For a time, two centuries ago, the French language shone on the Western world, and was spoken by most travelers and high society. During the 20th century, English has gradually become the main international language. Yet, this language is incredibly difficult to learn for many people on this Earth.
Of course, we do need a language to communicate across countries and cultures. Even more so since we can now communicate instantly with other people all over the world thanks to technology.
However, language can be a huge wall between different people in terms of communication. Not being able to communicate, not understanding someone fully, not understanding at all, or worse, misunderstanding because of the language barrier, is extremely frustrating.
Is English really that difficult?
Although I was born in France, I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to the English language almost since birth, so I don’t mind speaking it. In fact, English serves me well, personally. However, not everyone is as lucky as I am.
Let’s face it: English is incredibly hard to learn, read, write and speak for a large portion of the world’s human beings. It’s not even easy for natives!
Pronunciation of English sounds is very challenging for a large portion of non native English speakers (ever heard a French or a Chinese person struggling to speak English and getting the sounds right?). Many speakers of other languages can’t make the difference between some English sounds, especially the vowels, for instance “sheet” and another word which I will let you guess. 💩 And another one is “peace”. Yes, you got that one right too.
So, how do you expect people to pronounce things correctly when they can’t even hear and make a difference between the different sounds?
Besides, pronunciation rules of written text are incredibly complex, to the point where if you don’t know some words, you wouldn’t know how to pronounce them. Think for instance of “thoroughly” and “through”, or the word “choir”. In this regard, the absence of strict rules about syllable emphasis makes it extremely challenging for non natives. It’s alias but akin, it’s misnomer but mischievous. And even a similarly stressed syllable doesn’t guarantee the same pronunciation: the stressed “a” of alias (/ˈeɪ.li.əs/) is different from the one of alibi (/ˈæl.ə.baɪ/). For a learner of the language, these types of rules go on and on like this forever. You basically have to learn almost every single word.
Accordingly, spelling is also a big challenge. If you don’t know a word, you’re often at a loss when it comes to writing something you’re hearing. What about “juggler” vs “jugular”, “able” and “abide”, etc.?
Do I also have to have the offence/offense of mentioning as an annex/annexe that the agonising/agonizing specter/spectre of the “z” (zed/zee) is always an unrivaled/unrivalled endeavor/endeavour when it comes to British vs American English?
And yes, it’s pronunciation, although it is pronounced.
And one little doubled consonant can make a whole difference.
Incidentally, a comma also changes everything.
Let’s eat, kids.
Let’s eat kids.
Grammar in general and exceptions
The English grammar is incredibly difficult, tenses are a mess. Who hasn’t struggled with has had been, even natives?
There are exceptions everywhere. Verb conjugation of course. But more typically, prepositions are a headache to learn and can change the whole meaning of a sentence:
I took the statue in the garden. => it was in the garden, I’m taking it away
I took the statue into the garden. => I’m putting it in the garden
Exceptions always lurk around the corner:
The adjective for metal is metallic, but not so for iron.
Which is ironic.
Multiple meanings and homophones
A large proportion of words in the English language have multiple meanings. And I do mean multiple! Think about the very common word “date”: a day in the calendar, a romantic encounter, a fruit, or “old fashioned” as in “dated”. As a computer scientist working in AI, I have to note that this has also a terrible effect on computerized processing of language: it is very hard to automatically translate the billions of text written in English accurately to other languages.
Homophones are also all over the place. An ant is not an aunt, especially at a bizarre bazaar. “Wine and dine” sounds like “Whine and dine” but doesn’t mean exactly the same thing…
Of course, word order can be challenging for speakers of languages whose grammar orders words differently.
In English: I go to England.
In Japanese: I (the subject) Japan (destination) go.
In Irish: Go (I) to Ireland.
In Turkish: Turkey (to) go (I). Or: I Turkey (destination) go.
But no. I’m not speaking about those. Because no matter how you look at things, there will be differences, that’s the way languages are. And word order does matter, it is quite normal. As a game, you can put the word “only” anywhere in the next sentence, and get very different meanings:
She told him that she loved him.
Here are the results:
- Only she told him that she liked him: nobody else told him that
- She only told him that she liked him: she didn’t say anything else
- She told only him that she liked him: he’s the only one to whom she said that
- She told him only that she liked him: that’s all she said, and it sounds like she could have said more
- She told him that only she liked him: she claimed she was the only one who liked him
- She told him that she only liked him: that may be awkward. He may love her but she’s pointing out that he’s just a friend for her…
- She told him that she liked only him: she doesn’t like anyone else
- She told him that she liked him only: same meaning than the previous one
But English has more tricks which makes far less sense.
Adjectives, for instance. Think about a woman who is: beautiful, tall, thin, young, black-haired, Scottish. To speak a correct English, you would have to describe her with those adjectives in this exact order, no other! She cannot be a young, tall woman. While this may come naturally from experience since birth to a native English speaker, it is a total headache for a non native, who might very well think that she is a “Scottish black-haired young thin tall beautiful woman”. It hurts, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this also happens orally by stressing one word in particular. In that case, there is no real way of showing this when writing, except maybe by using italic or bold fonts. In the following sentence, stressing a particular word radically changes the global meaning and context:
I never said she stole my money.
- I never said she stole my money: but someone else may have said it
- I never said she stole my money: I would never do that!
- I never said she stole my money: I just implied it, but never directly said it
- I never said she stole my money: I didn’t point fingers at her as the culprit
- I never said she stole my money: she may have borrowed it… or found my lost wallet
- I never said she stole my money: but she did steal someone else’s money
- I never said she stole my money: she stole something else from me
Again, this is quite normal and exists in most languages, but it makes comprehension difficult. People do expect you to pick the difference in the meaning of every single of those sentences. Of course, context helps a lot here.
English can be highly ambiguous, and relies on context and/or “common sense” to interpret what is being said. But in an international context, you absolutely don’t want to rely on “common sense” since this can vary a lot depending on the culture. Consider:
My brother and I are getting married this summer.
What? Well, maybe not “to each other”.
The lady hit the man with an umbrella.
The only thing we can tell for sure is that it probably did hurt. But who actually had the umbrella in their hands remains unclear. “Their” in the previous sentence is actually singular.
I read the book.
Is this past or present?
English is a local language
English has many native speakers around the world. However, all those native speakers are speaking “their own version of English”. English is actually a local language. And it has its own dialects and cultural versions.
They actually have such different accents and vocabulary that some of them can’t even understand one another. Just picture a Scot and a Texan trying to communicate. That’s the challenge we inevitably face when reusing an existing language to make it an international one artificially.
Let’s not pretend English is mutually intelligible by anyone who learns it anywhere in the world.
I think this incomplete list speaks for itself. Although it doesn’t technically speak, as it’s written text. Here is a last funny and well known example and we’ll leave the subject at that:
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, two indices? Is cheese the plural of choose?
So yes, let’s face it, English is a terrible international language. The most telling part is that people have invented “Simple English” or “Basic English” to try and reduce the difficulty. That’s simply acknowledging that it is too difficult in the first place. For no real benefit. Well yes, it creates millions of jobs for English teachers and translators all around the world. But wouldn’t that energy be better spent if it was for other purposes than trying to fit a square into a circle?
Here’s a link for those of you who are not afraid to go down the rabbit hole.
In the next part (soon to be published), we’ll explore alternative languages that have emerged as “common languages” between groups which spoke different languages but needed to communicate – and why none of them make a good international language. And then I’ll suggest something else.