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Making a Breakthrough

What are your goals for English? Perhaps it’s to pass an exam, take part in a business meeting, or maybe to be able to socialise with English friends. Some students feel successful when they can understand a joke in English or when they think, or even dream in the language. Whatever your goal and whatever your current level, it’s rewarding to make a breakthrough to next level.

So, what is a breakthrough? Well, let’s put it another way: it’s a lightbulb moment, an acceleration of progress, or a feeling that something which was hard, just got easier. As trainers, we are happy when we hear you say …

“I get it”

‘To get’ - has so many different meanings including to achieve, to receive, to obtain, to become. The meaning here is to come to understand something – “The grammar is difficult, but I get it now.”

Moments of breakthrough are likely to be different for every student … and sadly there are no shortcuts. Learning ‘rules’ for grammar and vocabulary in lists may seem to be the best way to fast-track progress but we all know the problem with grammar ‘rules’ – there are always exceptions. True progress comes from exploring the language, gaining a deeper understanding of it, and developing your vocabulary as you do with your first language. Incidentally, you don’t translate your first language when learning it, so we encourage you not to do this when learning a second language.

Let’s look an example - Students are often surprised to hear that there are more than 10 ways to talk about the future in English and despite it being covered first in most textbooks, ‘WILL’ is not the most commonly used form. What’s more surprising is that, I don’t even call the future a ‘tense’. This is something which students often struggle with at first but once they explore the range of wonderfully functional ways with which we can talk about the future, they are better able understand it and subsequently use it more confidently. In other words, they start to think about it and use it in an English way.

What about vocabulary? Why do we say, ‘fish and chips’ and not ‘chips and fish’? Why is it ‘make a mistake’ and not ‘do a mistake’?… and why oh why does English have so many phrasal verbs? Well, again, this is about finding what ‘sounds’ English. Phrasal verbs are extremely useful, but students frequently find them frustrating and say they are confusing. Instead of thinking about them as individual words in confusing combinations, try thinking about each one as a 'chunk' – a piece of language you can recycle. Once you understand it, take it! It’s yours! Don’t worry if there isn’t an equivalent in your language.

For every word, expression, or element of grammar you know in your first language, your understanding of it is built from each time you have encountered it. For vocabulary, this may include informal or formal contexts, negative or positive use, collocations (other words that ‘go well’ with it), references in TV, literature, or advertising and many more factors. The same is true for every piece of language you come across in English. It is not enough, therefore, to simply translate a word to understand it. Once again, the key is to explore and build an understanding.

A breakthrough to the next level of your English journey comes down to seeing the language from an English perspective. Not “how do I translate what I want to say?” but “how would an English speaker say it?”.

Catherine Jones, English Teacher
Making a breakthrough!


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