Don't try to learn similar phrases together (or you might make a dumb mistake like I almost did)!

Should you learn similar words and phrases at the same time, or words and phrases that are different from each other?

The first instinct for most language teachers and learners is to group similar vocabulary together. When I first began learning Japanese, I had a list of animal names to study, a list of fruits and vegetables, and so on. Do you do that?

Language researchers have found that grouping similar words and phrases actually makes it more difficult to learn them. Here's an example of why:

"Don't worry about it!"

On my last trip to Japan, I almost made a big mistake with a phrase in Japanese. One day when my wife and I were visiting her parents, my mother-in-law had to go to a funeral for her aunt. When I heard about this, I thought of the Japanese phrase that people say at funerals. It means something similar to "My condolences" in English.

I'd learned this phrase, but never used it before, so I checked with my wife first to see if I had it right:

Hey honey, is it right if I tell your mom "Osomatsu-sama deshita"?


You know, to say to your mother for the funeral.

You mean "Goshuushou-sama desu"?

Oops! I had mixed up the phrase meaning "My condolences" with one that means "Don't worry about it." You say "Osomatsu-sama deshita" after someone thanks you for cooking a meal. It's a good thing that I asked my wife first!

Why I mixed up the phrases 

I know exactly why I mixed up these two phrases. It's because I learned them both at the same time. I took a Japanese class once at the Japan Society in New York. In one of the classes, the teacher presented 5 or 6 set expressions to use in different formal situations. "Osomatsu-sama deshita" and "Goshuushou-sama desu" were both new to me. The phrases also sounded a bit similar to each other. So it was easy to get them mixed up in my mind, even though they're used in totally different situations.

So when you're studying English, don't try to learn similar words and phrases all at once. Avoid studying:

  • multiple phrases with the same meaning
  • things that are opposites of each other
  • words that begin with the same sounds
  • phrases that all fall into a similar category, like "formal phrases"

On PhraseMix, I try to avoid grouping things together in this way. Sometimes I do have to point out the difference between two similar things. For example, yesterday I explained the difference between asking "Seriously?" and "Really?" When you read an explanation like this, try to focus on remembering just one of the phrases. Then once you're comfortable with that one, you can come back and learn the other one later.

Now I want to hear your stories. Have you ever made a mistake with two words or phrases that you learned together at the same time, but got mixed up in your brain? Write about it in the comments below!

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