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THOMPSON: Why English is the toughest language to learn



Sometimes small things in life grab my attention, and like a dog with a bone, I don’t always want to let it go. Last night - as I was writing another column - this thought entered my head, why do we say “get in then car” but “get on the train”?

C’mon, you never see anyone actually “on” a train…unless you’re in parts of India, Indonesia or Bangladesh. Even so, you’ve never heard a conductor say, “get in the train!” In fact, you’re more likely to hear something different still, like “all aboard”.

And when we fly on an airline we never “get in the aircraft”…we get “on the aircraft”…or more likely, again, we get “onboard” or - ready for something completely different - we “get aboard”…which, by the way, also works with boats. And we call that act, “boarding”

Even so, hardly anyone getting in a vehicle except maybe dad getting everyone - including the family dog - in a camper for a long weekend says, “okay, everyone get aboard”.

With a Greyhound Bus, however, you can “get in”, “get on”, “get onboard” or “get aboard”…people will neither notice nor care…they’re just sad you have to ride a bus.

It has been said that English is the toughest language to learn. Certainly, if my wanderings here don’t prove it…they lend some credence.

Consider for a moment that English - like many European languages - includes words the came from ancient Greek and Latin, as well as those we simply invented. And yet, much of the world adopted English as a second language and people in, say, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and South Africa…speak English more fluently than most of us in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain speak other languages.

English has lots of rules…many more than most other languages…and we break most of them with often ridiculous contradictions. You won’t find ham in hamburger. There’s neither pine nor apple in a pineapple…and if a teacher taught, shouldn’t a preacher…well, praught?

If you’re an immigrant, doesn’t it make sense that if a vegetarian eats vegetables…a humanitarian would eat…humans?

And when we string together English words into a phrase like, “sweat like a pig” we must really confuse those trying to learn our language. Pigs do have sweat glands…but don’t sweat anymore than other animals…so, where did that come from?

Turns out that ironworkers poured hot iron on sand, forming globules that looked pig-like (hence called “pig iron”). As the pig iron cooled, condensation formed that made the iron look…well, sweaty. Those foreign to English…no doubt believe pigs nonetheless are sweaty animals to avoid.

What we need is a good set of strict rules. For example, look how well the rule for remembering whether a word is spelled “ie” or “ei” works: “I before E except after C”…like the words “believe” and “receipt”. See, everything is…oh, wait…how about “science” and “seize”…foreigners (not foriegners) must think that weird (not wierd)?

Obviously, when it comes to English, “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too!” Wait, how’s someone that doesn’t speak English fluently parse that? It’s your cake, why can’t you eat it? Sure, those who speak English know you can’t have your cake - possess it - and eat it…because once it’s eaten you no longer have it. Mincing words, perhaps, but shouldn’t it be “you can’t eat your cake and have it, too”, anyway?

Hell, how did we dig out of this hole? Well, we’re in too deep to stop now. Spelling and obscure phrases aren’t by any means the only hurdles for people learning English. How we pronounce words is no less confusing…with rules, contradictions and on occasion simply because it sounds right.

Consider, that it must be “rough” for that horse to drink from that “trough”? Non-English speaking folks are probably saying, “How am I ever going to get through this?” Wait, what do you mean “through” is pronounced neither “thruf” nor “throf”

Someone learning English might pull a knife on an English teacher…but that might precipitate an entire conversation about silent letters…like why is there a “k” that makes no sound on the word knife?

If you’re not already confused or hopelessly lost…you can try and sort through homophones…words that sound the same but have different meanings or spellings. Do we really expect someone to grasp the subtleties of say, the “door was too close to the table to close.” The first “close” is pronounced with a soft “S” and means “near”, while the latter “close” is pronounced with a hard “S” and means “shut”.

What’s the difference between course, corse and coarse…they sound the same? And who knew that the word “frog” could mean everything from a slippery, often-green amphibian that likes to jump to a holster on your belt to hang tools or a device to switch train tracks or a disparaging insult to French folks…or seven other things.

It’s easy to use the wrong word at the wrong time in English. For example, we “watch” television, and we might can “watch a movie” or “see a movie” – but we don’t “see television”. And we’re not a “watcher” when we’re doing this…we’re a “viewer”, even though we don’t say we “view television” or “view a movie”.

Then, when we add regional dialects, well the whole thing just gets worse. My Southern accent easily defines me in Canada…but so does the speech of someone from Newfoundland who asks directions in any other province.

And Canadians can use the interjection “eh” more ways than one…as a statement of opinion…of fact…as a question…even an insult or accusation. Consider, “nice day, eh?” or “you took the last piece, eh?

Just think about it…if you understand English idioms - and I don’t think I’m “barking up the wrong tree” here…this column won’t be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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