried to memorize conjugation charts.

Even worse, you probably learned these words by memorizing translations in your own language. Because of this, you often find yourself translating in your head when trying to speak English. First, you think of the word in your own language, then you try to remember the translation in English. This extra step slows both your speaking and your listening ability.

Trust me. It's much better if you learn a phrase – a group of words. It's easy. You listen to someone speaking real English, and when you hear a new word, you write it down. Or when you read a story and you see a new word, you write it down. Only you don't want to just write down that one word. You want to write down the whole phrase or sentence that it's in.

In other words, you learn the language in chunks. So, instead of just writing down the word hate, you would write down John hates ice cream. You would write down the whole phrase and its meaning.

It's easy to look up words in an English language dictionary, which most students own. Phrases can present more of a challenge since they can't always be translated literally. That's why I recommend all my students get a good idiomatic dictionary or dictionary of English idioms. Idioms are common phrases or sayings in a language. If you just search online for a "dictionary of English idioms" you'll find a ready selection of these books to choose from.

Why do we do this? What's the power of phrases? Well, for one thing, phrases give you a lot more information. They give you much more information than you would get from a single word. As a result, phrases are easier to remember, because they have a deeper meaning. They present you with a kind of picture or story, especially when you get them from something you are listening to or reading. When you hear, John hates ice cream, you remember the whole little story. You remember who John is. You remember that he had ice cream, and then you remember he hated it. He didn't like it, right? So you have all these extra pieces of information. This extra information puts the word in context. It helps you remember the meaning of the phrase as well as the meaning of that word! This might not seem like much, but in fact, this is a huge improvement for memory. By learning phrases, you will learn more vocabulary, you'll learn it faster and you'll remember it longer.

There's also another bonus. When you learn phrases, you are not just learning the individual word, you're learning grammar, too. You're learning how to use that word correctly with other words. You don't need to think about grammar. You don't need to know the rules or worry about word order or verb tenses. It's automatic. You'll use the word correctly in a phrase because that's how you remembered it.

In the Effortless English system, this is one way that you learn grammar intuitively and unconsciously, without thinking about grammar rules. Phrases teach you natural spoken English grammar. By learning phrases, you are automatically learning both grammar and vocabulary at the same time. Two for one!

:: Learning the Natural Way

This is actually how native speakers first learn English grammar. It's how you learned your own language. When we're children, we learn in phrases. We learn in groups of words. Give it to me. Walk across the street. He fell down. (Note: in some cases, the phrases I'll refer to could be full sentences, since they contain both a subject and a verb like the previous example: He fell down. In other cases, a phrase could be just a few words within a sentence. In this book I am using the word phrase to describe any natural word group).

The point is: we learn groups of words, not just one word. Word by word is slow and it doesn't help with grammar. But when you learn a whole phrase, you are getting extra information. Maybe you don't know it, but you are.

Let's return to our example: John hates ice cream. Remember, our initial word was hate. But now you see there's an "s" at the end – hates, right? John hates. You know from grammar study that you're making the subject and verb agree, but you don't need to think about that. You learn the grammar from just that word in the phrase, that "s" on the end, hates. And in the future, whenever you say John hates ice cream or he hates ice cream, you will automatically add the "s" because that's how you learned it. You won't have to spend time trying to remember the conjugations of the verb "hate" because you learned it correctly from a phrase and now it's automatic.

Of course, you don't actually have to think about all of this consciously. Just by learning the phrase, you will automatically learn the correct verb conjugation. You eliminate the extra step of labeling and analyzing grammar terms. That's why learning phrases leads to faster speech and faster understanding.

On the other hand, if you learn all of this from a textbook, you'll often just learn the root of the word "to hate" and you'll focus on this form: hate, hate, hate. So you study it and you memorize it. That's when you start making mistakes, because you memorized it mostly in this way, without other words. Later, you try to remember all of the conjugations of the verb. But because you didn't learn this with other words, sometimes you might say "he hate ice cream." You'll forget the "s" because you never learned it correctly in a sentence, in a phrase. And in a real conversation, there is no time to think about verb conjugations.

Learning phrases will also help your pronunciation. One of the biggest problems I see with English learners is they speak with strange rhythm and intonation. Rhythm and intonation are the "music" of English. While many students worry about the pronunciation of individual sounds such as v, b, r, and l, their biggest problem is unnatural rhythm.

The rhythm of English is created by the natural pattern of pauses. Native speakers naturally pause between phrases. They speak the language in phrases, in short chunks of English. Because they learned English mostly from phrases, their pronunciation is clear and easy to understand. On the other hand, many students learn English by memorizing individual words, and when they speak, they speak word by word, one at a time. As a result, they often pause in strange places. They create unnatural word groupings. This creates a very strange and unnatural rhythm that many native speakers struggle to understand. This is very frustrating for the speaker and for the listener.

One of the easiest ways to improve speaking, therefore, is to learn phrases and to speak in phrases rather than word by word. This simple change will make your English speaking much clearer and much easier to understand. You'll sound more natural. The words will flow out more easily. You'll improve both pronunciation and fluency. You'll even learn grammar.

:: Where to Find Phrases

So where does a student get these phrases? How do you know which ones to learn? The good news is that you can find them everywhere. Any natural English content contains a wealth of phrases. In a future chapter, I will tell you specifically where to get useful English phrases. But for now, focus on getting phrases from whatever English you are listening to or reading.

To do this you need to start keeping a "phrase" notebook. Every time you see or hear a new word or phrase, write that phrase in your notebook. When you find new English vocabulary in a lesson, in something you are listening to, in a book, or in an article, write down the phrase. Not just one word, write down the entire phrase and then review that phrase, again and again, each day. By doing this, you will create a notebook full of phrases and sentences you can use, not just individual words. You'll be programming yourself to speak in phrases instead of word by word.

If you're watching a movie about a bank robbery, for example, you might hear a character say, "They're getting away!" You know get means "to obtain" something, and you're pretty sure away refers to "being at a distance" – like far away. But it's confusing. So you write it down, "They are getting away." Then when you look it up in an idiomatic dictionary, you learn that one meaning of "to get away" is to escape. You might also discover that sometimes when people are going on vacation, they say they are "getting away." Even if you had previously memorized the words get and away on some vocabulary list, you still might not understand what the character in the movie is saying. But since you wrote down the phrase, you now know a new expression you can use in many different situations.

Here's another example. Let's say someone describes their former pet by saying, "He was a bad dog." It's a fairly simple phrase, but you write it down in your notebook. Every time you review, you study that complete phrase. By doing that, you are getting free grammar – he was. You know this is something that was true in the past, not he is, which would mean the dog still was around. You're also getting some free tips about word usage. We don't usually say he was a horrendous dog, for example, even though the meaning is correct. In normal spoken English, we don't usually use that word to describe a dog. This is not what you would learn from studying the definition of horrendous. You learn it by studying a phrase.

When you write down a phrase, write where it came from. If you saw this in a newspaper article about the economy, put that down because that is going to trigger your memory. It will remind you of how the word was used and in what context. You'll start to learn when certain phrases and words are used and when they are not. This way, you'll begin to get a feeling about what is correct and how to put sentences together.


Pronunciation is a big worry for many English learners. Learning phrases will help, but there is another exercise you can do to improve even more. One of the greatest challenges with pronunciation is the problem of feeling strange when trying to use a native accent.

For example, many learners feel unnatural when trying to use an American accent. They feel they are not being normal, or not being themselves. Their voice sounds strange to them. This is normal because speaking a different language naturally forces you to create different sounds.

So how can you develop more natural English pronunciation? One strategy I suggest is to play a little game with movies. In this game, you try to become your favorite English speaking actor or actress. This is a variation of the movie technique, which I will describe in more detail in a later chapter. When you speak, pretend you are that actor. Instead of worrying about your English, concentrate on speaking exactly the way the actor would.

In fact, it's important to think of this as a game and to even exaggerate the actor's pronunciation, movements, and facial expressions.

Sometimes in my own classes, I imitate the famous actor John Wayne, who played the hero in many old Westerns and was seen as the typical American. I'll walk around my classes like I'm wearing cowboy boots and ready to go after some bad guys. Maybe you'll feel more comfortable playing Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts or another movie star . . . the idea is to exaggerate their pronunciation and push yourself to speak just like them. Have fun, and you'll be surprised how much this will help your pronunciation.

The first rule of the Effortless English method is very simple. Yet this very small change to the way you learn vocabulary affects your grammar, your pronunciation, and your memory of new words. Rule one is a piece of profound knowledge that works synergistically with the other rules.

In the next chapter, you'll learn, perhaps, the most surprising rule of the Effortless English system. Rule Two frees you from the grammar-translation method used in school and removes much of the boredom and pain of English learning.

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