A Commentary on the English Language

Despite the fact that English is my best language, I find that it is incredibly troublesome as a world language. People feel compelled to speak English because nations like America and Britain speak English as the official language, but the fact is the English is damn hard. The only simple tenses are the preterite and present tenses. Pretty much everything else requires a helping or auxiliary verb, such as willhave, or might. Moreover, the most common and useful verbs follow no specific pattern in conjugations. For example, using normal logic to try and fit patterns into English, the verb to tell conjugated in the past would be telled. But no, it is toldEnglish is incredibly irregular and annoying to try to understand if you’re not a native speaker. We have all sorts of weird idioms that don’t really have equivalents in other languages. Sure you can argue that this is the case for every language, but English, I feel, is the worst offender. And personally, English is not even particularly pretty, musical, or rhythmic.

It is for this reason, to improve communication, and simply as a courtesy to other non-English speaking nations, we either adopt a simpler, even a constructed, language to speak for business and trade purposes, much like French in the 13th to 17th centuries, or we further encourage the education of our citizens in foreign language, which I think would be accomplished by extended foreign language requirements even in college or, more easily, high school. One year more, I think would help a lot. But, this is just my opinion. I would love to hear your comments!

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sr3934@nyu.edu

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.

  • “It is for this reason, to improve communication, and simply as a courtesy to other non-English speaking nations, we either adopt a simpler, even a constructed, language to speak for business and trade purposes, much like French in the 13th to 17th centuries, or we further encourage the education of our citizens in foreign language…” Who is the “we” that you refer to here? How would you go about getting these people to take up a new language?

    • This is part of my point. We can’t get people to take up a new language, and therefore the easier alternative is encouraging foreign language study in general. The, “we,” refers to the people in the United States. If the people were to understand how important foreign language is, a difference might be made.

  • Sorry, maybe I was unclear in what I wrote. By “taking up a new language,” I mean learning a language to the point where you can speak it fluently — I did not mean replacing your native or primary language with a new one.

    What I’m trying to ask is this: learning a language to the point of fluency can take a lot of time and energy. When I was in elementary school, and later high school, I *had* to study various languages; but I never got to the point where I could actually use them, let alone speak them fluently.

    So how would you go about getting the people of the United States to spend the necessary time and energy to learn foreign languages (or constructed languages) to the point of fluency, i.e. where they can actually use these languages for communication in a variety of real-life situations?

    • As I have little experience in foreign language education, my idea may be limited. While people needn’t become full-fledged scholars in foreign languages, I think that all people, just as general skill, should be able to use at least one foreign language (or more if they desire) to communicate in a situation that calls for it. But keep in mind this means more than a tourist’s knowledge but considerably less than a college language major’s knowledge.

      As for being able to use them after coursework in school, I think this is simply a matter of opportunity. Some languages, such as Spanish or Chinese, have ample opportunities to be practiced in, for example, the Bay Area. The amount they teach you in high school is meant such that you can use it to a limited, but useful extent, even if you didn’t go all the way to the AP level. Sure, you might not be able to participate in full-length, deep discussions in the target language, but at least you can have basic ones, and definitely get around in the country where the language is spoken. I definitely think that second-year high school Spanish will do that much, if only on an extremely basic level, if one is in Mexico or Spain.

  • I think I understand you now — you’re talking about a kind of minimal functionality in a foreign language, the kind that would allow you to do things like make a purchase or get directions to somewhere; like what a tourist would need to cover the most basic situations.

    • Exactly. And from what I can see around me, in my high school, most students can barely do that. Of course, there’s very little I can do, as part of it is laziness and, “I’m only doing it because of the requirement.” But the difference I make between students and tourists is that students have a higher capacity to learn more vocabulary and things in the language, because they have some foundation, whereas tourists simply read phrases out of a book, which is rote memory, the most basic level of learning, as opposed to taking in information and application thereof. I appreciate this short conversation; it’s fun to discuss these things with other people.

  • So, just to continue playing devil’s advocate here…. (And also, let me explicitly note that I have absolutely nothing against learning other languages)

    Given that so many non-English speakers end up learning English to the point where they can be at least somewhat minimally functional in it (in the sense that we’ve discussed above), and also given that a lot of these basic transactions could be conducted non-verbally by doing things like drawing pictures, writing down numbers and dates, making gestures etc — what motivation would the average English speaker, who has no intrinsic interest in languages in and of themselves but only cares about basic communication — what motivation would the average English speaker have to put in the time and energy to learn a foreign language?

    • Partially, this is due to my ideal of a cosmopolitan society. I can’t say that the average English speaker would want to put the time and energy into learning a foreign language, because they probably wouldn’t. People want to avoid extra work in general. However, the average English speaker suddenly becomes more limited in their ability to communicate with others if they choose not to learn another language, because others who speak that language as their mother tongue can only interact with them on a basic level, and creates a bit of linguistic separation eventually between communities, as the phenomenon is more prevalent.

      Perhaps I should be clear with this post’s intent: English is hard for other people to learn, and we should probably either learn their languages to make life a little easier (because let’s face it, most languages are considerably easier to learn than English), or we all learn a relatively easy language to learn simply for the ease of communication. I can’t say that I would advocate widespread changes such as the adoption of a new language, because it wouldn’t work very well. I know there are people who will never, without exception, use a foreign language in their life for whatever reason. But it is still important for those who are considerably more likely to encounter such situations to learn another language.

  • “the average English speaker suddenly becomes more limited in their ability to communicate with others if they choose not to learn another language, because others who speak that language as their mother tongue can only interact with them on a basic level” — though the same limitations would be true if a native English speaker were to learn a foreign language just to the point of minimal functionality — they would only be able to interact in the foreign language on a basic level.

    As for the difficulties of learning English…I’ve often wondered how hard a language it is to learn — given that English is my first language, I have no idea what the answer is to this question. In general though, I suspect that the degree of difficulty in learning any language depends on one’s native language and culture. So that English is probably way easier to learn if you’re a native French speaker from a western country (France, Belgium, etc), and probably much harder to learn if you’re from China or an Amazonian tribe.

    I think the people who end up learning a language well enough to use it are those who are really motivated — that is to say, for whatever reason, they have a real necessity or desire to be able to understand and speak that other language.

    There’s an inequality at work here, and it often comes down to pressures exerted by economics and power. People who speak comparatively “minor” languages (i.e., languages that have fewer speakers; that belong to less affluent, less powerful societies; that don’t have a written literature that is highly valued by speakers of other languages) usually have more of a need and desire to be able to use prestige languages, whereas those who speak prestige languages usually don’t have much of a need or desire to learn these (so called) more “minor” languages.

    It is for this reason that (from what I understand) Portuguese people are more likely to be able to understand and speak Spanish than the reverse; and, in the part of the world that I’m currently living in, Laotians are often fluent in Thai, whereas most Thais (with the exception of those from the Northeast, which is geographically, culturally and linguistically close to Laos) do not understand or speak Lao at all.