English has a reputation for being a difficult language for foreigners but until a few years ago I didn’t agree with that assessment.
We use fewer verb tenses than the Spanish or the French and for that reason alone I considered English to be less difficult than some say it is.
But in conversation with Majorcans who are learning English and hearing about their struggles with the vocabulary and grammar, I have changed my mind: I now see English is riddled with difficulties and pitfalls.
And, perhaps most important of all, there aren’t enough rules to guide the newcomers to the language.
All languages have their irregularities, some more than others. My son, who had lessons to polish up his Catalán to get the C level certificate, says that for every rule you have to learn there are a dozen or more exceptions — which also have to be learned.
During my talks with Majorcan students, it looks as if there aren’t enough rules in English. They expect grammatical construction to be governed by simple rules, but that’s not the case. They say there are so many individual aspects of the language that have to be learned and remembered.
That’s difficult enough when English is your native language but it’s a nightmare when you’re an adult and have been speaking another language all your life.
Another difficulty for foreign students is that many English words are given a great deal to do, which means they have dozens of quite different meanings and uses.
My Oxford-Spanish dictionary has four pages of words and phrases that use ‘get’ — and that’s not all of them. There are almost three pages of words using ‘up’.
Another word that gets far too much to do is ‘just’ — and to make matters worse it is frequently misused, even by people who should know better.
More often than not it means ‘precisely’ or ‘only’ and some people misuse it when they try to make it mean ‘quite’. Its exact meaning depends very much on its context.
An Italian student who was learning English once asked me about the meaning of ‘just’ and showed me a message on his mobile that said: “Thank you for the invitation, but I’ll just be eating at home today.”
He wanted to know what ‘just’ meant in that sentence. I told him it wasn’t very good use of ‘just’ but it meant that she (I assumed the message was from a woman) was eating at home and had no intention of doing anything else. Just is a handy word and I told the student if he learned to use it properly it would improve his idiomatic English.
I also told him that many English people use the word incorrectly. You will often hear an Englishman (but not a Scot or an Irishman) say: “Just exactly what do you mean?”
This is an example of tautology because in this case ‘just’ and ‘exactly’ mean the same thing.
Sometimes ‘just’ is incorrectly used to mean ‘quite’. In the sentence, “Your work was well done, but not just well enough”, just is being wrongly used to mean ‘quite’. The sentence should read, “Your work was well done, but just not well enough.” John Lennon, who was very clever with words and used them in a fun way, said ‘just’ should never be used because it doesn’t mean anything.
I think he may have had a psychological block with this word and avoided it at all times, later justifying his non-use by saying it could be left out of a sentence without changing its meaning. But that’s not quite true.
The use of ‘just’ can add precision to what we are trying to convey. If I were to say, “I was standing in the Vía Roma just in front of the Instituto,” the use of ‘just’ underlines that I am at the top of the Vía Roma and not at La Rambla end.
If I tell you there’s a children’s playground ‘just behind’ the Instituto, I mean it is immediately behind the building and not 50 metres away. John Lennon would have omitted ‘just’ in both cases and the sentences would have had different nuances of meaning.
Two little words that give non-English speakers a great deal of trouble are ‘up’ and ‘down’. That’s because we give both of them a tremendous amount of work to do.
In the two-volume large format Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, three pages are given to words containing ‘down’ and a whopping eight pages are needed for words containing ‘up’. No wonder students of English find it all rather puzzling.
They have difficulty in understanding why we ‘wash up’ the dishes but ‘wash down’ the car. In both cases the words denote or imply movement. We ‘wash down’ the car because the movements involved are mainly downward ones.
Other puzzling examples include verbs with ‘up’. British people ‘chop down’ a tree but they ‘chop up’ a log for firewood.
These problems are compounded when the student comes across quite different meanings of the same word. It’s relatively easy to learn that the dishes are ‘washed up’. But then they see references to some actor being ‘washed up’. Has he had a shower or a bath? More puzzled looks when they learn this actor’s career has reached the end of the road.
For anyone learning English as a foreign language, it pays to learn the uses of ‘up’ and ‘down’.
Those who master these words will speak an impressive kind of idiomatic English. And the best way to learn is to speak and read English as much as possible.