Why using Phrasal Verbs makes you a less effective communicator

When we look at English teacher ads on social media there’s often a comparison between “Normal/Basic” English vs. “Native/Advanced” level, and what we see under the latter are idiomatic expression, colloquialism and phrasal verbs.

Just so we are clear, a phrasal verb is a type of verb that is made up of multiple words, typically a base verb and one or more particles (such as prepositions or adverbs).

These particles change the meaning of the base verb, giving the phrasal verb a unique meaning. For example: “She put off the meeting until next week”, the meaning of “put off” in this context is to delay or postpone the meeting.

Since phrasal verbs are typically learnt through exposure and practice, common ones are included as study material for foreign students with the explanation that Native Speakers use these expressions and so they must too. But how true is this?

It is estimated that approximately 365 million of the world’s population can be considered under the very vague definition of the term “native speaker”, however, there are around 1.5 billion speakers of English as a second language worldwide.

The importance of studying phrasal verbs would be to accomodate a minority by speaking “as they speak”, or learning expressions which they themselves might not know how to explain or paraphrase.

One might wonder why it is not the native speaker who needs to be more accomodating in the communication process given the innate proficiency level of English they hold, per definition (I will save that for another post).

Let’s say you have several thousand phrasal verbs under your belt and you find yourself in a multicultural, multinational room. Would you be saying things like:

  1. “To back out” – This phrasal verb means to withdraw from a commitment or agreement.
  2. “To bring up” – This phrasal verb can have multiple meanings, such as to raise a child or to mention a topic in conversation.
  3. “To call off” – This phrasal verb means to cancel or postpone something.
  4. “To stand up” – This phrasal verb has multiple meanings, one of which is to cancel an event or appointment – I was stood up

The answer is both yes and no because it really depends on your awareness level you have of those around you and what is the purpose of the communicative act.

  • Is it to boast about how well you can use these expressions?
  • Is it that you don’t know alternatives for the words you’re using?
  • Are you trying to fit in?
  • Are you trying to confuse or exclude someone from the conversation?

As a teacher I find myself using fewer and fewer phrasal verbs and I teach only the essential ones to learners. If I use them myself I try to provide as much context possible, I leave clues behind and paraphrase what I meant with another go.

I am often disappointed with misunderstandings that occur because of the use of phrasal verbs among international colleagues, and when I can, stealthily, I offer more context for them by saying more on the topic to clarify meaning (not directly offering a translation or teaching!)

Surely you must speak in a way that caters to the receiver of your message, and to do that you must grade your language, just as you would with a student who is struggling. It is a matter of respect towards others, native speaker or not.

Let’s not fill our conversations with inside jokes if all the participants are not made privy. We should know better.

3 Comments

  1. That’s amazing! I loved this article. Congratulations. I agree with you. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. the_non_native_speaker says:

      Can’t thank YOU enough for the feedback. I’m happy you liked it.

      Like

      1. Annie says:

        Intersting points, but I am not sure I fully agree with the suggested conclusions and actions to take.
        1. Native speakers (without advanced linguistic training ) are generally not aware about their use of phrasal verbs. Even if they did and wanted to replace these with synonyms they would find it difficult… and
        2. the dialogue would lack authenticity…
        Using an appropriate context and rephrasing, as well as regularly clarifications and checking comprehension remain crucial to avoid misunderstandings. In oral conversation, perhaps we zshould award more praise for those learners that systematically do this kind of cross-checking instead of artificially trying to avoid more complex language, such as verbal phrases. At least this is my humble opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

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