Is English Easy Or Difficult?

Did you know that English seems easy to start with?

by Louis Alexander


Babies are programmed to learn languages and they do so with incredible speed. They begin by learning to recognize the phonemes (= the smallest sounds) of the language that is spoken to them, so they soon learn to reproduce these sounds and they can cope with more than one language quite readily. Unfortunately, we lose this gift as we get older. If, for example, you are a speaker of Japanese, you will find it difficult to pronounce 'l' and 'r' in English because these phonemes don't exist in your language and you didn't hear them when you were a baby.

From the time we start school, we begin to learn foreign languages 'the hard way', having lost our childhood facility. We tend to think that some languages are more difficult than others. So for example, if we have a European background, we may think that Chinese is more difficult than other languages because there is so much to learn at the beginning, especially distinguishing between tones (four tones in Mandarin and nine tones in Cantonese). But once we have made this effort, Chinese is no more difficult than any other language. The fact is that all languages are difficult to learn 'the hard way'. The key question during the learning of any foreign language is when the difficulties will begin to emerge.

In many European languages, the names of things such as 'book', 'chair', 'radio', 'table' have gender: that is, they are classified grammatically as masculine, feminine or neuter, although often gender doesn't relate to sex. Grammatical gender barely concerns nouns in English. It mainly concerns pronouns. We use 'he' or 'she' for people and 'it' for everything else:

My accountant says he is moving his office.
My doctor says she is pleased with my progress.
I haven't been to the exhibition, but I've read about it.
'A/an', 'the' and adjectives do not have to 'agree' with nouns.
a nice man, a nice woman, a nice book, the old man, the old woman, the old book
the old men, the old women, the old books

For the learner, this absence of artificial grammatical gender is an agreeable surprise. The realization that you don't have to remember whether thousands of nouns are masculine, feminine or neuter makes English seem easy to start with. But after this initial euphoria, the learner discovers that other difficulties begin to emerge very rapidly.

One of the most notorious difficulties for learners is the use of phrasal verbs in English. These are verbs with very simple basic meanings which combine with prepositions or adverbs to make new verbs with very different meanings. For example, the basic meaning of the verb 'put' is to move something from one position to another: Put the bags on the table. But the moment we add prepositions or adverbs, we get different meanings, simple or idiomatic, for example: Put the light on. Put your coat on. She puts on such airs.
Put the fire out. I was really put out because he arrived late. (= inconvenienced)
Put the light off. We'll have to put the meeting off till next week. (= delay)
Put the letter through the letter box. They put us through a lot of tests.
This means that some of the simplest verbs in the language (put, take, get, keep, make, etc.) can yield some of the most complex meanings, something the learner discovers all too soon!

 

© LG & DE Limited 2006

 

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