Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why English is hard to learn

Wednesday, 4-13-11

Before I starting teaching English classes last year I did quite a bit of researching and thinking about pronunciation of English. It took a long time and a lot of looking through material to figure out how to teach correct pronunciation. And I’m still not all the way there yet. There’s always more to learn. After looking at x-rays of people mouths while they made certain sounds, and reading about how to correctly pronounce words in English using nasalization, phonation, tongue root retraction, and rhotic vowels, I came to the conclusion that learning pronunciation in that manner is much too complicated and whoever made all that stuff up had way too much time on their hands. I grew up in the US and I don’t understand what secondary narrowings in the vocal tract are. I’m certainly not going to go to class and talk to 1st – 6th graders about how to constrict their pharynx.

People learn how to pronounce words by hearing other people speak. Children learn by listening to their family, teachers, and peers speak. Since the kids I am teaching didn’t grow up speaking English there’s no way for them to know how to pronounce any words in English. Keeping that in mind and remembering the experience of going through the material reiterated how difficult English can be to learn. I think we need to remember that when we meet people in the US who speak little English. Spanish, on the other hand, makes much more sense when it comes to pronunciation. For example, almost all words in Spanish are phonetic. Each vowel and consonant sound pretty much the same regardless of what word you’re saying. Thus, even if I do not know a word in Spanish I will probably be able to pronounce it because I know how each letter in Spanish is pronounced. Not even the word “phonetic” is phonetic in English. I collected a bunch of material about the difficulties in learning English and thought I’d share them here:

Why English is Hard to Learn
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 reuse 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 a 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. The clothes were too close to the door to close it
14. The buck does funny things when 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. After a number of injections my jaw got a number
19. Upon seeing the tear in the painting a shed a tear
20. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests
21. The accountant at the music store records records of the records
22. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language
• There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple
• English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France
• Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat
• Quicksand can work slowly
• Boxing rings are square
• A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig
• Why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
• If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth?
• One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?
• Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal?
• If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
• If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
• If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
• In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?
• How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
• How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike?
• How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?
• Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable?
• Where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?
• Your house can burn up as it burns down
• You fill in a form by filling it out
• An alarm goes off by going on
• And why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is 'UP.' It's easy to understand...

UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?

We call UP our friends. And we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver; we warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car. At other times the little word has real special meaning. People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses. To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed UP is special.

And this UP is confusing: A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP. We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night.

We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP ! To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions. If you are UP to it, you might try building a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more. When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP. When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP...

When it rains, it wets UP the earth and often messes things UP. When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry UP. One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, is time to shut UP!

And just for fun…

1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when substituting a diminutive one would suffice.
23. Kill all exclamation points!!!
24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
27. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
34. Avoid "buzz-words"; such integrated transitional scenarios complicate simplistic matters.
35. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

“There are some days when no matter what I say it feels like I'm far away in another country and whoever is doing the translating has had far too much to drink”  Brian Andreas, Lost in Translation

1 comment:

Matt said...

I would think that because of all it's inconsistencies, English would be very difficult to learn. Even after speaking it all my life, it is not clear sometimes how to pronounce new words I come across. I love all those examples of words and grammar.