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One step forward, two steps back

Some days, words in your new language tumble effortlessly out of your mouth. You chatter away confidently, amazed at your progress and delighted by your ability to hold a conversation. Your questions make sense and the person you’re talking to hasn’t made any strange faces or asked you to explain what you mean.

Other days, it seems you’ve used the words “could you say that again?” a million times. Someone asks you a question and there’s a long pause before your answer finally arrives - slow, disorganised, grammatically incorrect and with terrible pronunciation. Then there are the times you didn’t even understand the question, but you can’t ask them to repeat it for a third time, so you nod your head and hope for the best.

At times, it can be difficult to convince native speakers that you are an intelligent adult when you sound like a 3 year-old! “I’m smart! I know things! It’s just a bad language day, really!” You feel like saying. It’s a humbling experience when, try as you might, you can’t be that bright and capable person that you are used to being in your own language.

Sometimes it seems like we advance a little, but then go backwards a lot. Students in the past have told me they think their English is getting worse, but I always reassured them that all of us language learners have off days. I tell them to remember how their English sounded when they first started, or 3 months ago. I ask them to tell me what they’ve learnt that week and I remind them how much better their grades are. When I have my off days, I try to do the same. I remember that first weekend in Germany, walking around the town map in hand, when I thought ‘Einbahnstraße’ was the name of a road and I laugh and feel better.

Einbahnstraße means ‘one-way street’.

Article aid

  tumble effortlessly = fall out quickly and without trying
  hold a conversation = have a conversation
  nod your head = move your head up and down to signal ‘yes’
  hope for the best = hope that things will go well
  try as you might = even though you try hard
  off days = days when everything goes wrong


It often happens that your English doesn’t ‘sound natural’ even when you use the correct words and your grammar is spot on (accurate). Collocations have a lot to do with this. These are word combinations that are frequently used in English.

For example, if I say ‘a bunch of …’ you’ll probably think of ‘flowers’, but you won’t think of trees. If I write ‘I _________ agree’ you might (correctly) guess ‘strongly’ or ‘completely’. And which is more common – ‘it’s hard work’ or ‘it’s difficult work’?

These combinations just work well together, so everyone uses them. Some are in the aids above. Can you find other collocations in the text? I’ll give you a few days to work on it 😊

(Oh, by the way, ‘hard work’ was the answer!)


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