I’m going to jump right into something I love today – helping people feel more confident in (and have fun with) speaking English! Teaching is fun and terrifying; what if you teach something and the student doesn’t get it?! But all those hilarious stories you end up sharing, all the unintended puns that come from not choosing the exact right word… If you haven’t tried teaching, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re shy!
As a second-language user, you really get to know what little problems can trip a person up. When I’m having a conversation in French, it’s not the verbs that stop me most of the time, it’s the “little” words that really do me in. The problem, for me, is that North American English speakers use a LOT of intensifiers and little pause sounds (fillers): “ah, um, uhhh, er, hmm, eh, hmph,” etc… French works differently than English, and I hear a lot fewer of these intensifier words when I listen, and use less when I speak. I miss them. And if you’re speaking English and don’t use them, us English speakers will notice because they are honestly everywhere. I’ll underline them in this post to show you. We’ll save the filler sounds for another post.
While many professional English writers debate how often and what intensifiers should be used, every-day speech is pretty much packed with them. And they convey a level of emotion and detail that can be really lacking if you pare them out. Done well, removing fillers can make you sound more educated and refined. You will use specific verbs and adjectives rather than generalized ones. Woo, fancy!
Done poorly, it can also make you sound a bit like a robot. And not the sexy kind. Because while a huge English lexicon exists, not everyone has a huge vocabulary, not even native speakers! And humans are lazy and learning words takes time and effort. Those big, fancy, specific words? Use that? Naw, I’ll just slap some intensifiers on a common word to add in the nuance I want! This is how English do (this is not a proper sentence, but yes, you may see “this is how X do” in the wilds of the internet).
For example, you could say, “I was famished, so I grocery shopped quickly on my way home and the store was disgusting! I will not return!”
This is a proper English sentence, from a grammatical point. But this is not how English speakers usually “do”. It’s too formal. And that’s the real issue; using specific words often sounds very formal, because we ARE more specific in formal situations.
You could instead say, “I was really hungry, so I did a super-quick grocery on the way home and it was so gross in that store! I’ll honestly never ever go back!”
The sentence uses intensifiers (really, super, honestly, ever) with more common adjectives and verbs to convey the same meaning. It’s much closer to how we English speakers actually speak. You’ll hear the following intensifiers very often in Canada and the US:
- such (a)
- kind of
- sort of
Because most of these are adverbs, they work paired with an adjective or verb, “I’m really tired,” or “He can really eat!”. Such usually works with a noun, “He has such style!” There are far more intensifiers than these (and they vary by region!) but try adding a few at a time. More vocabulary means more detail and finesse, which are never bad. Unless you’re role-playing a paladin, then you don’t need finesse! /End joke.
In summary: Intensifiers are words (usually adverbs) that add emphasis to common adjectives, verbs and sometimes nouns. We use them more often than more specific, “sophisticated” words because learning lots of words is hard and humans are lazy (or efficient, from an evolutionary standpoint). Try them out!
What’s your biggest “little” problem when speaking a second language?