But why does learning it take for ever?
You are reading this because you are learning a foreign language. In your case that foreign language is English. In mine it’s Czech. I have been learning it, admittedly without working very hard, for almost twenty years now. Somebody once told me that I have a ‘pěkný ř’, which made my day, and generally I think I’m doing OK. I can follow most of the things I want to watch on TV, take an active part in a conversation, but jokes still go over my head; reading for pleasure is not going to happen; and when it comes to writing, I can manage text messages and shopping lists and not much more. To sum up, it’s still very much a work in progress.
I imagine the same is true of your English. I imagine that most people would agree that being able to speak a foreign language is a fine thing. As Comenius would have said if he could speak English: “However many languages you speak, that’s how many people you are.” (The negative side of that is that it is possible to meet someone who is three idiots.)
These days, obviously, the most common foreign language, at least in our part of Europe, is English. For young Slovaks and Czechs, a reasonable command1 of English is one of the boxes you need to tick2 if you want to call yourself an educated person. It’s a passport to higher education, to a good job, to travel, to a lot of what’s on the Internet, etc, etc, etc. But learning a foreign language is also very hard work.
It’s a task you can spend your whole life on, and the task will almost certainly ever end. There’s always something new to learn, something that can be improved. My Czech friends are often complimentary3 about my ability to speak their language, but they always deliver the compliment with a smile because they know I will never speak it nearly as well as they do, however hard I try. And many of them also love to tell me that Czech is the second most difficult language in the world, after Chinese.
That idea really fascinates me. Just how do you measure the difficulty of a language? Obviously, written Chinese is not exactly easy – Wikipedia states that you need to learn three to four thousand characters to be functionally literate4, which is a bit different from the 26 letters you need for English – but friends who have lived in China say that spoken Chinese is actually not hard at all. Czech is clearly problematic from the point of view of grammar; like all the other Slavonic languages it is full of endings and all sorts of other scary grammatical details. But it’s easy in terms of spelling and pronunciation (especially if you have a ‘pěkný ř’).
To be honest, I would suggest that learning any human language to a good level is incredibly hard unless it’s your mother tongue or you get massive exposure when you’re tiny; there’s really no such thing as an easy language or a difficult one.
Of course, the reason why English has become the lingua franca5 of much of the world is nothing to do with its being easy; it’s all to do with the political, economic and cultural power of, first, the UK, up till about 1950, and since then, the USA. But what I would argue is that starting English is easy; even after just a few lessons, for example, learners can understand the lyrics of an authentic English song such as the Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’, which is great for motivation, and there are no deep grammatical foundations to be dug, the way there are with Slovak or Czech, or a completely different writing system, as in, say, Chinese or Arabic.
Grammar is something I could talk or write about forever, mostly because textbooks, teachers, and learners all seem to be really obsessed with it, and I think they have got it all wrong. I am not saying it’s totally unimportant, but it surely deserves a lot less attention than it seems to get. English is primarily not a grammatical language, it’s a lexical one.
In other words, it’s much more about vocabulary than about grammar, but I have only ever seen one textbook that recognised that, and it was a commercial disaster. And vocabulary, unlike grammar, is not a nice closed system that has been fully and clearly described a million times; it’s big and messy and hard work. But it’s something we have to get to grips with6 if we want to really learn English.
So don’t expect much grammar in this column; what we’re going to have is vocabulary, more vocabulary, and then some more vocabulary, and then, for dessert, maybe some vocabulary. As we say in English, bon appétit.
Vocabulary: 1 znalosť – znalost; 2 zaškrtnúť – zaškrtnout, odfajfkovat; 3 lichotiví; 4 gramotný, vzdelaný – vzdělaný, kultivovaný; 5 spoločný jazyk – společný jazyk; 6 zvládnuť – zvládnout.