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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org