For obvious reasons I’d always taken the English language forgranted.
I’d simply enjoyed its nuances and rythyms never paying too much attention to its vagaries or illogical and contrary rules.
It wasn’t until I started to teach students from other countries for whom English was a second language that I was forced to actively examine a tongue so familiar to me that speaking it, thinking in it and dreaming in it came as naturally as breathing.
Teaching radio presentation to adult students from Nothern Africa and the Middle East was the first time I really thought about how I used language to share knowledge. In order for them to understand me it was neccessary to use simpler words and phrases and frequently find synonyms which they were more familiar with.
When I described a ride in a brand new Mercedes as floating along the street, their looks of confusion were priceless.
I also had to vary my speed, speaking slower than in normal speech, but not so slow that I sounded unnatural. Hand gestures and facial expressions held more weight than in conversations outside of the classroom with other native speakers.
Here in China I’ve taught English to children, teenagers and adults all with varying levels of ability. It sounds like this could have been a headache but on the whole it’s been fun.
One consistent theme has been about the different forms of English words. This is in stark contrast to Chinese words which rarely change their form for context or tense. For example, English words change according to if they are verbs, nouns or adjectives and according to the tense. Added to this is the fact that often they just seem to change form for no reason at all!
For learners it can be almost impossible to know when to use ‘environment’ or ‘environmental.’ ‘Trying’ or ‘try.’ ‘Going or go.’
Just when you think you’ve mastered this, despite all of the contrary rules which make you constantly re-think things and second guess yourself, then you have to learn a whole new set of vocabulary for past and future tenses. Not easy, especially when there’s no apparent connection to the root word.
Case in point, why is the past tense of go, went? Shouldn’t it logically be ‘gont’ or even ‘gonned?’ Likewise, why is the past tense of find, found? Again, logic would dictate that it should be ‘finded,’ right?
What about idioms, homophones, antonyms, synonyms, and acronyms? Are we trying to give our learners heart attacks?
After teaching English for four years in China and on occassion in England, I now have the greatest respect for non-native speakers who tackle the language and refuse to give up in the face of its non-sensities.
I love English. I love writing it, speaking it, talking about it.
I love seeing how far I can push its boundaries, but sometimes, many times, it’s very hard to explain and I can only conclude that its founders devised it after a liquid lunch or two, or maybe three.