Monday, 1 December 2008

It's All A Hoax!

*If you're not interested in the intricacies of languages PLEASE don't read this ramble

I grew up thinking that English is such a hard language to learn!
People always did so poorly in spelling classes, and so many educational institutions in English-speaking countries set up ESL (English as a Second Language) programs for immigrants. I myself was put into one (using racial prejudices, I'm sure - I wasn't an immigrant, although my first language wasn't English).

At age 8 already, I thought that so many people had trouble speaking/writing/reading/listening to English.

When I started learning French in grade 4, the first couple of weeks was comprised of our teacher reassuring us that learning French couldn't be that hard.
They gave us impressionable youngsters a sheet. Here is a copy of it:

"So you think French is hard!"
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, though, and through -
Well done!
And now you wish perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead - it's said like bed, not bead.
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there's dose and rose and lose,
Just look them up - goose and choose
And cork and work and card and ward
And front and font, and word and sword
And do and go, and wart and cart -
Come! Come! I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I mastered it - when I was five!!!

This poem no doubt had an impact on my love for the wonder of languages, but it also tricked me into thinking that only native speakers could unlock the key of speaking English properly.

Furthering my biased view of English were the numerous foreign accents that the media, especially television, placed on ethnic speakers. I watched a lot of The Simpsons when I was young and anyone who was not yellow had a foreign accent--like Apu. I thought that all foreigners studied so hard and took years and years, almost a lifetime, to learn English.

What got me into other languages was singing other languages in choir, such as trying to pronounce the Latin, German and other things properly. But this gave me a strained view of what learning an entire language consisted of. I thought I was learning a language when singing songs. No one told me that I was just mimicking some sounds in a language I did not understand at all.

My attempts at trying to learn Chinese and French "because I had to" was a very lazy way of learning a language -- I had no motivation whatsoever. There was no pull for me to learn any of those to completion. So when I came out of almost 6 years of learning those and I could not even understand anything I just became angry at the system, not realizing that learning a language took practice, initiative, and all those other things I did not do.

So I come here and everyone speaks English almost perfectly even though none of them have it as their mother tongue. They take lectures in English with ease even though they've never done it before, and they read the textbooks in English and write English essays and exams. My mind is thinking, "WHAT is going on here?" I thought English was mighty hard. Didn't that poem say so?

When I first started learning linguistics in university, I remember learning about case systems and clitics and all that. I was fascinated, but that was it. All it did to me was fascinate me, but I had no use for it. I could not apply it anywhere. Then comes Icelandic with its three genders and its four cases and all these.

People from Greece, Germany, Finland, with their crazy case systems say that English is easy. A person from French-speaking Switzerland, with its highly irregular orthography, says English is easy to learn. She's been learning German for a longer time but English has way surpassed what she knows in German.

Here are some theories as to why English is easy to learn:
1. It's highly flexible. Native English speakers are so used to hearing other accents that they accommodate for foreigners (sometimes overaccommodate as to the point of being patronising).
2. The phones are some of the most common found amongst other languages in the world (except for the 'r', I'm told)
3. There is absolutely no case system, noun gender, and I'm told that verb conjugation is easy. Genitives are easy, word order is regular, etc. It is a language with synthetic leanings.

What gets me is the phonology and the orthography. I learned that they are highly sporadic. The stress is random and can mean different things depending on context. The orthography? Just look at the poem above. I guess it comes through with practice.

Now here is a second language acquisition question: Is it because of the greater opportunities one has to practice English, or is it because of the nature of the language in relation to other languages, that English is easy to learn? Or is it both? If both, which factor has more effect?
My answer would be that at first it's because it is "inherently" easy, but as the learner progresses it would be because of the huge access to people, books, films, materials in English.

And does this have anything to do with English as a lingua franca? The sociolinguist would say it's because of the opportunities, but wouldn't people in the past have just given up on learning English if it was too hard, no matter what opportunities it provided? They could've switched to Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Chinese, Russian, whatever as their second language.

Okay I should be studying now so I will stop here!
Please send comments about this.

1 comment:

Bill Chapman said...

I don't think that English has been so (relatively) successful because of any linguistic merit. It's to do with political power, tjhe spread of the British Empire and then the American empire.

Have you ever looked at the politically neutral planned international language Esperanto?

Take a look at and tell us what you think!