English has often been derided for its lack of purity. It is a mash-up of different languages–mostly from the continent of Europe, but with elements from non-Western regions too. The reasons for its ubiquitous nature are numerous and varied, many having to do with its widespread origins. Consequently, we will analyze a tiny part of the linguistics behind English.
The best feature of English is its straightforward syntax. Perhaps this goes back to the days of yore, when invaders brought their languages to the British Isles. With a hodgepodge of different languages being spoken in one region, grammatical genders and complex case systems were probably dropped centuries ago.
The simplest English sentence consists of, respectively, a subject and a verb. For the most part, English does not have complicated genders or a difficult case system. The genders and cases are relegated primarily to pronouns. Spanish, which is often cited as one of the easiest languages to learn as an adult, has grammatical genders. German has three genders and four cases. Slavic languages usually have three genders and as many as seven cases.
To get a feel for intricate gender and case systems, we’ll make a contrast between English and German:
English: The dog sees the girl.
German translation: Der Hund sieht das Mädchen.
English: The girl sees the dog.
German translation: Das Mädchen sieht den Hund.
In the first and second sentences, the dog (der Hund) is the nominative case (more commonly referred to as the subject), and the girl (das Mädchen) is the accusative case (or object). In the third and fourth sentences, the nouns switch cases. The German gender and case system will affect articles, nouns, pronouns, and even adjectives. Clearly, the is always the in English, but this determiner habitually changes in German and other languages.
With its 44 phonemes (the number varies with dialect), pronunciation seems to be one of the more troublesome elements of English. While some phonemes may be harder for EFL learners to pronounce than others, most are made with the shape of the lips and the placement of the jaw and tongue. Therefore, simply showing a learner the position of the mouth will often be sufficient to assist in perfecting pronunciation.
Although inflection can decide the implicit meaning behind English words, it doesn’t change the explicit meaning of the words themselves. On the other hand, several non-Indo-European languages rely heavily on tonal qualities for communication. As an aside, it’s been said that people who speak a tonal language are more likely to have perfect pitch. Additionally, other languages, both inside and outside the Indo-European language family, might have sounds that start at the back of the mouth near the throat. Foreign language learners not acquainted with guttural phonemes will struggle with perfecting these sounds.
The good news is that we are not teaching a terribly arduous language. Pronunciation is one of the biggest obstacles for EFL learners, but even this is easily overcome with proper teaching techniques. For our novice students, learning the basic English sentence structure of subject + verb is the goal. They will learn the rest of the language’s complexities in time.
Learning German as a foreign language has only given me more of an appreciation for my native tongue. Because of the many languages that English is comprised of, I have a dozen or more words I can choose from to express one single idea. It’s not the language of celebrated composers or philosophers, nor was it ever called the most sophisticated, but English has a singular charm and grace of its own. Hope you enjoyed this post, you can also check out The History Of English by Kevin Stroud.