Many foreign language speakers will tell you that English is one of the most difficult languages to master. Despite sharing some commonalities with European languages through its Latin and Greek roots, English is a decidedly separate branch on the language family tree. The elements that make English unique are lost on many native speakers because of the deep way in which they are simply ingrained in the language.
Learning a rule in the English language simply gives you the authority to break it later on. Several of English’s “standard” guidelines don’t apply in certain situations, leaving even native speakers perplexed… and often times wrong. Consider this familiar rhyme: “i” before “e” except after “c”. Easy right? However, what about the words beige, foreign, neighbor, society, weird, and at least 20 other commonly used terms? Then there is the idea that a teacher taught, but a preacher doesn’t praught! Various exceptions to standard practices make it difficult to know which rules to apply in a given situation.
Though we use them frequently, many English speakers don’t really know what an idiom is. By definition, an idioma is an expression that cannot be understood simply by the meaning of the words in the phrase. It has a complete and separate meaning on its own. For example: Don’t let the cat out of the bag is not a literal command (poor kitty!). Instead, its distinct meaning is: Don’t give away the secret! Idioms give insight into the culture behind a language. And while they do exist across other cultures and languages, their prevalence in English makes advancing in the language more of a challenge. Using idioms in speaking English demonstrates a definitive level of mastery.
One of the most subtle nuances in the English language does not appear on a page at all. The way in which a speaker emphasizes certain words drastically alters the meaning of what she says. Imagine this scenario: Your mom comes home from work, and immediately calls for you. She says, “Jimmy come here”. No problem, right? Now imagine she says. “Jimmy come here”. You may suspect trouble. Now picture her saying, “Jimmy. Come. Here”. Danger, danger! While the words do not change in any of the sentences, the meaning is vastly different. Somewhat like the Mandarin language, the tone of an English word affects its meaning. These subtle inflections are difficult to pick up on and even harder to imitate.
Searching for just the right word is an art. With millions of terms to choose from in the language, small differences can have big impacts on meaning. Take homophones, for example. Homophones are words that sound the same but mean different things. Here and hear are homophones as are the ever-popular their, there, and they’re. Homophones cause confusions to listeners, speakers, and writers alike. Synonyms also contribute to linguistic embarrassment. Not all synonyms are interchangeable. While words share similar meanings, substitutions are not always appropriate in a given context. For example, let’s look at the word kind. If you want to know someone’s occupation, you might ask, “What kind of work do you do?” However, asking the question, “What variety of work do you do?” sounds awkward, even though “variety” is an acceptable synonym for “kind.” Further still, if you asked, “What class of work do you do?” the listener may be offended, as the idea of “class” implies status or rank, though it also is a synonym of “kind.” The wrong usage of words can lead to embarrassment and misunderstanding.
Dialects and Regional Accents
As if the language itself weren’t full enough of contradictions and oddities, the way in which words are pronounced in a specific region can be a source of confusion. Different areas possess distinctive ways of speaking and unique vocabulary; this is known as a dialect (some might say “accent”). Trying to decipher what is being said and not recognizing even common terms can make language learning frustrating. Similarly, regionally-specific meanings for common words can lead to confusion. For instance, a toboggan in the northern part of the United States is a type of winter sled. In the southern portion of the U.S. it is a hat. Likewise consider this story: When attending college in the south, one young lady stepped up to the frozen yogurt counter and requested a cone with “jimmies,” meaning the little candy bits or sprinkles which top ice cream cones. The woman behind the counter quickly informed the young woman that in that particular area the word “jimmies” referred to a completely different (and slightly inappropriate) object. The girl slunk away in embarrassment leaving her frozen yogurt behind.
Despite many challenging aspects to the English, its remains one of the most widely-spoken languages across the globe. And the more similar it is to your native language, the easier it will be to learn.