Living language can be deadly hard to learn

5th November 2004 at 00:00
"It's a non-defining relative clause." I'm impressed. She's right. Most people back home wouldn't know what a clause was, let alone whether it was relative or lacked definition. Yet the students I'm teaching in a run-down suburb of Moscow know most of the jargon that explains the workings of our strange tongue.

English is one of the easiest languages to learn as a beginner, but notoriously difficult to grasp at higher levels. Why? Because we lack the grammar. After a certain point, our ancestors must have tired of creating new rules and grammatical appendages, unlike our continental cousins.

Instead, they rearranged existing words into an interesting variety of new combinations and, voil...!, "Oh dear, the Normans are invading" could be expressed in the passive voice.

It happens today. Miscommunication occurs between the generations as the younger apply new meanings to old words. A large number of those under 23 will know that if something is described as "pants", it must be rubbish.

In another linguistic aberration, some Americans have taken to replacing the auxiliary verb "to have" in our perfect tenses. Correct usage would suggest something along the lines of, "He would've written English better".

Yet some editors across the Atlantic are now accepting the alternative, "He would of written English better".

This linguistical flexibility makes it all the more difficult for international students of English. Every year, 1.5 million people in 135 countries take the internationally recognised ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) exams set by Cambridge University. What exactly they are learning is hard to say, especially at the rate at which the language is adapting. Any discussion with compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that they work continuously to add new words and meanings. So not only is it getting more complex, it's getting bigger.

In one class, I have ten 13-year-old girls. They're my toughest group, but also my most rewarding. Without fun and active engagement you've lost them, perhaps for five minutes, perhaps forever. The teacher must come armed with games, role-plays, projects; anything that keeps them focused for at least another lesson. I can finally empathise with long-forgotten teachers as I confront the same obstacles they faced.

Yet now I can also see that the majority of the responsibility for learning falls upon the student. If Sasha isn't interested in the importance of articles such as "a" or "the", if Anya cares not for the intricacies of the present simple tense (which often has nothing to do with the present tense and isn't that simple), then there is only a limited amount that the teacher can get the student to absorb.

I sympathise with my students as I struggle with Russian, a language that has two infinitives for every verb and an interminable number of ways to say "to go", according to whether you are coming or going, on transport or on foot, carrying bags, in a bad mood or just forgot to turn off the lights before you left.

"Chrees, we did thees yesterday," my teacher sighs. I realise that it's all very well to teach your native language, but to learn someone else's is to tread dangerous ground. Maintaining motivation is hard, yet the rewards are great: a whole new world.

When my students exasperate me as they struggle with pronunciation, I remind myself that teaching English is tough, but learning it is much more difficult.

Chris Forster

Chris Forster teaches English in Moscow

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