English – Is it Logical?

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Steve and Jill discuss some of the English language problems even native speakers face. They also talk about the difficulties they had when learning other languages.

Steve: Hi Jill

Jill: Hi Steve.

Steve: You know one thing I was thinking about Jill, English.

You know, I don’t know if English is easier or more difficult than other languages, but what do you think makes English difficult?

Jill: I think one of the main issues is, of course, you’ve got to learn vocabulary like in any language, but I think English is quite illogical.

Steve: Illogical?

Jill: Illogical.

Steve: Yes.

Jill: There are a number of words that sound the same, but are spelt different, mean something completely different and even native speakers often have trouble choosing the correct spelling.

So spelling is difficult which, in turn, causes problems with pronunciation because there are silent letters; you know, thought is t-h-o-u-g-h-t.

Some words that have an “e” at the end will create a certain sound, but another word with an “e” at the end won’t create that same sound.

I was with my nieces this weekend and they are 6 and 8 years old, so learning to read and spell.

The 8 year old is learning to write and spell, so she’s really quite into it.

She likes school and so she wanted to spell a lot of different words and she would say oh, how do you spell this and I would always say you can do it, sound it out and so she would try every time.

Most times she would get the word right or pretty close anyway, but then a lot of times there was just something little and sounding it out she was right it should have been spelt that way, but because it’s English there are all these different weird things that happen that cause a lot of problems.

There are a lot of native speakers who cannot spell.

Steve: I know, I know.

Now what’s the solution there?

I mean if it’s difficult for native speakers it must be even more difficult for people coming from another language where the letters already have a value for them in that language and most languages are more logical, as you put it, in terms of the writing system.

What are some of the words that your nieces had trouble with?

Jill: I’m just trying to think now.

She was writing a Christmas song, so there was…

Steve: Sleigh bells, you know, “sleigh” for example.

Jill: And “bow” and the word “friend” was in there.

Steve: I know. You know, I find that I even have to think sometimes and I remember “i before e except after c.”

Jill: You know, I do that all the time, I have to say and, of course, then there are many exceptions to that like “their” t-h-e-i-r, “neighbor”.

There are many exceptions, but generally the rule is “i before e except after the letter c”, except after “c”.

Steve: Right.

Jill: But that’s the other problem with English and maybe it’s with all languages that there are so many exceptions.

There is a rule, but then there are so many exceptions to the rule and so people might learn a rule and they apply it every time in all situations and that’s just not right.

Steve: Right and there are so many of them to learn.

Jill: Yeah.

Steve: But I wonder what other things about English make it more difficult.

You hear people talking about phrasal verbs that in other languages you might have one verb whereas in English there are a lot of “go up”, “go in”, “go out”, you know, “get out”.

Like “What am I getting out of this?” We had our thing on “get”, right?

Jill: Right.

Steve: So phrasal verbs might be something.

Some people say that the absence of a more structured grammar in English in a way is easier, but in a way is more difficult because then it becomes more idiomatic.

Jill: Yeah, you have to learn a lot of these.

I think with phrasal verbs or phrases in general, so many of them if you pick apart the phrase, if you take each individual word, it doesn’t make sense.

Steve: No.

Jill: The phrase does not mean what those individual words mean together, so you have to really learn it as a phrase.

Steve: You have to learn the phrases, yeah.

Jill: Exactly.

Steve: Now what was your experience when you studied French, which is a little more logical?

Although, there are things that aren’t logical in French, but I think it’s certainly more structured grammatically than English.

What did you find difficult there?

Jill: I think with French, probably with most languages, grammar was an issue with me, still is a big issue.

Steve: Meaning what verb or what aspect?

Jill: The verb tenses; many different verb tenses and all the different endings and the different auxiliary verbs and all these different…

Steve: And then getting in the conditional and the subjunctive.

Jill: Yeah, when you use the subjunctive it’s only with certain words like “wish” and those sorts of thoughts that you would use the subjunctive, so I think that definitely I have a problem with verb tenses.

Steve: Yeah, which probably you would not get over, unless you were in a situation where you were using it all the time because you could sort of really study it to death and master it for an exam, but then if you didn’t use the language for three months it would be gone.

You have to develop that habit.

Jill: All over, yeah, it’s true and Spanish was the same.

Spanish is similar to French as far as verb tenses, but Spanish is easier I think than French.

The spelling is very easy and that’s one thing about Spanish.

Steve: Absolutely. You know, I think Spanish has tremendous potential.

I mean it already is an international language, but I think it will grow as an international language, first of all, because the spelling is so true, unlike French even.

French is better than English, but still in French there is funny spelling and Spanish, you know, is popular.

Yeah, people know that there are many hundreds of millions of Spanish speakers, but I think Spanish is connected with fun in a way, don’t you think so?

Jill: Yeah, yeah, I think so.

Steve: We think of the sunny climate, we think of Latin music and fun.

Jill: Certain words like “ola” and “un d’les”!

Steve: Un d’les, ola!

And I think the thought; if people believe that it is easier that helps them because if you’ve got this great obstacle and you say gees, I can’t learn that language it’s too difficult, I can never do it that weighs you down.

So people think Spanish is relatively easy to learn, which I think it is and it’s fun.

You know, if you’re living in Europe you can go to Spain, if you’re living in North America you can go to Mexico or you can go to South America.

Jill: Central America.

Steve: Central America as you did; visiting in Central America and, of course, there are more and more Spanish speakers in the United States or even here in Canada.

Jill: Yeah and Spanish is just a lovely language too.

It sounds pretty, it’s a nice language to learn and many people do speak it.

Steve: Although I must say that I like the sound of other languages too.

I like the sound of French; I like the sound of Italian.

Jill: Well yeah, all the romance languages are for sure my favorite sounding.

Steve: But, you know, I like hearing any language well spoken.

Mandarin or Japanese or even German, which isn’t really all that nice sounding a language, or Dutch, you know, even less so.

I don’t know any Dutch, but if you know the language when you hear someone express themselves very well in the language it’s always a pleasure; it’s always a pleasure.

Yeah, for singing, I think I’d rather hear someone sing in Italian than in German or Dutch.

Jill: I agree.

Steve: You know, for example, yeah.

Jill: What did you find most difficult about some of the languages you learned?

Steve: Okay, if I take Chinese…well, let’s start with French, which was the first one that I sort of tried to master; I think it was the pronunciation.

I worked quite hard on my French pronunciation and, obviously, these tenses and so forth and so on.

Mainly, I ended up going to France, so I had to use it a lot and gradually I just got better at it.

With Chinese, of course, the big obstacle is the characters.

Jill: Of course.

Steve: You’ve got to learn those characters. That’s a lot of work; it’s just a lot of work.

It’s not difficult in the sense of trying to understand nuclear physics or something; there is no comprehension issue.

You know, you don’t have to be smart to do it you just have to put in the time and it’s a lot of drudgery; a lot of drudgery.

People say oh yeah, but there are radicals, you know, there are components of the characters that repeat but, you know, it doesn’t help you a lot because a character has 10-12-15 different strokes and you have to remember the individual stroke order.

I had to learn 4,000 of these each one with 10-12-15 strokes; it’s a lot of work.

Jill: See, it’s just so daunting that I can’t even imagine undertaking such a task.

Steve: You’ve got to have a system and, you know, I took eight months.

Mark, when he started with Japanese, he went at studying the characters.

He worked very hard at it with flashcards and stuff and he learned 1,800 characters.

I mean you can do it, but it takes a lot of dedication.

Jill: You have to want to do it.

Steve: You have to want to do it and, you know, it’s not as much fun as listening and reading, but it’s not uninteresting because I kind of like the characters now that I’ve…

Jill: Well I think they’re really beautiful.

Steve: They’re beautiful and there are some things and it’s history.

It’s a writing system that, in a way, is primitive.

I mean you’re representing the meaning rather than the sound and, obviously, if you can just represent the sound it’s more efficient.

But I like them, but it’s a lot of work, so that was a problem.

And then the tones are a problem, but the structure of the language, the way they use their words, is not difficult at all.

There is no difficult grammar.

There are some patterns that are different from English, but a lot of the word order is the same as English.

There are some initial strange things like when they say “Are you going?” they say “You go not go?” That’s how they say it “You go not go?” So when you first encounter “You go not go” it’s a little difficult.

But after a while all these strange structures, as with any language, start to become natural, so that was the biggest problem there.

With Japanese the different levels of politeness is a problem and also the fact that they use effectively three writing systems, which I think is so inefficient, but that’s their language; it’s not for us to criticize the language.

It’s like English, objectively, the spelling system is just ridiculous, but that’s how it has evolved, so that’s what we have to learn.

Jill: That’s right.

Steve: And I agree with you on French.

Yeah, as we said, the grammar in German as well and I just gave up trying to remember all those…

Jill: “Der”, “die” and “das”.

Steve: “Der”, “die”, “das”; all the endings I couldn’t remember, but after a while you just use it, you know, yeah, but those are some of the difficulties.

Korean is quite similar to Japanese.

One last thing on those East Asian languages, once you’ve put the effort into learning characters and learning the Chinese vocabulary that will be 50 percent of the vocabulary in Japanese and Korean, so that’s a big help there too.

So your nieces are…but it’s good that they like learning that’s the main thing.

Jill: Well the 8 year old does the 6 year old refuses.

Steve: Refuses?

Jill: She refuses at school and at home to learn to read to learn to write; she just wants no part of it.

Steve: And what are you going to do?

Jill: Well, it’s not that she can’t do it, it’s just she doesn’t want to be told she has to do it, so they’re struggling with, basically, using bribery.

You can only play with your Webkins on the computer after you’ve done half an hour of words or, you know, you can’t do this until you do this.

Steve: That’s not bribery that’s coercion.

Jill: Well, yeah, whatever works.

Steve: You’re taking away you’re not giving anything.

Jill: That’s true.

That’s right, but the teacher too even said…because most kids even if they won’t do something for their parents they will do it at least for a teacher or for somebody else, but even the teacher asked them, how do you deal with this?

What do you do?

She’s by no means a dumb child.

She’s very intelligent, very capable, she’s just being stubborn.

She just, for some reason, has it in her mind that she’s not going to be told she has to do this.

Steve: Now is she like that in other things?

Jill: I guess she’s a little bit stubborn.

She’s definitely got her own mind, definitely, but she’s just going to… You know with her, actually, it’s mostly laziness and we all joke about it.

Anything that requires effort even if it’s art, which she loves, as soon as she’s got to put in a little more effort she’s done with her picture or she’s done with whatever she’s doing.

She’ll sit on the couch and watch shows.

She’s just lazy and that’s basically what it comes down to, but she’ll learn.

Jill: Now how were you as a child? Were you lazy too or were you very diligent, hard working?

Steve: I guess I was a little bit of both.

I think I always wanted to do well at school.

I cared about my marks and my grades, so I did always do well, but I can’t say I put in a lot of effort with homework.

My mom wasn’t the type of parent who said okay, do you have homework?

Let’s get it out, do it, check it; never ever did she do that it was kind of just left to us.

If we did it we did it and if we didn’t we didn’t and my brother and I basically never did, but we always managed.

You know, the 15 minutes before school started; we always got there early.

We’d cram in our homework and we’d get it done somehow, so I guess I was lazy in that sense.

Steve: So, you mean maybe your niece has some of these genes?

Jill: Well, no, but she’s Chris’ niece actually.

Steve: Oh, she’s Chris’ niece, okay, alright.

Jill: So, not related to me.

Steve: Okay, alright.

So yeah, we’ve kind of covered on some of the things that make English difficult or other languages difficult.

But, I guess the example of your nieces the older one is keen and likes it, enjoys it and so she’s going to overcome any difficulties and the younger one, hopefully, will also learn.

Jill: She’ll catch up. I think the important thing with English — well, for me anyway — as far as spelling goes and vocabulary growth, is just to read a lot.

Native speakers need to read a lot.

Steve: Oh, so true.

Jill: If you’ve seen a word spelled correctly several times you will learn how to spell that word.

Steve: And, I might add, so read a lot for sure and the other thing, of course, that we hope that the LingQ System does for people is make them better at noticing.

You can pass the word “perceive”, “conceive”, whatever and you never pay much attention to it and then you spell it wrong one day and so now you’ve spelt it wrong and then thereafter you might start noticing “receive”, “perceive”, “conceive” every time you see the word.

Jill: Right.

Steve: That’s why we ask people to save words and when they have something corrected to really go and look at the things that they got wrong.

If they start noticing those words or those kinds of structures…because we can see a lot of things and not see, you know what I mean?

Jill: Exactly.

Steve: You have to become more observant of what goes on. Okay, thank you very much Jill.

Jill: Thank you.

Steve: Bye, bye.

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