1.1 The English Language: Some Characteristics

The English Language

We’re going to explore some characteristics of the English language.

Why would you want to know and understand some characteristics of the English language? Well, we imagine it's quite helpful and useful to know, but there are other reasons.

For example, a native-Vietnamese teacher colleague may ask: What is special about the English language? You need to try and answer this question.

Your colleagues-to-be in some countries may view you as an expert and may think you know everything about the English language. Again, this type of question may come up in an advanced class.  

We have been in this situation, and it could happen to you. So, absorb this. It will enhance your knowledge, and it will get you out of a possibly tricky situation.

However, there is also another critical reason. There will likely be differences in language structures in the native/first language of the learners you will be teaching, compared to your native-English language.

You'll have grasped the importance of this already if you have studied a foreign language at school or university. Or if you are a frequent traveler who likes to pick up a bit of the native language.

Specific Characteristics

Here are some specific characteristics of the English Language:

1. Fairly easy to learn

English is one of the easiest and simplest natural languages in the world.

Of course, it's all relative. It depends on the learner's ability and previous language learning experiences

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that English is a relatively easy language to learn, understand and speak when compared to very complex languages such as Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. 

2. Latin alphabet 

The English language uses the Latin alphabet. It is the most universal, short and straightforward alphabet (only the Greek alphabet is shorter and simpler). Also, in English, the Latin alphabet presents its cleanest form as a true alphabet with only 26 basic letters.

3. Its simple inflection

Inflection is the name for the extra letters added to nouns, verbs and adjectives in their different grammatical forms, e.g., cat, cats; eat, eats; big, bigger.

English is considered to be a weakly inflected language when compared to, say, French or Russian. Its nouns have only traces of inflection (plurals, the pronouns), and its regular verbs have only four forms, e.g., look, looks, looked, looking

Even for irregular verbs, there is almost no variation in person (except the 3rd person singular in the present tense, e.g., I eat, you eat, she eats). The English language can indicate the relationship of words in a sentence with only the minimum of change in their structure. There are other languages that do this, but this is a strong characteristic of English.

4. Receptiveness

A significant feature of the English language is its receptiveness to accepting and adopting words from other languages. Here are a few examples:

From Spanish:

  • Alligator: from el lagarto meaning the lizard
  • Cargo: from the verb cargar, meaning to load

From Hindi:

  • Bungalow: from the Hindi word bangla, a type of cottage built for early European settlers in Bengal.
  • Jungle: from Hindi jangal, a desert, forest, wasteland, uncultivated ground

From Chinese: 

  • Ketchup: from the Hokkien Chinese term kê-tsiap, a sauce made from fermented fish. Europeans later added tomato as an ingredient.
  • Gung ho: it means to show enthusiasm. From a Chinese word, meaning work together.

You can find out the derivation of many common English words at https://www.etymonline.com.

English has accepted and adopted words from Asian, European, African, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and other languages. Also, English has accepted words from classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.

5. Its (generally) fixed word order

Another strong characteristic of the English language is its (typically) fixed word order. Most English sentences (clauses) conform to the SVO word order. This means that the Subject comes before the Verb, which comes before the Object. Examples:

I (S) bought (V) a new top (O).

She (S) doesn't like (V) spiders (O).

Why did you (S) do (V) that (O)?

There are other word orders in English, but the SVO order is by far the most used, making it easy for learners to grasp.

6. Pronunciation

The pronunciation of English words such as this, thin, clothes, thirteenth, months inevitably causes problems for learners who do not need to use the tip of the tongue to produce words in their language. 

7. Continuous tense

Many languages do not have a continuous tense form, so English learners may make mistakes such as: I had a bath when the phone rang; instead of I was having a bath when the phone rang.

8. Articles (a, an, the)

The article system is another feature of English grammar that causes some students enormous difficulties; mainly, of course, those whose native language does not use articles.

9. Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another item, typically either an adverb, as in break down, or a preposition, for example, see to, or a combination of both, such as look down on. (An item is the word for small self-contained pieces of language which you can teach or practice in a lesson.)

These phrasal verbs are a VERY significant feature of the English language and can cause severe difficulties for learners. Sentences such as I put it down to the weather, or I made it up with my sister, are usually nonsense to beginner non-native-English speakers. 

Unfortunately for the English language learner, phrasal verbs are extremely common in colloquial   (informal, everyday, conversational) English language. We’ll explore these in module 4.

10. Non-tonal

English is a non-tonal language. 

In tone languages, e.g., Chinese and Vietnamese, pitch (the degree of highness or lowness of a tone) is used to distinguish word meaning. So, a word said with high pitch may have a different meaning from the same word said with a low pitch.

In English, changes in pitch are used to emphasize or express emotion, not to give a different word meaning to the sound. It is not surprising that native speakers of tone languages often have strong accents when speaking English.

11. Sound and spelling

A final feature of English that causes problems for non-native learners (and some native-English speakers) is the lack of a connection between word sound and word spelling.

It is difficult for non-native learners of English to predict the pronunciation of English words they first come across in writing or the spelling of many English words they first hear.

The critical point is that this happens with some of the most common words in the language:

  • Words containing oughthought, although, rough,
  • Words which have different spellings but they sound the same: ate, eight; hear, here; their, there
  • Words with silent letters, not pronounced: know, could, hour
  • Words that look the same but must be pronounced differently: read (present tense), read (past tense); present (a gift), present (to give to); close (near); close (to shut)

Complete and Continue