A billion people are learning English around the world and most of them are struggling with the same things. In 12 years of teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), I was surprised to find that there is little overlap between the mistakes foreigners make and the struggles native speakers have. English learners rarely mix up they’re/there/their or your/you’re and certainly have much less trouble with apostrophes than I do. The unpredictability of English spelling is hard for learners and native speakers alike but, for the foreigner, it’s the grammar native speakers use without thinking that proves the trickiest. Here are five of the biggest quagmires in English.
1. EVERYDAY WORDS THAT DON’T MEAN ANYTHING
How would you describe what you do in the mornings? Something like this, I expect: "When my alarm goes off, I get up, take off my pajamas, put on my clothes and set off to work."
That list looks basic, but it's full of one of the most frustratingly perplexing constructions in English: the dreaded phrasal verb—verbs followed by one or two prepositions. The key words in that sentence make no sense to millions of people around the world learning English as a foreign language. Your alarm goes where? Why do you get up rather than stand up? Clothing gets put on but not put off, taken off but not taken on. And as for set and off, neither of those words really mean anything at all if you think about them, so what on earth do they mean when they're together?
There are thousands of phrasal verbs, literally enough to fill special dictionaries just for them. To make it worse, any one of these unfathomable constructions can have several meanings. How many definitions can you think of for "to put off"?
2. TOO MANY WAYS TO TALK ABOUT THE FUTURE
When it comes to talking about what we’re going to do next, English makes things as confusing as possible. We have eight (or more, depending on whether you count expressions like It’s bound to rain tomorrow) different grammatical structures to express the future. They often convey extremely subtle subtexts which another native speaker automatically picks up on.
For example, I ask you about your plans for dinner tonight and you say, “I’ll get pizza on the way home.” I know you just decided spontaneously to do that. Whereas, if you tell me you’re going to get pizza, I understand that you’ve given it prior thought. And, if you say, “I’m getting pizza,” I know it’s fixed in your mind as part of tonight’s plan, maybe you’ve even booked the restaurant. Or, you might say “I was going to get pizza,” a structure that’s sometimes known as the future in the past, signaling you might be open to changing your mind. Finally, “The pizza guy delivers at 8 p.m.” tells me you’re a junk food addict with a regularly scheduled delivery.
There are at least three more future mashups (I’ll be eating, I’ll have eaten, I will have been eating) that make the plot of Interstellar look simple. When foreigners start learning English, they are taught to use will. And then they spend the rest of their English learning career unlearning everything they thought they knew. And that’s just to talk about the real future—when we start talking about the imaginary future, it’s even worse.
3. THE UNREAL FUTURE
Imagine two employees talking about their future. Neither of them are particularly in love with their jobs, so they share their dreams for changing their lives. "If I changed careers, I'd become a vet," one says. The other replies, "Yeah, if I change careers, I'll become a chef."
If we were eavesdropping on their conversation, we would unconsciously know that the first employee sees themselves as unlikely to ever follow their dream, just from their grammar. But the second person sees the possibility of changing career as much likelier to happen. The English learner, however, is struggling to work out whether the conversation is about the future at all, let alone the degree of likelihood it carries.
“If I changed careers …” in the past? “If I change careers…” now? In English conditionals like these, we use the past to show we’re talking about an unlikely future, and the present to show we’re talking about a probable future. Which makes no sense unless you’re Marty McFly.
4. LITTLE WORDS HAVE BIG JOBS
If you’ve never had to study grammar in any depth, you might not know that you use auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary supposedly means “helping,” but never has a grammar term been more misleadingly applied. For the student of English they are an impediment that begins at entry level and keeps on being a problem forever. English uses them to ask questions, to negate sentences, to give emphasis, and to show we already know the answer to the question we’re asking. They are the little words be, do, and have, their past equivalents was/were, did, and had, and the negatives of all seven of them. And any other words that get added in to “help,” like will, would, can, should etc. Now, has that made it clear? They aren’t easy, though they do trip off the tongue for native speakers, don’t they?
If that’s not unhelpful enough, the position of the auxiliary relative to the “main” verb in the sentence varies depending on the tense and whether it’s a question or a statement. Also, not all questions need an auxiliary (subject questions like “Who saw you?” as opposed to “Who did you see?”), and “to be” has its own rules.
5. LITTLE WORDS HAVE LONG RULES
English has some even smaller words that cause problems far out of proportion to their size: the and a/an, otherwise known as the definite and indefinite article. If you’ve grappled with Spanish or French at school, you might think English has it easy since there’s no gender to learn. But English makes up for that with its ton of rules about when to use a, when to use the, and when to use nothing. Even people who’ve been speaking English fluently for 20 years or more make mistakes with them where native speakers never would.
These are some of the general difficulties people have speaking English but, depending on the person’s mother tongue, there are other specific hurdles to face. Next time you think someone’s English could do to improve, try to consider how much they've already overcome.