Teaching ESL - Why English Can Be Very Difficult to Learn
Nov 15, 2011 Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (T 5944 Views
English can be very difficult to learn and there are many reasons for that. First of all, let's look at where the English language comes from: Latin, Greek, Norse, Germanic tribes (Saxony, e.g.), French (Norman), and many others. In days of yore in Britain where English started, there were the Angles (a tribal people)...thus Anglish which became English. However, the Angles had originally crossed the Channel from Germany as did the Saxons. Brittany is in France just across the English Channel and many of those folks found their way across the water...hence the modernization of the word Britain. Language input also came from the Picts and Celts (Scotland). As all of these languages and dialects came together, you can imagine the different spellings, pronunciation and phraseology that developed. Into modern day English.
Differences still abound today. Many people moved or sailed to other places and took English with them and it developed slightly differently from 'mother English'. There are many different accents and regional disparities within Britain - Scots, Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish, West Country, Yorkshire English is all quite different. Australian, English, South African English, Canadian and American English have developed many regional accents and local expressions.
I often tell students that spoken and written English often bear little resemblance to each other. For example, we pronounce 'ough' in eight different ways. Look at the word 'enough'. How would it be pronounced phonetically? We pronounce it 'enuf'. Don't ask me why!
Then, take words such as 'pineapple'. This word has nothing to do with either pines or apples. We have many such words...hamburger, for example which isn't ham at all; sweetmeats are candies whereas sweetbreads are meat. Boxing rings are actually square, and eggplant...well, when they are small they may look like eggs but when they grow large, unless they are dinosaur eggs, the resemblance ends there...not that I've ever seen many dinosaur egg - except in the movies Jurassic Park and Eragon!
We also have many words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently depending on the intended meaning of the word. One way to help figure it all out is to remember that two syllable words such as record have the stress on the first syllable RECord when they act as nouns and on the second syllable reCORD if they are verbs. Take this sentence for example:
"Be sure to reCORD the RECord growth on the company RECord". Just to further confuse you, the second 'record' in the sentence is acting as an adjective, providing information about the noun 'growth' and is pronounced like a noun. Are you still with me?
Here are some more examples.
1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture..
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert..
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear..
19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Let me give you two sets of words that are spelt differently but pronounced the same:
Their, there and they're
Aisle, isle and I'll
These are enough to make your head spin. No wonder students find it difficult. You just have to persevere. Sure, you can learn all the rules if you want to but in English for every rule there are exceptions. Rules will only take you so far in the language. My personal advice is just to get out there and use the direct approach to learn the language. You don't see babies wandering about with grammar books tucked under their arms and in their cribs, do you? No - they just learn by listening and imitating. Writing comes later and adding new vocabulary is a daily activity (as it should be). Textbooks are fine as far as they go but they can't really teach you how to pronounce words.
When you have mastered English grammar and are building your standard English vocabulary, it is time to learn all about English idioms and expressions - what I term the 'colour' of the language. Every language has them. They are expressions that generally have little to do with the actual words.
In a pig's eye!
Get your skates on!
I saw red!
Oh, there are thousands of these...
When you reach the stage where you are ready to attend university in an English-speaking country, you will be asked to sit for a university-entrance exam such as IELTS (UK, Aus, NZ, SA) or TOEFL (USA,CA). IELTS is a British exam that tests your ability to communicate in English. The exam tests your listening, speaking, reading and writing skills and can be extremely stressful because of strict time limits and high expectations. So what you need to know is British vocabulary including spelling, UK phrases and pronunciation. TOEFL is similar but uses American English. These exams require an advanced English vocabulary and ability to comprehend, respond and write essays comfortably in English. This is no small task for someone who did not grow up with the language.
Learning anything new takes time and the best advice I can give you is to practice, practice, practice. Reading is the fastest way I know to learn how the language works; how to build a comprehensive vocabulary and how to use it to respond either speaking or in writing. Start by reading about what interests you - then broaden your reading to include articles, newspaper features, information, ads, and anything you think you may need to know about sometime in the future. Having a basic amount of information about many things makes you better able to contribute in conversations and this is a good ability to develop. You can never have too much knowledge.