According to a recent survey coordinated by the European Commission, 80% of Europeans aged 15-30 can read and write in at least one foreign language. This number drops to just 32% among British 15-30 year olds.
It’s not just because all young Europeans speak English. If we look at those who can read and write in at least three languages, the UK is still far behind. Only 8% of young British people can do what 88% of young Luxembourgers, 77% of Latvians and 62% of young Maltese can do.
So, what are the difficulties encountered by the British when learning other languages? Here are some basics.
5. Objects have genders
One of the hardest and weirdest things about learning languages such as French, Spanish and German – but also Portuguese, Italian, Polish, German, Hindi and Welsh – is that inanimate objects such as chairs and tables have genders, so they are masculine (he), feminine (she), or sometimes neutral (this).
There’s no real logic to it – milk is masculine in French, Italian and Portuguese, but feminine in Spanish and German, but it still tastes and looks the same. In Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, gender is usually indicated by word endings (-o and -a), which makes it easier to learn, but the sound changes in French have made the genders rather opaque and pose a real challenge for second language learners.
Interestingly, English also had grammatical gender, but that was basically lost by Chaucer’s time. However, there are still some vestiges in English. The pronouns he she it__ are masculine, feminine and neuter, but he she are now only used to refer to living things, not tables and windows (as they were in older stages of English).
Contrary to what you might think, languages don’t really need gender. The gender-neutral singular pronoun they or they has been discussed a lot lately, but many languages don’t have the equivalent of he shehaving only they or they (including Turkish and Finnish). Other languages, notably Swahili and related languages, have many more genders – up to 18. The French genre is easy in comparison.
4. Agreement is vital
Once you have memorized that house is feminine and livre is masculine, the next step is to make sure that all adjectives, articles (the A), demonstratives (this and that) and owners (my sound) describing these words have a corresponding gender and also indicate the difference between singular (one) or plural (more than one) my beautiful house(my beautiful house) but my beautiful book (my beautiful book). Linguists call this “agreement” or “concord”, and it’s very common, especially in European languages - but nonetheless quite tricky for English speakers, simply because they don’t really have it (anymore).
Again, English had this, but it was almost completely lost. They still have a little left. “This sheep East lonely but these sheep are not”, and we know this partly because of the word ces, a demonstrative “plural”.
3. Just be polite
French has tutuGerman has from/SieSpanish you/ustedItalian you/leibut, in English, we simply old you. Linguists call this the “TV distinction” (because of the Latin you), and this politeness distinction is found in many European languages, as well as other languages (Basque, Indonesian, Mongolian, Persian, Turkish, and Tagalog).
Essentially, there are two different forms of you based on power dynamics, and every time you strike up a conversation, you have to pick the right pronoun, or risk offending. This poses obvious difficulties for English speakers, as there are no strict rules on when to use the formal or informal form.
In fact, usage has varied over time. In the past, pronouns were often used asymmetrically (I call you youbut you call me you), but Western Europe is increasingly using the pronouns symmetrically (If I call you youyou can call me you as well as). In recent years, polite forms have become less used in some Western European countries (at least in Spain, Germany and France). This could mean that these languages could eventually change, but unlike English.
English also had tutu until Shakespearean times, but the informal you was eventually lost (and retained only by some dialects, for example in Yorkshire). You was also the singular form, just like you/of are — used when addressing a single person. So when English lost you, he also lost the difference between talking to one or more people. Languages like to fill in gaps like these, and many dialects have created new plural forms: you all, you a lot, you boys, you.
What is interesting is that these forms are often themselves regulated by politeness. So many people would use you with parents, you boys with friends, and you a lot with children. When it comes to language, politeness is always there but, in some languages, it’s a bit more in your face. Again, French, Spanish, and German aren’t really that complex to make a simple two-way distinction. They pale in comparison to languages like Japanese, which have incredibly difficult “honorific” systems.
See also: Learning a language in deep sleep is no longer just science fiction
2. File follow-up
Where the German has der/die/des/dem/den/dasEnglish only has the — and this poses considerable challenges for English speakers learning German. So why does German have all these different ways of saying the? This is the German case system, which states the article the differently depending on whether it is singular or plural (see above), but depending on its function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor).
English also has case actually, but only with pronouns. “I love him” does (alas) not mean the same thing as “he loves me”. It’s not just the word order that’s different. I/he are the forms subject (nominative) and him/me object forms (accusative). They are also different from my sound, which are the possessive (genitive) forms. Again, English looked like German, but it lost most of its case system.
Articles, demonstratives and adjectives all inflected for case in Old English, so English speakers of a few hundred years ago would have found German quite simple. German is not the only one with cases. Many European languages have a case, and it is also found in many unrelated languages (including Turkish, Japanese, Korean, Dyirbal, and many native Australian languages). In a way, the case gives us another way to keep track of who does what to whom. English speakers use word order for this function, but it is by no means the only option.
1. A matter of mood
This brings us to our final challenge, verbal inflection. Where English regular verbs have only four verb forms jump/jump/jump/jump (which can combine with auxiliary verbs in certain ways like in “I jumped”), Spanish has a big 51. (I won’t list them all here.) So Spanish (like Italian and German, and to some extent French) is a richly inflected language.
Verbs in Spanish (Italian and French) change with time (as in English), but also with aspect (the duration of an event), mood (the nature of the event) and person/ number (the type of subject they have).
This poses notorious problems for English speakers, especially when it comes to mood. The dreaded subjunctive indicates that something is not affirmed as true, and it proves difficult to learn when it is not an important distinction in your own language.
Again, however, English itself was more like Spanish, French, Italian, and German in this respect. Old English verbs are also inflected for tense, person/number, and mood. In fact, the subjunctive remains an option for many speakers in examples such as: “I would like to be (or be) you” and: “It is vital that you are (or are) on time”.
Again, the English speakers of a few hundred years ago would probably have been better linguists than the British are today, as their language still had many characteristics that challenge modern English language learners. . In a way, I think it’s not really the grammar that holds the Brits back. With language, where there is a will, there is always a means. The 2% of Britons who can read and write in more than three languages show that this is true.
This article was originally published on The Conversation by Michelle Sheehan. Read the original article.