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My girlfriend speaks English as her third language, but not yet fluently.

Her vocabulary is quite extensive, especially due to the fact that she reads a lot (fiction and non-fiction) and regularly watches movies and news channels in english.

The main problem she's facing is that she can't stop translating too literally from her mother tongue (namely Armenian). I've noticed at least three patterns that lead her to make mistakes:

  • Wrong use of prepositions. For example she often says "look on" for "look at".
  • Wrong use of verbs. For example she would use "enter" in lieu of "get in", "stop by", "visit", etc.
  • Wrong word order. E.g. putting the subject after the verb in a statement, failing to invert or use the auxiliary "do" in questions.

All the phrases that sound awkward (or plain ungrammatical) would make prefect sense in her mother tongue if translated back literally. Also, she knows she is making a mistake and no matter how many times I correct her, she can't help but make the same mistake again.

If she still manages to convey the meaning of her sentences when speaking, things worsen when she has to write something (say a report for her classes). In this latter case it's difficult to find a phrase that makes complete sense or at least that doesn't sound odd.

To come to the point, I'm looking for tools and techniques to overcome these difficulties and improve her fluency.

The first thing that would come to my mind is to increase her exposure to the language but, as I said, she already reads in and listens to English a lot. We also communicate in English with each other and we live in a country where English is not the first language, but is more or less everywhere spoken at a decent level.

Edit (after reading the comments): from my question it might appear that she's in the process of learning English as a new language. Rather the opposite: she learnt it many years ago, probably taught by incompetent teachers. The errors sedimented and now form habits that are difficult to break. That's why I say that she knows she's wrong, but she keeps making the same mistakes over again. My question would then be: are there techniques apt to change these automatic behaviours when speaking and writing?

  • Sounds like she's doing great! I'll bet her English is way better than my Armenian. Getting back to your question, though, I can't think of anything besides what you've mentioned: time, patience, exposure. – J.R. Nov 2 '13 at 19:57
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    If she's repeating the same mistakes (like "look on"), she's practicing her mistakes and reinforcing them. Making mistakes is okay, but repeating them is not (if she wants to improve). She needs to identify repeated mistakes, then carefully and deliberately practice correct alternatives ("look at" instead of "look on"), ideally in complete sentences rather than in isolation. – snailcar Nov 2 '13 at 20:19
  • Has she tried using lang-8.com? You write text in the language you're practising, and native speakers correct what you've written. It probably would feel more normal having your English corrected there rather than in everyday conversation. – Andrew Grimm Jul 20 '14 at 13:39
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I agree strongly with pmusser, but I would like to make a couple additions.

First, you should definitely correct her every and any time she makes an error. As pmusser said, make sure she's alright with this though to prevent any issues between the two of you. That said, I would say that not only should you tell her she said something wrong, and tell her what should be said instead and why; you should also make sure she then says it correctly! She needs to create the good habits, and reinforce them whenever possible. Just knowing she says something wrong wont have much of an effect unless she actively tries to correct the issue. I know that I bite my fingernails, and I know that it's a bad habit; but unless I actually actively force myself to stop I'll never break the habit. Even native speakers will do this. They'll catch themselves in the middle of a sentence or word and correct it with the proper phrase/word. It's better to do this and seem like you're stuttering than to continue reinforcing bad habits.

Also, as pmusser said, she has to want this. If she doesn't care that much about perfecting her language then she wont make much progress. The more invested in it she is, the more quickly she'll improve. In order to keep this interest high, you should not only encourage her, but also congratulate her. When you notice her saying something correctly that she used to say incorrectly, tell her! Let her know she's making improvements, reward her with some more encouragement. If all she ever hears is how she's doing it wrong, she'll quickly stop caring because she wont feel that it's making any difference.

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Like the comments say, it'll take time and persistence -- especially if y'all aren't in a country where you're surrounded by 90%-95% spoken English.

The best advice I can offer from my own experience learning my second languages is, as soon as she makes an error, correct her on it. It may get obnoxious, but if they're cemented into how she uses English, then there isn't a quick fix. Of course, it would behoove you to sit down with her first and talk to her about it so that you don't get the cold shoulder or end up sleeping on the couch after the first day of being helpful. :)

A lot of it also depends on her own feelings about it. It'll be easier for her to break the habits if she recognizes them and wants to get over them; if she's satisfied with her level of English ability, less so. I cared less about how perfect my Chinese was and more with how fluently it came out when I was just starting to learn it, and would more or less shrug off small criticisms as I got them. But once I had a solid foundation in the language, it became a matter of polishing the language -- I wanted to be good, not just competent. Same thing with Spanish. But then, I'm a big language nerd who uses his language skills to pay the bills, so I'm kind of emotionally (and financially) invested in it.

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    @AMS As an additional comment, I'd say that when you correct her, make sure she corrects herself too! As in, don't just tell her "you said it wrong" - make her say it again, and say it right. If she knows she said it wrong, encourage her to repeat herself to correct it. Even native speakers will catch themselves saying something wrong and repeat it correctly, so should she. Doing so will help reinforce the good habit. Enforcing the good habit will fix the problem, just knowing about it will do little (I know it's bad to bite my fingernails, but it doesn't stop me!). – Doc Dec 18 '13 at 21:48
  • My wife speaks English as a second language, and I know first-hand that 'being helpful' treads a very fine line! – Sydney Jul 3 '14 at 9:55

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