Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Language Learning: The Benefits of Set Phrases

We’re off to Spain next month!
We’ll be retracing the steps and travels of our “hero” David, from Barcelona, to Granada, Sevilla, and Madrid.
In preparation, we are learning Spanish with our Spanish 1 course.
The similarities and differences between Spanish and Italian require constant vigilance.
Distinguishing between a new language (Spanish) and a known one (Italian) certainly keeps our grey cells engaged, but also allows for comparisons and mnemonics.

As I’m playing through the various scenes and games, I notice how I can recall particular words better, when I remember them in the context of a phrase or sentence.
For example, with the expression for “Would you like to... (eat something)?”, in Spanish: “¿Te gustaría ...(comer algo)?”, I don't even worry about having to use the conditional verb form.
Later on in the course, I can easily adapt the phrase to “¿Me gustaría...”, a very useful expression, as for example, in “Camerero, me gustaría pagar.” (Waiter, I'd like to pay.)

I still remember picking up the expression “J'aimerais...” (I would like...) when I was learning French some years ago.
Though it was a staple of my daily interactions (I was then living in the French part of Switzerland), I was totally oblivious to its “conditional” form.

Another expression that helps me remember several words is: “Tengo que comprar algo.” (I have to buy something.)
While learning this expression, I recalled that the Italian “comprare” is very close to the Spanish “comprar.”
However, the Italian and Spanish equivalents for “I have to” are different: “devo" vs. “tengo que,” as are the words for the English “something.”
In Italian, the word for “something” is “qualcosa” and in Spanish, it’s “algo.”

This is how many of us learn our second, third (or more) languages: by constantly comparing and contrasting the new language(s) with the language(s) that we know.

Flash cards with or without pictures – as used by many online or CD-based language programs - are useful for learning the vocabulary of objects, numbers, colors, etc.
However, the words for actions, feelings, opinions, etc., are best learned in the context of phrases and sentences.
Learning set phrases and sentences will not only help you memorize particular words, but will also minimize any struggles for finding the correct grammatical form.