Learning French or Spanish with Model Phrases 

The idea of using whole phrases when learning a language is nothing new, All successful language learners use it in some form. It just make sense.  Since for most people the goal of learning a language is to produce correctly formed sentences when interacting with native speakers, why not practice doing just that?

Well, this is a lot easier said than done. Unless you start at a very young age and have extensive exposure, learning  a second language is very challenging. How many adults who have studied French or Spanish can truly say they are comfortable speaking the language? Very few by all accounts.

What is the problem?

 Think of what is involved in having a conversation. First, you have to understand what the other person has just said. That can be difficult in itself. Then, nearly instantly, you have to choose a set of words, give them the right form, put them in the right sequence and then say the whole thing with a decent accent. If all goes well, the other person understands you, says something and the whole process starts over.

A lot can go wrong, and usually does. You hesitate, stutter, search for words, try to work out the grammar in your head and then take a shot in the dark, hoping for the best. And most of the time you end up making  errors that you may not even be aware of. This is all very frustrating. Most people feel as if they are reduced to speaking like children.  Others just give up and switch to their native language, let's say English, if that is an option. 

Sure some people can get by when they have to. Getting by often is another way of saying stuck in a rut. This means using a small range of  simple constructions with limited vocabulary and so-so accent.  Very frustrating indeed. Unfortunately, there's no quick fix. 

Working with model phrases as part of a successful learning strategy

Learning a language involves memorizing large numbers of words and many minute details of grammar. Then of course pronouncingl this material correctly involves retraining the ears and the speaking apparatus.  

Successful language learners have a kit of  tools that they use according to their learning style. Formal classes, sefl-study,  grammars, dictionaries, lots of listening material, websites, foreign language DVD's, radio and television, tutoring, immersion, language exchanges, language meetups, electronic or paper flashcards, memorization techniques, etc. They all have their utility.

A set of model phrases is a tool to add to the toolbox. It doesn't replace any of the others. It complements them. But there is more to it than just studying lists of sentences. The sentences should be organized in a way to highlight or focus on key patterns of the target language. These may be patterns of grammar that highlight how the words are put together.

Other partterns may be more about vocabulary with themes like parts of the body, fruits and vegetables, numbers, time and space, etc.

Part of a practice routine would consist of listening to and speaking these model phrases many times unitil they become second nature.

There are two key benefits here. Firstly, you start to notice these sentences in various forms when listening to the language. Words, phrases, idioms seem to jump out at you because you will have seen them before.

That's the passive benefit.  The second key benefit is more active. A good set of model phrases will contain all those grammar details that are so tricky to learn. But more importantly, you now have a repertoire of meaningful material to work with.  You will quickly develop the ability to have entire conversations by either using the phrases as they are or by modifying them.

Keep in mind that a list of phrases does not replace all the other things that have to be done. It does not replace work in the classromm, listening, reading widely, etc. Working with model phrases is really meant to complement everything else..

An example

To see how this works, let's take an example from our Essential English 1 product. Here is example 1-27 from the page devoted to the uses of the verb "to be." Keep in mind that there are over 50 examples on this page.

--So, how are we doing? Are you finished yet?
--No, not yet. There's still a lot to be done.

We tell our students to look up the meaning and study the construction of the sentences. Then listen to the recording of this dialog at least a dozen times and practice speaking in a loud voice over the recording or alone as many times as necessary until delivery to become smooth. A verbal image of this dialog is now created in the student's mind.

Two things start to happen. First, the learner will hear variations of this dialog when listening to the langugae being spoken. Not exactly like this, of course, but close enough. Second, the student is able to start using parts of this dialog in real conversations. Certain bits and pieces will have to be changed, but that's the whole point. The learner now has an easily modified building block to work with.

Now suppose you had a large set of authentic phrases or dialogs to choose from.  You rehearse them so many times that you know them by heart. They are now part of a stock of verbal images to work with. . 

By using this "building block" approach, you are consolidating the ability to sustain true conversations. You're no longer stumbling along, searching for words. And keep in mind that the model phrases are meant to be taken apart, modified and adapted to the context,