In the mid-20th century Russians hoped that their language would become dominant. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union attempted to expand its own Cyrillic alphabet, but fortunately for the linguistic happiness of future generations that cumbersome writing system and grammatically complex language was abandoned with the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since the end of the Cold War English has definitely become the world’s most widely spoken language. In recent decades English has continued to expand in use among people all around the world.  Because of the economic and political dominance of the United States and Great Britain, English is by far the world’s most important language in terms of international business and trade, intellectual activity, technological and scientific advances, social trends, and popular culture. The combined resources of the descendents of the English, and the English-speaking former British colonies (most notably the United States, India, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria, and many other countries in Africa, as well as many islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific) are tremendous. In addition, the European Union has virtually adopted English as its major means of communication, to the point that every educated European speaks English.

International public discourse is increasingly in English. Like it or not, English is the power language of our times.  English is the closest thing the world has ever had to a global lingua franca. It is the language with the most potential for global communication.

In some respects this development is a positive step for humanity, because English language offers significant advantages over other languages. English has an especially wide and precise vocabulary, and a fairly straightforward way of speaking.  It is part of the huge Indo-European language family that stretches from Iceland to India, with about half of its vocabulary being derived from Germanic languages and about half from Romance languages.  This history of shared vocabulary with the two main branches of European languages makes English easier to learn by speakers of both of those large language branches.

Throughout its history English has adapted new words freely from other languages, and it continues this openness toward adoption of new vocabulary today. Scientists today continually make up new terms using Greek and Latin prefixes like “macro-, micro-, poly-, para-, maxi-, mini-.”

Besides its adaptibility and flexibility, English is not plagued by wide use of tones, which make learning more difficult. For example, a tonal language like mandarin Chinese uses the word “mai” to mean either “mother” or “horse” depending on the tone in which “mai” is said. In Thai, which has five tones (high, low, rising, falling, middle) the word “mai” means “mother” and the word for horse is “ma.” But besides meaning “horse,” the word “ma” can also mean “dog,” or “come,” depending on the tone.  Though context can help discern the meaning of those words, in Thai the word “gai” can confusingly mean either “nearby” or “far away” depending on the tone with which the word is spoken!  Tonal languages are much more difficult for outsiders to learn.

English also has the advantage of being a basically egalitarian language. English does not require different language use according to a person’s gender and socio-economic class. Unlike Javanese and other status-conscious languages, an English learner does not have to memorize several different forms of the pronoun “you” when addressing a person depending on their gender or their class relation. In Thai, the word for “you” is “khun,” except when people address a close relative or intimate friend they say “Theu.” And in addition, when addressing members of the royal family or government officials one must remember to use “Thanh” which is another word for “you. ” Multiple pronouns make language learning more difficult.

English is easier to learn because it lacks much gender terminology. English has one word that can be learned by all persons, as opposed to a gendered language like Thai, where men and women use different words.  For example, a Thai man refers to himself as “Phom” (masculine I) while a Thai woman refers to herself as “Chan” (feminine I). A Thai man says “Sawadee kop” in greeting but a Thai woman says “Sawadee ka”.  The idea of gendering words is obsolete and obstructionist in the modern world, and makes a language more difficult to learn.  Hopefully in the future Spanish, Deutsch and Thai will abandon these archaic holdovers from the past.

English is the only European language that does not have different adjectives depending on gender. For example, English learners have to remember only one word for “tall” whether applied to a man or a woman, whereas Spanish learners have to remember “alto” for all masculine-identified words and “alta” for all feminine-identified words that relate to tallness. Every learner of Espanol has to learn not only the name of all nouns, but must try to remember which nouns are preceded by “La” (feminine article) or “El” (masculine article), just as every learner of Deutsch needs to remember “die” (feminine article) or “das” (masculine article). Learners of English only have to remember one article “the” which can be used for all nouns.

English also has the advantage of being fairly clear in its verb conjugation for regular verbs. English has regularized endings like “ed” to indicate past tense.  Imagine how difficult it is to learn a language where every verb tense has a different word, similar to the English verb “to be” where the learner has to remember “I am, you are, he is, she is, it is, we are, you are, they are, I was, you were, he was, she was, it was, we were, you were, they were, I will be… I will have been…”  It is bad enough that English has five forms of a verb like the infinitive “to ride” (ride, rides, rode, riding, ridden), but in Deutsch the verb “reiten” has sixteen forms!


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s