Don't be put off by phrasal verbs and their abstract meanings

So why are English learners put off by phrasal verbs? Why do they try to get out of using them and why do they struggle to get the hang of them?

In my experience learners often try to get out of (avoid) using phrasal verbs as they are indeed problematic for them due to their sometimes abstract meanings. For example, if you consider 'get out of', it is difficult to connect this to the meaning of 'avoid'. It's only when we consider the context can we start to work out the meaning.

But are they essential? Can the English language learner get out of learning them? My answer would of course be that they are a very important part of the English language, especially in informal spoken English and they really should be dealt with as such. Of course, it is possible to use a single-word verb for almost all phrasal verbs (for example 'avoid' instead of 'get out of') but, if you do not use them, your English could sound unnatural and even somewhat formal, especially when speaking with native speakers.

So how many should I learn? There really is no definitive answer. Your teacher can give you lists of phrasal verbs recommended for each level but learning from lists in this way really isn't advisable. It's actually better to come across (meet) them in context by reading, watching series and listening to podcasts. As I said before, use the context to help you understand their meanings and then look them up in a dictionary or ask your teacher about them. It's really not abouthow many you pick up (learn) but how well you understand them and get the hang of using them.

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You can also increase your chances of coming across phrasal verbs when you read, by reading articles and modern-day novels. One particularly good source is horoscopes! Maybe catch up on yours and see how many you can pick up? Make a note of any you stumble upon outside your classes and then you can bring them up with your teacher in class.

But don't just leave it there! To really get the hang of using them, try and use them outside the classroom, especially with native speakers who can tell you if you're using them in the right context. This is because some phrasal verbs are quite context specific. For example, the phrasal verb 'take up' can mean 'start' but we use it in the context of a hobby or sport. For example: 'I've recently taken up (started) pilates'. Similarly, the phrasal verb 'break out' can also mean 'start' and one possible context refers to a disease or virus. For example: 'Coronavirus broke out (started) in Spain in 2020.'

Should I translate phrasal verbs?Although I think you shouldn't rely on translating everything, sometimes it can really be beneficial. For example, if you take the phrasal verb 'get on (with someone)', I could explain it to you by saying that it means 'to have a good relationship (with someone)', but the translation 'llevarse bien (con alguien)' really helps the Spanish speaker to undertand the exact meaning.

Encuentra tu profesor ideal

In my conversation classes I of course put a lot of emphasis on informal language such as phrasal verbs as this is how native speakers really speak. Similarly, in my Cambridge preparation classes I also tend to focus on phrasal verbs as I feel that they are an essential part of the language that will take a student's learning way beyond the classroom into the real world.

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