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Why English Is So Hard To Learn

Popularity 16Viewed 7352 times 2015-10-12 07:42 |Personal category:Education|System category:News| English, language

"If the foundation of language acquisition is not built upon first developing the skill of speaking the targeted tongue (language), any structure that is attempted to be erected will crumble and fall every time. For this simple reason, many spend years of frustration hoping to master what they intend to learn. They will consider the language 'too hard' and finally surrender to failure." ~ Lin Yutang

I've made it my primary focus over the past 4 years to study, implement and test English learning and teaching strategies. My observation has given me an outcome based approach in developing my style of teaching English to Chinese students. Here are some observations and results that I have discovered. My personal goal is to test the reading, writing, grammatical and speaking proficiency of students. More simply put, I've studied the many different ways of learning of students who have high scores in school and who can most fluently speak English.

1. One thing that I've discovered is that those who learn to speak English well will almost always score well in school. Out of dozens of exams we have analyzed (from middle school entrance exams to the gaokao), we have yet to find one that asks the student to recite the grammar rule. They are only required to apply the rule in a sample sentence or passage. Most of them have forgotten the grammar rules of English and simply have become accustomed to knowing right and proper grammar by listening to a passage, sentence, phrase, etc. This is the same process for any native language. 

For example, if your native language is Mandarin and you hear someone speak improper grammar, you will know immediately without possibly being able to cite the specific grammar rule they've broken. Students of languages around the world gain this innate ability. In fact, many contend that it is an inherent trait that human beings are born with.

If a student can speak English properly and grammatically correct, then they only need the ability to apply the skill of forming letters (i.e. write the 26 letters of the English alphabet), spell the words correctly, apply capitalization where needed (i.e. at the beginning of a sentence and in the use of proper nouns) and apply the few punctuation rules required for proper English. 

Note: Even the knowledge to spell words that are not so phonetic (i.e. like the word tough; the gh represents the 'f' sound rather than a phonetic combination of 'gh') are learned faster by a person who can speak well. The person who can speak utilizes their inner and outer voice and the skill of listening in learning the word. More biological faculties are used to learn the word.

2. Students who learn only by being taught the translation/grammatical structure method will almost always end up with Chinglish (which is most often Chinese grammar and word positioning applied to English or an improper English word that is a direct translation from Chinese). I've tested students who have spent years studying English with the translation/grammatical structure approach who cannot carry on the simplest conversation. When they do, they most often have incorrect grammar.

One day, I was speaking to a Chinese English learner who claimed that he had spent several years studying in the U.K. He had recently gotten a job teaching English at a local Chinese English training school. We were at a local English corner that I attend every week in order to help Chinese English students practice their oral English. Here is word for word what this guy said to me; "You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better." 

If it wasn't so sad that this guy had used Chinglish to inform me that I couldn't teach grammar (which he obviously has no idea whether I can or not since he has never attended my classes; he's just making an very ignorant statement using very bad grammar), it would be funny. But, it isn't funny. This guy is influencing students and teaching them when he doesn't possess the ability or skills to do so. 

And, his study in the U.K. is very questionable as well. I can't imagine someone getting a Masters degree in the U.K. and not being able to speak any better than he did. I've met others including a girl who obtained her Masters degree in my home state of Texas in the USA, who is highly fluent in English. I know others who have spent time in English speaking countries who speak English quite fluently.  

Summary: The more brain functions you can involve in learning a language, the faster you will learn that language and the longer you will retain it. Speaking requires the proper use of grammar, punctuation (pauses from commas, exclamatory emphasis and completed thoughts by periods ending a sentence), pronunciation, inflection, listening (in conversation) and vocabulary. The solution to overcoming the barrier that obviously exists in English language learning here in China is building a strong oral foundation.

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

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Comment Comment (23 comments)

Reply Report laoren1234 2015-10-12 08:22
Although you foreigners very can't teach English grammar you sometimes very make good sense.  
Reply Report voice_cd 2015-10-12 09:30
Thanks for sharing your story here. We have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report KIyer 2015-10-12 09:44
Good Chinese speakers who know English can teach the language  to the Chinese better than those who cannot speak Chinese fluently. English is not a consistent language in that the rules do not always apply or make sense. That is why it is hard to learn.
Reply Report Sally_sunshine 2015-10-12 21:51
“You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better." Can't imagine that a person who spent several years studying in UK speaks English like that!
Reply Report eddieturkson 2015-10-13 02:23
laoren1234: Although you foreigners very can't teach English grammar you sometimes very make good sense.   
  
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-13 04:23
Sally_sunshine: “You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better." Can't imagine that a person who spent several y ...
He did. In front of a dozen or more people. I felt embarrassed for him and actually tried to help him recover the face that he lost.
Reply Report enlighting 2015-10-13 15:17
Interesting perspective.
Reply Report Real_Z 2015-10-13 21:12
Hi, Michael, I am so wondering why  we can get the main idea easily when we read a Chinease passage simply by glimpsing some key words  while it is so difficult to do this when reading an English passage unless we read all the sentenses and the whole paragraph? Could you help me on this question? (I am Chinese.)
Reply Report 马语者 2015-10-13 22:43
it is funny. "You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better."
Reply Report cmknight 2015-10-14 05:26
@ Real_Z
Most of the problem lies in the fact that very few teachers will teach the concept of "Function words" and "Content words". Examples of function words are nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They give the meaning of the sentence. Content words, like articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are only there to fill space and give the sentence its proper grammatical structure. If you want to skim what you are reading to get the overall meaning of the passage, or sentence, you need to recognize these words and automatically separate them into function and content.
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-14 07:35
Real_Z: Hi, Michael, I am so wondering why  we can get the main idea easily when we read a Chinease passage simply by glimpsing some key words  while it is so ...
I really don't know, but, I'll give a few possibilities.

One thing is that English is a more detailed and direct language. Even with the use of articles (the, a, an) it makes it a bit more precise than what I know about Chinese. We read (and speak) in details. A Chinese professor told me that Chinese like 'talking points'. It is the process of building the relationship. We are more direct, thus, we don't spend so much time in conversation.

I think perhaps another possible reason is just the unfamiliarity with English. The more fluent you become, the better you able to 'skim' (not read every word) when reading.
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-14 07:35
Sally_sunshine: “You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better." Can't imagine that a person who spent several y ...
I can't either.
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-14 07:37
KIyer: Good Chinese speakers who know English can teach the language  to the Chinese better than those who cannot speak Chinese fluently. English is not a co ...
I have found that it is these inconsistencies that are not taught well by Chinese English teachers. I spend more time teaching exceptions than I do consistent rules.
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-14 07:39
Anranyanqun: seriously?
Yes. I observe people closely and look for patterns of mistakes (so I can help others). The patterns that I've observed are found among many people I've encountered.
Reply Report KIyer 2015-10-14 09:36
MichaelM: I have found that it is these inconsistencies that are not taught well by Chinese English teachers. I spend more time teaching exceptions than I do co ...
You wrote "I spend more time teaching exceptions than I do consistent rules."

It is understandable. You've got to the best you can with what you have as a language.
Reply Report Real_Z 2015-10-14 11:03
Hi, dear Michael, thanks for your prompt reply. I will bear your suggestions in my mind. By the way, could you tell me what is meaing by "we don't spend so much time in conversation"?  I think we talk by conversation both in Chinese and English.
Reply Report Real_Z 2015-10-14 11:17
cmknight: @ Real_Z
Most of the problem lies in the fact that very few teachers will teach the concept of "Function words" and "Content words&quot ...
Thanks for your explain on this problem. I have some impression in my mind similar to what you said for I read it many years ago. I will try to understand more about this by read some related text books. and I will take a note. Thanks!
Reply Report MichaelM 2015-10-14 12:45
KIyer: You wrote "I spend more time teaching exceptions than I do consistent rules."

It is understandable. You've got to the best you can with wha ...
Excellent comeback KIyer!      I'll let it end with that.
Reply Report LassieWang 2015-10-15 14:01
Chinese English teachers are most often Chinglish teachers. I study English in normal unversity, i would do job involved with English language after my gratuation but never be an English teacher. besides i don`t know how to teach students in Chinese way.
Reply Report teamkrejados 2015-10-17 14:40
Real_Z: Hi, Michael, I am so wondering why  we can get the main idea easily when we read a Chinease passage simply by glimpsing some key words  while it is so ...
Hello, RealZ! I hope you don't mind my giving an answer to your question.
English writing is structured so that the first sentence of a paragraph gives the main idea, and the rest of the paragraph gives details.
Each new paragraph should indicate another new idea. So, if you read the first sentence of all of the paragraphs in your text, you should get a general idea of what the text is about.
Another helpful hint for skimming:
Make note of (or underline) names - first letter is always CAPITALIZED; and dates or other numbers - money sums, ages, etc. Most likely, the information you want/need is indicated by either proper names or by numbers.   
Are you skimming to practice for an exam? Try these ideas to see if they help you.
Wish you the best!

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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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