English isn’t considered one of the harder languages to learn, but as anyone who has come to study in America can attest, it is one of the hardest to master. A mix of Romance and Germanic (though technically Germanic), English has a host of weird rules and endless exceptions to these rules that make even the most dedicated student feel a bit loopy.
Luckily, it isn’t impossible. This mix of language groups can be helpful, as students can see parallels between their language and the language spoken in America. Over sixty percent of the English language has Greek and Latin roots, mainly Latin. Thus, there are many common roots in English and Spanish, which allows a speaker of one to learn the other with relative ease. Of course, granting that there is no substitute for immersion, we’ll talk a little today about why English is so difficult, the various ways in which it can trip up a reader, and some of those strange rules. Our next post will examine some tips to figure it out. Every language has its own quirks, but those are all unique. Luckily, they aren’t impossible.
English as a Whole
To start with, this article isn’t going to delve into the regionalisms found in the United States, such as the difference between the standard Midwest accent, the Southern dialect, the flinty New Englander- all languages have regional variations; we want to focus on what unites English speakers: those maddening rules that bring us all together in a state of confusion.
The main problem with English, as we discussed above, is that it lacks a single parentage; it draws life from a number of different sources, all of which have left their mark. This leaves it with a large number of Germanic themes and Latin variations, and a hodgepodge of different rules.
Homonyms are words that sounds the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. An obvious example, “there”, “their,” and “they’re” all have different meanings. These are some of the most common for native speakers to mess up, as putting a finger on virtually any online discussion board will let you know.
Another good example of that is “threw” and “through”. The first one is the past tense of “throw”, so you would say, “he threw me the baseball.” The latter defines a passage- “he walked through the fence.” And while this is irritating, it points to a broader issue: just looking at those words, there should be no way they sound the same. The “th” is there, but everything after that should imply different vowel and verb sounds.
Words with two meanings
This is one of the worst categories. Let’s look at “well.” “Well” is a form of “positive”, as in, “I am doing well,” or, “she did well on her test” (and there are a lot of rules as to when to use “well” or “good”). Of course, it also means a place from which to draw water, as in, “I sunk a well in order to water our crops.” “How did the well-digging go?” “It went well.” This is not to be confused with “we’ll”, a contractions for “we will.” “We’ll dig the well if we feel well.” Three different meanings, separated only by the merest apostrophe.
Then, of course, there are rarer words, like “cleave,” which can mean to split apart or to join together. He cleaved the meat in two. They cleaved to each other throughout the dark night. And did you notice the “two/to” homonyms? Those, too (again), are tricky.
No language is complete without its own set of arcane rules. In English, perhaps the best one is dictating “i before e except after c” to let you know where to put vowels when an “i” and an “e” are in the same word. The “after C” lets you know that “i” always comes before “e” in every word, except when the pair is preceded by a “c”. Except for words like their. Or neighbor or weigh. Or words like species. In other words, there are almost as many exceptions as there are rules.
Another strange rule is of vowels. We know that every word needs a vowel- A, E, I, O, U. Except that sometimes Y allows itself to be used as a vowel, like in hymn or myth. If you didn’t know that this vowel rule had exceptions, you’d assume those words are spelled incorrectly.
So those are just a few of the strange rules around English. We’re really just scratching the surface, as all day could be spent, and certainly the next handful of articles. Luckily, in our next post, we’ll try to set your mind at ease by showing you methods for learning these. The number one tip to remember is that native speakers mess these up all the time (it is almost inevitable that this article has a mistake- any article explaining grammar is bound to make one). Don’t let fear of not being perfect stop you from trying.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.