(Test prep and writing instruction in Paris next month)
Quite a few of my students are L2 writers, and now that I’ve immersed myself in language apps I’ve been thinking even more than usual about the challenge of needing to be fluent in a second language in order to go to school, find work, etc. Those of us born in Anglophone countries are incredibly lucky not to have to do what my students must do–if only in terms of the opportunity cost. The hours my L2 students spent learning English can’t be spent learning something else.
I should stress that I’m not remotely saying English-speaking students should stick to English and leave the language learning to other people.
Not at all !
I think English-speaking students should learn other languages, and should do so as early in life as possible. (This was a chronic bone of contention in my erstwhile school district, where parents have spent decades lobbying for early foreign language instruction and still don’t have it.)
I’m saying only that any child who is born into a family of native speakers of English has an advantage in not having to learn English as an adolescent or adult.
Here is Michael Skapinker on the question of how hard it is to learn English (behind a paywall):
At first glance, English looks an easy language to learn. Anything that is not obviously male or female is “it”. There is no need to worry about the gender of “phone” or “stapler” or “stupidity”. (Lloyd’s List, the shipping newspaper, stopped calling ships “she” in 2002.)
Adjectives remain the same regardless of the gender of the associated noun: a brave woman, a brave man, a brave new world. Apart from the -s in the third person singular present tense (“she sings”), verbs do not change, no matter what their subject is (“he ran”, “they ran”).
The word “friend” remains the same whether you say “he’s my friend”, “hello, my friend”, “I kicked my friend” or “it’s the house of my friend”. In Greek, as I discovered in my Piraeus days, these require an array of noun endings, which differ depending on the gender of the friend.
But there are aspects of English that are devilishly complex. The spelling fails to provide consistent guidance to pronunciation. Consider “cough”, “through”, “bough”, “though” and “hiccough”.
There are the irregular past tenses: arose, became, fell, swore, and many more.
There are also phrasal verbs — verbs followed by prepositions, with wild swings in meaning. Learners have every right to feel put out when they put up someone for the night, only to discover that they can’t put up with them. They may want to put off learning English for another time.
My guess is that the new language-teaching apps, not to mention sites like forvo.com, will be a huge help with pronunciation and listening comprehension.
They certainly are for me.
And see: How hard is it to learn English, part 2