Every Tuesday I tutor a young Vietnamese woman in English, helping prepare her to take the citizenship test next year. Lately we’ve been working on her vocabulary and writing skills. Until you look at English through the eyes of someone from a non-English speaking country, you can’t appreciate what a difficult language ours is.
For example, this woman asked me why our letters didn’t have just one sound like they did in her language. She thought the cell in cell phone was spelled “sell,” and was very surprised when I told her it began with a “c.” We then talked about words that were spelled differently, had different meanings, and yet were pronounced the same, like won and one. How on earth does “one” start with a w sound? Then why isn’t “wonder” spelled “oneder”? She was even more exasperated when we talked about words that were pronounced differently, had totally different meanings, and yet were spelled exactly the same, such as “tear,” meaning water dripping from your eye, and “tear,” meaning to rip something.
She wanted me to give her the rules on how to form plurals. I knew she was in for more disappointment because as many rules as there are, there are a ton of exceptions. Child becomes children, woman becomes women, goose becomes geese, and mouse becomes meese. Or at least it should. We put letters in words and then don’t pronounce them (gnat), we put an e at the end of a one-syllable word to make the preceding vowel have a long sound (bone), and then we put an e at the end of a word and it makes the same vowel short (come). Can you imagine how frustrating all of this is to a person learning English? I dread getting into the whole “ough” problem (through, rough, bough, etc.)
As difficult as our language is, at least we don’t have to worry about the tones of our words as they do in the Chinese language. I read a post by Slice of Shanghai that made me think ours may not be quite so hard. I think, though, that my sweet Vietnamese young lady might find that debatable.
Agreed – it is silly. But I’m reading a book called “Globish” at the moment which is all about English and it is fascinating to find just WHY it is so silly AND why it is still the most commonly spoken language in the world.
I might just have to read that book, Ken. Thanks for the tip.
It is a daft language, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine trying to learn it as a second (or third, etc.) language. For every rule, there’s something that breaks it.
I know, Robin. It’s crazy. How do you even begin to write an English grammar book?
English was and still is my second language. Like your Vietnamese friend, I went through all the steps of struggle learning it. I still remember my obsession with the usage of prepositions such as in and at, when do I use which? As an ESL instructor in the U.S., I could tackle all the rules except prepositions and I became the inspiration of all my students. But I can never be as “fluent” as a native speaker from a cultural perspective.
Thanks for mentioning my post. It’s a honor!
Your welcome, Shanghai. I thought of your post when I was working with Chi this week, and said to myself, well, this could be worse! Your English is so excellent, nobody would know you weren’t a native speaker.
I agree it is a silly language, too. Trying to explain it to my boys is a challenge at times. They have responded to my corrections with,”But that doesn’t make sense.”
Can you blame them,LD?
Please tell her not to feel too bad. I must explain the same things to students taking freshman composition, too. All high school grads and all American born.
Wait until you must explain slang and idioms. I had a heck of a time explaining the difference between “the wise men” and “wise guys” to a Turkish co- worker. “Wise men,” not so difficult. After several failed attempts I said, “you know Rick? He’s a wise guy.”. No further explanation needed.
Please tell her not to feel too bad. I have the same problem teaching freshman composition to American born citizens!
Wait until you get into idioms and slang. I had a heck of a time explaining to a Turkish fellow the difference between “the wise men” and “wise guys.”
LOL, Adela. As a former English teacher, I completely understand your pain!
I would not want to learn our language as an adult. It is confusing at best. Teaching takes lots of patience and endurance, well done you! DAF
Thanks, DAF. The deeper we get into English, and the more questions my student asks, the more I realize how silly English really is. But, hey! It’s ours, so gotta love it!
This is great article. I can actually recall a bollywood film which highlights the same topic about how ‘English is a silly language’.
Is it a film that can be rented, RC? What is the name of the film?
English is a complete pig of a language to learn. I think that’s why so many native speakers struggle, especially in writing. It’s a mongrel language with too many roots and sources which all contribute to a bewildering mess of nonsensical pronunciation and spelling. Well done to your friend. 🙂
Thanks, Eye. You put it so well!
After college, I spent a year teaching English in France and found myself in the same situation as you, trying to explain spelling rules that make absolutely no sense. At least we laughed a lot in my classes.
I’m glad we were born speaking it, Shary, instead of having to learn it as a second language.
It is a silly language…it has borrowed and stolen from so many languages. I was at first a bit embarrassed then humbled upon reading letters in English from my grandmother and cousins as I noted the misspelling…but then I was deeply humbled by the fact they functioned in more languages than me. Spelling is just mechanics…pronunciation and intonation… is huge. But if one listens carefully, very carefully, one can become a “sympathetic” listener as a foreign speaker negotiates English. I know you are a very sympathetic listener.
Thanks, Georgette. That’s why I love Spanish. If I see something written, I can pronounce it, and I can write well in Spanish for the same reason. What I’m lacking in Spanish is a good vocabulary because I have no one to converse with, and I can’t remember all the verb tenses. When you visit, you will help me improve my Spanish. Yes?
I would love to…maybe we can fool a few onlookers into thinking we’re “both” tourists from Spain or Latin America. What a stitch! Visit http://www.learner.org, click on “foreign language” …or some such…then “Destinos: An Introduction to Spanish”. It’s a 52 episode mystery and I bet you will be able to follow it just fine. Watch all or part of it…skip the first episode though, not much there.
Can’t wait to try it, mi Amiga!
Great post. I also volunteer with Literacy Volunteers, but I have an English speaking gentleman who has a 3rd grade reading level. One of his problems was to, too and two. So we worked on this sentence: “The two of us are going to the show too”. It helped but it was not easy. Now he is fascinated with all homonyms. I’m sorry to have to leave him.
And that’s another problem, Georgette, as you well know. Many of these non-English speakers, or even English speakers from poor countries, have had little experience with school past the lower grades, so they are illiterate or poorly educated in their language as well.
I don’t envy your young friend trying to make sense of the “rules” and structure of the English language ~ which often seems as though there is no structure. I don’t envy you trying to explain it! That being said, with you as a teacher I’m sure she will do well.
Thanks, Carol. We make a little progress every week.