Six phrases beginner English students should learn right away

 Photo by Jessica, www.morguefile.comThis list was suggested to me by Hall Houston, a colleague based in Hong Kong. I think it’s an excellent idea for a list, and having worked on three big book projects for beginner learners (as well as teaching beginners for years) I have some ideas. Of course, these phrases will depend in part on the context and needs of the students as always. Also, I have restricted myself to six which meant hard choices had to be made. Finally, I am assuming that some basic single words will be known (e.g. numbers 1 to 10, hello, goodbye etc). I’ve stuck therefore to basic, essential phrases – the ones students should learn and use from almost the beginning.

1. Nice to meet you /How are you?  Two basic “meeting people” phrases, one for people you meet the first time and one for people you know. Good to get the students using this to greet each other and the teacher. They’ll need a response for the latter one too – see 4 below.

2. Sorry, I don’t understand. I only speak a little English. Essential survival English for when they are dealing with someone else who has a higher level of English than they do. This is one of the first things I want to know in a foreign language when I am travelling.

3. Excuse me. Very useful bit of English to get someone’s attention, to get past someone, to apologise…

4. Fine thanks. Great reply phrase. Can be used to answer “How are you”, “How was your weekend” “How’s your family”. Put “I’m” in front of this phrase and you have enough English to brush off annoying salespeople too.

5. Yes please. No thank you. There’s a reason parents call these “the magic words”. Please and thank you are pretty darn common in English and it never hurts to add them. Beginner students often run the risk of sounding “rude” or “sullen” when they are asking for things or responding to offers. So these phrases are very helpful “English for guests”.

6. I don’t know. Apart from the fact that I read that this is the most common three word phrase in English, it has other uses than just admitting ignorance. Very useful to buy time while thinking of an answer (“hmmm… I don’t know…. maybe the chicken?”) or for closing off a conversation. Also, let’s face it, beginner English students will probably be using this one quite a bit in class. And it doesn’t hurt them to hear their teacher say it from time to time either!

I realise that there are probably some omissions from my list, so I throw it open to you. What other phrases would you say beginners need?

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Lindsay,

    After a short discussion with people in the office, I’ve come up with the following:

    “One beer, please.” or “A large glass of red wine, please.”
    “Can I have the bill, please?”
    “Can I have a receipt, please?”

    Perhaps not quite what you were looking for but essential for holidays and business trips!

    • Yes these are indeed good and useful phrases, especially the bill one. Thanks!

  2. A former (foreign) girlfriend of mine managed to pick up the phrase “I never refuse a drink” when she first started learning English – her first full sentence in English! I guess she picked it up from her rake of a teacher (not me, by the way).

    • Maybe her teacher was one of those characters I heard about who went on to teach at Laughing Coyote? 😉 Nice example phrase for adverbs of frequency though – must remember that one.

  3. Hello Lindsay,
    I’m Jèssica, the girl that make the photo, i’m very happy that u’ve used it, u have a very nice web. I’m studing graphic design and i think that it looks beautifull!

    Thank u for sending me an e-mail, i’ll publish more photos!

  4. I think the two most vital words to teach any EFL student are “stuff” and “thing/s”. That gets you past a lot of “stuff” when you can’t remember or don’t know what a “thing” is called. “Please pass me that thing on the table – the red thing that makes holes in paper!” A favourite. Or “That’s too much stuff – can you give it to us again?”

    • Yes, stuff and things are very useful indeed. Perhaps “things” even more than “stuff”, cos of the countability problem. But both would be up there, yes. Thanks!

  5. I have a question: has anybody used before? I’m interested to try it but I would like a reference first.

    • NOpe, never used it. Maybe someone else can help you?

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