There was recently an online discussion in which non-native speakers shared their thoughts on the hardest aspect of learning English. The usual suspects all got a mention:
· Pronunciation, and the eccentric vagaries in the relationship between pronunciation and spelling
· Grammar. Could you be more specific?
· Phrasal verbs – also known as compound verbs, in which the basic verb is joined by another word, often a preposition, to give a new meaning. For example: to make up for it
· Confidence to speak, which is not exclusive to English of course
In a separate discussion, people were asked to give an opinion about which of the world’s seven thousand* languages might be the most difficult. This is a question which depends on the learner’s background: it would obviously be more straightforward for a Bulgarian to learn Russian, for example, than almost anyone else, and any tonal language of South-East Asia, while notoriously difficult for a European, would be less daunting for a nearer neighbour. And so on.
English, it is said, is actually quite an easy language to learn to a basic level, but one of the very hardest to master, in terms of being able to pass for a native speaker. Why is this? One theory is the considerable level of meaning that is carried in the intonation: the melody of a whole phrase, rather than merely the pronunciation of individual words – that’s the easy bit! This can only be achieved by knowing which syllables are the important ones to stress, and which should be very much unstressed. Linguists even have a symbol for the unstressed vowel sound. It is called the schwa and is written as an upside-down ‘e’ like this: ə. It may surprise you to know that it is the most common vowel sound in the English language.
Take the following phrase:
“I’m going to drive into London tomorrow.”
Depending on the individual speaker’s speech patterns, there are at least four, possibly six vowels in this sentence that would be transliterated as schwa. The name of our great capital, for example, contains one, and the first ‘o’ is pronounced as an ‘u’, which is written phonetically as an inverted v. “London”, to a phonetical linguist, therefore looks like this: /lʌndən/
The second thing to mention is that you can vary the nuance, if not the actual meaning by stressing different words of the sentence. Try it.
If you stress “I’m”, it implies that you are, but someone else is not.
If you stress “drive”, it implies that you have decided not to take the train.
If you stress “tomorrow”, it implies that you’ve changed your mind about when you might go.
You get the idea.
Other languages tend to change the word order as a way of emphasising the key meaning of a given sentence. This is also possible in English, but tone of voice is far more common, and taking liberties with the word order can make you sound like Yoda.
So, the take-home messages from all this:
When learning a language, if your goal is to pass for a native speaker, good luck with that! I suggest going to live in the country for twenty years, never speaking your own language in all that time. More realistically, in order to improve your pronunciation of the target language, concentrate more on the stress patterns of full phrases than on the vowel and consonant sounds in individual words. Why not take some audio – use Netflix, internet radio, anything you can find – and take a single phrase. Listen, pause, and repeat. Mimicking like a parrot is not a good way to learn about how a language is constructed, but it’s a great way to practise how it should sound.
*According to WorldAtlas.com, there are 7,099 languages in the world. One interesting thing about this is how it is possible to arrive at such a precise figure: who decides where the line is drawn between a dialect and a language? But maybe that is the topic for another day...