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Why English Can Be So Difficult

Popularity 7Viewed 8412 times 2013-8-10 19:24 |Personal category:Education|System category:Life| English

More than one year ago, I was walking in the park and saw something that reminded me of how we learn language. I saw a grandfather holding his grandson on his knee. The grandfather was obviously trying to get the little boy to say something. The little boy was staring at his grandfather's mouth as the grandfather was annunciating the word. 

I actually stopped and watched them for just a few moments. Then I sat down and simply contemplated how people around the world learn a language. 

First, we all learn oral language. No matter if it is English, Mandarin, Italian or whatever language it is. We learn to speak first. Then, we go to school and learn writing, grammar, sentence structure, reading, etc. The problem we all face in learning a second language in addition to our native language, is, we generally reverse the process.

Students in China go to school and learn both Chinese and English. The obvious advantage they have with Chinese, they have grown up hearing and learning to speak it. The obvious problem with English is, they haven't spoken any. In fact, they go to English class and after learning the alphabet and pronunciation, they learn several words and almost immediately are thrust into English grammar. Little to no attention is given to oral English.

Recently, an article in China Daily revealed that there are close to 100,000 schools and training companies in China who are looking for native English speaking instructors (teachers). Also the article stated that there are only about 30,000 native English speaking teachers in China. The gap is huge, thus, the problem of learning oral English persists.

The English alphabet is quite phonetic in nature. Each letter represents a sound unlike Chinese characters which represent entire words. Having a very phonetic language system, it is best learned orally. Chinese characters require visual and oral recognition of words. In fact, because the characters are not common phonetic sounds, visual recognition of the character is required to know what it represents. English is obviously quite different. You can actually sound out a word in English and get close to a correct pronunciation just upon the visual recognition of the letters that make up the word.

I have found that Chinese students of the English language also are very sensitive to their pronunciation of English words. In Chinese, you must say the correct tone or lose the entire meaning of the word. By having been raised learning Chinese, students are likewise sensitive to their pronunciation of English. They fear saying a word wrong. The fact is, English a very forgiving language. You can actually say a word wrong and still be understood. 

I feel that the primary reason for English being so difficult is the first reason that I stated. The process of learning the language is reversed. In my opinion, kindergarten and primary school students should be learning oral English and not wait until they are in Middle School and High School. The native English speaking teachers should be focused on the younger students.

The fact remains, learning a second language is difficult for anyone no matter their country or language. However, I feel that a few adjustments in how English is taught will go a long way in teaching English faster and more effectively than students are experiencing now. 

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report Smaug 2013-8-12 13:52
Well-said, Michael. I'd never thought of it in this detail before. But when we were playing chess, I asked my fiance the Chinese word for knight or horse. She said: "Ma" or "Mah" I repeated it back, and it was wrong, because I had the tone wrong. Then, she told me Ma can mean several things depending on the tone, and each pronunciation can also mean different things, depending on context. English is like this too, but only sometimes. It seems that with Chinese, it is the rule, not the exception.
Reply Report voice_cd 2013-8-12 16:20
This has been recommended to the front page. Thanks for writing.
Reply Report 1552066495 2013-8-13 16:05
thank you. you make me be more confident to speak out.
Reply Report Newtown 2013-8-14 08:03
Smaug: Well-said, Michael. I'd never thought of it in this detail before. But when we were playing chess, I asked my fiance the Chinese word for knight or ho ...
"English is like this too, but only sometimes."

Only sometimes ? What about some of the words that you have written ? When spoken "knight" can have different meanings. Likewise mere pronunciation of these words does not differentiate their different meanings : "well", "horse", "but",  "back", "tone", "mean", "can", "too", "rule", "seems", "not". Thus, English can be similarly difficult to learn.
Reply Report Pumpking 2013-8-14 20:10
"The process of learning the language is reversed"
Thanks for sharing in detais.
Reply Report colin8522 2013-8-21 16:45
English is a forgiving language............ it inspires me

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MichaelM

Michael is the author of the transformational book, Powerful Attitudes. He is a professional educator, an educational consultant, an author. He lives in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. He enjoys playing guitar and writing poetry. He loves China.

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