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Demystifying the ‘horrible phrasals’: a closer look
at learner problems and the ways of approaching
teaching multi-word verbs
by Małgorzata Bryndal
- 2

3. Typical difficulties for learners.

In my teaching experience the problems for learners with MWVs often start with comprehension, i.e. inability to recognise the multi-word form/meaning of the verb in spoken and written texts. This issue is directly related to learners’ ability of lexical chunking(6), i.e. perceiving and storing new language not only on a word-by-word basis, but also in a more holistic way: in multi-word units, or lexical chunks, which semantically and/or syntactically form a meaningful and inseparable unit.

To be understood (and used) correctly, MWVs have to be noticed and interpreted as lexical chunks. Learners who tend to translate a written or spoken text word-for-word often fail to notice MWVs. They often assume that each word in an utterance contributes to the meaning independently, e.g.: when coming across a chunk such as look up to (your teacher), learners might think that look up refers to looking in a particular direction. And while this approach might work with some more literal MWV, it will not be useful with idiomatic MWV.

The inability to chunk a text meaningfully leads to even more problems with separable MWVs. It might seem that learners will recognise these MWVs easier, as the particles stand out more clearly. However, the problem with separable MWVs (in spoken and written discourse) is that if learners chunk a text word by word, they tend to focus on the verb part only, ignoring the particles when deducing the meaning and, in result, misunderstanding the message (7). Such problems with recognition are often typical of learners whose L1 belongs to Latin languages branch (e.g. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian) who are inclined to use words that resemble words in their L1s in place of multi-word forms e.g. tolerate for put up with, connect for put through. In fact, ICLE(8)and LINDSEI (9)data suggest that learners whose L1s do not have typical MWVs use fewer English MWVs than those whose L1s have similar lexical items (Germanic branch of languages, e.g. German, Dutch), (De Cock, 2005).

Sometimes learners are unaware of the range of meanings MWVs can have, and having noticed the form they automatically assume the verb has the meaning they already know(10). More adventurous learners try to infer the meaning of a MWV by looking at the inherent meaning of its particle(s). While they are usually successful with literal MWVs, the verbs with metaphorically used particles can be tricky for them, especially when the particles have more than one meaning hence more than one metaphor(11).

Turning to the problems with production of MWVs, the most common difficulties concern different manipulations on the particles. And so, the learners:

    • leave out the particles altogether (especially when the particle appears not to have an intrinsic meaning itself), e.g.: * He brought this subject during the meeting. In case of phrasal-prepositional verbs learners like to leave out the second particle * I look forward our meeting. Such omissions can be influenced by L1 interference, especially when a prepositional verb in English is not a prepositional verb in students’ L1, e.g.: Polish learners often say I listen radio as in Polish you listen something/someone – the verb is not prepositional.
    • add an unnecessary particle creating a MWV, where a simple verb is needed: *The task involved picking up strawberries; using such idiosyncratic MWVs is usually a strategy learners employ to cope with gaps in their English vocabulary; it can also be a result of intralingual confusion, i.e. when an English verb is used both with a particle (as phrasal or prepositional verb) and as a verb that does not require the use of a preposition, and the two forms have different meanings, learners can confuse them (e.g.: *She attended to English classes. In this example attend to – serve, was confused with attend – go to).
    • choose the wrong particle, especially when the particle does contribute to the meaning, learners tend to use one with similar meaning to the correct one *She wanted to put away the exam date; or when in learners’ mother tongue there is a multi-word verb with equivalent meaning, but it uses a different prepositional/adverbial particle, e.g. German speakers might prefer to say *participate at something, rather than participate in something, French and Polish speakers might say *it depends of…;
    • avoid splitting the verb from its particle in separable MWVs when the object is a pronoun: *She decided to give up it, or insist on splitting inseparable MWV: *He looked the children after very well.
    • avoid ending sentences with prepositions/MWV particles, especially in passive constructions, relative and infinitive clauses, as in: This is the problem that cannot be worked out;

(Cf. Parrott 2000, De Cock 2005)

When it comes to spelling, I have noticed that some learners (in particular those whose L1 uses a different scrip type, e.g.: Pakistani, Chinese) might want to spell MWVs with a hyphen (e.g. *put-up), as if they wanted to emphasise that the parts belong together and constitute one meaning. Such (mis)spellings have syntactic, semantic and phonological consequences as they indicate nouns derived from MWVs e.g.: take-off, take-away.

6. Fluency is achieved largely by combining chunks, thus reducing processing difficulty. A great part of the learner’s task is to chunk unfamiliar material in meaningful ways and create more effective lexical phrases. Lewis (1993) claims that introducing the idea of chunking to students and providing them with materials which encourage the identification of chunks should be one of the central activities of language teaching.
7. E.g. drop the parcel is not the same as drop the parcel off.
8. ICLE – The International Corpus of Learner English – made up of formal argumentative essays written by upper-intermediate and advanced EFL learners from a variety of mother tongue backgrounds.
9. LINDSEI – The Louvian International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage – a spoken counterpart of ICLE, made of informal interviews between students and native speakers of English.
10. E.g. if they know pick up means – lift they assume the sentence He picked the woman up in the bar refers to physically lifting the woman up.
11. For instance, the particles up and down can have opposite meanings and relate to the opposite ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ respectively, and so MWV such as go up – go down are antonyms. But up has another meaning to do with the idea of completion, and down has a meaning to do with ending, and so the following pair of MWVs, although perceived by students as antonyms, mean almost the same thing: break up – break down, wind up – wind down (Moon 2005).

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