Theory 103 – Building Sentences

by Robbie Kunz

You’ll notice that when native speakers of one particular language attempt to learn a foreign language like English, they will all make similar mistakes in the language. Maybe that mistake is confusion between “the” and “a” or maybe it is confusion between “I eat” and “he eats”.

However, a speaker of a different language might not have any trouble at all with these same points.

Why is this? The reason is that each language has its own structure. When you learn your first language, you build up this structure and this provides you with the ability to speak the language naturally and hear what is correct and not.

This structure includes everything from sentence order to conjugations of verbs to usage of different types of words. For example, in English, the sentence “I’m going to eat pizza today” sounds natural. However, if you change the word order to something like “I am to eat pizza today going”, it immediately sounds unnatural. This is because the first agrees with your built up structure for English and the second does not.

Once the structure is complete for your native language, even if you encounter new words, you are able to use them correctly within the structure. For example, if I tell you that someone’s name is “Xff”, you can then correctly make natural sounding sentences such as “Xff is going to eat pizza today”. Or, if I tell you that using a computer to put information on a blank CD is called “burning” a CD, you can then make natural sounding sentences like “I’m going to burn a CD today” without trouble at all.

This is all thanks to the structure for English that you have built up over years and years. Since it has been built completely, you can master the usage of new words without thinking about it at all.

This automatic structure system is highly beneficial when dealing with your own language, however, problems occur when attempting to learn a foreign language.

When you begin to learn a foreign language and try to create new sentences, that same English structure will automatically kick in and cause you to say sentences that comply with it whether or not it is natural in the foreign language.

In this way, you are speaking your foreign language with an English structural basis. This is not good since it will cause you to make unnatural sounding sentences. This is also the reason why speakers of a particular language who attempt to speak English will all make similar mistakes. The reason is because they all share the same structure for their native tongue and are relying on it for some part.

If you want to be able to create natural sounding sentences in your new language, there’s really only one way to do it and that’s building an entire new structure for it.

If you build a new structure for your foreign language, you will be able to tell what is natural and what is not the same way you can tell these things in English.

You’ll also be able to use new words that you find in the future in a natural way. The best part is that this will all occur without much mental work on your part. Since you have the structure defined in your head, everything will flow into it naturally.

The big question now is, how can we create this new structure? There is really only one way to do this. Most teachers and textbooks would probably tell you that the way to do this is to learn all the grammar rules for the language but this is wrong. The only way to really do this is to get a lot of input in the language.

That is to say that you need to hear and read a lot of the language in order to build this new structure for your foreign language.

If you rely on grammatical syntactical rules that you learned from a textbook, you will find that you often make errors as well as spend a bit of time recalling and applying those grammatical rules.

On the other hand, if you have heard or seen one version of a sentence a hundred times and another version zero times, the version that you have heard and seen a hundred times will immediately “feel” right while the other one will “feel” wrong.

For example, if you were trying to learn English, you might be confused by the fact that there are a few types of past tenses. Is it correct to say “I was sick today so I didn’t come” or “I have had been sick today so I didn’t come”? A native English speaker can tell immediately that the former is natural and the latter is not.

But someone trying to learn English does not yet have the structure to immediately see this. Furthermore, if someone were relying on their own non-English language structure when looking at these sentences, they might conclude that the latter is more natural than the former.

The solution to this is that if the English learner reads or hears a lot of input, he or she will quickly realize that the former is natural. If you read a book, you will run into the structure “I was sick” hundreds upon hundreds of times more than “I have had been sick”. If you hear the first that many times, it will become obvious that it is the correct version the next time you run into it.

Now, all of this may run counter to what you were told in your high school classroom. Read on to find out why.

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