While the amount I write here might lead one to imagine I do nothing else, I do in fact have a day job. I teach English as foreign language.
That’s forced me to think about my own language from the point of view of an outsider (more specifically that of a Vietnamese ten year old). And that brought me to a realisation of just how strange it is. Indeed, in some regards it is positively sadistic.
Don’t get me wrong it could be worse. For starters, we don’t use tones or grammatical gender and we have an alphabet where letters (somewhat) correlate with sounds rather than having a different character for each word as Mandarin does. The result is that we have 26 letters rather than the thousands. And there are only really five ways to conjugate a verb in English.
But what English gains through the simplicity of its rules, it loses in their inconsistent application:
IRREGULAR VERBS – not a peculiarly English problem by any means but it’s annoying nonetheless. There is no reason beyond inertia that the past tense of build should be built rather than builded. As irregular verbs by definition lack an internal logic, pretty much the only way to learn them is by rote.
HOMOPHONES – speaking of which why should rote and wrote have the same sound? They are different words with different words, so why in English do we have to guess which one the speaker means from the context? That particular example is pretty niche but there are some more problematic ones. I recently heard my boss ask a student she was placement testing “what do you wear at school?” and he kept trying to tell her the name of his school because to him the question sounded like “where do you go to school?”. This also makes spelling harder: consider how often even native speakers get to, too and two confused.
PRONUNCIATION THAT’S ALL OVER THE PLACE – Homophones exist in part because in English spelling and pronunciation are only weakly correlated with one another. The most obvious example is that c can sound like an s or a k. There are, however, more subtle ones that I didn’t even notice before I had to start teaching them. My favourite is that in the sentence ‘I ate a pizza in Pisa’ you say the ZZs as an s but the s as a z. My least favourite is that despite both starting with ‘th’, think and the don’t actually rhyme.
POOR S HAS FAR TOO MANY JOBS – If you want to pluralise something in English you generally add an s to the end. But you also do the same to indicate possession. And, an awful lot of the contractions like it’s and let’s result in a word with an s as the final letter. This is in addition to words like James and analysis that naturally end in s for no functional reason.
This gets especially confusing when two of those functions are required simultaneously. Its really ought to be it’s but can’t be because that’s also the contraction of it is.
WE MOVE THE STRESS ALL OVER THE PLACE – No less an authority than the British Council states: “There are patterns in word stress in English but, as a rule (!), it is dangerous to say there are fixed rules. Exceptions can usually be found.” This matters more than one might initially think because wrongly stressed words can be hard to decode and in some cases (like export) it actually changes the meaning.
OUR VOCABULARY IS PRETTY BYZANTINE – On this point let me quote a rather good post I stumbled across on a teaching blog: “In terms of vocabulary, English is like a patchwork. It is a mixture of (mostly) Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. As a result, there are often different words to express the same idea. For example, one doesn’t speak of “touchy feedback” but of “tactile feedback”, and not of “smelly system” but of “olfactory system” (the system in the body that perceives smells). If you do something using your hands, you don’t do it “handily”, you do it “manually”, and the “green” electricity you may be using doesn’t come from “sunny plants” but from “solar plants”.
This process results in vocabulary size that is somewhat larger than necessary. This is not a bad thing per se; it adds some expressive power to English and makes it a good starting point for learning other European languages. However, in combination with English pronunciation and spelling problems, this can be a huge nuisance to learners, especially since spelling of such words usually reflects the original spelling in the language of origin, not their contemporary English pronunciation.”
IT’S NOT CLEAR WHAT CORRECT ENGLISH ACTUALLY IS – Any widely spoken language will have multiple variants. What is frustrating about English is that there isn’t an obvious default for learners to go to. It would be odd for someone without a good reason to learn to speak German like they were from Bern rather than Berlin. Yet learners can have strong and contradictory preferences regarding whether they want to learn American or British English. If they move schools or teachers they may go from learning one to the other. The obvious differences in vocabulary and pronunciation are relatively simple to paper over. It’s the less noticed differences in grammar and idioms that are fiddlier to sort.
This is a problem that’s likely to get more complicated in the near future because there’s a good chance that people may soon want to start being taught Indian English or Globish.
I feel rather differently about these final two points than I do about the first five. English’s labyrinthine vocabulary and its global subsets are not just annoyances that could theoretically be jettisoned without harm; they are an indispensable part of its richness. They make English harder to learn than some Esperantoesque construction yet they also make it far more worthwhile to do so.