What is it like to learn English?
If by some strange chance you think it’s hard to learn a language which is foreign to you… what’s it like for those who learn English when it’s foreign to them?
Most native speakers of English now deal at some point with people who are not native speakers of English, but how many of us ever
think about what these learners might have struggled with in order to communicate with us? Very often learning a new language gives us a greater appreciation of the kind of issues that people who’ve learnt English must have had to go through!
If you’ve been learning your new language for some time now, you will no doubt have acquired a feel for what is easy and what is difficult about it. Of course, different people may react differently to the same situation, so your perceptions may not be quite the same as those of others learning the same language. Generally, though, people tend to agree about what is difficult and what isn’t.
So what is difficult about learning English?
We should just mention that the perceived difficulty of a foreign language is usually linked quite closely to a learner’s previous linguistic experiences. If you’ve learnt Spanish, either as your first language or as a second language, you shouldn’t find Italian too hard, because the two languages are closely related. If you’re a monolingual speaker of Chinese, however, any European language is going to be quite a challenge, because they work in a very different way from your own. Things which are unfamiliar tend to be harder to grasp. When it comes to learning English, then, some people will be confronted with points which for them are really challenging, whereas for others they are quite straightforward.
Interestingly, though, English has certain characteristics which are tricky for pretty much everyone, and this is what we’re going to touch upon here.
Most of us are aware that our spelling system can be a minefield: surely any “system” in which “ough” is pronounced differently in “cough”, “rough”, “thorough”, “bough”, “ought” and “through” is going to fox any learner of the language! Yes, our insistence on spelling words the way they were pronounced in Chaucer’s day is a bit tedious. And yet, oddly enough, spelling doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem that learners face. First of all, it’s not totally erratic: if you suddenly saw the (non-existent) words “moggle” or “vebbit”, you’d know exactly how to pronounce them, and the reason is that we do have certain rules – lots of them – which are pretty much inviolable. Secondly, people tend just to learn the spelling of the words when they learn the meaning (much as people learning European languages try to remember the genders of nouns). And thirdly, spelling is not crucial to communication anyway: it clearly doesn’t matter when we speak, and we do have spellcheckers on our computers when we write!
Pronunciation is perhaps another matter:
it’s much more obvious. Some of our sounds are found in pretty much every language, and shouldn’t be too hard; examples are “m” and “n”. Overall, however, English pronunciation is quite distinct from that of all other languages, even those which are quite closely related, and any non-native speakers may have trouble with a good few unfamiliar sounds. Some of the sounds which are not very common across the spectrum of languages are as follows:
“r” – some sort of “r” is probably found in most languages, but both the British and American variants are quite rare
“h” – not a very unusual sound, but a lot of well-known languages don’t have it (e.g. French, Italian, Spanish, Russian…)
“v” – often absent from Asian languages
“th” – we have two sounds represented by these two letters (think “the” as opposed to “thing”), and neither of them is very common
We have a big range of sounds, and many of them are quite unusual. The vowel sounds we have in “and”, “up”, “caught”, “show” and “pure” are quite distinctive, and not often found in other languages. Just to complicate things further, our own pronunciation of vowel sounds varies so much depending on where we come from: just think how people fromNew Zealand, southernEnglandand theUSAwould pronounce the word “car”. Which model is the poor foreign learner to follow?
And yet, even if your pronunciation isn’t spot on, you can still make yourself understood very well. If someone has a stereotypical French accent and says, “Eet’s quite ‘arhrd to speak weezout a Frhrench acceonn”, we can surely understand as well as sympathise…
When we look at English grammar, we can actually say that a lot of it is pretty straightforward. It used to be more complicated, more like German or Russian today, but it has been greatly simplified over the centuries. We don’t add many bits onto our words, and it’s not that hard to string a few of them together to make something which makes sense even if it’s not perfect. But our grammar still presents its challenges!
The thing which nearly all learners have trouble getting to grips with is our excessive number of tenses. Technically, a lot of what we tend to call “tenses” are not tenses at all, but rather a reflection of “aspect”, which deals with the way in which we look at an event rather than whether it’s set in the past, present or future. Whatever we call these things, just sympathise for a moment with the poor learner who has to distinguish between “I went”, “I have gone”, “I have been going”, “I was going”, “I used to go”, “I did go”, “I had gone”, “I had been going” – all of them relating to some event in the past! No other language has this pattern of tense forms. Mandarin doesn’t have any tenses at all… You can rest assured that learners of English will have spent many hours grappling with the tenses. And yet, if they get them wrong, we still understand them, don’t we? “I have seen him yesterday” may sound funny, but we know what is meant.
The last area to mention is vocabulary. English is fortunate in that it has a lot of short words – hundreds just have one syllable, and you can go quite a long way with simple words which are not that hard to learn. So what’s tricky about the vocabulary?
Well, take the word “get”. In itself, it has quite a lot of meanings, but look what happens when it’s combined with other little words: “get on”, “get up”, “get in”, “get through”, “get by” – not to mention “get out of”, “get with it” and “get off with”, and (literally) dozens more. Just to add to the complexity, sometimes there are literal and more figurative meanings – “get
on the bus” is not the same use of “get on” as in “get on in the world”.
These structures are called “phrasal verbs”, and they’re hard! There’s no avoiding them if you want to master English, and the only thing you can really do is learn them when you come across them. And don’t think it’s just “get” which has all these variants – most of our other common verbs can also be used with little words like “up” and “down” and turned into phrasal verbs.
The thing is, though, no one sits down and learns a list of hundreds of phrasal verbs. You may start off with some really common examples like “stand up” and “sit down”, and actually before you know it you’ve learnt dozens of them. Sometimes there are alternatives: you may feel that “I descended the mountain” sounds awkward compared to “I went down the mountain”, but when you think that in French this is “J’ai descendu la montagne”, you can see which of the English variants might have greater appeal!
A rather sweeping, but perhaps not unreasonable conclusion about learning English as a foreign language is perhaps this: it’s not that hard to make yourself understood, but if you want to speak it well, it still needs a fair bit of effort. But then if you think about it, we could probably say something similar about most languages. So don’t be put off if you get something wrong. OK, you won’t sound like a native, but everyone knows you’re not a native anyway!
Multilingual language expert Peter Chapple has spent many years studying English-speakers learning foreign languages, as well as non-English speakers learning English.