Learning through explanations and learning through examples

When some aspect of English confuses you, what should you do about it? Should you ask a teacher or consult a book? Or try to figure it out for yourself?

If you've been reading PhraseMix for a while, you probably already know what my answer is going to be. In the past, I've written about why you need to practice English, not just learn it. But this answer may be helpful anyway.

Think of a question like one of these:

  • When should you use "did" and when should you use "have done"?
  • When do English speakers use passive sentences ("be __ed")?
  • What's the difference between "just" and "only"?

The reason that these are interesting questions about English is that the answers are complicated. If the answer were easy, you wouldn't need to ask about it. (No one asks "What's the difference between 'elephant' and 'car'?")

The answer to a complicated question can either be simple and incomplete or complicated and hard to remember. For example, here's a simple and incomplete answer to the question "When should you use 'did' and when should you use 'have done'?":

Use simple past tense ("did") for simple facts about the past. Use the present perfect ("have done") to talk about a past action that has an effect on the present.

This explanation probably doesn't help you much. It leaves out too many details. You might still wonder "but why do people say 'Have you ever met him?' or 'I've been to France'?" So then I might point you to a more in-depth article I wrote on perfect aspect.

The article explains it a little better, but there are some other problems with it:

  • It's a lot more complicated. You might understand the explanation while you're reading it, but you won't be able to remember it and apply it quickly while you're speaking.
  • It's still not complete; I could write several book chapters on this topic!
  • Explanations are sometimes wrong. Although I tried to be as accurate as possible, I might have missed something.

A much better way to learn is to expose yourself to examples of the thing that you're trying to understand. One way that you can do that is with the lesson categories here at PhraseMix. For example, you can learn about "did" and "have done" by studying these two lists:

When you learn by examples (especially by listening to examples), you can make your own theories about how you think that the words or grammar work. More importantly, you start to "feel" the correct way to use them.

Unlike remembering a complicated explanation, "feel" is immediate. You can use 'feel' to help you choose your words in the middle of a sentence. 

After you've gotten a feel for a bit of language, then you can go back and clean up your understanding a little by reading a good explanation.

So my question for you is, what aspects of English confuse you? And what's your plan for learning them through examples?

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