English is the worst!

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We’ve all been there and heard it – “Why are these two words spelled the same but sound different?” or “Why do I need a comma there? You might have answered, “Because you don’t want to eat your mom; it’s “I want to eat, mom.””

I came across this humorous article appropriately titled 10+ Hilarious Reasons Why The English Language Is The Worst

I’m not sure about it being the worst, but English is definitely a challenging language to learn. This sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true – the English language is easy to learn but hard to master.

If you disagree with me on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The article mentioned above may be lighthearted in nature, but it’s an eye opener in that it highlights every English language learner’s struggles when learning, and what most (if not all) instructors have to deal with and prepare for when delivering their lessons.

 Which one of the many points in the article do you and/ or your students relate to?

I’d imagine quite a few of them! However, these frustrations can be used to our advantage as teachers.  This would be a fun topic to discuss with your advanced learners. You could take up one of the ten reasons each week for ten weeks. It may give the class a few laughs and maybe even put their minds at ease. They’ll appreciate that it isn’t just them, and that others, even proficient speakers, notice these English quirks.

How frustrating is it to learn something only to find out that it’s not used the way it’s meant to, or that the simple misplacement of a comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence? Even native speakers have trouble with commas – ask my husband.

So, next time you feel frustrated that your students aren’t grasping certain lessons, remember this article and smile. It’s hard enough being an ESL teacher, but it’s a heck of a lot tougher being on the receiving end – especially when we consider all of those little quirks.  Give yourself and your students a break… maybe throw a few idioms on the board and laugh together. 😉

Hope you enjoy the read!

Can you relate to any of the points shared in the above link/article? Which one(s) jump(s) at you and why? How do you think your learners relate?


8 thoughts on “English is the worst!”

  1. I get it. This is supposed to be light and funny and no harm meant. But there’s a big difference between 1) Here are a few puzzling things about English, which is fine, and & 2) “English is the worst” or even 3) “English is definitely a challenging language to learn.”

    The second two set up a difficulty gradient across languages and select English as being particularly difficult. There probably is some difficulty across languages, but there’s no reason to suppose that English is exceptionally difficult to learn. This exceptionalism is corrosive and disempowering. Recall that many cultures around the world viewed/view their own language as more advanced/complex/nuanced than the “barbaric” and “primitive” languages of other cultures, and conversely, many cultures have internalized the idea that their own language is primitive.

    I know what I’m saying can seem hyperbolic, but this post is just another form of casual prejudice akin to unfounded generalizations about other races, religions, or cultures. I’m not concerned with English coming out on top (some kind of perverse pride in being more difficult than other language) or on the bottom (“the worst”). That’s not the point. The point is that making sweeping generalizations comparing languages, based only on a few trivial observations, is wrong. And it’s wrong whether it’s done out of fear and hatred or whether it’s done to be funny.

    Note that I’m not saying you can’t compare languages. There is actually some interesting research here. Slobin & Bever (1982), for instance, found that children with different L1s were first able to reliably process reversible transitive sentences (e.g., Mary saw Meiling) at different ages. Turkish speakers interpreted these correctly at age 2. English and Italian speakers were slightly later, and Serbo-Croatian speakers took even longer to reach the same level of accuracy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Turkish is the easiest in all regards, but it shows that there are interesting and useful ways to consider cross-linguistics difficulty differences.

    So, again, there’s no harm in taking some interest or delight in aparent inconsistencies in a language, but claiming one language is exceptional based on a few casual observations is a mistake.

    1. Thanks for your very thought out comment, Brett. I apologize that you took offence to my post – that was certainly not my intention. The title is to merely draw one’s attention, and to create a healthy conversation. I actually do point out that I don’t think it’s the worst per se (maybe you missed that line while thinking of what to write in your reply).
      I speak 4 languages so my opinion is based on that and in no way was it generalized. But the fact remains, whether you agree or not, that the English language isn’t structured in the same way as many of the other languages, and because it’s a language that is most commonly used in business transactions worldwide, individuals need to learn it.
      Also, I assume from your full name that you’re a native English speaker. So for you to take offence to something you haven’t personally experienced and therefore wouldn’t understand is a tad puzzling. I have been there as a child and it was a challenge. So to learn a language as ambiguous with its rules as an adult, is something only a person who’s experienced it could comment on. And I welcome and encourage those who have learned English in their adult years to comment.
      Again, my intention in this post was nothing more than to point out the challenges that our second language learners no doubt face. Have a nice day.

  2. I appreciate the intention of the original post, and I agree that it’s crucial that our students know that we empathize with the challenges they face in attempting to master such an idiosyncratic language.

    Yet I have to say that it’s a shame to see a thoughtful response dealt with in such a dismissive and even patronizing manner. It’s worth noting that Brett’s remarks do not resort to ad hominem reasoning or assumptions about one’s personal/linguistic background (as your reply seems to, Laila). His comment presents an informed, empirically-based critique, something which is essential to a ‘healthy conversation’.

    I would also point out that it’s important not to privilege one English language-teacher’s perspective/experience over that of another.

    With that in mind, I certainly look forward to constructive dialogue on this topic.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Jeff. Nothing better than a healthy dialogue among professionals, and I’m glad that my post sparked such informative comments and sharing of perspectives that we can all learn from.

      I look forward to more comments on this topic (as intended).

  3. OK, let’s examine this claim: “But the fact remains, whether you agree or not, that the English language isn’t structured in the same way as many of the other languages.” One of the most commonly considered elements of a language structure is the order of the subject and object with respect to the verb heading the clause. English is an SVO language. Although many languages remain unstudied, at 42% of the studied languages, SVO is only slightly less common than SOV (45%), but far more common than, for instance VOS languages, such as Malagasy. In this one respect, then, English is not an exceptional language.

    The morphosyntactic alignment in English is also absolutely standard, at least among the languages that have been studied. English has nominative–accusative alignment. What this means is that both transitive and intransitive verbs have subjects, and the language makes no distinction between ‘the dog’ in ‘the dog chased the cat’ and ‘the dog slept’. Most languages are like this. But other alignments are possible. Inuit, for instance has ergative–absolutive alignment. What this means is that the object of a transitive verb and the sole argument of an intransitive verb are treated the same, and the subject of a transitive verb is different.

    What about morphology? English is mostly an analytic language, which is to say that it generally avoids marking grammatical information with inflectional (bound) morphemes, prefering words (unbound morphemes). Again, this is very common, and looked at in isolation, tends to make a language easier to learn. Of course, you shouldn’t look at parts of a system in isolation. Less morphology tends to mean more syntax. Nevertheless, English is quite unremarkable in terms of its morphology.

    That is not to say that English doesn’t have its genuine quirks. English relative clauses can relativize almost anything, which is somewhat unusual. You can relativize on the subject, object, object of the preposition, determiner (including genitives), and PP complement. You can even make a relative on an adjective phrase subject (e.g., She was very happy, which is a nice way to be.)

    English syllable structure is also a bit unusual. Most languages allow V, CV, CCV, and CVC syllable types. English, by contrast, can have syllables as complex as CCCVCCCC. But this only puts us perhaps the top 10% of studied languages in terms of syllable complexity.

    So what is the claim that “English language isn’t structured in the same way as many of the other languages” supposed to mean?

    Again, the point isn’t so much that English is or isn’t particularly difficult to learn as that uninformed comparisons based on cherry picked examples is pernicious.

  4. Hi Laila,
    Thanks for the post. English can be challenging, and personally, I find that the more languages I learn, the more I go down the rabbit hole of my understanding of English. Every so often, my team and I come across a sentence a student created in an essay and we say to ourselves “I know this is what the sentence should look like, but I’m not sure why I think that,” and then we bring it to the team and we spend an hour debating the grammar rules about it, saying “well if it were written this way, it would mean this….ah yes but if the intention is this, then this is how you’d write it…yes but we’re not sure what the context is…but the student just has this sentence provided on the quiz” — this is my life – messy, challenging, but fun too 🙂
    To me, English has this incredible story of how it came into being and how it is still being developed — and for the historian in me, I find it quite romantic, but with all that history comes so much complexity. I think too this is part of the reason I wanted to teach grammar — I wanted to show learners the nitty gritty behind it, but that this nitty gritty is beautiful. As I’m writing this comment, I’m thinking of the song lyric in the Sound of Music “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand”. To me, that’s kind of what English is. It’s this thing that’s there and it’s beautiful and we want to touch it, know it, understand it, but sometimes it doesn’t want to fit into this mold that we want to create for it. To me that’s the trap that I find I and some of my learners get caught in — trying to own it or “master” it as you had in your post. Even though I think I’m pretty knowledgeable in the language and fairly confident in explaining most concepts of it, I know I am still learning and will forever be an apprentice of the language.
    Oh and to answer your question about which of the 10 I liked best, the word stress one is always funny to me. I even saw this variety show for Shakespeare and in it, they had the famous scene from Hamlet (To be or not to be –) with the supposed new Hamlet saying the line, then having all the previous actors who played Hamlet come out and say the line with a different word stress. I find these things funny!

  5. I hope this isn’t too off topic, but all I can think of right now is what I experienced during a year in Sapporo, Japan. I have studied about ten languages; I found Japanese to be among the easier ones–about on par with Spanish when it comes to ease of pronunciation and certainly no more difficult than German when it comes to grammar. Books on the culture and society told me that the Japanese people believe their language to be very difficult for ‘gaijin’ to learn. Strangers would approach me in cafes to say, “Nihongo wa muzukashii desu ne?” (Japanese is difficult, isn’t it?) I know I was supposed to politely agree; it was just an icebreaker. But I really loved responding “Amari muzukashiku nai to omoimasu.” (I don’t think it’s very difficult.) The young people would nearly fall off their stools.

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