Perhaps you have seen this before:
Oh yes, even back when Twitter was 140 characters, you could sum up how maddening English can be in one tweet.
But beyond how ou doesn’t follow any sensible rules for pronunciation, proven by the above example’s repetition of th before it and gh after it, it only gets worse.
Oh so very much more worse.
As a Level 1 ESL teacher, I have the privilege of introducing the insanity of basic English to about 50 horrified faces each year. I’m quite fascinated by my students’ reactions to what I’m about to share with you. But I’m supremely fascinated by the reactions of native English speakers who happen by my class and catch a snippet of a lesson. Their reaction is generally the same: “I never thought about how hard introductory English is before.” To be honest, I didn’t either.
But now I think about it all the time. So much that I love writing about it. Today I present five everyday aspects of English that drive second language learners crazy that native speakers don’t often think about.
1. Negations No Are Easy
If you want to negate a sentence in Spanish, you know what you do? You add the word “no” before the verb. Doesn’t matter the tense, the subject, or the verb used, it doesn’t get more complicated than that.
Do you know what English does to make negatives?
Well, in present tense we say “don’t” for I/you/we/they (I don’t go) but we say “doesn’t” for he/she it (He doesn’t go). The verb with he/she/it doesn’t have an s even though the positive does. We say “he goes” yet it’s not “he doesn’t goes” but rather “he doesn’t go”. Which is a riot to announce in my class after three weeks of browbeating them that he/she/it adds an s to the verb in present tense. Yet, with the verb “to be” we do not say “don’t” or “doesn’t” but instead “not”. And this time it’s after the verb, not before. Past tense has a new negative word–“didn’t”–but its the same for everybody and has no alternative form for he/she/it. But we also put the verb form back in a present tense form, meaning we say “I went” as positive and “I didn’t go” as negative instead of saying “I didn’t went”. Verb “to be” still adds the word “not” after the verb. Helping verbs such as “will” and “can” follow the same pattern as verb “to be” by adding the word “not” after the helping verb but before the actual verb. And for nearly all of these, there are two forms: a contracted form and a separated form.
Forming questions involves almost identical issues so no need to rehash that disaster of grammatical verbiage.
2. Hook-ed on P-honics Work-ed for me!
Is there any language in the world that has less consistency in how a word looks and how it sounds? I mean, look at the word one. Or two. Those are the two most basic numbers and English spells them about as weirdly as possible. We should have spelled “2” something like “xrz&n”, just to make it even more outrageous.
Or how about those silent letters? Like the i in business. Or the first r in February. Or the d in Wednesday (and really the second e as well). Or plumber, sign, wrist, Christmas, aisle, column, honest, receipt, and knowledge.
It’s completely nuts that ed sounds like t in some verbs, as with the Brian Regan phonics joke above. It’s bonkers that ch sounds like k in mechanic and like sh in machine, neither of which are its regular sound. It’s cuckoo that final –le in many words (like candle, table, and apple) really sounds like el (or ul). And it is preposterous that –tion sounds like shun.
Can you imagine learning the English alphabet and then having the word eight put in front of you? EH-II-GA-HU-TU.
No, silly. It’s pronounced AAAAT.
3. English Vowels Behave Like Johnny Manziel
If you have a vowel-consonant-final E pattern, the vowel sound is long, as in the words save, five and stove. Except when it isn’t, in words like have, give and move. The diphthong ea can be Long E, Short E or Long A, as in read, head and great. (Except when it’s none of those, as in the word create). There is no way to tell when it will be any of them, as you can see with the words break and breakfast. Same letters, different sounds. Similar is the o in both and bother (which also changes the sound of th). And for the u in student and study. And the oo in food and flood.
The sound of ei changes constantly (weight, height, either, forfeit), as does ie (field, friend, science). The word tomorrow has three o’s and none of them are the same. The word women has an o that sounds like an i. The word money has an o that sounds like a Short U. Who has an o that sounds like a Long U. And the word business has a u that sounds like an i!
Every time I teach this my students have the same look on their faces that I had during the last season of LOST.
4. Objectionable Objects
Have you ever thought about this: We say, “I gave the pen to him” or ” I gave him the pen” but we never say “I gave to him the pen” or “I gave the pen him”? Have you ever thought about how we say “Turn the TV off” or “Turn off the TV” but when we replace TV with “it” we do say, “Turn it off” but we do not say “Turn off it”.
Trying to teach objects to second language learners makes me want to light myself on fire. I’m kidding. I love it. It’s like playing paintball in a Community episode.
5. Verbs Gone Wild
Have you ever noticed that we say “I have an appointment on Friday” but that we say “I’m having a party on Friday” and to use those two verbs tenses backwards sounds weird? Until I taught English I never thought about how odd it is that English speakers say “I got it” when they mean, “I’ll get it,” as in catching a ball or answering the phone. We use the past tense to communicate the future. What?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about verbs that my students have pointed out is that we add s to make nouns plural (usually) but then with verbs we add s to a singular form. To the mind of other languages, it’s completely backwards that we say “the dog eats” but that “the dogs eat”.
We also often have two verbs that translate to one verb in other languages that make it very hard for learners to know the difference. “Do” and “Make” are so similar that they both often translate to hacer in Spanish and robić in Polish, yet they are almost never used interchangeably in English. We typically don’t make homework or do a decision. Nike didn’t tell us to “Just make it” and I will never say, “The music does me dance.”
The funniest thing that ever happened in my ESL Class was once I was teaching my students the difference between “say” and “tell” because both translate often to the same verb in Spanish, decir. And I explained that “tell” will have a person a its first object and “say” won’t. It’s “Tell you” or “Tell me” but never “Say you” or “Say me”. And one of my students belted out, “Say you, say me, say it for always, that’s the way it should be” with perfect ’80s ballad passion. All I could think was that another perfectly good English lesson was ruined by Lionel Ritchie.
I get it: Other languages have similar issues. Just looking at my Polish notes and seeing that there are like 30 different translations of the English word “you,” I’m reminded daily. Yet English is no doubt among the craziest.
Are there things about English you find odd or frustrating? Are other languages you know like this? Share below!
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