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Phrasal verbs

Learning a new language is full of perils. Besides thousands of words you need to memorize, there is grammar, pronunciation, and in our literate society, understanding the rules of spelling.

The native speaker has no idea how difficult it is to learn their language. They were raised with arbre (tree) being masculine, and fleur (flower) being feminine. By the time French children reach school, the gender of objects is known by instinct, internalized over the early childhood experience of hearing adults and older children speak. They know that you say that it is une belle journée (a lovely day), but les nuages gris (the grey clouds) threaten rain---the order of nouns and adjectives is obvious to them.

The non-native must create rules to understand how to place words in their right places---rules never taught in elementary school because they are self-evident to native children.

This came home to me one afternoon when I met several Italian law students and teachers for coffee and tea at a local bar*. Two from the group arrived late. They had been at a legal English course to master the peculiarities of the language used by attorneys and courts. But that day they were shaking their heads over another problem.

"Phrasal verbs," the professor said with some despair. "You have to put the verb here, the preposition there, the object somewhere else. So confusing."

"Phrasal verbs?" I asked. "What are phrasal verbs?"

She looked at me, bemused. "Verbs that use more than one word to make their meaning. Like 'put off' or 'grow up.'  They do not exist in Italian."

"Phrasal verbs," I repeated in wonder.

And we both laughed because I had learned something new about my language, something I wasn't even aware existed although I used the form every day.



* A bar, in Italy, does serve alcohol. But, just as often, people come in to drink coffee or tea and eat a light meal, usually standing at the counter---because sitting down adds a service fee to the beverage and food.

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