ENGLISH: The Inescapable Language — The American Magazine
English: The Inescapable Language
By John Steele Gordon
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Native speakers of English have a great advantage. Learning English at our mothers’ knee is almost like being born able to do algebra.
One night years ago when I was visiting Buenos Aires, I had dinner with an acquaintance. We were speaking in English because he spoke my language far better than I did his. I apologized for my inadequacy in Spanish and complimented him on his bilingualism.
He replied, “That’s understandable. After all, English is so easy to learn and Spanish is very difficult.”
I was stunned. In school, Spanish had been regarded as the gut course among foreign languages, far easier than French, German, or Latin. And English, at least among English-speakers, was thought very difficult, with its irregular spelling and pronunciation given as the usual reason. I have never tested this hypothesis, but I bet every culture regards its native tongue as difficult to learn. After all, foreigners always struggle with it, so it must be difficult, right?
Not necessarily. Most people are oblivious to the oddities and weirdnesses of their native tongue—as well as its simplicities—for precisely the same reason that fish are oblivious to water. My Argentinian friend, for instance, had no idea that Spanish spelling and pronunciation are absolutely regular. To hear a Spanish word is to know how to spell it and to see one is to know how to pronounce it. There are no spelling bees in Spanish-speaking schools because there are no bad spellers among native speakers of the language.
So, is English actually hard to learn? Well, yes and no.