The English Pedant – The difficulty of keeping it simple

Sounding like a foreigner is less desirable than ever in these days of immigration and resentment. Even if we look different from most people (which obviously we can’t do much about), a good grasp of the language can go a long way towards getting us accepted.

One of the most frustrating things about teaching English to people who already speak another language is when they ask you why a certain thing happens and all you can say is “It just does”.

Take verbs, for instance. A long-distance Dutch student of mine, who still sends me her academic essays etc. to check before she hands them in, recently forgot how to make the simple past tense of English verbs. She had fallen back into an old habit of using “did” with the infinitive. I did walk to college. I did speak to my tutor.

You know what she means. You know she’s telling you it was in the past, but that is not the point. She’s getting it wrong, and that means she sounds less intelligent than she is. And more to the point, she sounds more foreign, and one of the chief gripes of the less tolerant is when people don’t learn to speak their language.

This girl – let’s call her  Sophie – came to me in Suriname when she was applying to American universities and wanted to give the impression (the correct impression, as it happens) that she could slot right in with a class of American students, understand the lecturers and do the work. She is probably the most advanced student I’ve ever had – and a nice girl, too. It’s not just students who can enjoy or not enjoy a class; the teacher is giving up 90 minutes of his life for it too. It’s a lot better all round if both parties enjoy the time.

Anyway, Sophie moved back to Holland – didn’t go to America, but continued studying in English – and somehow forgot about past tenses.

I dug out some material, hoping to explain it to her in a flash and send her some files, but of course it’s not that easy. There are regular verbs and irregular verbs. With a regular verb you just add ed or d to the infinitive. I walk, I walked. I like, I liked.

But you immediately trip over irregular ones. I run, I ran. I speak, I spoke.

And there isn’t a simple answer to the question of why it is like that, apart from “It just is.”

If you look at the English language as something to be improved and simplified, that is certainly somewhere to start. Get rid of the irregularity. I run, I runned. I sit, I sitted. Why not?

All languages have their seemingly pointless aspects that confound the non-native speaker. Look at French, with its insistence on the adjective reflecting the gender of the noun. Haut and bas (high and low) have to be haute and basse if the noun they are describing is feminine. Everything is either le or la, and you sound like a dolt if you get it wrong. To the outside observer, it’s an unnecessary complication.

In German they’re not even happy with two genders: they have masculine, feminine and neuter: der, die and dass.

Who needs it? What difference does it make? In English we have been getting along with just plain the for centuries. Why don’t all countries address the quirks of their language and give the foreigners a chance?

There will probably never be a common global language, largely due to our overriding nationalism and the sheer practical issues that would have to be tackled – the trillions of words and billions of documents to be translated.

It’s been tried, but with little success. Esperanto was invented in 1887, based on European languages, and while it is claimed that some 2million people speak it, I have never met anyone who does; have you? If something similar were attempted today, it would take hundreds of years to develop, with law suits flying around the world as China demanded to have its principles taken into account, and then smaller parts of China spoke up for themselves, along with Russians, Tibetans and Indians, Swedes, Slovaks and Somalis.

The only thing that would make it happen is if the Earth was facing invasion by another planet and the military commanders needed to be able to communicate  quickly and easily. There would need to be delaying tactics while the assembled brains of every country got together and thrashed it out, and then mass teaching took place everywhere.

But you know what would really happen? English speakers and Spanish speakers would squabble and remain unreconciled, while the Mandarin speakers quickly learned how to say “Hang on, what about us?”

There would be no point in having a global vote, because everyone would just vote for themselves, so you might as well just count the people. But that would be so open to fraud that it would have to come down to a simple lottery, live on TV across the world. There are two short straws and one long one. The representatives of the three options step forward one by one and continent-wide gasps throw the planet off its axis so that it plummets towards its aggressor, which has manoeuvred itself  dangerously close.

And then bang! The universally understood term, goodbye. Auf wiedersehen. Ciao. Au revoir. And a couple of symbols in Mandarin.

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