As a linguist, I am well aware that I spend at least a little of my time moaning about the complexities of the language I’m studying, and I am definitely not alone. Although we love our languages, it’s inevitable that there are certain aspects that we language-learners just cannot get our heads around, be it a confusing grammatical structure, or a word that just won’t translate properly.
However, if you are a native speaker of the English language, you shouldn’t take for granted the fact that its many complexities come naturally to you! As I have discovered through talking to friends from a variety of places; learning English as a foreign language certainly has its difficulties too.
In the English language, it’s not as simple as looking up a verb in the dictionary and trying to remember its definition. A huge problem for English-learners is that we have so many verbs that can have very particular meaning depending on which preposition you put them with (and the context!).
For instance, let’s look at the verb ‘to get’…
Why do you get in a car, but get on a plane? You can also get on with your ex, or if you just can’t get over what they did yet, you might get off with someone else to get back at them. You get off the bus, and get out of going to that boring meeting. Maybe you’ll get on with your studies, or maybe you’ll only do enough to just get by. How do we get away with this verb!?
It would seem useful to a non-native speaker that English has many grammar rules. These rules appear to be simple enough, for example, “I before E except after C.” However, English is not that easy, there is a long list of exceptions; beige, eight, either, foreign, height, science, vein, weird….
A lot of the commonly studied languages are phonetic, meaning that if you learn the sounds of its alphabet, you should be able to read a word and know how to say it, or hear a word and know how to spell it.
English, however, is not phonetic at all, and therefore can be rather confusing…
We read the ‘ou’ in through as we would the ‘oo’ in too, or the ‘o’ in to. Yet, in though, toe and tow, the vowel sounds are the same as each other, but different to the previous group. And how can we explain the way we pronounce tough plough, rough cough or sour dough!?
If you really think about it, a lot of things in the English language just don’t make any sense!
For example, what’s the difference between flammable and inflammable? Or famous and infamous? It’s rather confusing that when someone goes to a stadium they sit in the stands. It seems illogical to me that feet smell, and noses run. A bird can fly, but a fly can’t bird! And what about the word extraordinary? In reality, shouldn’t it mean something ultra-normal? Yet it means the complete opposite!
So, to all native English speakers; perhaps next time you’re feeling a little exasperated with studying your language of choice, you should spare a thought for those striving to understand the English language, as it’s probably a lot more difficult than you had ever noticed…
And to all those readers that are non-native speakers; sorry our language is so crazy, thanks for putting up with* it, and please keep going!
*Just another sneaky phrasal verb there!
By Kia Hunt
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham