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Just Because Your Grammar is “Correct”, Doesn’t Mean You Sound Natural

November 24, 2020 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

A couple of weeks ago, current MEFA member Tung Yen made a very insightful comment about the Week 8 homework.

The important part is the bit about “the rain is heavy”, which is being taught to English learners as “correct” English, but is in reality quite a strange thing to say and very unnatural in almost all contexts.

Hi Julian,

Thanks for your comment on my week 8 homework

I’m writing this email because I think I just witnessed the problem of YouTube English learning materials after watching this week’s feedback.

Before I sent out my email, I did some research about some of the most common mistranslations Mandarine speakers make. And I found a video which literally listed 22 example of mistranslations we make and the host also corrected all of them.

Unfortunately, even though he gives us “correct” answers, some of them are still unnatural. Like one of the examples he pointed out – “The rain is big” is not correct. But “The rain is heavy” is correct but extremely unnatural.

This channel has more than five hundred thousand subscribers and this particular video also got five hundred thousand views.

Now I realise how “dangerous” it is to learn English on the internet. I remember when I was watching this video, I was like “oh! Wow! I made this mistake too.” Or “Gotta remember this and so I don’t make the same mistake next time.”

I did feel a little bit odd but it’s an English learning channel, what could go wrong? Right? So I didn’t even check how people really use it using the tools you taught us.

And it turns out, “The rain is heavy” is still wrong and doesn’t make it any better.

Sure, there are some good materials but there are also lots of “fake” good materials that a non-native speaker couldn’t spot.

Now I’m so overwhelmed. I just couldn’t believe that it’s so easy to find out the “Fake” good materials on this random point. I really wanted to share my experience with the group.

Have a nice day
Tung Yen

Exactly.

While “The rain is heavy” is grammatically correct, it’s very unnatural and almost never used.

It only has 3 hits from English-speaking countries in the data bank which I teach MEFA members how to use in Week 5, and all of those are used as part of longer chunks (e.g. “when the rain is heavy and…”) rather than as a complete expression.

The point is, quality of materials matter.

Enough so that I wrote an entire Ph.D. thesis on the topic.

Just because something is grammatically correct, doesn’t mean it is good English. Native speaker English is characterised by people saying the same high-frequency (and highly natural) chunks of English again and again.

And learning to speak English well is more about learning to select these high-frequency, highly predictable, and very natural sounding chunks yourself.

And that starts with building good intuitions about English.

Not studying grammar.

And not learning random rubbish from lists.

So how do you build these intuitions?

That’s something I help you do in MEFA:

https://doingenglish.com/mefa/

Best,
Julian Northbrook


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