English speakers’ plight

Learning another language is tough, especially if you take into account the childhood trauma from having to learn your own language.  From what I read while reviewing my boots and laundry, things are pretty gnarly in the world of English grammar.  So gnarly, in fact, that native speakers themselves complain about it:

The verbs in English are a fright.

How can we learn to read and write?

[…] If I still do as once I did,

Then do cows moo, as they once mid?

 I love to win, and games I’ve won;

I seldom sin, and never son.

Steven Pinker‘s Words and Rules, where I first read portion of this poem, is a good intro for anyone who wants to make sense of the irregular verb jungle in English.  Here is a PDF of an article he wrote, where you can find a shorter version of the same ideas.  In his book, Pinker explains – patiently and in detail – how the irregular verbs first developed according to very regular vowel-shift rules, and how as a result of many factors (last but not least, sloppy pronunciation) these rules keep changing and twirling themselves into a messy tangle.  As a result, native speakers end up having to memorize the irregular-verb sequences; and because the memorized irregular verb forms in English do display certain patterns (keep-kept, sleep-slept; wear-wore, bear-bore; string-strung, sting-stung), these patterns get sometimes reproduced by live speakers where they shouldn’t be.  That is how English verb forms get messier all the time:

Children occasionally produce novel form such as bring-brang, bite-bote, and wipe-wope (Bybee & Slobin, 1982). The errors are not very common (about 0.2% of the opportunities), but all children make them (Xu & Pinker, 1995). These generalizations occasionally find a toehold in the language and change its composition. The irregular forms quit and knelt are only a few centuries old, and snuck came into English only about a century ago. The effect is particularly noticeable when one compares dialects of English; many American and British dialects contain forms such as help-holp, drag-drug, and climb-clumb.

For more, visit the Pinker link, or read his book.  I sympathize with the plight of native English speakers and understand their frustration with foreign languages.  It’s clear to me that all comes down to childhood trauma.  It’s so much easier for non-native students of English – they at least didn’t have to deal with all this at a tender age.

Sarcasm aside, at times, I am really at loss as to what to say about the study of languages, except this: if I was able to learn English, which is a nightmare language to learn, what’s your problem learning another language?? 

The Slinger keeps asking me what I did in order to learn Latin and Greek, as if I am a magician or something.  What I did is pretty much what I also did while studying English – I kicked my butt while having fun with it. 

“Ah, but you had the benefit of submersion while studying English.”  No – I didn’t.  I studied the language while teaching it in Japan.  It was healthily humiliating, thank you.  Try it sometimes – I think this sort of humiliation is good for anyone, even if it hurts like hell.  I think everyone should be humiliated at least once in their lives.  I didn’t even have the space for venting.  Ha! venting.  What’s the profit from venting about hardship? 

Not that I don’t vent; ask Jude and The Daughter.  But my venting is like regrouping – or like inventoring boots.  I do it while thinking of solutions.  When truly down, I don’t vent – I cry.  And even my tears are not a marker of defeat.  I need the lubrication in order to act. 

Btw, my children had it worse than you, English-speaking students of foreign tongues.  Born in Bulgaria, they were first plunged into Japanese schools, and just as they were beginning to feel comfortable with Japanese, I transferred them to the United States and into public schools.  Do you think it was easy for them, switching from language to language?  One thing I can say for sure – they didn’t complain, no matter how hard it was for them.  And I can assure you, it was hard.

So what happens when you Americans DECIDE to study another language?  You are not pressured to study it, so what’s the deal?  Whence the frustration?  If a magic hand takes you and drops you in another land, where no one speaks your tongue, what are you gonna do? 

So here is my advice.  If you really want to learn another language, treat it as a matter of survival.  Don’t waste your time and energy with excuses or temper tantrums.  There is another language, just as hard and incomprehensible (at first) as your own.  Be flexible and don’t think you’ve found the Holy Grail of language study.  What works in one case may not work later, but if you are curious, there’s aways another solution. 

Everyone can bomb downhill – I’ll teach you how to carve.  But you must be teachable, for starters.


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