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February 21, 2002


Beware of HEARD, a dreadful word

That looks like BEARD and sounds like BIRD,

And DEAD: It’s said like BED, not BEAD –

For goodness’ sake, don’t call it DEED!

As that anonymous doggerel warns, English is full of maddening inconsistencies of spelling and pronunciation.

But no mystery of English so eludes foreigners as the present perfect tense, says a veteran teacher and administrator at Pitt’s English Language Institute.

“The present perfect tense is really hard for non-English speakers to grasp, the fact that when you want to indicate that you arrived here three weeks ago and you are still here, you say, ‘I have been here for three weeks,'” said ELI Associate Director Dorolyn A. Smith.

“In other languages, you would say instead the equivalent of, ‘I was here for three weeks’ or ‘I am here for three weeks.’ In Spanish, you would say, ‘It makes three weeks that I am here.'”

The present perfect tense mystifies even speakers of other Germanic languages, said Smith, who came to ELI as a graduate student in 1982 and joined the faculty in 1986, taking a few years off during the last two decades to teach in Germany, Japan and on Pitt’s Semester at Sea shipboard education program.

“This is not an indisputable scientific fact, more a matter of what I have observed, but I have found that there are more Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians who really master English as a second language, compared with other nationalities,” Smith said. “I think that’s partly because our languages are closely related, and partly because of the educational systems in those countries and the fact that people in northern Europe generally assume that learning another language is no big deal.

“Many people in Germany speak excellent, practically accentless English. But even they rarely get the right usage of the present perfect tense in English.”

At least Germans are not stumped by phrasal, or two-word, verbs such as “take out” and “turn off” — another feature of English that mystifies many foreigners.

“Just changing the particle can change the meaning of a two-word verb completely,” Smith pointed out. “‘Take off’ has a very different meaning from ‘take on.’ It’s a feature of Germanic languages that other languages don’t share.”

Certain English vowel and consonant sounds are difficult for foreigners to pronounce:

* Besides English, only a handful of languages (including Arabic, Greek and Icelandic) have the “TH” sound, as in “thing.” Smith said: “It’s uncommon enough to have a single consonant sound formed by two letters. The ‘TH’ sound is really uncommon. Even for native English-speaking children, it’s one of the last sounds that they learn to get right. Most foreigners mispronounce it as ‘Z’ or ‘D.'”

* Koreans and Indonesians have trouble distinguishing between “P”s and “F”s. “You’ll hear them say that some aspect of English is ‘very dippicult,'” said Smith. Similarly, Germans, Russians and Indians tend to pronounce “V” as “W,” and vice-versa, because their languages group those sounds differently than English does, she said. And Spanish has no distinct “V” sound. “That’s why our students from Spanish-speaking countries say things like: ‘I have problems with my bowels in English,’ meaning their vowels,” Smith said.

* The English “R” sound, too, is unusual. “Among the world’s languages, most ‘R’s are some variant of a trill or a French ‘R,’ not the English ‘R’ that you hear in the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong,'” Smith said.

Outside of Asia, most people can recognize the English “R” sound, even if they can’t pronounce it, she said. But East Asians, besides having difficulty in pronouncing “R” as well as “L,” don’t even have those sounds in their languages.

“Quite often,” Smith said, “students from East Asian countries can’t hear the difference between ‘rake’ and ‘lake'” — hence, the (perhaps apocryphal) accounts of Japanese supporters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s presidential aspirations declaring: “We play for MacArthur’s erection.”

English is simpler than many other languages in at least one respect, Smith noted: Unlike all other European languages, the gender of each noun in English is determined by meaning, and does not require a masculine or feminine article — with a few sentimental exceptions, such as referring to ships and countries as “she.”

German, in contrast, uses neuter as well as masculine and feminine nouns and articles. Thus, the moon (der Mond) is masculine and the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while a woman (das Weib), curiously, is neuter, a linguistic eccentricity that prompted Mark Twain to observe: “In German, a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has.”

As weird as English can be (“weird” being an exception to the “I” before “E” except after “C” rule) cultural forces also determine how well foreigners learn to speak and read the language.

Smith cited the example of Japanese and Arabic-speaking ELI students.

Japanese and Arabic both use different writing systems from English, and are about equally challenging for English-speakers to learn. Yet, according to Smith, ELI faculty consistently find that Arabic speakers from the Middle East have a relatively easy time with speaking and listening to English but lag behind in writing and reading.

However, Japanese and other East Asians tend to excel in reading and writing English, but not in conversing.

“For many Middle Easterners, reading and writing tend to be associated with the Koran,” Smith said. “There is not so strong a tradition of reading for fun. Whereas, speaking is a highly valued skill. Being a good orator gets you kudos in the Middle East.

“The opposite tends to be true in Japan, where I taught for a couple of years, as well as in Korea and, to a lesser extent, China and Thailand. Students who come to ELI from those countries generally learn to read and write English very well. But in East Asian cultures, people who speak glibly are seen as not being trustworthy. Also, because of the Confucian concept of humility, students don’t want to appear to be showing off, so they hold back in class.

“It’s the big complaint of every [ELI] teacher: How do you get the Japanese to speak up in class? That’s one reason we do a lot of instruction in pairs and small groups, because East Asians will speak up in small groups, but they’re reluctant to speak in front of the whole class. Form is very important in their native countries, where you hesitate to say anything unless you are absolutely sure you can say it right.”

“Journalists are among the least-able language learners” of the working professionals who have studied at ELI, Smith said “It’s probably because their personal identities tend to be based on their ability to be nuanced and fluent in their own languages. It’s hard to leave that identity behind.

“When you learn a foreign language, you are entering a new culture and, in many ways, taking on a new persona,” Smith pointed out. Dignity must be surrendered, as beginners start off with child-like sentences.

“You cannot discuss philosophy in a language you can barely speak, so you’re reduced to mundane, general topics,” Smith said. “It’s especially frustrating for people like journalists, this inability to express yourself verbally in a sophisticated way.”

— Bruce Steele


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