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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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Seven fascinating ways written and spoken German differ

Even with High German, the differences between writing and speaking are stark.

Seven fascinating ways written and spoken German differ
The Swiss and German flags fly near German parliament. Image: WOLFGANG KUMM / DPA / AFP

You’ve spent hours learning the difference between Genitiv and Dativ, poring over complicated article tables and mastering complicated word order rules… only to step off the plane in Germany and realise you can barely understand a thing. 

Fear not – this is a common experience for many language-learners. The German you’ll read in your textbooks is not the same as the German you’ll hear on the street, so here’s a list of seven important differences to help you hit the ground running. 

And don't get us started on Swiss German – that's a whole other kettle of hot cheese.

1. Word order

German is notorious for its difficult word order, with subordinating conjunctions such as da and weil sending the verb to the end of a clause and tying non-native speakers in knots.

Whilst the importance of correct word order will be drilled into you in language classes, you’ll often find native German speakers themselves shirking the rules.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you've mastered the German language

Sentences with multiple clauses can prove difficult even for native speakers, who will often opt to keep the verb where it is rather than sending it to the end.

Ich habe gestern den ganzen Tag im Bett verbracht, weil ich war so müde (correct formulation: weil ich so müde war). 

I spent the whole day in bed yesterday because I was so tired.

Germans will also often play with word order to emphasise certain aspects of the sentence, even if it is not technically grammatically correct. 

Ich putze das Haus gerade (correct formulation: ich putze gerade das Haus)

I am cleaning the house at the moment.

2. Past tense

When Germans tell stories or speak about what they got up to last weekend, you’re much more likely to hear the present perfect rather than the preterite. 

With the exception of some verbs, such as haben or sein, many native speakers would find it strange to speak with the preterite in everyday life.  

If you’re in doubt during a conversation, opting for ich bin gefahren (I went) rather than ich fuhr will always be a safe bet. 

READ ALSO: Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make

3. Mixed up cases

The case system in German can take years to master, and learning the correct uses of the dative and genitive can be a particular sore point for many non-native speakers.

However you’ll see many native German speakers making the same mistakes on a daily basis. 

The genitive case is being used less and less in spoken language, with many simply replacing it with the dative equivalent. 

Take the preposition wegen, for example: technically this word should be followed by the genitive case, but you’ll often hear wegen dem Wetter (due to/as a result of the weather) instead of wegen des Wetters in everyday conversation.

A similar phenomenon occurs with the possessive genitive:

When talking about ‘Steven’s car’, for example, Stevens Auto (correct German formulation) becomes dem Steven sein Auto (replaced with dative). 

For many native German speakers, using the genitive when speaking now feels unnatural and stilted – in fact, this ‘mistake’ has become so widespread that many Germans now mix their cases up when writing.

4. Abbreviations

Much like in English, German speakers are also partial to shortening words where possible. So much so that it’s not uncommon to hear multiple abbreviations within the same sentence. 

Popular Abkürzungen (abbreviations) include the shortening of articles, for example eine to ‘ne, or the merging of words such as fürs for für das.

Ich brauche einen Computer fürs Studium.

I need a computer for my studies. 

Es war ‘ne tolle Erfahrung! 

It was a great experience!

READ ALSO: Ten German abbreviations that will have you texting like a true native

5. Swallowed sounds

Similarly, German speakers will often drop the letter at the end of a verb, losing the ‘e’ sound to make a sentence flow more smoothly. 

This doesn’t work for all verbs, but it is most commonly heard with verbs such as ich habe (I have) which becomes ich hab’ or ich glaube (I believe) which becomes ich glaub’.

Verbs in the plural form can also be shortened, with wir gehen (we go) becoming wir geh’n and sie sehen (they see) becoming sie seh’n.

6. Modal particles 

Spoken German is also littered with small words that are incredibly difficult to translate but very important to help understand the context of a sentence.

What is more, the intonation used when pronouncing these filler words is key to interpreting the tone of the speaker, meaning they don’t work as well when written on the page. 

READ ALSO: Das ist ja mal wictig: The complete guide to German particles

One of the most common of these is halt – it comes from the verb halten (to stop), but is often used to add ‘colour’ to sentences, to express a tone of resignation or to buy time when someone is unsure of what to say, just as with ‘like’ or ‘just’ in English.

Other untranslatable modal particles include doch, eben and mal – whilst they can originally be confusing, language learners soon get a feel for when they should be used. 

Du hast mir nicht geschrieben! 

You didn’t send me a message!

Doch! 

Yes I did! 

Das Ding ist halt, dass immer noch so viele Fehler beim Sprechen mache.

The thing is that I still make so many mistakes when I speak.

Sollen wir bald mal was zusammen machen?

Should we hang out together soon?

7. Slang 

Last but not least are the widely used slang words that pepper everyday speech, especially amongst young people. 

Many slang terms vary from region to region, but they’re much more common in spoken language than in written language as they suggest a degree of informality.  

Words such as krass and geil can be used to show you’re impressed by something, whilst the question Na? has become a common colloquial greeting.

Want to sound like a true native when you speak? For a deeper look at German slang, visit our guide here. For Swiss German, click here. 

 
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