Good morning and welcome to Englisch Macht Spaß, a weekly post on all things learning English. If you’re reading this, you’re either an EFL teacher, an English learner (upper intermediate – advanced) or a really keen English speaker who secretly wants to learn more about your native tongue’s grammar. All are welcome. I advise you get yourself sorted with a cup of tea or coffee, a biscuit and a dictionary, and settle in.
Today I thought we’d start slowly and look at a few basics of English – not necessarily the grammar basics, although we’ll have a tiny look at that too – but fundamental facts about the language that will help build your overall understanding of what you’re dealing with when it comes to learning English.
I believe it always helps to know a little bit about the language you’re learning. It helps to give yourself context within which to learn, so when names and terms start flying around, you know what that term applies to and what part of the language you’re engaging with.
Some Useful Things to Know …
– English is a Germanic language, so belongs to the same family as German, they’re relatives. Süß, na? This means we share plenty of words, which can lead to the overall deception the languages are super alike and thus easy to learn on both sides. Not the case. The grammar and syntax of English and German differ remarkably. Both sides are in for a rough and challenging ride.
– English is spoken by around 375 million people as a first language and by anywhere between 470 million to over a billion people as a second language (according to Wikipedia and depending on literacy levels).
– There are, consequently, a lot accents and dialects to contend with and an ongoing division between British English and American English (percentage wise, the biggest English speakers in the world). We’ll talk more about that later.
– The English spoken today – Modern English – is a far cry from Old English and Middle English and has been, throughout history, greatly influenced by Old Norse, Latin, Norman French and, of course, German (which itself has numerous dialects that have evolved over the ages).
– This blending of languages is why English spelling is irregular and quite mad (and maddening) and why English has such a large, varied vocabulary. When it comes to finding patterns in the spelling madness (and there are some cut and dry rules we’ll look at later!) the more you read, the better.
– English no longer conjugates verbs the same way it once did (and as many/the majority of languages still do), ie: each pronoun results in a different verb ending. Most of the time it’s as simple as adding an s for he, she and it (German students, you’ll be familiar with ‘he, she, it, s muss mit’). This is different with the verb ‘to be’ which conjugates like so:
– English has twelve tenses (in contrast, German has six) and we also take two present tenses and use them with future meaning, giving us seven possibilities when talking about the future. We like knowing precisely when something happened/is happening/will be happening and if we don’t understand that information the first time round, we’ll pester you until we get it.
I am of the firm, firm belief tenses are important and getting a handle on them early on will help you down the track. Teaching grammar isn’t fashionable at the moment, with language learning; modern methods tend to prefer grammar learning as an ‘incidental byproduct’. But I’m unfashionable. A language’s grammar is its framework, its structure. It helps you know what you’re doing. Without it, you’re swimming around in a sea you don’t know the size of and that’s exhausting and confusing.
Below is a super simple table to get you started and acquainted with the names and families of the tenses. If you’re reading this, your English is obviously of a level where you will be familiar with the below … but, I bet you still struggle with knowing when to use Present Perfect and when to use Past Simple and those Perfect Continuous tenss? Gross. We’ll be looking at tenses in greater depth in future posts.
And lastly, for today, let’s look at something that that will come up time and time again when you’re learning English …
What’s the Deal with British English vs American English
(and what about the Aussies, the Kiwis, the South Africans etc etc)
Fair question. Sometimes it feels like these two are presented as if they’re two different languages and sometimes they can feel like it. There has long been the idea that British English is ‘proper English’ and is often taught in schools as such. But English, as a language, belongs to hundreds of millions of people outside the UK and has adapted accordingly. In Australia we learn the British spelling, although with the rise of computers at school over the past couple of decades, kids are now using American spelling much more often and both are acceptable. We also, as a result of our own developing use of English and the enormous amount of American pop culture we consume, say some things ‘like Americans’ and others ‘like the British.’
Of course, the British aren’t perfect – I was mortified to hear Prince William say ‘I was stood …’ the other day, instead of ‘I was standing ..’ This grammatical error seems to be creeping into the lexicon of more and more Brits, regardless of education.
Most of the differences between British and American English that aren’t to do with local slang, accent or dialect, can be found in …
– Spelling: British English uses ‘s’ where American English uses ‘z’, eg: organise/organize, and American English will use ‘o’ where British English will use ‘ou’, eg: color/colour.
– Grammar: British English tends to use the Present Perfect tense more often – American English often uses the Past Simple where the Brits would use Present Perfect.
– Prepositions: the British, for example, will say ‘at the weekend’ while the Americans say ‘on the weekend.’
One Stop English has a really fantastic article that goes into greater detail and gives some great examples. Check it out.
I think that’s enough for today. I’ll give you time to re-read the post, add to your vocabulary list (useful things if you’re wanting to expand your vocab) look anything up in the dictionary you’re not sure of (but remember, only look things up in the dictionary after reading, don’t read/look up/read/look up, it’s too distracting) and digest the information above.
Disclaimer: there are a lot of language learners and teachers out there who, like me, teach English and do battle with German/another language concurrently. So there are going to be a lot of ideas floating around that I may or may not touch on or you may or may not necessarily agree with. Everything I post comes from my own experience with both teaching a language and learning one and while I absolutely welcome discussion and new ideas and comments, let’s keep it positive and helpful as opposed to mounting tall horses and condescending from the saddle.
karin@yumandmore14 August, 2013 at 8:46 am
Thank you for that lesson lovely maid!
English can be witzig!
Liv14 August, 2013 at 8:53 am
English is the most wonderful language evvveerrrrr xx
shsayshallo14 August, 2013 at 11:09 am
yet so confusing at the same time! 🙂
Liv14 August, 2013 at 11:17 am
I will grant you that. I think English is more confusing than a lot of languages due to its history of so many languages being put into one pot and stirred around. I find German, while bloody hard, follows apparent rules. English has plenty of rules, but then breaks 90% of them, gleefully!
If you have anything in particular that confuses you, please feel free to comment and I will try and address it in the next posts!
zalp26 August, 2013 at 12:14 am
I find a few things clearer in English than in German, e. g. the distinction between the Present Perfect and the Past Tense. In (spoken) German these tenses have become totally exchangeable.
Your “Englisch-macht-Spaß” is simply excellent!
Liv26 August, 2013 at 8:44 am
Yaaay, thank you so much. Yes, there is a big difference in English between Present Perfect and Past Simple – unlike in German. A lot of my German students use the English Present Perfect like they do the German one – ie: all the time It’s something I have to stamp out early!
Paul Weston17 August, 2013 at 3:10 am
Liv, I will fight to make sure American spelling is never acceptable in Australia!! But as for the spoken language – the two are merging so fast that most of us have no idea any more what’s “correct” or not and I’ve stopped caring. It’s a living language 🙂
Liv17 August, 2013 at 9:28 am
FIGHT Paul, FIGHT! I will fight with you. Agreed re living language and to be fair, we everybody borrows different expressions from other cultures and dialects. I don’t like, however, how the Americans tend to use adjectives for adverbs – ‘he’s doing great’ or ‘she plays awesome’ etc. And I prefer using the Present Perfect like the Brits, as opposed to the Past Simple like the Americans. But the ‘z’ … never.
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British and American EnglishLiv Hambrett | Liv Hambrett23 October, 2013 at 12:29 pm
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Hildemaus Jansen4 August, 2014 at 9:59 am
Liv, I love your posts!
Here is just one question from a German English teacher, fed up with lots of students returning from the US and squeezing 10 times “like” into every sentence:
Should it not be “as if” in the first part of your sentence (” like” to be used only when followed by a noun or so?)
“Sometimes it feels like these two are presented as if they’re two different languages and sometimes they can feel like it.”
Liv6 August, 2014 at 8:35 am
Dear Hildemaus – excellent question. I think, and I could be wrong, that ‘like’ and ‘as if’ are used similarly when making comparisons. This could be something that has evolved to be acceptable, and wasn’t in the past. I do know that American English tends to use a lot more ‘like’, and consequently as do young Aussies, which we get into trouble for!