Opinion / Blog

Why English is so hard to learn

By MichaelM ( Updated: 2015-10-15 17:09

"If the foundation of language acquisition is not built upon first developing the skill of speaking the targeted tongue (language), any structure that is attempted to be erected will crumble and fall every time. For this simple reason, many spend years of frustration hoping to master what they intend to learn. They will consider the language 'too hard' and finally surrender to failure." --- Lin Yutang

I've made it my primary focus over the past four years to study, implement and test English learning and teaching strategies. My observation has given me an outcome-based approach in developing my style of teaching English to Chinese students. Here are some observations and results that I have discovered. My personal goal is to test the reading, writing, grammatical and speaking proficiency of students. More simply put, I've studied the many different ways of learning of students who have high scores in school and who can most fluently speak English.

1. One thing that I've discovered is that those who learn to speak English well will almost always score well in school. Out of dozens of exams we have analyzed (from middle school entrance exams to the gaokao), we have yet to find one that asks the student to recite the grammar rule. They are only required to apply the rule in a sample sentence or passage. Most of them have forgotten the grammar rules of English and simply have become accustomed to knowing right and proper grammar by listening to a passage, sentence, phrase, etc. This is the same process for any native language. 

For example, if your native language is Mandarin and you hear someone speak improper grammar, you will know immediately without possibly being able to cite the specific grammar rule they've broken. Students of languages around the world gain this innate ability. In fact, many contend that it is an inherent trait that human beings are born with.

If a student can speak English properly and grammatically correct, then they only need the ability to apply the skill of forming letters (i.e. write the 26 letters of the English alphabet), spell the words correctly, apply capitalization where needed (i.e. at the beginning of a sentence and in the use of proper nouns) and apply the few punctuation rules required for proper English. 

Note: Even the knowledge to spell words that are not so phonetic (i.e. like the word tough; the gh represents the 'f' sound rather than a phonetic combination of 'gh') is learned faster by a person who can speak well. The person who can speak utilizes their inner and outer voice and the skill of listening in learning the word. More biological faculties are used to learn the word.

2. Students who learn only by being taught the translation/grammatical structure method will almost always end up with Chinglish (which is most often Chinese grammar and word positioning applied to English or an improper English word that is a direct translation from Chinese). I've tested students who have spent years studying English with the translation/grammatical structure approach who cannot carry on the simplest conversation. When they do, they most often have incorrect grammar.

One day, I was speaking to a Chinese English learner who claimed that he had spent several years studying in the U.K. He had recently gotten a job teaching English at a local Chinese English training school. We were at a local English corner that I attend every week to help Chinese English students practice their oral English. Here is word for word what this guy said to me; "You foreigners very can't teach English grammar. We Chinese teachers can very teach it better." 

If it wasn't so sad that this guy had used Chinglish to inform me that I couldn't teach grammar (which he obviously has no idea whether I can or not since he has never attended my classes; he's just making a very ignorant statement using very bad grammar), it would be funny. But, it isn't funny. This guy is influencing students and teaching them when he doesn't possess the ability or skills to do so. 

And, his study in the U.K. is very questionable as well. I can't imagine someone getting a masters degree in the U.K. and not being able to speak any better than he did. I've met others, including a girl who obtained her masters degree in my home state of Texas in the USA, who is highly fluent in English. I know others who have spent time in English-speaking countries who speak English quite fluently.  

Summary: The more brain functions you can involve in learning a language, the faster you will learn that language and the longer you will retain it. Speaking requires the proper use of grammar, punctuation (pauses from commas, exclamatory emphasis and completed thoughts by periods ending a sentence), pronunciation, inflection, listening (in conversation) and vocabulary. The solution to overcoming the barrier that obviously exists in English language learning here in China is building a strong oral foundation.

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