Peculiarities of The English Language
I did not realize how difficult English is until I became fluent in Spanish. I am currently studying French and I am pretty good at French. I have a basic knowledge of Esperanto.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Wayne K. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
English is difficult for several reasons
- English is not a phonetic language. English is semi-phonetic. This means you cannot know how to pronounce a word by seeing it spelled.
- For the same reason, you cannot know how to spell a word by knowing how it is pronounced.
- There are a huge number of exceptions to every rule.
- English is difficult to pronounce for speakers of some languages. This is subjective and different for native speakers of different languages. This is the least serious of the problems.
I will just touch on each of these since a book could be written about each of these.
English is not a phonetic language
I have found many poems(1) and articles on the internet discussing the insane way English is spelled and pronounced. On the previously sited website(ibid) an English instructor states that he has very often offered students €100 if they could recite “The Chaos” without error. He has never had to pay out.
I am a college educated adult of 65 years. I am able to spell reasonably well, but I don’t write anything without resorting the spell check feature of my word processor.
Letters do not have a standard sound. The letter “T” can be pronounced more than 4 ways(2). This makes it difficult for readers to know how to pronounce the “T”. Most letters have multiple pronunciations and almost all can be silent in some word in the English language(3). Examples of silent letters are the “T” in mortgage, and the “P” in corps.
Spanish is spelled exactly as it is pronounced. Because of this, I am a better speller in Spanish, my second language, than I am in English which is my mother tongue. (And as an aside I had trouble spelling tongue for this essay).
There are exceptions to every rule
We have all heard the rule “I before E except after C”. According to QI(4), there are more exceptions to this rule in the English language than words which conform to the rule. I’m do not know for certain if that is true, but there are so many exceptions that this rule is useful.
Some examples of other exceptions to English rules
Simple past tense is created by adding “ed” to the end of a verb. “I work” becomes “I worked”. This is the standard rule. The following are exceptions to the rule: “I run” becomes “I ran”. "I am" becomes "I was". "I do" becomes "I did". The “to be” is completely irregular and difficult to learn. I am, I was, I will be, I have been, I could have been.
Plural nouns are created by adding “S” to the end of the word. “One bird” or ”two birds”, Follows the rule. The following are exceptions to the rule. “One deer” or “two deer”. “one man” or “two men”. “one ox” or “two oxen”. “one tooth” or “two teeth”. “one mouse” or “two mice”. “one moose” or “two moose”.
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Pronunciation is a problem for a non-native speaker of any language. This is not a problem unique to English, but in my opinion, English is more difficult for a non-native speaker than either Spanish or French. According to Eupedia English is the is tied for 8th place as to the most number of phonemes including diphthongs(5).
Some words in English are simply difficult for non-native speakers. The sounds that cause problems are different depending on the mother tongue of the speaker.
My son-in-law is from Nepal. He had problems distinguishing between “Jew” and “Zoo”. While these two words sound completely different to me, they were impossible for him to distinguish. This led him to tell my daughter that he wanted to go see the San Francisco Jew because he had heard that the San Francisco Jew was one of the best Jews. To be completely fair to my son-in-law he has tried to get us to hear the proper way to pronounce “Shrestha” and we English speakers cannot hear the difference.
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