Keeping English Easy

with Sarla Langdon

Mind your language

Every so often the question of reforming English spelling and grammar rears its ugly head. Renowned playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw was so intent on spelling reform that he actually offered a prize for any creator of a new alphabet, the Shavian Phonemic Alphabet consisting of 40 letters instead of the 26 we have today. Though there was no dearth of applicants for the prize I am happy to report that no changes have been made and English remains as it is with all its anomalies and contradictions.

Despite the grumbles from advocates for a phoneticized spelling system, English remains the most widely spoken, the most eagerly adopted and the most easily learnt language of modern times.

Though I am no linguist, I have personal experience of formal learning of a variety of languages in a classroom/

lecture room situation and offer you my personal observations as a means of benchmarking degrees of difficulty. I might emphasise that English remains the only language I am reasonable proficient in—because it is the easiest in my experience.

      ENGLISH is the easiest language I have ever learned (taught at school) because inanimate objects are not ascribed genders, removing the time wasting need for memorising the gender for each object and making the rest of the sentence agree with the noun.

In addition, the “respect form” (thee and thou) has become completely obsolete, removing the need to learn this extra declension which is alive and well in almost every language I know of.

While English spelling and pronunciation has its eccentrities it absolutely cannot compare with French, (which I learnt in school and for a BA in Uni) a language where the written word seems to have no relationship with the spoken word and where spelling has more exceptions than rules.

     FRENCH assigns genders to inanimate objects: you must learn these by heart, and all the consequent declensions or you will never speak or write a correct sentence. French is easily the most difficult language I have had to learn. The only consolation is that you do not have to learn a new script as I had to do with Arabic.

     ARABIC, like Sanskrit has a singular, a plural and a dual (referring to two persons). I learnt Arabic at the Egyptian Consulate in Bombay, a crash course during the summer vacation to prepare me for an A-level equivalent in college. While Arabic is phonetic in its spelling, it is written from right to left, but horrors—short vowel sounds (damma, kasla, fata) are omitted in print, so you have to guess at the pronunciation of every word; not difficult for a native speaker but outlandishly difficult for a newcomer to the language. We studied religious texts and a medieval poem all of which I have largely forgotten.

     GERMAN (I did a crash course in preparation for entrance to a University BA degree) would be the easiest of all languages to learn, with its completely phonetic spelling and pronunciation, but you come a cropper with that ubiquitous bugbear—assigning genders for inanimate

objects with which the whole sentence has to agree. But the precision and clarity of German grammar is a delight: it is so easy to read and enjoy a German book, admiring the intricate sentence constructions.

      TAMIL is my mother tongue and is among the easiest of the 25 languages of India to learn (private lessons at home), because, like English, there is no gender for inanimate objects. However the script needs to be mastered.

Alas, the other Indian languages I had to learn at school namely Hindi, Marathi and Gujerati all used male and female genders for inanimate objects with the attendant difficulties and I never managed to master them.

     The problems I had with learning WELSH were of a very different nature. In Swansea, (apart from the University) Welsh lessons are delivered using the Israeli Ulpan method, a sytem used for helping foreigners to assimilate a new language quickly. Unfortunately I had been taught every language I know with complete formality and was lost in the Ulpan sea of learning by repetition. I was uncomfortable not knowing the dative, the conditional, the pluperfect, the accusative, the past historic of verbs.

I needed hard core rules of sentence construction, parsing and grammar and Welsh is therefore a language that has eluded me.

     You can therefore see that English is the easiest language to learn in the modern world, which is the reason why it is the lingua franca of international intercourse and consequently the foreign language adopted by the largest number of people in the world.

SO DON’T TAMPER WITH IT. LEAVE IT ALONE AS IT CONTINUES TO OCCUPY A STELLAR ROLE IN INTERNATIONAL LIFE. IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH IT, YOU NEED TO APPLY YOURSELF TO LEARNING THE RULES OF GRAMMAR. GET WITH IT AND GO BACK TO SCHOOL. JUST DON’T MESS WITH THE WORLD’S EASIEST AND MOST WIDELY SPOKEN LANGUAGE.

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