Would you (or your students) like to speak better English than a “native speaker”*? Wouldn’t it be great if your command of the language could be superior to that of the most powerful English speaker on the planet? Granted, Donald Trump is not noted for his articulacy. Possibly as a result of a degenerative brain disease, his fluency, coherence and range of vocabulary have deteriorated considerably over the years, as this 1992 interview demonstrates and this article explains in detail. He used to be able to follow a train of thought; now listening to him is more like witnessing a syntactical train crash. Half-ideas cascade chaotically like carriages piling up on top of one another, deafening explosions of total incoherence reverberate down the track while anyone with any regard for their personal safety runs away screaming.
The very latest indication that Trump’s mastery of standard (or, rather, sane) English is slipping out of his tiny grasp came yesterday, in the tweet he posted in the wake of yet another NRA-sponsored massacre**. His tweet offered his “warmest condolences” to the victims (and, obviously, no condemnation of the culprit – Trump hasn’t expressed any anger at the killings). Cue howls of ridicule across social media: why? Well, no one talks about “warm condolences”. You might offer warm congratulations to a friend who’s just found a job, or sincere or heartfelt condolences to someone who’s just lost a loved one. But the adjective ‘warm’ just doesn’t go with the noun ‘condolences’. Or, in other words, it doesn’t collocate.
How do I know this? Well, I’ve spoken (and, more importantly, read) English all my life (and taught it for nearly 20 years). I’ve never seen or heard that expression before. The fact that Trump thought that ‘warm’ was an appropriate word in response to a mass shooting may be some indication of how such events make him feel deep down. But it’s also an indication that he’s not in control of what he’s saying. Maybe the fact that he boasts of never reading books has something to do with it.
So, how can you acquire a better command of the language than him? Well, you could buy yourself a collocations dictionary, which will tell you which adjectives are commonly used with which nouns, which nouns collocate with which verbs, etc. (Better language coursebooks also put a great deal of emphasis on what many now call ‘word grammar’.) Or, you could use this website. As you can see, it has a really simple interface, and is free. I urge all my students to use it, and it has an immediate and dramatic impact on the quality of their writing in particular. A smattering of collocations can easily raise any IELTS score from 6.5 to 7.0, for example. I’m sure Trump would struggle to write a coherent 250-word essay; he probably hasn’t composed anything longer than 140 characters since he was cheating his way through college. (As for writing in a foreign language, he’s probably barely aware at this point that such things exist.) In the speaking test, he’s probably get a 4.0: links basic sentences but with repetitious use of simple connectives and some breakdowns in coherence; can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics; errors are frequent and may lead to misunderstanding and/or nuclear war.
*This is in inverted commas as it’s a highly problematic term, its use punishable by stoning in some quarters.
**Trump is also sponsored by the NRA, to the tune of more than $30 million.