Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | November 20, 2009

The Long and Winding Road to English

By Professor Brigitte Lagoutte

Brigitte LagoutteA Berlitz ad shows a member of the German coast guard listening to radio transmissions from passing ships. Suddenly, he receives a distress call, a desperate voice saying repeatedly: “We are sinking, we are sinking!” He responds: “Yes, yes, I can hear you, I can hear you, but what are you “sinking” about?” The moral of the story: mastering a language means not only knowing how to speak and write it, but also to understand it in order to be able to interact with people successfully.

Many of our students struggle when learning a foreign language, and most are unaware of the fact that approximately one billion persons scattered throughout the world are experiencing a similar struggle in mastering English.

It is obvious that English has become the “Lingua Franca” or “vehicular language” of the world, but in spite of the fact that the use of English has become so prevalent in business, science, and new technologies, it remains true that being able to communicate with, and understand the speech of, another culture has no equivalent in the degree of interaction it allows. Knowing another language cuts through the cultural differences dividing people and helps promote understanding and mutual respect.

Before achieving this ideal level, students of English must embrace a new pattern of thinking. New language learners must examine the rules of their own tradition before applying them to the language they are acquiring. For instance, Asian languages do not have any plural forms for nouns. English on the other hand, has nouns where singular and plural forms are different (book, chair, etc.) as well as nouns where they are the same (weather, furniture, happiness, etc.). Therefore, it can be quite overwhelming for speakers of Asian languages when they have to differentiate between nouns which take the plural form and those which do not.

An additional complexity in language learning is the issue of culturally specific words and usages. The English language has many examples. For instance, there is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, no apple or pine in pineapple. French fries were not invented in France, and English muffins did not originate in England. Sweetbreads are not sweet, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor a pig. The paradoxes of this sort go on and on. In what other language do people recite at a play and play during a recital, ship by truck and send cargo by ship, where a slim chance and a fat chance are the same, where an alarm goes off by going on, and where noses run and feet smell?

English, as all languages, comes from people and not machines, and reflects the creativity of the human race. (There are other varieties of race, of course: for example, the horse race, and the one we are all familiar with, the rat race!) Thus, I am not going to amend my words or make amends here, but simply show how the English language can be confusing and frustrating to foreign speakers.

A main factor that causes English to be less accessible than other languages may be its many idiosyncratic rules of pronunciation, making it especially difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce. For instance, the letter “O” is pronounced in the words “dough” and “although”, but not in “cough”, “tough” or “through”. In other examples, why do “heard” and bird” have similar sounds but not “heard” and “beard”? And why does “here” sound like “dear” or “fear”, but “there” sounds like “pear” or “bear”.

In another instance, words with similar spelling can differ both in their pronunciation and in their meaning. Some examples are the following sentences in which two similar words have a different grammatical function as well as a distinctive way of being pronounced:

“After a number of injections my jaw got number.”; “the bandage was wound around the wound” ; “the dove dove into the bush”; “the wind was too strong to wind the sail”; “there was a row among the oarsmen about how to row”.

Yet another particularity of English is its coupling of prepositions with verbs. It becomes confusing to remember the various meanings conveyed by changes of prepositions. Take for example, the verb “to look” which can become “to look at”, “to look after”, “to look up”, “to look in”, ”to look over”, and “to overlook.” Or take the verb “to give” which can become “ to give in”, “to give up” ,“to give away”, “to give back”, and “to forgive”.

Furthermore, some English words can have closeness or sameness in spelling and be quite opposite in their meanings. These words are prone to frequent misuse both by non-native and native speakers. Foreigners have to be very careful when using “to overlook” and “to oversee,” as well as the verb “to cleave” which means to stick, to put together but also to split, or to divide. The confusion becomes even greater when the spelling is almost the same; words such as  “apposite” (pertinent, applicable) and “opposite” (contrary to). The difference between “altogether” (all in all) and “all together” (everything together), and the vast difference between “amused” (entertained) and “bemused” (confused).

Finally, the many and varied cultural aspects of language as exemplified in commercial advertising may be examined. When translated for a foreign audience, advertisements must take into consideration the underlying cultural assumptions of the target population. Concepts and ideas in advertising, as in any form of interaction, are embedded in the culture in which they originate. Words and sentences in one culture are not necessarily meaningful in another. A literal translation is not always a successful one. There are a number of amusing occurrences that have taken place in the translation of messages. For example, a Scandinavian vacuum cleaner company attempted to use the following slogan in its American campaign “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”, conveying a message in total opposition to its purpose. General Motors could not understand why its new car, the Chevy Nova, was not selling well in Latin America, unaware of the fact that ‘No va” in Spanish means “It doesn’t go”. In another case, when English was retained in an advertisement published abroad, misunderstandings also arose. When Esso used the slogan “We’re drivers too”, in an ad campaign for the Dutch market, it was understood as “We are two motorists”. Certainly, Esso intended for more than two drivers to use its product!

In the final analysis, any exploration of linguistic variabilities and idiosyncrasies will never be a completed task, whatever the language one speaks or teaches. What becomes clear, however, is that the more the various areas of confusion, humorous and otherwise, that exist in language, are examined, the more important and subtle the task of skillful education is revealed to be. The road to mastering English or any language is a long and winding one. Our mission, as teachers, is to accompany the travelers along the way, facilitate their journey, and help them enjoy the passing landscape.

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