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How to Learn English Prepositions

Published: Nov, 1, 2016 | Author: Lucas Weaver

Learning English Prepositions the Right Way
Prepositions are one of the most difficult aspects of languages to learn. The main reason is because there’s no real rhyme or reason to why we use certain prepositions in specific situations. The best way to learn prepositions as a student of English as a second language is to memorize them within the context of a broad range of phrases. 

For example, you could learn that you use the preposition “at” when you “point at” someone. Then you might logically reason that when you use the same subject (talk) and the same object “someone” that you could use that same preposition. 

But that reasoning would lead you to “talk at someone,” which has an entirely different meaning from the correct phrasing “talk to someone.” 

Hence the need to learn prepositions by phrases. If you learn the phrase “talk to someone” and practice using it in conversation, there will be no confusion for you when you attempt to explain to someone that you wish to talk to them. 

By doing this, you will also learn to speak more like a native than you would by trying to literally translate the prepositions of your native language. By copying phrases you hear from native speakers you will build your vocabulary using the language that English speakers actually use, which will come in handy when you go to actually try to communicate with other English speakers. 

Another reason why it is difficult to learn prepositions comes from the belief that we all hold, which is that our own language does it the right way which makes sense, and other languages we learn do it in a strange way that doesn’t make sense. 

By constantly trying to “make sense” of the grammar rules of other languages as they relate to your native language, you are focusing too much on your native language and not enough on the language you are learning. When you do this you are causing your brain to believe that your native language is the most important one, and then it wants to translate everything back into your native language. 

You need to stop that habit of allowing your brain to place more importance on your native language and thusly cut down on your habit of translation altogether. When you learn English, you eventually want to be able to think in English while you are speaking it, that will help you stop translating, and attain fluency.

Here’s an example using Spanish:

The following are two phrases common in English: 

“I’m going to my house.” 

“I have to work today.”

Here’s the translation of those two phrases into Spanish:

“Voy a la mis casa.”

“Tengo que trabajar ahoy.”

In both of those phrases I used the preposition “to” while speaking English. But if I literally translated those phrases I would have come up with the Spanish preposition “a” when I said “I have to work today.” A native Spanish speaker might have known what I meant if I said it with my literal translation, but it would be far from sounding natural, and ever farther from sounding fluent

However, by learning the phrases “go to” and “have to” in Spanish as “voy a” and “tener que” instead of trying to learn how to translate the English phrases into Spanish, I learn the correct phrasing and begin to practice it before I ever get the chance to form a bad habit from a poor translation error. 

The most common reason I get from students when I ask “What do you want to improve about your English?” is: “I want to be more confident and comfortable in speaking.”

By learning the prepositions within the phrases they’re meant to be used in, your brain will more easily be able to apply prepositional phrases in normal conversation. This means that your brain learns the English in it’s most natural format, instead of a connection with the translation of your native language. 

When you learn prepositions in this way, you in effect turn the biggest negative of learning prepositions (the fact that you have to memorize them) into a huge positive (the fact that you know them better instead of having to translate them,) putting you one step closer to your goals of sounding more like a native English speaker. 
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Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years.

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