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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five reasons English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages

It's no secret that English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages but there are good reasons to explain their woes that can't just be put down to the fact that all young Europeans speak English. Linguistics expert Michelle Sheehan looks at five of them in this article from The Conversation.

According to a recent survey co-ordinated by the European Commission 80% of European 15-30 year olds can read and write in at least one foreign language. This number drops to only 32% amongst British 15-30 year olds.

This is not just because all European young people speak English. If we look at those who can read and write in at least three languages, the UK is still far behind. Only 8% of UK young people can do what 88% of Luxembourgish, 77% of Latvian and 62% of Maltese young people can do. 

So what are the difficulties Britons face when learning other languages? Here are a few of the basics. 

1. Objects have genders

One of the most difficult and bizarre things about learning languages such as French, Spanish and German – but also Portuguese, Italian, Polish, German, Hindi and Welsh – is that inanimate objects such as chairs and tables have genders, so they are masculine (he), feminine (she) or sometimes neuter (it). 

There is no real logic to this – milk is masculine in French, Italian and Portuguese, but feminine in Spanish and German, but it still tastes and looks the same. In Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, gender is usually indicated by word endings (-o and -a), making it easier to learn, but sound changes in French have made genders rather opaque, and a real challenge for second language learners. 

Interestingly, English used to have grammatical gender too, but this was basically lost in Chaucer’s time. There are still some remnants of it in English, though: the pronouns he/she/it__ are masculine, feminine and neuter, but he/she are now only used to talk about living things, not tables and windows (as they were in older stages of English). 

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Contrary to what you might think, languages don’t actually need gender. The gender-neutral singular pronoun they, has been much discussed of late, but many languages lack the equivalent of he/she, having only they(among them Turkish and Finnish). Other languages, notably Swahili and related languages, have many more genders – up to 18. French gender is easy by comparison.

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2. Agreement is vital

Once you have memorised the fact that house is feminine and book is masculine, the next step is to make sure that all the adjectives, articles (the/a), demonstratives (this/that) and possessors (my/his) describing these words have matching gender and also indicate the difference between singular (one) or plural (more than one) ma belle maison(my beautiful house) but mon beau livre (my handsome book). Linguists call this “agreement” or “concord”, and it is very common, especially in European languages – but nonetheless quite tricky for English speakers, simply because they don’t really have it (any more).

Once again, English used to have this, but it has been almost completely lost. They still have a little bit of it left though: “this sheep is lonely but these sheep are not”, and we know that partly because of the word these, a “plural” demonstrative.

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3. Just being polite

French has tu/vous, German has du/Sie, Spanish tu/usted, Italian tu/lei, but, in English, we just have plain old you. Linguists call this the “T-V distinction” (because of Latin tu/vos) and this politeness distinction is found in many European languages and well as in other languages (Basque, Indonesian, Mongolian, Persian, Turkish and Tagalog). 

Essentially, there are two different forms of you depending on power dynamics, and every time you strike up a conversation, you need to choose the right pronoun, or risk causing offence. This poses obvious difficulty for English speakers as there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to use the formal or informal form. 

In fact, usage has varied over time. In the past, pronouns were often used asymmetrically (I call you vous, but you call me tu), but western Europe increasingly uses pronouns symmetrically (If I call you tu, you can call me tu as well). In recent years, the polite forms have become less used in some western European countries (at least in Spain, Germany and France). That might mean that these languages could eventually change, but in the opposite way from English. `

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English also had thou/you until Shakespearean times, but the informal thou was eventually lost (and retained only by some dialects, for example in Yorkshire). Thou was also the singular form, just as tu/du are – used when addressing just one person. So, when English lost thou, it also lost the difference between talking to just one or more people. Languages like to fill in gaps like these, and many dialects have created novel plural forms: y’all, you lot, you guys, youse. 

What’s interesting is that these forms are often themselves regulated by politeness. So, many people would use you with parents, you guys with friends and you lot with kids. When it comes to language, politeness is always there but, in some languages, it is a little more in your face. Once again, French, Spanish and German are not actually that complex in making a simple two-way distinction. They are nothing compared to languages like Japanese, which have bamboozingly difficult “honorific” systems.`

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4. Keeping track of case

Where German has der/die/des/dem/den/das, English has only the – and this poses considerable challenges for English speakers learning German. So why does German have all these different ways of saying the? This is the German case system which spells out the article the differently depending not only on whether it is singular or plural (see above), but on its function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor). 

English has case too actually, but only with pronouns. “I love him”, does not (alas) mean the same thing as “he loves me”. It’s not only the word order that’s different. I/he are the subject (nominative) forms and him/methe object (accusative) forms. They are also different from my/his, which are the possessive (genitive) forms. Once again, English used to be like German but it has lost most of its case system.

Articles, demonstrative and adjectives all inflected for case in Old English, so English speakers a few hundred years ago would have found German pretty simple. German is not alone in having case. Many European languages have case and it is also found in many unrelated languages (among them Turkish, Japanese, Korean, Dyirbal and many native Australian languages). In a sense, case gives us another way of keeping track of who is doing what to who. English speakers use word order for this function, but this is by no means the only option.

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5. A matter of mood

This takes us to our final challenge, verbal inflection. Where English regular verbs have just four verb forms jump/jumps/jumping/jumped (which can combine with auxiliary verbs in certain ways as in “I have been jumping”), Spanish has a hefty 51 (I won’t list them all here). So Spanish (like Italian and German and to some extent French) is a richly inflecting language. 

Verbs in Spanish (Italian, and French) change depending on tense (as in English), but also depending on aspect (the duration of an event), mood (the nature of the event) and person/number (the kind of subject they have). 

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This poses notorious problems for English speakers, especially when it comes to mood. The dreaded subjunctive indicates that something is not being asserted as true and this turns out to be difficult to learn when that is not an important distinction in your own language. 

Once again, though, English itself used to be more like Spanish, French, Italian and German in this respect. Old English verbs also inflected for tense, person/number and mood. In fact the subjunctive remains an option for many speakers in examples such as: “I wish I were (or was) you” and: “It is vital that you be (or are) on time.” 

Once again, then, English speakers a few hundred years ago would probably have been better linguists than Britons are now, as their language still had many of the features which pose difficulties for modern-English-speaking language students. Somehow I think it’s not really grammar that’s holding Britons back, though. With language, where there’s a will, there is always a way. The 2% of Britons who can read and write in more than three languages show that that’s true.

This article was first published on The Conversation website.

Author: Michelle Sheehan, Reader in Linguistics Course Leader, BA (Hons) English Language, Anglia Ruskin University

 

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Spaghettata’

If you like your spaghetti, you'll love the 'spaghettata'.

Italian word of the day: 'Spaghettata'

You may have twirled and chomped your way through enough spaghetti to be ranked up there with the best of them – but if you’ve never lived in Italy, you’ve probably never experienced the spaghettata (‘spag-ett-TAH-tah’).

Garfield Spaghetti GIF - Garfield Spaghetti Pasta GIFs

Is it a party? Is it a meal? The best way we can describe it is as a fun, relaxed spaghetti feast eaten at home with friends.

Informal and often impromptu, a spaghettata typically lasts for several hours involves copious amounts of wine..

Ci ha invitati a casa sua per una spaghettata.
She’s invited us to her place for a spaghettata.

Whereas a traditional Italian meal would have pasta as a first course (primo), followed by a meat or fish secondo, the spaghettata is a meal unto itself.

Pasta is all that’s on the menu, and if you’re coming back for seconds or thirds, pasta is what you’ll get.

party spaghetti GIF by Isola dei Famosi

Because of its humble, cobbled-together nature, a typical spaghettata can be made with the kind of basic ingredients you might find in any Italian kitchen, such as garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes.

If you have Italian friends who are keen to show off their culinary skills, it can be a little more involved and they might want to show off a local or family recipe. In these cases, it can become more like a dinner party – but with multiple helpings of pasta, instead of multiple courses.

You can also expect to see regional or city-based variations on the spaghetti dishes involved. In Bari, for example, you might be invited to someone’s house so they can show off their recipe for spaghetti allassassina: lightly scorched, toasted spaghetti with tomato sauce.

One of the best things about the spaghettata, though, is the lack of rules; the meal’s improvisational origins mean really anything goes, provided you can source it at the last minute or dig it out of your pantry to feed a hungry crowd.

A meal also doesn’t need to be put on at any particular time of day to be a spaghettata: it might be a lunchtime affair, or it might happen on those long, lazy summer evenings and nights – in which case it becomes a spaghettata di mezzanotte (‘midnight spaghettata‘).

Facciamo una bella spaghettata di mezzanotte!
Let’s have a nice late night spaghettata!

While you’d normally have your spaghettata in the company of others, it can occasionally be used to describe a dish you whip up for yourself at the last minute – particularly if you come home after a night out and suddenly realise you’re a bit peckish.

Oddly enough, spaghettata di gelato (‘ice cream spaghettata’) is what Italians call the German dish spaghettieis.

That isn’t a meal consisting entirely of gelato (if only…), but a dessert deliberately designed to look like a plate of pasta, with vanilla ice cream ‘spaghetti’ and red or green ‘sauces’ made of things like berries or pistachio.

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You might think that given how alert Italians often are to the desecration of their culinary traditions, this would have sparked some discontent – but the dish appears to be quite popular in Italy, with numerous Italian websites offering recipes for the dessert (often simply known as spaghetti di gelato).

Maybe it’s that no one can resist a little novelty ice cream – or maybe the laid back associations of the spaghettata simply encourage everyone to be a bit more scialla.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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