Published: Oct 5, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver
Learning English prepositions is one of the most difficult parts of language learning. The main reason is because there’s no real rhyme or reason to why we use certain prepositions in specific situations.
For example, you could learn that you use the preposition “at” when you “point at” someone. Then you might logically think that when you use the verb "talk" with the same object “someone” that you should use that same preposition.
But that reasoning would lead you to “talk at someone,” which has an entirely different meaning from the correct phrasing “talk to someone.”
So before we discuss the best way to learn English prepositions, let's talk about what they are and why we use them.
In English class in grade school in the U.S., we're taught that a preposition is "anywhere a rabbit can go". But I think when you read this comprehensive list, you'll see that doesn't quite cover them.
A preposition is a word that usually comes before a noun and explains the relationship between that noun and another word in the sentence.
The best way to learn prepositions as a student of English as a second language is to memorize them within the context of a broad range of phrases. Going back to our example from earlier, if you learn the phrase “talk to someone” and practice using it in conversation, there will be no confusion for you when you attempt to explain to someone that you wish to talk to them, and you won't accidentally say "talk at". Vice versa, you will naturally use "look at someone" instead of "look to".
By doing this, you will also learn to speak more like a native than you would by trying to literally translate the prepositions of your native language. By copying phrases you hear from native speakers you will build your vocabulary using the language that English speakers actually use, which will come in handy when you go to actually try to communicate with other English speakers.
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that commonly go with a specific preposition and have a unique meaning when grouped together. For example: "I have to...". The meaning of this is most similar to "I must" and doesn't mean anything at all about "possessing" something like the word have usually means.
Another example would be: "I'm thinking it over." In this situation, thinking it over means that you're thinking about something while trying to make a decision. The word "over" here doesn't mean the same as if you said the rabbit jumped "over the bridge".
Prepositional phrases are commonly used in English colloquialisms. For instance, if you say you're "sitting on something big". That would mean you are keeping some big news to yourself, something that other people would be interested in knowing. It has nothing to do with actually sitting on anything.
When we're learning prepositions, we have to be prepared for the diverse ways they can be use in order to truly master using them in a fluent way. That's why, as we'll cover in the next paragraph, it's handy to drop your existing associations with prepositions in your first language.
Prepositions in your native language are not correct Another reason why it is difficult to learn prepositions comes from the belief that we all hold, which is that our own language does it the right way which makes sense, and other languages we learn do it in a strange way that doesn’t make sense. I.e. "My language has the correct prepositions".
By constantly trying to “make sense” of the grammar rules of other languages as they relate to your mother tongue, you are focusing too much on your first language and not enough on the language you are learning. When you do this you are causing your brain to believe that your native language is the most important one, and then it wants to translate everything back into your own language.
You need to stop that habit of allowing your brain to place more importance on your mother tongue and thusly cut down on your habit of translation altogether. When you learn English, you eventually want to be able to think in English while you are speaking it, that will help you stop translating, and attain fluency.
Let's try an example using Spanish.
The following are two common prepositional phrases in English:
“I’m going to my house.” “I have to work today.”
Here’s the translation of those two phrases into Spanish:
“Voy ala mi casa.” “Tengo que trabajar hoy.”
In both of those phrases I used the preposition “to” while speaking English. But if I literally translated those phrases I would have come up with the Spanish preposition “a” when I said “I have to work today.”
In English this would have been like saying "I must to work today", which is an incorrect literal translation.
A native Spanish speaker might have known what I meant if I said it with my literal translation, but it would be far from sounding natural, and ever farther from sounding fluent.
However, by learning the phrases “go to” and “have to” in Spanish as “voy a” and “tener que” instead of trying to learn how to translate the English phrases into Spanish, I learn the correct phrasing and begin to practice it with the natural phrasing before I ever get the chance to form a bad habit from a poor translation error.
I use the example of Spanish in this post because we've had many native Spanish speakers in our private English lessons programs, and you can immediately see their faces light up when they start making these connections. But you can come with up with examples for any language.
Pretend you're an English speaker and you want to learn your native language. Take some of the most common prepositions in English listed above and then translate them literally into your language, now look and see how funny some of those translations come out. Now you'll see why it's so important to learn these prepositions in whole phrases and not literally word by word.
The most common answer I get from students in my online English courses when I ask “What do you want to improve about your English?” is: “I want to be more confident and comfortable in speaking.”
By learning the most common prepositions within the phrases they’re meant to be used in, you can more easily apply prepositional phrases in normal conversation. This means that your brain learns the English language in its most natural format, instead of a connection with the translation of your mother tongue. This speeds the learning process of the language itself, and helps you learn English in a way that you will remember more easily.
Instead of learning all the particular English prepositions by themselves, when you learn prepositions as a part of a prepositional phrase, you in effect turn the biggest negative of learning prepositions (the fact that you have to memorize them) into a huge positive (the fact that you know them better instead of having to translate them,) putting you one step closer to your goals of sounding more like a native English speaker.
If you're making mistakes using English prepositions and feel like it's keeping you from fluency, this is good news! If you're at the point where you're conversational enough in English that you're using prepositional phrases enough to make mistakes, that means you're already speaking at a pretty high level, and probably with some level of comfort.
Now in order to take your language skills to the next level, you need to find someone who will correct your mistakes and point them out to you. You need to notice when you use the wrong preposition and have someone explain to you the correct one. Online language lessons are perfect for this because your teacher will correct you consistently, and they'll give you the proper example to follow to see how you should be using them. If you can't take language lessons, speak with some native speakers and tell them you want them to correct you. They probably won't mind, and if they do, explain to them that you're trying to improve.
Eventually it just takes time and consistent speaking, and one day you'll have all the English prepositions memorized and feel comfortable and confident using them.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.