Look, but Don’t Watch

I’d like to continue on the theme of difficulties students can have in learning English. Only the difficulty I want to look at today is one that’s shared by teachers, in a way, though in a different way. Something we’re not usually conscious of is how many verbs in our native language are very similar. We don’t have to think about the subtleties of difference between them, because we grow up absorbing how to use them correctly. But for learners, it can be extremely difficult to figure out exactly how and when to use them.

For example, think about the verbs, to talk, to speak, to say, and to tell. Take a moment to think about how you’d explain them to someone who’s unfamiliar with how to use them. Not easy, I’ll bet. Now I’ll try to make the differences clear.

First I’ll split them into two pairs. To talk and to speak are closer to each other, as they’re more general, so I’ll look at them first. They can both be used to refer to general ability:

Humans can speak, but dogs can’t talk.

That’s enough for the first few levels of ability, but once students start to make progress, you can get into the finer details, like the fact that to speak is a bit more formal than to talk, and to talk is used more often for conversations, whereas to speak is more likely to be used in a situation where one speaks before an audience. Still, though, saying they’re basically the same is a good start.

To say and to tell, however, are more specific, and assume an ability to speak. Both have basically the same meaning, but the difference is mainly in focus. Both are used when one person speaks with one or more people. The only difference is that with to tell, we need to mention the person being spoken to. In other words, it’s a transitive verb, and needs to be followed by an object. Still, we can often choose to use one or the other in some situations, e.g.

He told me he’d be late.

He said he’d be late.

Both work fine if the important information is his lateness. But if whom he spoke to is important, then we need to use to tell.

He told you he’d be late? He told me he’d be on time!

Quite straightforward for us, but tricky for learners, especially to say and to tell, where incorrect usage is easier and more noticeable. The most common mistake, often a result of direct translation from a language where one verb serves the function of both English verbs, is to say He say me. And we might tell students not to worry too much because sometimes both are correct, but that can only serve to add to their frustration, as it’s much easier if we use one verb in one specific situation, and the other in another, as that makes them easier to remember. Even if students know sometimes both are correct, it’s not always easy to spot those situations, and our instinct is still to find “the right one.”

To hear and to listen are another confusing pair, but there the difference is pretty straightforward: hearing is passive, whereas listening is intentional (and followed by to):

I was walking past a shop on 1st November and heard a Christmas song! Can you believe it!?

I like listening to Christmas songs while I prepare the Christmas dinner.

One can make a similar distinction between to see and to look. But what about to watch? At first glance, you might be tempted to say it’s the same as to look. Both are about deliberately casting your gaze over something. But you’d rarely use them interchangeably, would you? You watch TV, but looking at the TV means you look at the machine itself, and probably not for a long time. Ok, so we can say that looking doesn’t take long, whereas watching assumes some length of time. But in an art gallery, you look at a painting, and you might look at it for a long time. Ok, so maybe we can add that we usually use to watch to refer to an activity, or something in progress, like a TV programme, or a sports match, and to look for something static. But in that self-same gallery, at the same time as you’re looking at a painting, a security guard might be watching the painting (or even watching you if you’re taking too long!). But aren’t you both basically doing the same thing? Superficially, yes, but you have very different motivations, don’t you? You’re enjoying it, but he’s protecting it, so to watch often has the connotation of protection too.

It’s easy to see how these common, similar verbs can be confusing for students. But as I said, they can cause difficulties for teachers too. It’s very hard to step back and think about these little distinctions about words you use every day, and harder still to then explain that to learners who haven’t internalised these differences in meaning. Particularly so if a student asks about them in the middle of a lesson in which you hadn’t planned to use them. But also, that same desire for logic that makes students want to find the simple, single meaning for a word also does the same thing to a teacher’s mind. First of all, we want to give a simple answer to a student’s question, especially when we’re not so experienced and naively think that that’s always possible. Saying things like, well they’re both basically the same, but to watch has more of a sense of protection or watching an activity or something in progress, but then there are some words which are always preceded by to watch, and some by to look, sounds too vague. Our minds tell us there must be a snappy way to make the distinction clear in a moment.

This can even work against our own knowledge. I remember, not long after starting teaching, tying myself in knots trying to find the difference in meaning between capability and ability with a group of advanced students, even when I knew there was no significant difference in meaning. And I knew that, but I doubted myself, because like the students, I wanted to find the perfect, exact meaning of each word. For a non-teacher that might sound strange, but it’s quite common. For example, we use will for a spontaneous decision about the future (e.g. What will I do now…. I know, I’ll go for a walk!), and going to for something we’ve already planned (e.g. Sorry, I’m busy, I’m going to go the pub tonight). This is something native speakers never really get wrong. Yet students often find the distinction between spontaneous decisions and future plans a somewhat abstract one, and instead think that the difference between will and going to is one of being sure of what one wants to do (going to) and being unsure (will). So much so, that they’ve often convinced inexperienced teachers that this is the case, even though no native speaker would say I’ll go home now, and not be sure of what they intend to do (at least not without using I think before I’ll). That might sound strange, but finding oneself before 14 students with some experience of learning English, all agreeing that this is the distinction, can be very persuasive.

Students and teachers alike share a desire for clear and simple explanations, despite the English language stubbornly resisting such simplicity in every way it can. It’s worth considering how easy native speakers of any language have it compared to those who have to learn all the little subtleties of our native tongue. I think is especially important in terms of English, which can be incredibly confusing in many ways, particularly in terms of the vast number of verbs and nouns with subtly different meanings and context-dependant uses. And if you’re considering becoming an English teacher, these are the little things that can trip you up. Remember to step back, think of realistic examples of how the words are used, and how you use them, and then think of their meanings, uses, and distinctions.


5 thoughts on “Look, but Don’t Watch

  1. I was just having a conversation with a French colleague about the verbs sortir (to exit), partir (to leave), and aller (to go). She was explaining when each should be used. Very similar to the nuances of English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah, even with my limited knowledge of French I can see how confusing they can be! It makes me think of how difficult the same concepts can be in English for learners. A lot of people say things like “I went out of” or “I went out from” instead of saying “I left.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of food for thought! Reminds me of the time a French Canadian couple invited me into their home by saying “Get in, get in!” I didn’t think I had a proper way – or certainly the heart – to explain that there’s a distinction between “getting in” and “coming in.” Also not proud that I couldn’t begin to speak with them in their language…


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