American English – Hard to Teach; Harder to Learn

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, said Juliet to Romeo. I wish it were so. But language affects how we think, speak, and perceive reality (whatever reality means). I believe language distinguishes humans from everything else on earth.

My Scot and German forbears have spoken English for several generations. How to speak correctly was a big thing in my family; they would joke about how acquaintances said things, and they reacted out loud at radio announcers’ mistakes. I’ve been fascinated by how much can be done with words, [See John L Austin] and by changing them. For instance, I’ve always loved the King James version of the Bible for its poetic English; but that isn’t the clearest translation of original sources.

I learned to read at a young age. Although I knew the words to songs in church, I couldn’t read them until the day I was shocked and delighted to discover that those sounds and letters I was hearing and seeing together were a perfect match! My interest in other languages began when my mother sang and played French songs on the piano. Although she wasn’t fluent, and couldn’t teach me French, a very close family friend was an ex French teacher. The story goes that Mssr. Vinet would take me on his knee and speak French, adding ‘Ye muss ketch zem wen zee tung iz nib’l’. (Translation ‘You must  catch them when the tongue  is nimble’). For this reason, French sounds were in my ear, but not its vocabulary or rules. I learned French pretty well in High School which was taught by Stanley Ebert (also our football coach). The love for France, her language, culture and people was strengthened by a trip Uncle Stan arranged for 30 or so students and friends to Europe in 1960. It included a stay on the Normandy coast, visiting the French-speaking channel island Jersey, and the iconic cathedral St. Malo.

We also traveled to non-French parts of Europe, including Rome and Milan, the Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The Dutch countryside is gorgeous. In Amsterdam, the parents of one of our fellow students flew over from our home town – Bryn Athyn PA – to celebrate her 21st birthday. Never before or since have I experienced such a lavish dinner with individual waiters assigned to every person. Thanks ‘Uncle’ Lester and Aunt Grace!

So language study, and using it to learn about other people’s way of life by travelling has been a life-time love. I’d love to travel again, but old age and normal health issues make that hope improbable. Those limits pushed me to try teaching English to adult learners, because it’s the most desired, and I’m not fluent in other tongues. American and British have the same grammar, spelling and style. Even so I think American pronunciation is preferred by foreigners studying English, whether in businesses abroad, or as immigrants to the US, on business or as  students.

Why is English so hard to learn? The Language Confidence company gives some good reasons. It’s based in Anguila, a Caribbean island country close to the Atlantic, that was first colonized by the Brits in 1627, but gained independence 350 years later, in 1981!. The company has agents connected by high tech to businesses and students all over the world, as you will see if you search their general website – I have two takeaways from the first website. First, about the origins of English, they say: “English is a West Germanic language that came from a mixture of Anglo-Saxon dialects, Latin words and dialects, and even dialects from southern Denmark and the Netherlands. The resulting hodgepodge of words and grammar rules has resulted in one of the most commonly spoken but tough to parse languages in the world.” And second, regarding speech: “Many English sounds or phonemes are difficult to pronounce, especially when a student looks at how a word is spelled compared to how it is spoken. Things get even more complicated when you add in homonyms: words that are spelled differently but sound exactly the same. For example, “bough” and “bow” sound precisely the same but mean very different things! Except, of course, when “bow” is used to refer to a movement instead of an archery tool!” [Did you catch the error? The writer meant when ‘bow’ is used to refer to an archery tool, instead of a movement’]

Another language teaching company – Fluentu – has helpful thoughts about the difficulty of English in this webpage, including 25 rules, of which I’ll quote 2:

Rule #23: Stress on the first syllable makes the word a noun

When word stress is on the first syllable of some words, that word is in its noun form. When stress is on the last syllable, that word is in its verb form. This can be seen in the words “produce” (noun form) and “produce” (verb form) as in “the farm produces a lot of produce” and the words “increase” (noun form) and “increase” (verb form) “we have to increase our sales to see an increase in profit.”

Rule #25: TH can be voiced or unvoiced

“Even though th is taught as a sound that is somewhat unique to English, its complication doesn’t stop there. In fact, the “th” in English is pronounced as two distinct sounds. The first “th” sound is voiced (vocal cords vibrate) as in the words “though,” “then” and “they.” The second “th” is voiceless (vocal cords do not vibrate) as in the words “thought,” “thick” or “cloth.” Unfortunately, there is no rule for when to use which sound. That means that you will have to memorize which words have which sound.” Thank you Language Confidence and Fluentu. English is hard!

In case my readers are still not convinced, here’s another discussion of the topic from the United Language Group, giving stats about how widely English is used in the world. Current speakers and students of English world wide amount to 1.5 Billion – almost a fifth of the world’s population!  But whatever reason one has to learn the language, it takes beaucoup practice. Here’s an example of a teacher tutoring a well-known Francophone named Steve Martin!

The UN org says this about language learning: “There are 6 official languages in the UN – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important to the work of the Organization, because this enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance.” So the UN provides an opportunity for hundreds of job seekers. But that won’t be much help for adults who are still struggling to learn English well enough to gain employment. That requires a lot more active approach. Let me explain.

As a sometime teacher of Adult English, I still receive notices from a Chicago area  charity – Literacy Works. Last week they promoted a study by Pro Publica showing how badly many adults have been served regarding English learning. This is due to many factors, including poverty, racism, bad schooling, unjust government regulation, controlled by businesses  and money (all often found together), and even by choice. Here is that fascinating Pro Publica study.

In the end, is it important whether or not there is a larger and larger number of people who can communicate through language? Won’t automation take  care of that? For example, there might be some ‘universal’ language that everyone can use, like Esperanto. People change, languages change, some languages die out. Does it matter? I think it does , because effective communication allows all of us to understand our ‘neighbors’ everywhere, and hopefully exercize goodwill towards them. Of course hypocrisy, deception and manipulation are always a problem, but the honest effort will pay off in the end to help our nation and fellow humans around the world.

Finally, in the real end – i.e. the continuation of life after death which does not end (regardless of fewer and fewer people who believe it) – communication will be perfect. Emanuel Swedenborg, whose teachings I follow, tells us there is a universal language that people know when they get to their chosen destination (be it heaven or hell). In answer to Juliet’s comment about what’s in a name, she’s right and wrong. She’s right because in the afterlife, we will still smell the lovely scent of flowers, even more delightful than those on earth. But she’s wrong thinking names don’t matter. They do. I’ve always enjoyed the way that many Blacks name their children for qualities they wish to instill. E.g., I had a black friend named Excel! (He also happened to be very large!) That continues in the next life, where everyone has a name which perfectly matches her/his inner character. In Rev. 2:17, “I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” This text symbolizes the fact that names and spiritual character match.

A true name (in the spiritual sense) represents everything about a person. Since the Lord God is the ultimate reality, and the ultimate person, the ‘Name of God’ represents everything that is Good and Holy. Please don’t take it in vain.

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