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Today I got to read an article written by an English teacher Locke McKenzie where he expresses quite an interesting view on difficulty of English language compared to other European languages – mainly German.
The article was tweeted by Tim Ferris so I thought – must be something of value – and I spent some of my precious time 🙂 reading it.
Basically Locke McKenzie is saying that even though initially it seems that learning English is child’s game compared to learning numerous verb conjugations, noun genders and absurd tenses in languages like Spanish, German and Polish, it’s not that simple at all…
He describes his experience with German students in a classroom when trying to teach them which verbs are followed by gerund and which – by infinitive. For example – following English grammar rules the verb to enjoy is followed by gerund as in Locke’s example – I enjoy baking cookies. The students were asking him how they could know which words are followed by gerund on which he was forced to answer – there’s no rule…
This, and also various English grammar tenses which were difficult for the German students to grasp, made the article’s author to conclude with the following words, I quote: We have a mongrel language that has taken on words and rules unnecessarily, adding bits and pieces of whatever we like until there is no sense of order at all. Our language is slowly dissolving into nonsense. Poets and creatives should be appalled. It isn’t good for anything but business and politics, the only sectors where the more cryptically you talk, the better your chances of striking a deal.
With all due respect to the article’s author I really want to disagree.
I’m a foreign English speaker myself. My native language is Latvian – a language with two noun genders with no articles to denote them. Essentially it means that you need to memorize EVERY single noun’s gender to conjugate it correctly. There are six conjugations and noun endings change depending on the conjugation. And that’s when the real guesswork comes into action because on many occasions there’s no logical way of telling which conjugation is to be used, you just have to kind of feel it…
Same goes with Russian – which I happen to speak as well because my country was part of the former USSR. The same story with conjugations, also verb endings change depending on person and so on and on.
I also studied German during my primary and secondary school years. Well, I must tell you – it IS much harder than English! Those few things mentioned by article’s author as really confusing and therefore making English language a mongrel language – THOSE are child’s game compared to what a foreign speaker is facing when learning German!
I’d like to express a few points to refute what Locke McKenzie wrote in his article.
I love English language, I always have, and I don’t think it deserves to be branded a ‘mongrel language’…
1. Quotation: the German expression ich gehe, for example, has six English options, depending on the context: I go, I am going, I have gone, I have been going, I will go, or I am going to go.
Well, it’s actually wrong! By now I’ve forgotten most of German as I haven’t used it in ages, but I still remember the basics. And I can tell you that ich gehe has only two English options – I go and I am going. And I believe it’s not difficult at all for anyone to grasp the difference between those two – general action vs an action going on right NOW.
Moreover, I have gone translates as Ich bin gegangen – and mind this – you need to know which past participle collocates with verb sein, and which – with haben in order to form the I have gone form!
I will go becomes Ich werde gehen. That leaves as with only two tenses that aren’t there in German – I have been going and I am going to go. Well, I have a rhetorical question – does learning usage of these two tenses pose more difficulties for a foreign student than learning all the irregularities of German tenses and grammar? I’m telling you – NO, because I’ve been there and done that – I’ve studied both German and English.
The German students from the article can’t be objective because they already know their language, is it not so?
2. The author often mentions some comparatively simple English grammar rule which even ignored isn’t that important, and draws conclusions that English grammar is extremely difficult if compared to German. Let’s take the verbs followed by gerund or infinitive. Standard English grammar requires using the verb to like with gerund – I like singing. But would it sound completely wrong if you said – I like to sing? Not really! OK, you wouldn’t say – I enjoy to sing, but is this exemption not child’s game compared to what you’re required to hammer into your brain if you were to learn every German noun’s gender – masculine, feminine or neuter? And the corresponding article and letter changes as you conjugate them?
3. The author of the article also tells about English punctuation as something extremely difficult. He gives an extract from William Strunk’s book: …clauses introduced by which, when, and where are non-restrictive; they do not limit the application of the words on which they depend, but add, parenthetically, statements supplementing those in the principal clauses. Each sentence is a combination of two statements, which might have been made independently. Restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas… [which means] the relative clause restricts the application of the word to a single person.
The he goes on to say that it’s really difficult to understand and implies that punctuation in English is as difficult as the paragraph above.
Sorry, but I don’t buy it. It’s not a logical argument!
4. Another quotation: While most languages initially seem impossible and only begin making sense much later, my experiences have taught me that English actually becomes more confusing.
Well, here I have to stress what I’ve been telling a hundred times – any traditional language studies are WRONG!
Instead of focusing on grammar and written word any language student should learn the SPOKEN language first! That way anyone would learn the language naturally without dwelling into syntax and grammar rules. By learning most commonly used phrases and expressions one would learn to SPEAK the language.
I believe that ultimately any language can be simple. It’s just that the language teaching industry revolves around grammar, grammar and grammar once more and that is why students are confused and don’t get the basics.
Learning grammar first and THEN sticking the words together has an adverse effect on fluency – and that’s exactly what’s happening in thousands of language classes all around the world.
Why would the German students give a damn about Past Perfect tense – I have done? Wouldn’t it make a hundred times more sense to teach them a few handy phrases with Past Perfect in them (but without making them learn that this IS Past Perfect) – I’ve done it. I’m done eating. Are you done?
Why would we give a damn about Verben mit untrennbaren und trennbaren PrÃ¤fixen? Would it not do if you learnt a few phrases instead and knew when to use them? Ich stehe um 7 Uhr auf!
As I said – with all due respect to Locke McKenzie this article is not intended to slander him.
I just really believe that English IS one of the simplest languages. As any other – it has its unique exemptions and so on, but we should be objective when comparing the difficulty of English grammar with grammar of other languages.
I’d love to read your comments on this, all opinions welcome!
Thanks for your time reading this article,
P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!