How hard is it to learn English, part 2

Doug points out that how hard it is for an adolescent or adult to learn English depends on what language the learner speaks now.

He’s right, and the original op ed made the same point.

The Foreign Service Institute actually has a ranking of languages in terms of difficulty for English speakers, along with an estimate of how long it takes to reach S-3/R-3 proficiency (which I assume means Speaking and Reading proficiency measured on a scale of 0 to 5).

[pause…]

Interesting.

Looking at the chart now (I’ve seen only abbreviated versions in the past), I notice that they seem to consider French quite a bit more difficult than Spanish, at least in terms of the time they estimate it takes to go from 0 to S-3/R-3. That’s certainly the way it seems to me. 

24 weeks for Spanish, 30 for French.

600 to 750 “class hours” in all.

Continue reading

How hard is it to learn English?

(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.

That’s all.

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

More fun with cringe-worthy phrases

In the Post last Friday: a highly enjoyable list of supposedly cringe-worthy phrases you’re probably using in the office ! (Note punctuation placement, please.)

re: cringe-worthy, I dissent.

There’s nothing wrong with expressions like “heavy lifting,” “win-win,” “paradigm shift,” “elephant in the room,” etc. All of these mots mean something real. That’s why people use them.

That said, I do agree that neither “Give 110 percent” nor “There’s no I in team” have much to offer in the way of communicative oomph.

I also admit to being tired of hearing “going forward” and “reach out.” Blech. My feelings on the subject are neither here nor there, however. Both expressions still mean what they mean, and people will continue to use them.

One more thing. “Boil the ocean

What is that?

If I have to ask, then you’re probably not using “boil the ocean” in the office, at least not often enough for “boil the ocean” to have become cringeworthy.

In short, WAPO has published a perfectly fine list of things to say at the office — so perfectly fine that if I were teaching a course on Business English for L2 speakers, I would advise my students to commit it to memory.

Here’s my beef with the list.

Toolkit.

Toolkit ! 

The word toolkit, which people demonstrably are using way too much in the office, (not to mention in book titles) is not on the list of cringe-worthy things people spend too much time using in the office.

[pause]

I was thinking I could end this post with some kind of reference to boiling the ocean, but I guess not.

Bonus points: Here’s McKinsey using the word toolkit to make no sense whatsoever.

Extended lean toolkit for total productivity

See?

Useless.

‘r’ is the hardest letter to pronounce?

Haven’t watched this yet, but 6 seconds in, Damon, of Damon and Jo, says “r” is the hardest letter to pronounce in any language.

Is that true?

I kinda hope so, seeing as how both the Spanish ‘r’ and the French ‘r’ have been the bane  of my many years of non-fluency in both languages.

The other morning, coming off a Duolingo Spanish session, I rolled my r perfectly twiceIt just happened. A perfect Spanish r, perfectly rolled.

Then I couldn’t do it again.

Duolingo is very fun

Doug S recommended trying Duolingo, and I love it.

I don’t know whether it’s the best or the most efficient way to learn a foreign language. John McWhorter likes Glossika, which I assume means he likes Glossika better than Duolingo. It’s possible Duolingo involves too much translating from English to French and back again. I don’t know.

I wish I knew the literature on L2 learning.

In any event, I feel as if I’ve finally found an incontrovertible, absolute argument for the Wonders of Education Technology, a subject on which I have heretofore cast a No Vote: using a language app, you can hear what the words you’re learning sound like.

Plus the supposed convenience of education apps actually is convenient where Duolingo is concerned, and in a way that matters. I’ve never managed to stick with a MOOC, or watch more than one lecture from The Great Courses (which actually are great, as far as I can tell), but I’ve found it easy to return to Duolingo 25 days in a row. Duolingo is so compelling that it was one of my few daily habits that did not crash during the blackout.

Speaking of which, C. just talked to his co-teacher in Mt. Vernon … her electricity is off, and her brother, who works for Con Ed, says it will be days before it’s back on.

Days.

She has two young children.

Meanwhile, the lights just flickered off, then flickered back on.

The suspense is killing me.

And see:
The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap