Writer's toolkit

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
One of the best-kept secrets in the education world is the new Framework for Modern Foreign Languages at KS3. As English teachers you may not know what we're talking about - but read on, because it concerns you.

The new idea is that English teachers are showing children how language works, so why not use this knowledge in MFL? A splendid idea.

Let's make this idea concrete by looking at English "phrasal verbs", like "give up": I gave up smoking. Or: I gave smoking up.

This is a topic which kills two birds with one stone, but first we'll explain the pattern. A phrasal verb is made up of two parts: an ordinary verb and a "particle" - a very small word which looks remarkably like a preposition. Here are some more examples:I grew up. I took off my hat. Or: I took my hat off.I looked up the word. Or: I looked the word up.

The grammar isn't difficult, but the meanings are often weird. What on earth does giving up have to do with giving or up?

Knowing about phrasal verbs is good for any English writer because we often have to choose between a phrasal verb and a synonymous single verb. For example, handing in an essay is the same as submitting it, and taking off your coat is the same as removing it. You could try collecting a list of synonym pairs in class and comparing them for style. What you'll probably find is that in every case the phrasal verb is casual, while its single-word synonym is more formal. That's a useful tip when aiming at a more formal style.

But phrasal verbs are important for MFL too, because German has them in spades but you won't find them at all in French or Spanish. If you don't know the German for "give up", you won't go wrong if you guess a straight word-for-word translation (which comes out either as "geben auf" or "aufgeben" thanks to rather troublesome word-order rules). But in French and Spanish it's not even worth trying this approach - you can be absolutely sure that translating "give" and "up" separately will produce rubbish. A much better strategy is to find a one-word synonym such as "abandon", then guess how to translate that.

You could even try a bit of English hiTORY:phrasal verbs came across the Channel with the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings and the rest of Old English.

We get them from our peasant ancestors. But the one-word synonyms came into English from French, which has always been the language of the elite.

That's why phrasal verbs don't work in French and why the one-word synonyms do, and why these are more formal.

For more information about the MFL Framework, go to www.standards.dfes.

gov.ukkeystage3strands and select TLF, then follow the links Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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