What I’d find difficult about English

Posted on October 5, 2013 by

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English is a peculiar language, being an amalgam of Old Norse, Germanic languages, and French from the Middle Ages and further back. While teaching English I’ve encountered many difficulties explaining certain grammar and pronunciation concepts. Often it’s simple to explain a rule or an exception to a rule, but when a student asks for a deeper reason for the rule or exception I’m at a loss for words.

So I’ve tried to put myself in the students’ shoes, and think about what I’d find difficult if I were learning English as a second or third language.

First, the unpredictable pronunciation would frustrate me. It’s not just the silent letters, such as in the word through (which logically should be spelled thru). Once you read enough English it’s relatively straight-forward to internalize pronunciation rules such as –ough, or –tion, or ge- versus ga-.

The pronunciation that I’d find difficult is the way vowels often change their sound for no apparent reason. Take two simple words: hat and woman. The a is pronounced differently in both words. There’s no rule to explain this other than historical convention from centuries of English language development. It’s simply something that must be learned. Despite the vowel in the word man being pronounced closer to the vowel in hat, adding wo- to the beginning of man changes its sound. This would be mystifying to me if I were studying English.

Second, auxiliary verbs (i.e. do, have, be). Many languages make extensive use of auxiliary verbs, but English is very strict in its word order, and adding a second set of verbs to a statement or question makes the correct syntax difficult to construct. Then add the use of question words, such as who, where, which, how many, etc., coupled with different tenses, and you have a mess on your hands.

For example: Where did you go for lunch?

Georgian students often construct such sentences as Where you went for lunch? I don’t blame them. It makes more sense to use only one verb for a simple past action like going somewhere at a single point in the past. But in English the use of an auxiliary verb is necessary for most question constructions.

Finally, articles, especially if I were the native speaker of a language which lacked them, like Georgian or Russian. When teaching certain grammar subjects to Georgians, such as past simple tense, you know that there’s a parallel in the Georgian language. But with articles there’s no such parallel. Not only must you teach a set of grammar rules, but a completely new language concept altogether. The necessity of labeling objects or nouns with articles would be very strange to me if I were learning English. Perhaps it’s just as strange for Georgians as it is for English speakers learning French or Spanish and needing to memorize the gender of nouns.

Even the Georgians fluent in English I’ve encountered often misuse or drop articles when they’re speaking. Russian speakers are notorious for doing this, which of course becomes the subject of parody for Americans imitating their accent. Granted, it’s a relatively minor problem. Articles rarely define the meaning of a sentence, and you could drop every article and still speak comprehensibly. But if you want to be fluent in English it’s necessary to master them.

I encourage English teachers to imagine what they’d find difficult if they were a student. This is especially useful if you know a little about Georgian grammar yourself, since you’ll be able to anticipate the differences between English and Georgian that your students may find puzzling.

Posted in: Culture, Languages