English is so easy... or is it?

Phrasal VerbsHow to learn vocabulary in an effective way: Phrasal Verbs & "False Friends"

English is so easy... a controversial statement, to say the least; but hear me out; wait till I finish the sentence. English is so easy... in the beginning.

In simple, everyday situations, English rules. When we ask or give directions, order a meal in a restaurant, talk to a foreigner, do shopping in a foreign land we do not usually use French, German or Spanish. We use our broken, pidgin English and, as a rule, we get the same from the opposite side and it seems that we communicate. Do we really? Well, it depends on what we mean by communication. As a matter of fact, we do not communicate - we inform each other.

Then we climb another rung on the ladder of the language acquisition. We move onto the A2 level, then B1 and finally B2. We are able to talk, to express our feelings, to cope linguistically in various environments... Yet, every now and then, we feel that there is an invisible barrier which prevents us from reaching higher altitudes of language perfection. It is not grammar; after all we have already done so many exercises, we theoretically know how to use English tenses, etc. It’s like in the Steven King’s novel "The Dome" – you want to fly but there is something holding you back. What is it?

Vocabulary, my friend.


English is so easy in the beginning. That’s true. But then, usually on B2 level, you have to cross the barrier of vocabulary. And there are so many pitfalls along the way - phrasal verbs, "false friends", words that can’t be translated into Polish word for word, idiomatic expressions and fixed phrases... Uff... Most people give up at that point.

Well, what can we do about it? Let’s first identify the problems and then find the way to deal with them.

Phrasal Verbs. English speakers love them so much and they use them all the time with relish, whereas we hate them because they are so alien to our mother tongue. An interesting thing. When two English speakers talk they use them all the time. The conversation is smooth and dynamic. But when an English speaker talks to a non-native, he unconsciously avoids them. Why? Because he knows he won’t be understood. So he or she struggles painfully through non-phrasal equivalents, giving us a chance to follow him or her.

What is so difficult about phrasal verbs? First they are very difficult to remember and this is a natural reaction of our brain, which generally is a lazy "bum". Here is how it works: we need to learn the meaning of "bring up". Our brain protests: "Why should I learn this word? I know that "bring" means "przynieść". Yes of course, but "bring up" means "wychowywać" e.g. children. Our brain, in constant fear of overloading, doesn’t accept this fact.

But this is not the end of the problems with phrasal verbs. Those little words that we add to the main verb sometimes actually mean something. Take for example "up". A question: what is the difference between these two sentences?:

"Tidy your room!"
"Tidy up your room!"

Well, logically, there must be one, but what is it?

"Up" has a meaning of completion, doing something thoroughly, to the very end. So, for example, a mother of a child who is a fussy eater won’t tell him:

"Eat this soup!"

– After all, the poor brat is trying hard but he simply can’t finish it. So the mother goes:

"Eat up this soup!"

– meaning: eat everything.

Or, another example:
Some of my English-speaking friends, when they first come to Poland, have the tendency to confuse our Polish vodka with whisky in that that they try to drink it in the same way, by sipping it. Brrrrr... It ain’t the way to drink vodka! So, I tell them:

"Drink it up!"

- which means: raise your shot glass and drink it in one gulp, so there is nothing left.

Here’s another one. It’s cold outside so you put on your jacket with a zip. You zip it but you stop halfway through. Your caring wife reminds you:

"Zip it up!".

So you zip it up to your chin.

Coming back to the original question; there is a difference. "Tidy up your room!" is more forceful because it implies completion of the task – "Clean it perfectly, make the room shipshape".

But that’s not the end of the problems with phrasal verbs. They have this unpleasant feature of each having at least two meanings. Take "pick up" as an example. If you drop something , you bend to pick it up from the floor. Or someone may pick you up from the station if you don’t have your car. When you learn a new skill, for instance a language without going to school , you pick it up. So, the meaning of this sentence is obvious:

"She picked up a little Italian when she worked in Rome"

She learned a little Italian by living in the Italian environment. But then, you find out that "to pick somebody up" is an equivalent to Polish "poderwać kogoś". So, look at the above sentence again. Yes, now it means that when she worked in Rome she met this cute Giovanni, (150 cm tall with a hat on), she fancied him, so she "poderwała go".

So, how to cope with phrasal verbs? First of all, you have to force yourself to treat them as separate verb- don’t associate them with the main verb. Learn them in pairs – a phrasal verb and its non-phrasal equivalent. For example:

Put something off = to postpone something.

When you learn phrasal verbs, words like "something" and " somebody" are very important. The position of these words indicates whether the phrasal word is separable or inseparable (if you know what I mean). So:
"put something off" – separable
"look for something" – inseparable.

You must learn those irritating verbs in this way.

"False Friends"

False Friend

"False Friends" are another obstacle on our way to master the vocabulary. These are words that for us, Poles, are deceptively easy to learn because they are so similar to Polish words. But surprise, surprise... They mean something entirely different.

There are so many of them that I don’t even know where to start. Try the quiz below – you will find the answers on page?

"Eventually" probably tops the list of Polish "false friends". Of course, it doesn’t mean "ewentualnie" although it is tempting to understand it like this. It means "in the end", "finally".

Question 1 in the quiz - I will be deliberately using false friends in the wrong way. Your task will be to find the right word. Here we go:

Find the right word for "eventually"!

  1. Frank wants to spend his holidays on the beach, lazing in the sun. So, he is thinking of going to the French Riviera, eventually to Ibiza.

"Actually" is another mind-boggler. No, no. It doesn’t mean "aktualnie". In fact, it means "in fact", "in reality" and we often use it when we want to correct an untrue concept. Here is my sentence:

  1. Mr Kowalski used to be a secondary school teacher but actually he is out of work due to the demographic crisis.

"Obscure" has nothing to do with Polish "obskurny". It means "of unknown origin", "unclear" and, for some obscure reason, doesn’t seem to mean what it means in Polish. The sentence:

  1. The house was absolutely dilapidated. Its obscure walls were covered with cobwebs.

"Audition" doesn’t mean "audycja", for God’s sake! It’s a type of a job interview for actors or singers.

  1. I listened to an interesting audition about multiple sclerosis on the radio the other day.

You won’t manufacture anything in an English "fabric", as it is the material the clothes are made of.

  1. The fridge manufacturing fabric in Wick, Scotland closed down due to the recession.

"Fatal", by no means, means "fatalny". It means "lethal", "deadly". So, if you say: "He had a fatal car accident", it means he is now meeting his maker.

  1. His French was absolutely fatal. I couldn’t understand a word of what he said.

„Hazard" is one of my favourite words. It simply means "danger". Of course, I agree that Polish "hazard" can be dangerous, especially to your wallet, but that’s not exactly what it means in English.

  1. He was addicted to hazard. He lost all his money, visiting casinos.

"Ordinary" in Polish has a very bad connotation. It means "ordynarny", right? Wrong. In English, it means "plain", "average", "nothing special". So:

  1. John was very ordinary towards his teacher. He used bad language and almost hit her in the face.

To top it off, we’ve got "a receipt". Granted, you can get one from your doctor if he has got a private practice. But this is only for tax purposes; you won’t buy any medical drugs, showing it at the pharmacy, as it means "proof of purchase".

  1. The doctor must have made a mistake in his receipt. I am allergic to aspirin. I told him that!

Try to do the quiz; it will help you to avoid those traps that "false friends" have in store for you. Actually, they are not so difficult to remember because of their odd nature; we often treat them as a slip of the tongue.

Summing up; learning vocabulary is not an easy task. I presented here some difficult problems that you face on your way to perfection. In the next article – a few tips, perhaps?

Grzegorz Techmański







Key to the quiz:

  1. Alternatively, or
  2. Right now, now, currently, for the time being
  3. Shabby, run-down
  4. Program
  5. Factory, plant
  6. Awful, horrible, terrible, etc.
  7. gambling
  8. rude, vulgar
  9. prescription