Thursday, March 16, 2006

What's hard about English? (paca)

I have been doing a lot of editing for my fellow students lately. I have always been doing it as one of the rare native speakers of English in the department, but now that people have learned I am a part-time copy-editor by trade, the requests have really taken off. Anyway, since these are normally doctoral students, they have been studying English for more years than I can imagine. What is interesting is where exactly, after all these years of study, English remains difficult. The answer: determiners and prepositions. Someone will write an extraordinarily long and complex, perfect English sentence, containing multiple subordinate clauses, with only one flaw. They leave "the" out. The other main area is which prepositions go with which verbs. The reason for these two problems are very different. For determiners, the problem is just that Korean, Japanese, and Chinese don't have them, and the rules on when to use them are extraordinarily complex. I don't know what they are myself. I just know, as most of you do, when it's wrong. The problem with prepositions is that there are no real patterns. Every verb has its own set that it prefers. For example, one is "concerned with" but "cares about". You can also say "concerned about" but you can't say "cares with". English is full of this sort of minutiae, which native speakers have all memorized as if it is the easiest thing in the world, when it is not.

It's just interesting that of all the complexities of a language, when to stick in "the" is the hardest.

I have a Chinese friend here who always makes one funny mistake in spoken English. Chinese only has one word for he, she, it, which is "ta (1st tone)". This is extraordinarily useful in its own way, but it causes troubles for my friend when said person is speaking. Person X is endlessly calling men "she" and women "he" and the different words switch back and forth in just a few sentences about the same person. Unfortunately, this is not something most English speakers will let slide. If someone forgets to make the verb agree perfectly with the subject, you may notice it, but no one really cares. But men don't like being called "she" and "her" in our culture (and vice versa I assume).

I say all this with the utmost admiration for my friends' language abilities. I cannot even imagine doing a doctorate in a different language. I for instance can't tell you what parts of Chinese remain difficult for the advanced second language speaker of it, because I myself never got above "low intermediate".

No comments: