ENGLISH – it’s not like other languages

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If you were brought up speaking English, you may imagine it’s an easy language to learn, or at least just as hard as any other language. Though in general it isn’t easy to differentiate between which languages are easy to learn and which are hard (and it can depend on which other languages you can speak or have learnt), you may be surprised to realise that English is not actually as simple as you think it is.

Just ask any English learners!

There are a number of reasons for this and understanding these will help you appreciate the difficulties your learners may have.

English is not a phonetic language.

In some languages, you can read and pronounce words as they are written, so if you can read you will be able to speak the language (though, of course, you will need to learn to understand what you are saying). Not so in English. English is not phonetic, which means that you cannot know how to pronounce a word by looking at its spelling and you cannot know how to spell a word based on its pronunciation.

Think about through versus though versus tough. Or to, two and too. Enough said.

English is constantly changing.

Because English has a long history, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that it has changed over the years. However, when you think the Oxford English dictionary accepts approximately 1 000 new words every year, you soon realise the problem this can cause for learners. What’s more, many of these new words are colloquial terms which have become popular, meaning that they can be quite difficult to understand: hangry, humblebrag and amazeballs, to name just a few.

English is full of contradictions.

Because English has a long history and has its roots in a number of different languages, the meanings of words or the designations of words have changed, which has left us with a number of words which seem to us English-speakers to be a bit odd, if not downright absurd. For learners, they are simply puzzling.

There is no ham in hamburger, for instance, and there is neither pine nor apple in pineapple. To fill in a form is the same as to fill out a form, but a wise man and a wise guy are two very different things. Go figure.

English has a lot of exceptions.

Learners of English often complain that there are seemingly countless rules for English, but half the time there are more exceptions than followers of the rule. One of the most common rules we are taught when learning English is i before e except after c, which makes sense for sieve and receipt, but not for science or weird. In fact, there are at least 96 words which do not follow this rule, which seems to suggest it’s not actually a very good rule!

English is made up of collocations

Even if you learn all the adjectives and nouns in the English language, you will still need to learn how to put them together correctly. How English-speakers commonly use adjective/noun combinations is one example of collocation and while collocations seem natural to native speakers, since there are no rules governing them they can be very tricky to learn.

Consider how you would describe a cup of coffee. You may say it is strong, but you wouldn’t call it powerful. Or a breeze: gentle but not weak. These may seem like trivial matters but if you don’t use collocations correctly your English sounds quite unnatural.

English is a very idiomatic language

As if all of these are not enough, there are loads of phrases in English which mean nothing like what they actually say. Killing two birds with one stone has nothing to do with killing, birds or stones; similarly for the pot calling the kettle black and to have a chip on your shoulder.

When you consider English from this perspective, it’s easy to see why many students struggle to learn the language. Bear this in mind when you are in the classroom, so you can have a bit of empathy towards your students when you feel like nothing is sinking in!

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