Most beginner language learners I know are keen to pick up new vocabulary, so they’re ready for real conversations in their new language.
And it’s true that learning a wide variety of vocabulary is essential to having conversations about a lot of different subjects.
But there’s a group of words and phrases that never seem to make their way into most beginner students’ flash cards or vocab lists. I call this group of words “sentence stretchers”.
What is a Sentence Stretcher?
Sentence stretchers give you everything you need to expand short, basic phrases into far more expressive, natural-sounding sentences. With sentence stretchers, you’ll sound more like a native speaker, and have much more interesting conversations.
In grammar speak, sentence stretchers may be adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions or determiners. The point is that they help you create longer, more complex sentences, and take your language skills to the next level.
With sentence stretchers, you’ll sound more like a native speaker even if you still don’t know a whole lot of vocab or verb tenses. They also make it much easier to say what you want without performing complicated mental gymnastics as you build your sentences. This in turn will boost your confidence.
Think about it this way. How hard would it be to have even a short conversation in English without using words like “without”, “anyway”, “maybe”, “so”, “as much as”, “until”, or “almost”?
Yet few language learners put any special effort early on into learning these seemingly minor words. The longer you put off learning sentence stretchers, the more time you’ll spend having stunted, overly-simple conversations.
How Sentence Stretchers Work
Consider the following exchange you’re likely to have when you first start speaking a new language:
Them: “Why do you want to study this language?”
You: “I want to travel to your country someday, so it’s a good idea to learn some of the language before I go, even if I don’t learn it fluently.”
Now imagine trying to answer their question without using “someday”, “so”, “some”, “before” or “even if”. It’s quite a bit harder!
“I want to travel to your country. It’s a good idea to learn the language. If I don’t learn it fluently, it’s OK.”
Doesn’t sound too natural, does it? The rest of the vocab in the sentence – “travel”, “country”, “good”, “idea” “learn”, “language”, “fluently” – are probably words that you’ll learn fairly early in your studies. But you may not learn those “sentence stretchers” until much later, and so you’ll miss out on a chance to improve your speaking skills early on.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s crucial to speak from day 1 and talk with native speakers as much as possible no matter how many mistakes you make.
But if you want to get comfortable speaking your target language as quickly as possible, sentence stretchers will help get you there.
Sentence Stretchers: The Basic List
Here’s a list of the most common sentence stretchers.
For each one, I’ve included a sentence that sounds more natural when the word is included. The earlier you learn these words in your target language, the better.
- except: “I study French every day. I do not study French on Friday” could become “I study French every day except Friday.”
- only: “I study Spanish two days per week. It is not a lot” could become “I only study Spanish two days per week.”
- someday: “I want to travel to your country, but I don’t know when” could become “I want to travel to your country someday.”
- even though: “I bought it. It was expensive” could become “I bought it even though it was expensive.”
- anyway: “I can’t speak German fluently, but I will speak it” becomes “I can’t speak German fluently, but I will speak it anyway.”
- might: “I don’t know, but I think he’s hungry” becomes “He might be hungry.”
- sometimes: “Studying Spanish can be easy. But it can feel difficult too” could become “Studying Spanish is easy, but sometimes it feels difficult.”
- always: “I order the same meal when I eat here” could become “I always order the same meal when I eat here.”
- often: “I wonder a lot if I made the right choice” becomes “I often wonder if I made the right choice.”
- so/therefore: “I have more energy in the morning. That’s when I exercise” becomes “I have more energy in the morning, so that’s when I exercise.”
- already: “I started studying English three weeks ago. I can say a lot” becomes “I started studying English three weeks ago, and I can already say a lot.”
- without: “I want to study the language. But I don’t want to read or write” becomes “I want to study the language without reading or writing.”
- both: “Will you and you come to the party tonight?” becomes “Will you both come to the party tonight?”
- until: “I want to study Cantonese. I will stop when I’m fluent” becomes “I want to study Cantonese until I’m fluent.”
- since: “I’ve wanted to travel to Australia for a long time. I wanted to when I was nine” becomes “I’ve wanted to travel to Australia since I was nine.”
- still: “I’m not young, but I enjoy learning new things” becomes “I’m not young, but I still enjoy learning new things.”
- enough: “The pan is hot now. You can add the bacon” becomes “The pan is hot enough now to add the bacon.”
- instead of: “We were going to eat Italian food. But do you want to eat sushi now?” can become “Do you want to eat sushi instead of Italian food?”
- throughout: “There are many festivals here in the year” becomes “There are many festivals here throughout the year.”
- including: “All languages can be easy to learn. Tonal languages too” becomes “All languages can be easy to learn, including tonal languages.”
- in case: “Take my umbrella. It might rain” becomes “Take my umbrella in case it rains.”
- even if: “I want to travel. It’s OK if it’s for a short time” becomes “I want to travel, even if it’s for a short time.”
What sentence stretchers do you use in your target language? Are there any other hacks you use to build complex sentences in your new language? Let me know in the comments!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.