3. WHY ENGLISH IS SO DIFFICULT TO LEARN

Despite the advantages of the English language, however, there is a huge problem with English as an international means of communication. English spelling, grammar, and word forms are extremely inconsistent. The reason for this inconsistency is due to the history of the language itself, and the fact that it was written down so long ago. Beginning with Briton and Celtic influences, Old English is most closely related to Icelandic, Frisian (spoken by the inhabitants of the Dutch province of Friesland), Dutch, Flemish, and German. Old English shares with German and Scandinavian languages basic root words like many numbers, kinship terms (“father, mother, brother, wife, husband”), environmental terms and colors (“land, tree, summer, winter, year, house, white, gray, green”), verbs (“come, bring, get, meet, hear, see, sit, stand, think, welcome”) and prepositions (“over, under”).

Many words are spelled exactly the same way in German and English, such as:

adapter, advent, agent, alarm, alphabet, altar, analog, angst, arm, artist, aspirin, automat, baby, badminton, ball, band, bank, bitter, blitzkrieg, blind, blizzard, block,  boxer, bratwurst, bus, butter, dachshund, deli, diesel, ersatz, explosion, Fahrenheit, fair, fallen, familiar, fan, farm, fest, film, filter, final, finger, fit, flak, flirt, frankfurter, front, gang, gas, glitz, glitzy, hamburger, hammer, hamster, hand, horn, hunger, idiot, information, intelligent, job, joker, jury, kaput, ketchup, kindergarten, kidnapper, killer,  kitsch, kitschy, knockwurst, leitmotiv, link, live, liverwurst, masochism, mild, mineral, minus, mission, motor, Neandertal, nest, nickel, organization, out, pager, puzzle, report, room, rucksack, sand, sauerkraut, sex, sheriff, show, song, strudel, student, vegetation, verb, volt, vulgar, waltz, wanderlust, wienerschnitzel, zeitgeist, zinc.

These are only a few of the long list of identical words shared by these two close languages. Many other words would be spelled exactly the same, except that German does not have so many needless silent letters as English. So, for example, figure is spelled “figur,” favorite is spelled “favorit” and exclusive is spelled “exklusiv.” German uses a “k” consistently, while English sometimes uses a “k” and sometimes a “c” as in words like: “accord (akkord), act (akt) alcohol (alkohol), calendar (kalender), candidate (kandidat), card (karte), compass (compass), complex (komplex), credit (kredit), doctor (doktor), local (lokal), objective (objektiv), obscure (obskur).” And German consistently uses a “d” for similar words while English inconsistently uses either “th” or “t” as in “feather (feder), leather (leder), thank (danke), north (nord).”

There are even more words in English that came from German, but are spelled slightly differently, such as: “address (addresse), all (alle), apple (apfel), blue (blau), boat (boot), book (buch), drink (trinken), dumb (dumm), effective (efectiv), eight (acht), end (ende), English (Englisch), father (Vater), flesh (fleisch), folk (volk), friend (freund), good (gut), house (haus), ice (eis), ideology (ideologie), mother (mutter), new (neu), nine (neun), sit (sitzen), son (sohn), word (wort).”

When the Romans expanded their empire to England two thousand years ago they brought in many Latin words (like “genius, gratis, bona fide, terror, camera, ad nauseam”) that were absorbed into English. Latin words form the basis of many English words such as: hour (hora), action (actio), discipline (disciplina), directly (directus), advocate (advocatus), examine (examina), grade (gradus), grammar (gramaracticus), plant (plantare), primary (primus), quarter (quarta), sixth (sexta), republica (republic), study (studere), university (universitas), wine (vinum).

Not only traditional Latin appeared, but after the later Roman emperors embraced Christianity Catholic missionaries brought more Latin words as well as Hebrew religious words like “amen, sabbath, jubilee, hallelujah, manna, messiah.”

Centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the language spoken in England was influenced by Scandinavian languages due to Viking incursions. Scandinavian words include nouns like “law, band, birth, bloom, crook, dirt, egg, knife, loan, race, score, seat, skill, sky, thrift, window.” Scandinavian verbs include “call, clip, die, droop, drown, gasp, rid, scare, snub, thrive, thrust, want,” and adjectives include “awkward, flat, happy, ill, loose, rotten, rugged, tight, ugly, weak, wrong.”

In every century of its history English has absorbed words from those nationalities with which it had most contact. Dutch seafaring traders in the Renaissance era contributed words like “deck, dock, buoy, leak, pump, skipper, yacht, boss, cookie, snoop, waffle.” From Italians, English adopted musical terms, literary terms, and architectural terms, including words like “crescendo, stanza, canto, extravaganza, cupola, grotto, pedestal, piazza, corridor,” terms like “molasses, veranda, marmalade” from the Portuguese, and from Spaniards words like “galleon, guerrilla, mosquito, cannibal, cigar, canyon, lasso, pueblo, rodeo, bonanza.”

And then, with the Norman Conquest, French made a “coup” and entered the English language in a “grand style.”  Modern English is heavily influenced by French vocabulary, especially with political terms like “president, representative, legislature, congress, parliament, constitution,” and concepts like “liberty, amity, enmity, affection.”  French cooking is duly recognized by the adoption of words like “boil, broil, cuisine, fry, grill, roast, toast, dinner, supper, scent,” and French fashion is noted by words like “tailor, fabric, draper, haberdasher, painter, mode, elegant, salon, wine, drama, ballet.”  English travelers in France brought back such words as “souvenir, tour, hotel.” The French, unfortunately, brought with them their writing style that includes many silent letters, for “example” in everything from “omelette”  and “cigarette” to “milieau,” in their “entourage” of spellings.

English did not just limit its incorporation of foreign words to other Indo-European languages. From Arab traders in the Mediterranean, Englishmen absorbed words like “zero, algebra, almanac, arsenal, assassin, zenith, syrup, sugar,” and from Turks they adopted “turban, coffee, caviar.”  From Persia, words like “paradise, bazaar, caravan, chess, shawl” came into English usage, and as British ships sailed to the corners of the globe Englishmen also brought back new words like “taboo, tattoo, ukulele, hula” from the Pacific Islanders, “kangaroo, boomerang” from aboriginal Australians, “chimpanzee, voodoo, gumbo” from Africans, “kayak, igloo, totem” from Native Canadians, “hurricane, hammock, tobacco, maize, tomato, iguana” from Native Caribbeans, “bamboo, ketchup, amuck, orangutan, compound” from Malaysians, and “tycoon, samurai, tsunami” from Japanese.

By the modern era the end result for the English language was not so much a “bonanza” (Spanish) of “multi-lingualism” (Latin), but instead a “de facto”[Latin] “bizarre impasse” [French], a “nuanced debacle” [French] of confusion “en masse” [French], with a “catalogue” (French) of “words” (German) that have a “penchant” [French] for many inconsistencies and silent letters that are “impediments” [Latin] to youth (German) and adults alike.  The “status quo” [Latin] in English is hardly a “mardi gras” [French] celebration, but an “absurd” [Latin] and “awkward” (Scandinavian) “crescendo” (Italian) of conflicting sounds, a “marriage” [French] of “convenience” [French] that is a “modus operandi” [Latin] that does not work.  My “critique” [French] is that English is the “persona non grata” [Latin] of languages. It is time for a “change, a rapprochement vis-a-vis reality” [French].

In calling for changing the language I am not suggesting anything new here.  English has been changing drastically for the past two thousand years.  For example, the medieval epic poem “Beowulf”  is almost impossible to read by modern people.  When English people first came to North America, the English language that they spoke is considerably different from the way we spell words today.

English is not static, but is constantly evolving.  Living languages are constantly changing, with new terminology arising from technological invention and from slang.  A number of Pidgin English forms, which draw on other languages as diverse as Polynesian languages and African languages, have emerged in various parts of the world.  More research needs to be done on Pidgin grammatical form, but to the extent that I am familiar with Black English, Caribbean Creole, and Polynesian Pidgin, I have drawn on some of their innovations as the basis for my suggestions in making English grammar more efficient.  As literacy became more common, and more important in business, shortened forms of words became acceptable.  Today, short words like “ad, exam, lab, gym, tech, vet” are listed in dictionaries alongside their longer and more easily misspelled previous forms “advertisement, examination, laboratory, gymnasium, technical, veterinarian.”

The most recent change in English is due to the internet and telephone instant messaging.  When impatient teenagers text message each other on their cell phones, having to punch in letters individually on the keypad is time consuming.  Text messengers have come up with convenient abbreviations to get across their message just as clearly with fewer keystrokes.

“Are” becomes “R” “why” becomes “Y” and “you” becomes “U”.  Apostrophes are dropped, so that “don’t” becomes “dont”  and “can’t” becomes “cant”.  After grading college student papers for over thirty years I have concluded that so many people cannot tell whether to put an apostrophe in “it’s” or “its” that it is a hopeless task to try to educate people about this spelling.

Though spelling teachers bemoan this “deterioration of spelling” in text messaging I think all of this is a good trend.  English spellings have so many useless letters that the language is badly overdue for an overhaul.

 

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About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 3. WHY ENGLISH IS SO DIFFICULT TO LEARN

  1. When people want to learn English, the usual practice is for them to have to adapt to English as it now exists.
    This new approach, in contrast, adapts the English language to make it much easier to learn. If you want to learn English quickly, follow the instructions on this site.

  2. It’s not easy to learn English that full of exception, yet it’s harder to change “real English” since we have to change the culture which is part of “real English”.

    • I disagree. We can work to change the use of the language internationally, without having to worry about changing the culture of any nation. English is about effective communication. If people can communicate more easily by dropping certain words as archaic, why do we need to change any culture?

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