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Why Was The Fetch-a-Phrase System Invented?

  I've traveled to a lot of places around the world and have always tried to learn a little of the local language. I've found that just making the attempt to speak the host's language always makes for a better, more fulfilling experience. I believe it shows a respect for their culture and is also a gateway into it. Each word learned is like a nugget of gold.

I've tried a variety of methods to acquire foreign tongues: language courses, phrasebooks and the inefficient method of trying to learn some words and phrases on the spur of the moment.

Language courses are excellent and are certainly one of the best methods to get a full understanding of all the range and nuances of a language. Unfortunately they require a huge amount of dedicated, consistent effort. This makes sense, if the end result is to become fluent in that particular language. For someone who simply wants to communicate at a basic level and has no long-term commitment to the culture, language courses can be overwhelming in their complexities. When I travel I generally visit several countries and trying to do a comprehensive language course for each one would be unrealistic, if not impossible.

This is where phrasebooks come in. What could be easier than getting a phrasebook for each country? All you have to do is learn the pronunciation to acquire a whole range of ready words and phrases. If only it were that easy! I have a line of phrasebooks filling one of my bookshelves, each diligently used and each a souvenir of frustration. On the surface, they are a good and practical solution. Most have a nice little section in the beginning giving a rundown of pronunciation and an idea of how the language works. This is followed by sections involving all the angles of travel, from booking a hotel to seeing a doctor. The relevant phrases are first displayed in English, followed by a translation in a transliterated version of the Latin alphabet, then the translation written out again, this time in the actual script of the language. All of which is fine and dandy. If only it worked well. The major problem is being limited to the phrases in the phrasebook and the sections in which those phrases are found. Let me give you an example. Suppose I want to rent a bicycle. First I'd like to ask someone "Where is it possible to rent a bicycle?" I might find that sentence in the transportation section, but most likely not. I may have seen an equivalent of the phrase somewhere in the phrasebook, but where? If I do find a place that rents bicycles, I'd like to know how much it costs per hour or per day and when the place closes. To determine the cost I may have to search through the car-hire segment of the transportation section. If that fails, there's a chance I'll find the phrase in the accommodation section. But if I find it in the accommodation section which word should I change in the phrase? I want to make sure that the guy knows I'm talking about bicycles and am not looking for a room with a double bed. And what about closing time? Will I find that in the transportation section? Probably not. That phrase will most likely be hidden somewhere in either the shopping section, maybe in banking or some other place entirely. I could look up "close" in the dictionary in the back of the phrasebooks and say that word, but will it mean anything out of context?

Very often phrases in foreign languages have a different word order compared to English. This can make it very difficult to figure out which word is which in the translation and phrasebooks make only very minor attempts to rectify this. Not knowing which word represents its equivalent means phrases can't be manipulated to create a new meaning; the phrase is incapable of communicating more than one message. This problem is further exacerbated by the inability to make a positive phrase into a negative one, as the speaker doesn't know where or how to place the negative marker. This renders useless what could have otherwise been the perfect phrase.

I have hunted far and wide to see if a better system for speaking a foreign language exists and have found none. As a result I've been forced to come up with my own system. It is, in short, a do-it-yourself phrasemaker. It starts with a collection of template sentences, of the type most often used by travelers. These are followed by color-coded lists of the most commonly used verbs, nouns and adjectives. When the need to communicate arises, such as trying to find out where it's possible to rent a bicycle, you look for the sentence that most closely resembles the one you wish to construct. You then create the new sentence on the fly by substituting the relevant words in the translation with the relevant words from the wordlists. When applicable, the template sentences also include optional negatives. In this way you can flip the meaning to say you don't want something.

In order to create the largest possibility of variation, the system includes a collection of different bracket styles that enclose particular words in the sample sentences. Their usage must be understood before the Phrasemakers can be properly used. The beauty of the color-coding and bracketing is that the words in both the English and the translation can be easily identified as being the equivalents of each other; basically you know which word is which. It makes phrasemaking that much easier. At the outset, creating the new sentences takes time, however, because of the set up and layout of the Phrasemakers, it can be done quickly enough so that the listener doesn't lose interest.

I made several Phrasemakers without being sure they would actually work in the field. These included Thai, Lao and Burmese. At the beginning of 2005 I went to Indochina to test them. It was amazing. In all my experience I have never ever been able to leap into different languages with such ease. I used the scenario of looking for and renting a bicycle many times and was able to make up all the questions in all three languages. On one occasion I was able tell the man who had rented me a bicycle that the key for the lock wasn't working and that the bicycle was stuck in front of the Post Office. He understood immediately and we raced off on his motorbike to fix the problem.

I have long believed that the trauma of actually having to say something in a foreign language helps cement the word or phrase in the mind. By being able to say the phrases and knowing which word was which, I was able to very rapidly built up an idea of the structure of each of the languages and memorize the bones of the most frequently used sample sentences. Once I'd achieved that, I knew where to put the new words without having to look at the sample sentences, except as a reference. What I now realize I've created is a cheat sheet for the system we actually use to learn the beginnings of a foreign language.

Using the sample sentences, the word lists and a dose of creativity, it is possible to create thousands and thousands of well-formed sentences, knowing nothing more than the Phrasemaker system and the pronunciation of the target language. It really is amazing.

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© Copyright, Jonathan Smith & Fetch-a-Phrase, 2005
Patent Pending