7/3/2018 - 7:32 am

The Things They Don't Teach You at School: English is Easier to Learn than You Think

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Have you ever considered how much knowledge of English you have acquired at school in proportion to the entire language? The answer is: very little. Namely, that thing your English teacher probably omitted to say in the very first class, before you learned a single new word or tense, is that you are going to learn the differences between your native tongue and English. 

In reality, the chances are that your mother tongue, including Slavic languages, has more in common with English than you might first think. This is no wonder since most European languages, with few exceptions, stem from one language, Proto-Indo-European. It is then no wonder that they share many linguistic features with the seemingly foreign English.

Same sentence structure

Most people speak or write several thousand sentences a day, but they never stop to think what the structure of a basic sentence in their own tongue is. The structure in most European languages is the same: the subject is first, followed by the predicate and the object. If we take the example of an English sentence “I am reading a book”, we notice this structure: subject (“I”), predicate (“am reading”), object (“a book”). The word order is exactly the same if we wish to utter the sentence in other languages:

 

In terms of language learning, this means that you shouldn’t struggle that much to form a sentence in English, since its structure is completely the same as in your language. However, you have to be able to discern what the subject is and what the predicate is in you native tongue, in order to speak in English. This requires that you start off with simple sentences which have the main purpose of conferring information, rather that sounding “beautiful.” Of course, you have to possess a basic vocabulary to speak, which shouldn’t pose a major obstacle.

Shared vocabulary

The modern English language in itself is basically a mixture of Latin (through French from the time of the Norman conquest of Britain) and German. These two languages have left a significant mark on all other neighboring languages in Europe; so many words can be understood as they form a part of a common Slavic or a Scandinavian vocabulary, for instance. Furthermore, not only were English and, let’s say, Czech at one point in history the same language, but today a similar convergence is happening. Since English has taken over many spheres of international cooperation (economy, trade, culture etc.) more and more languages are borrowing new words from it. The IT vocabulary of most languages is dominated by English words and literally translated borrowings from it. These words are by now internationalisms that are used pretty much all over the globe to denote the same things. An international version of English has emerged, and in the manner of the Age of Discovery’s creole languages, it has become the primary lingo of world communication. The best thing about it is that you need very little grammar and even less vocabulary to speak it.

Basic communication

Over the past few years, various research projects have established which words are most commonly used in spoken English, and the results are staggering: 3.000 to 5.000 is the number of words used in basic daily communication. The Longman dictionary even lists these words in some editions of their vocabulary to ease the learning process for non-native speakers. In essence, if you do not know a single word of English, which is highly unlikely, unless you live in isolation on a remote island, it is this meager vocabulary that you have to master to be able to get your message across efficiently.

All in all, despite its disputed geopolitical and cultural influence through history, English is linguistically-wise a fairly easy language to grasp at the basic level, and that is one of the secrets behind its global success. Language learners in Europe know a lot of it even before formally learning it, but their respectable school systems still keep portraying it as ultra-foreign, which it is not. A good teacher will let you know this and then teach you the specific things that make English unique, for instance that the letter Q is in words always succeeded by the letter U (except in Qatar), and that no English word begins with the /ʒ/ sound (genre is of French origin). The rest of the language knowledge that you need probably already exists in your native tongue, it is just the question of becoming aware of it, rather than learning it all over again.

Read 343 times Last modified on 7/3/2018 - 10:18 am
Stefan Pajovic

Stefan is a PhD student of English Literature at the University of Novi Sad. He teaches English, dabbles in politics and likes to travel around his homeland of Serbia.

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