English: the Pick ‘n’ Mix of languages

How on Earth are you meant to explain the English language to someone who doesn’t have it as their native tongue?

I’m quite glad I didn’t go ahead with the original TEFL plan, you know. Speaking English without thinking about it, and just accepting all the silliness, is one thing, but what happens when you have to explain the ‘rules’ to a questioning adult? That’s when you discover that there are no rules – not really. Take plurals, for example. One might reasonably expect a one size fits all rule for something as simple as plurals. Add ‘s’. That would work, wouldn’t it? One dog, two dogs. One day, two days. One potato, two potatos. Except, hang on a second. You might want to put an ‘e’ in there – no real reason, it’s just what we do sometimes.

So, if I want, I can have ‘one dog, two doges?’ asks your student, interestedly. Erm, no. Only if it ends with ‘o’. One tomato, two tomatoes. Great, we have a rule. Add ‘s’, unless the word ends with ‘o’, in which case add ‘es’. Student nods, understanding. One hero, two heroes, he says. Excellent. One radio, two radioes. One cello, two celloes. No, wait… those ones don’t have an ‘e’. But they end with ‘o’! Much confusion ensues as numerous words ending in ‘o’ but not requiring an ‘es’ are discovered. The rule appears to be add ‘s’ unless it ends with ‘o’, in which case you may or may not have to add ‘es’.

It’s just plain embarrassing, then, when words like ‘tooth’ and ‘mouse’ and ‘shelf’ start to crop up. Amidst an increasingly nonsensical explanation of transitions from oo to ee, ous to ice and f to ves, you begin to realise that there are so many “rules” that it might just as easily be said that there are no rules. You begin to feel ashamed of your language, and somewhat guilty for always expecting even native speakers to get it right. Your student, meanwhile, only wants to understand. He does not realise that understanding is impossible. But why is the plural of house not hice? he asks, desperate for it all to make sense. Defeated, the only answer you can give is “I don’t know. It just isn’t. It’s houses.”. So the plural of louse is… louses? Um, no. It’s lice. But how are you meant to know? What’s the rule?

The rule is: don’t try to explain the rules of English to anyone. Before you know it, you’re into past tenses and how usually it’s add ‘ed’ apart from the times when it’s take out a vowel somewhere and add ‘t’ or make it a completely different word altogether (re: teach and taught – but no, preach doesn’t become praught. Why? I don’t know why). And then there’s pronunciation (and why is it not spelt pronounciation?)… no, there are no rules. None. It is utter chaos. And a complete embarrassment, to be honest.

It’s reminded me of a poem I’ve always been fond of. It’s been credited to a couple of different authors, and mostly just Anon, so if anyone knows who actually wrote it, please feel free to tell me so that I can give them the credit that they deserve for a work that sums up my feelings at the moment. Best read aloud for full effect..

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart --
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language?  Man alive,
I mastered it when I was five.
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12 thoughts on “English: the Pick ‘n’ Mix of languages

  1. bevchen says:

    Well it’s not like other languages are any better – in German I’m sure there are more exceptions to rules than words that actually follow the rule…
    English is supposed to be the hardest language to learn as a 2nd language though, apart from like Chinese & Japanese where you have to learn all the weird symbols.

  2. I made my students read that poem aloud when I was teaching English. Ha!

    And French really isn’t any better. All the fun pluralization and pronunciation of English, PLUS genders and much more complicated verb conjugations!

  3. bevchen – I’d like to create a universal language with rules that Cannot Be Broken. Want to help? ;)
    Sister – But this is my point! We didn’t study things like this – these are meant to be the basics, the simple things! The things that you don’t learn, because you just know them. How on Earth are you meant to explain that to someone who *doesn’t* just know them?!
    croquecamille – True. And don’t get me started on genders… I’ll never understand the point!
    Billy – nitpickers R us!

  4. Billy – you are correct re: Chinese, but there is indeed a Japanese language. It’s even spoken by the vast majority of the people in Japan.
    Also, more people speak Wu and Min than Cantonese.

  5. bevchen says:

    Bily – yes, I know there are two spoken Chinese languages, but they both use the same symbols. And there is a Japanese language. They speak it in Japan.

  6. At least we don’t have to cope with gender of inanimate objects. I remember trying to learn German and asking very similar questions about the rules of gender. Answer? There don’t seem to be any. You simply have to memorise whether a table is male or female. And it seems to me kind of bizarre that the table should have a gender to start with!

    And I never did get the hang of when you can make a word by sticking lots of descriptive words together and when you can’t!

    The rules of English plurals may become clearer if you study the etymology. I don’t know that they do, I’m only wondering aloud.

  7. Tony – yep, keep that girl in line!
    bevchen – don’t worry… I, for one, took your comment as intended. :)
    Xue – glad you appreciated it!
    Jay – I remember my French teacher, at the start of my very first French lesson, mentioning genders. He grabbed a passing teacher and said “…so, for example, Miss Young is feminine, as is her head, but her face is masculine. Her arms are masculine, but her legs are feminine.” He went on like this for quite some time, until I didn’t know whether to be confused about the French language, or very worried about Miss Young…

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