Published 8th August 2017

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Learning a language involves dealing with different aspects of the language. Languages differ in many respects which can affect how easy or difficult it is to learn another language. Some languages are similar to each other (Spanish and Italian, for example) which can make it relatively easy for a Spanish-speaker to pick up Italian. Other languages, though, can be completely different (French and Arabic) so speakers of the one learning the other may experience difficulties.

These differences can relate to sounds and pronunciation, alphabet and word order. Here we will look at a few languages and compare them to English in terms of word order, to help us understand what problems our learners may have.

Let’s start with English.

English is an SVO language. This means that sentences in English follow the formula Subject-Verb-Object. Sentences need to follow this pattern or else the meaning of the sentence changes or the sentence won’t make sense.

Consider the following:

John ate a doughnut.

*A doughnut ate John.

Here the second sentence is nonsensical.

Thomas hit Sam.

Sam hit Thomas.

Here the second sentence does not have the same meaning as the first sentence.

Other languages which follow the SVO formula include the Romance languages – including Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese, Bulgarian, Chinese and SwaHili.

Other languages follow a slightly different formula: SOV, or Subject-Object-Verb. This includes Korean, Turkish, Punjabi and Tamil. In SOV languages, a sentence such as this is grammatically correct:

She the book read

Then there are VSO languages which construct sentences Verb-Subject-Object. Arabic is one such language which follows this pattern, as illustrated by this sentence:

Ate she bread.

As you can imagine, this can cause confusion for speakers of other languages when learning English. If you are accustomed to constructing sentences in a certain order, remembering to change this order when speaking English can take time and practice.

Of course, this is a rather simple way of looking at sentence structure in language but it is an easy way to try to understand one of the many difficulties your students may face.