What Makes English Difficult to Learn?

I spent the entire summer living with relatives and preparing to move nearly 2,000 miles to my family’s new home. The situation made blogging and continuing to tutor English to speakers of other languages difficult. Now that I am settling into a new home and routine, I am excited to return to tutoring and writing on a more regular basis.

In order to find compelling topics in English as a Second Language to write about, I started with the question: what frustrates English language learners most?

Remembering the conversations I’ve had with my students over the years, I immediately thought of spelling, both on its own and in relation to pronunciation. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these two stanzas of Gerard Nolst Trenite’s poem, “The Chaos,” (chronicling 800 inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation):

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
   Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
   Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
   Blood and flood are not like food,
   Nor is mould like should and would.

*The full poem can be found at: http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

While spelling probably constitutes a reasonably safe answer as to why English can be so frustrating, it is certainly not the only one. The Oxford Royale Academy points out that English vocabulary often makes no sense and the grammar is full of exceptions (the full article can be found here).

Over the next few weeks, I will choose a few examples of what causes frustration when learning English and I will provide some tips and explanations that should make English just a little bit easier for those who are currently studying it.

If you have any suggestions frustrations you’d like to see me discuss, please let me know what they are!

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Understanding your native language through mine

My son, Vincent, is a very independent toddler. He likes to push his own stroller on our morning walks, and he’s getting better at steering and managing obstacles. Today, as he pushed the stroller over a thick clump of grass that was pushing its way out of a crack in the pavement, I said to him, “You push so good!” Immediately, I rolled my eyes at my own improper English and corrected myself: “Sorry, Vincent. You push so WELL.”

I learned this distinction years ago in my high school French class when our instructor explained the difference between “bon” (good) and “bien” (well). What is that difference? Simply put, good is an adjective, so we use good (and “bon”) when we describe a noun. Well is an adverb, so we use well (and “bien”) when we describe an action.

This is just one example of how I came to better understand the rules of my native language by studying other languages. As you consider whether or not learning English (or any foreign language) is worth your time, keep in mind that you will also gain a better understanding of your own language if you do.

Be WELL and have a GOOD day 🙂

“An” historic?

In the past few days, I have heard newscasters say that a given incident was “an historic event.” I am a knowledgeable, confident instructor, but when professional writers do the opposite of what I teach, I have to check myself.

In case you aren’t sure why “an historic” would make me stop and Google grammar rules as fast as my fingers can type, let me explain the rules that I teach my students. A and an are singular, indefinite articles in English. They can introduce either non-specific nouns or nouns that have not yet been mentioned. The only difference is a should be used before consonant sounds (b, c, d, f, g, h, etc.) while an should be used before vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u).

Assuming these rules are correct, English-speakers would say “an hour” (the h is silent), but “a house” (the h is pronounced). After I’d heard “an historic” a few times in the past week, I began to wonder why anyone would say “an historic?” since the h in historic is pronounced. Had I missed a grammar rule somewhere in my years of studying? Well, yes and no. I found a few different explanations while I was researching.

According to betterwritingskills.com, some regional accents use “an” before words beginning with h and containing three or more syllables (http://betterwritingskills.com/tip-w005.html). Grammar Underground offered another possible explanation: you can say “an historic” because the emphasis in historic is on the second syllable, which begins with a vowel sound (http://www.grammarunderground.com/an-historic-vs-a-historic.html). When in doubt (or when multiple sources are giving you different answers), turn to a trusted dictionary. I went with Oxford. The site, oxforddictionaries.com (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/a-historic-event-or-an-historic-event), concludes that since today we pronounce the h, it is more logical to use a instead of an, reassuring me that I have been correctly teaching my students all these years. Yes!

Semicolon versus period

“What’s that?” my student asked me during our Skype lesson this morning. “That thing?” he continued, typing the punctuation mark in question: a semicolon. Grammar nerds like myself often love this mysterious punctuation mark, but the subtle beauty of a well-placed semicolon escapes even many native English speakers.

Logically, the first place to look is a dictionary… or your favorite search engine. According to meriam-webster.com, the semicolon is “a punctuation mark ; used chiefly in a coordinating function between major sentence elements (as independent clauses of a compound sentence)” (“Semicolon.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.).

This particular student is pressed for time and doesn’t need precise grammatical terms (like “compound sentence” or independent clause”) for his career field, so I don’t use them. Instead, we’ve talked about complete sentences and how various punctuation marks function. This led to an interesting comparison that made up my function-based definition:

The groups words on either side of the semicolon could function as complete sentences, so they could be separated by a period as well. However, a semicolon joins two very closely related sentences whereas a period separates two sentences.

If you’re interested in more grammatical or in-depth definitions, one of my favorite sites for such questions is Perdue OWL (owl.english.perdue.edu).

Welcome!

Welcome!

Well folks, here it is: my very first blog post on TakeFlightEnglish! I hope that you can easily find the information you need about the services I provide. I also plan to include some tips and challenges to help you to improve your English. However, I’m leaving many possibilities open when it comes to the TakeFlightEnglish blog. Options invigorate my work ethic and stimulate my creativity. More to come soon!