Tag Archives: Language Schools

Stephen Fry on Language.

Excellent Viddy. Watch, Watch, Watch!

Why is English so Hard to Learn?

I love the English language – in all its quirky beauty and hair-splittingly hare-brained complexity but, as an English teacher, I am all too painfully aware of how difficult this fascinating social creation is for others to learn.

So, why is English so difficult to learn? Looked at from a philological point of view, I think there are many answers.

Actually, elementary ‘survival’ English, is  not that hard to pick-up. That is to say, English at a level which corresponds to the average Brit’s grasp of Spanish. With a little preparation, and a handy phrasebook, it is not hard to ask the way to the airport, or order two beers, in any language.

The difficulty comes when you want to speak our language correctly, because English is one of the largest languages on earth, and also one of the most  irregular.

Size Matters

That the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists 171,476 words in current use (plus 47,156 obsolete and 9,500 derivative words) simply underlines the size of the language, and this does not take into account entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective). To this you must add the technical and regional vocabularies and words not yet added to the published dictionary, giving a total approaching three quarters of a million.

With 750,000 words to play with, it is no wonder that overseas learners of English have problems unravelling the rules.

Meet the Vocabulary Ancestors

To do so, you really need to start by understanding what languages we are talking about.

In the United Kingdom, there is only one national language, Standard British English, but two autonomous regional languages: Welsh and Gaelic (both Irish and Scots varieties). The difference of these should never be discounted, as anyone who has been to North West Scotland or Wales will know, and English borrows from both quite freely (Loch, cairn or glen, anyone?).

Like all languages, English bears the imprint of its previous users. So, our national vocabulary includes words with Gothonic, Celtic, Gaelic, Latin, Saxon, Viking and Norman roots, but also loanwords from Russian, Hindi, Yiddish, French, German and, because the British got around quite a bit, almost every other language imaginable.

Because of our enduring relationships with some countries, though, we have borrowed from two or three cultures more than others. English shows its roots in Danish for many of the basics of life, the tell-tale traces of our long linguistic love-affair with France, and the influences of the post-colonial powerhouses of America, Australia and India.

Hell is Other People’s Language Patterns

As if this unmanageably various vocabulary weren’t enough, the learner also has the problem of seemingly unpredictable patterns in the way we speak.

This was caused by the differential adoption of pronunciation and grammar by different social groups and classes within British society, so that working words like ‘mallet’, ‘wallet’ and ‘billet’ have a distinctly English pronunciation while we keep a suitably French tone for a word like ‘ballet’.

The retention of donor language forms depends on how recently words were adopted, and by whom. Although pedants may quarrel over the pronunciation of ‘mater’ and ‘pater’, no-one argues about how to say the word ‘tree’ (Viking ‘tre’ related to the modern Danish ‘trae’), for example.

To understand these patterns, it helps to know the relative social status of the adoptees. The language of fine dining, for example, is predominantly French, and is still pronounced as close to the original as possible. This is as much about the education of those buying expensive meals – it was assumed that they would understand French – as it was about exclusivity and the exclusion of ‘undesirables’.

Creativity – Don’t you just hate it!

Every year the OED lists another few hundred words that have been coined by some journalist or cultural commentator. These wonderful new words are sometimes fly-by-night creations and are gone from the lexicon a decade later. Many stick, though, and become yet more for students to learn and puzzle over.

The leading new word this year is ‘Omnishambles’ – coined to cover a continuing  and all-consuming cock-up, whether political or administrative. It has it roots in the biting political satire The Thick of It, and has since been used in Parliament to great effect.

For those learning English, creativity is a real obstacle to success. They want simple rules and they want speakers to stick to them. This requires prescriptive grammar and good teaching. (Something that HELLO English does extremely well, by the way!)

The Good News.

The good news is that, whether you are a serious linguist looking at a descriptive grammar or an English teacher with a more normative (prescriptive) approach, English does have simple rules. Just a lot of them.

But it is a language which keeps on giving, and the more that the student puts into learning, the more they will get… and the better grades they will eventually achieve.

And what of us – at HELLO English? Well, as native-speaking English teachers, we realise how lucky we are. We think we won first-prize in the lottery of language, and we are determined to share that good fortune with others.

Why not talk to us today about how we can help you improve your language skills – whether for university, A-levels or for general interest. Check out our website http://www.hello-english.co.uk or contact us on contact@hello-english.co.uk

What Price Professional English?

What Price Professional English?

Check out this business and professional English blog!

In Defence of Grammar Teaching

I recently saw this blog post. It is written by a newly graduated English teacher. Anyone who teaches English, or languages in general, would do well to have a look.

Teaching grammar doesn’t stifle creativity.

Katherine Brandt 1st July 2011

ImageAlthough the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming, teaching grammar has great value in the school system because it gives students the background that they need to understand their language and use it effectively both in and out of the academic world.

By teaching grammar, educators provide students with the building blocks of language. When students understand each of the building blocks behind their language, they have a greater ability to communicate not only in their native tongue but also in other languages which employ similar building blocks, albeit in a different order.

Grammar is an important tool because people who do not understand it have difficulty communicating well, and as a result their ideas are often overlooked. Consider children who have yet to learn how to speak well or foreigners who misunderstand how to use prepositions or adjectives. For example, a Spanish-speaker learning English might say, “The sock red has a hole small.” Though people may understand sentences like this one, they might also need to make a conscious effort to achieve understanding.

Although the idea of the foreigner is an exaggerated example, students who understand the idiosyncrasies of English grammar will, in a much more subtle way, be able to control the voice, meaning, and level of formality with which they write. As a result, they will be able to write for an educated audience without the embarrassment of making obvious mistakes.

I have been able to see grammar’s importance in my own education. When I was a child, I attended a private elementary school where we were constantly drilled in grammar. We diagrammed sentences, learned parts of speech, and revised incorrect sentences time and again to master the language.

When I was twelve, my family moved, and I went to a public junior high school where the teaching of grammar was considered unimportant and indeed somewhat damaging to a child’s voice. Nevertheless, in my first month of class, my English teacher checked for students’ basic understanding of grammar. To my shock and dismay, I was the only person in the class who could recognize verbs and complete sentences. My peers consistently struggled with their essays because they had never been taught how to construct a complete idea within a sentence. They had been to school for seven years and could not write a simple sentence. I wondered what they had learned in all that time.

Imagine reading entire papers composed of fragments such as “When I went to the store.” These papers might convey meaning but certainly not in the way that the students intend – with clarity. From the time I entered the public school system, I was at the top of my class in English simply because I had been taught how to put words together correctly. As a result, my teachers could understand and respond to the ideas that I expressed in my papers. All children need to obtain at least a basic understanding of grammar in order to communicate effectively and meaningfully in the educated world.

Knowing grammar also gives students another advantage when it comes to learning foreign languages. When I first started taking Spanish, I had greater understanding simply because I knew some grammar. My teacher, in vain, explained how Spanish speakers position nouns and adjectives differently from English speakers; most of the students did not even know how to differentiate a noun from an adjective. On the other hand, I easily understood what she was explaining because I had been taught to identify parts of speech and their function within a sentence. The other students struggled and guessed their way through the course because every unit presented new parts of speech. Indefinite and definite articles, participles, and verbs were among the difficult concepts that they had not even learned in their native tongue.

I pity my peers who came from a system of those who have written off grammar as unimportant. I have heard these educators say that the study of grammar “stills the creative voice.” My personal experience has shown the contrary. Grammar has been my key to creativity because, with my basic knowledge of the language, I know how to coherently express my ideas so that others can appreciate them. I also know the building blocks to learning other languages which will only expand my creativity and not inhibit it.

It is time for educators to take a stand and teach children to use grammar well so that they may be able to participate both creatively and formally in the educated world. Even as we would not cripple architects by taking away the resources that they need to build beautiful buildings, so we should not cripple our young writers by refusing them grammatical knowledge. From a strong foundation in grammatical understanding will come better, stronger writers who will know how to use the tools educators give them to create beautiful and original writing.

Unleash your inner Viking.

Get to know a friendly Viking!

Danish Delights

Although I spend my working days teaching the delights of English, I often find myself referring to Danish in order to explain the quirks of the English language.

At school, I learnt Latin and French; at university, Old and Middle English. Along the way, to a greater or lesser extent, I have picked-up bits of Hindi, Hebrew, Danish, Swedish, Spanish and Italian. So, why is Danish – my Viking touchstone – so important?

Well, I think that Danish should be taught in England as a mandatory foreign language not just for historical and etymological reasons, but because it is so useful, and simple.

Simplicity

Unlike most languages we learn, Danish doesn’t have a difficult grammatical structure, there are no case-endings or weird irregularities, and many of the words are pretty familiar to a native English speaker. Almost all our vocabulary for the home, the family, farming or fishing, for example, has Danish roots and most are actually the same word, albeit pronounced slightly differently.

Which brings us to the one slightly difficult bit of this proposition: the pronunciation of Danish.

Danes will themselves admit that Danish is not so much a language as a throat sickness. For those of us raised on and accustomed to English, the articulation of Danish – which is further back in the throat – can sound a little akin to gargling.

This is often highlighted by the danes themselves, when they invite visitors to pronounce the name of a delicious redcurrant dessert, served with cream ‘Rødgrød med fløde‘, which is, of course, nearly unpronounceable for ordinary mortals.

Once this skill is mastered, however, the language is simple, clear and a delight to use.

Useful

Now, let’s be honest, there is no answer known to man that will persuade a truculent teenager of the utility of learning another language, but for calmer heads, the human and financial advantages are clear.

So, at a time when they might be learning Chinese, Arabic or Russian (1.6 billion speakers worldwide), why am I suggesting that we should encourage our children to learn Danish (estimated speakers 6 million)?

We will not gain a vast Viking export market, that’s certain. But, do we only learn languages in order to boost foreign trade?  Surely not? One of the most important roles for language learning is to enhance friendship  between nations and for us to expand our capacity to think and imagine in ways that are not possible within the confines of our own language. This is something we need to do.

We have so much to learn from the humanitarian and democratic societies that lies across the North Sea. Whether we are talking about Denmark, Norway or Sweden, these are countries that have been wise about their economies when we have been merely greedy, and have invested sensibly for their futures in their people and their skills. Shouldn’t we be learning more from them?

Apart from French, which is unsuccessfully drummed into most of us from an early age, Denmark is not only geographically close to us, it is our nearest linguistic neighbour. But French is – like English – a confoundedly complex and irregular language to learn.

As Britons, we have been dreadful at teaching foreign languages. So bad, in fact, that we have the worst record among the developed world, even when we have tried to teach children European languages which use the same alphabet, like French, German and Spanish.

How do we think we will do when we try to introduce the xenophobic and lazy linguists in our schools to Mandarin, Russian and Arabic?

Quite.

Viking for Progress

There is another way. By learning Danish as a first foreign language, British school children could choose to learn the more complex languages of our other neighbours having already succeeded in speaking a recognised European tongue.

The acquisition of Danish as a progressor language would give our students increased confidence, creativity and international employability.

Most importantly, improved linguistic confidence, nationally, would encourage the learning of other more complex languages, such as Dutch, French, Italian or German. After all, it is much easier to learn third and fourth languages once you have confidence in a language other than your own.

If we want to encourage language learning and be seen as a country that actually bothers about the rest of the world, perhaps we ought to start by teaching languages that our students will actually use and enjoy.

After all, within us all, there is a Viking waiting to come out!

 

HELLO English will be very happy to help you or any others who may be interested to discover their inner Viking. Others may find our excellent English teaching and successful courses to their advantage. Please do not hesitate to contact us through this blog or through the http://www.hello-english.com website.

God save the Queen’s English

God save the Queen’s English.

via God save the Queen’s English.

Reflection boosts Recovery

Moggy at the MAC

We are in recovery phase at HELLO!

After the departure of our excellent student from Montelimar – we have had a little down-time, so that we can plan and develop for future homestay guests and the next phase of our work at HELLO!.

Obviously, the pleasure of seeing a student’s English improve on a daily basis is really rewarding but, because we teach on a 1:1 basis, it is more draining than working in traditional classroom mode, where students are self-managing, to a certain extent.

At times like these, I am always reminded of Dory Previn’s line: ‘You’ve got no grace if you’ve got no space to be alone.’ You need a little time to re-charge your batteries, to review and re-think after a period of professional engagement – whatever form that may take.

Without this, we become stale and predictable and forget our qualitative reasons for doing what we do.

Certainly, at HELLO!, we find that, because we are fascinated by the English language and enjoy the company of our students, this mixture of enthusiasm and expertise gets through to our students, who rate us very highly in end of course reviews.

This may seem like a mutual love-in, but after years of presenting bad news to failing clients, it is delightful to be able to see improvement and satisfaction grow before your very eyes.

So, quality over quantity every time – it may not make us rich, but it keeps us  and our guests happy, and that is what really matters!!