“You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”
Geoffrey Willans, an English author and journalist
If you are one of those people who think their first language is so much richer than the target language, English, this post is for you. No, it’s not written to claim that English is “richer” or any better than whatever your mother tongue is. In fact, it wouldn’t be correct to compare languages because all of them are fabulously rich and wonderful in their own way. So, it would be like comparing strawberry varieties – they all are different, but they all are strawberries, sweet, juicy and delicious.
What we’d like to do is to show you some things that English can do, while some other languages can’t. But please don’t be too critical if you find some of the wonders not that wonderful… You may think, “So what? It’s the same in my language!” If it happens, chances are you are a native speaker of a Germanic language. English is a West Germanic language, and it bears some similarities to its “brothers”: German, Dutch, Danish etc. Even so, read on. We hope the post will help everyone look at English from a new perspective and see something they haven’t seen before.
The grammar of the English tense system is complex but extremely interesting. Consider the sentences below. What idea do they convey?
I work at Microsoft.
I am working at Microsoft.
A few days ago one of my students, whose first language is Russian, said, “The sentences mean exactly the same.” No, they don’t. The first sentence is about a permanent situation, and the second one is about a temporary situation. So, if you say “I work at Microsoft”, you just state the fact. In other words, “Microsoft is my place of employment.” If you say “I’m working at Microsoft”, you imply it’s temporary, not permanent. Perhaps, you are thinking about leaving the company, or your contract is expiring. The reason why it’s temporary is not clear without more context, but the idea of a temporary situation is expressed.
It’s related to the tenses too. Consider the sentences:
He did a lot in his life.
He’s done a lot in his life.
Without even saying a word about death, you mean the man is dead saying “He did a lot in his life.” In other words, he can’t do anything else in his life because his life is over. So, the Past Simple is for a completed action in the past here. But if you say “He’s done a lot in his life,” you mean he is alive and kicking, he can do more, his life goes on (read more on the Present Perfect here). This is an example of how powerful English tenses are. English grammar is much more than linking words in a sentence…
In which of the following sentences does the speaker show he doesn’t know the person waiting in the hall?
John Smith is waiting in the hall.
A John Smith is waiting in the hall.
Some think that articles are never used before people’s names. But it’s not true. If you say “A John Smith is waiting,” it means “some John Smith is waiting.” In other words, I have no idea who he is, but he says he’s John Smith. “John Smith is waiting” means both the speaker and the listener know John Smith. It’s just a piece of information, a report, which doesn’t express lack of understanding, surprise or any other emotion (read more about articles here).
Some people think that English sentences are always very short. But British author Jonathan Coe busts this myth in his novel The Rotter’s Club. One of its sentences is 13,955 words long! (source) It’s true that in colloquial English sentences tend to be pretty short, but it’s typical of any language. In literature, however, long sentences are quite common. For example:
Her plan for the morning thus settled, she sat quietly down to her book after breakfast, resolving to remain in the same place and the same employment till the clock struck one; and from habitude very little incommoded by the remarks and ejaculations of Mrs. Allen, whose vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not.
(from “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen (119 words))
Intonation. It’s another reason why robots cannot replace human interpreters. Consider the sentences:
Which is a real question, and which is asking for agreement? The answer is sentence 1 is a real question. The speaker is not sure if the listener is English or not, so he is asking the question. But the falling intonation of sentence 2 is for asking for agreement. The speaker is pretty sure it’s not very busy, and he’s just trying to make the listener agree with him, making the conversation flow better.
Approximately 330 to 360 million people speak English as their first language. (source) What’s interesting is that major English-speaking countries are very far from each other (think about the geographic location of the UK, the USA and Australia, for example). What does this fact mean? It means regional differences of the English languages are sometimes striking and always very curious:
An American English speaker: “It was pouring with rain” sounds odd to me because I would expect “It was pouring rain” instead.
A British English speaker: It certainly pours with rain in this part of the world!
(see the discussion here)
A British English speaker: Mizzle is not exactly the same as drizzle. They are, to me (Western England), quite distinct, with mizzle being finer drops than drizzle but not as fine as those that form mist or fog. The drops tend to hang in the air more than those in a drizzle that fall more quickly but not as much as those that form a mist.
Another British English speaker: We in the United Kingdom have many, many words for rain…
An Australian English speaker: I have never once heard the word “mizzle” in my entire life and I would have had absolutely no clue what it meant before today. This is why I need to travel.
(see the discussion here)
And don’t even get me started on accents. Some people say that British accents change noticeably every 25 miles (within the UK)!
Though it’s impossible to count the number of words in a language (one reason is we can’t even be sure what a word is! Is go, going and gone 1 word or 3 different words? Linguists are not unanimous about it), it is possible to count the number of entries in a dictionary. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries (source). It makes English a language which is one of the richest in words.
Love your first language, English, and all the other languages you are lucky to be learning! Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
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