Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so; and a language is any specific example of such a system.
There are around 6,000 spoken languages in the world today, and some are more distantly related to each other than others. In the discipline that studies language from a scientific perspective – linguistics – we tend to think about languages as families, having evolved from each other, and forming particular family trees. In addition, users of a language – people – move around, through migration patterns – which affects the development of languages over time. Moreover, new concepts and artefacts are constantly being invented, so we need new words for them. So languages are constantly evolving; but we can trace them back to a particular family tree.
For instance, Latin eventually led to modern day Romanian. It’s the closest surviving language to Latin, and the closest language we have today to that spoken in the Roman Empire. Other daughter languages of Latin include French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. English is part of the Germanic family of languages, so Dutch or German speakers are likely to find it easier to learn than speakers of, for instance, Japanese – which is unrelated to either the Romance or Germanic languages, and hence, sounds and looks very different indeed.
English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now a global lingua franca. Named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to England, it ultimately derives its name from the Anglia (Angeln) peninsula in the Baltic Sea. It is closely related to the Frisian languages, but its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse (a North Germanic language), as well as by Latin and Romance languages, especially French.
English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years. The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century, are called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England, and was a period in which the language was influenced by French. Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London and the King James Bible, and the start of the Great Vowel Shift.
Through the worldwide influence of the British Empire, modern English spread around the world from the 17th to mid-20th centuries. Through all types of printed and electronic media, as well as the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions and in professional contexts such as science, navigation and law.
English is the third most widespread native language in the world, after Standard Chinese and Spanish. It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in almost 60 sovereign states. There are more people who have learned it as a second language than there are native speakers. English is the most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and it is widely spoken in some areas of the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia. It is co-official language of the United Nations, of the European Union and of many other world and regional international organisations. It is the most widely spoken Germanic language, accounting for at least 70% of speakers of this Indo-European branch. English has a vast vocabulary, and counting exactly how many words it has is impossible.
Modern English grammar is the result of a gradual change from a typical Indo-European dependent marking pattern with a rich inflectional morphology and relatively free word order, to a mostly analytic pattern with little inflection, a fairly fixed SVO word order and a complex syntax. Modern English relies more on auxiliary verbs and word order for the expression of complex tenses, aspect and mood, as well as passive constructions, interrogatives and some negation. Despite noticeable variation among the accents and dialects of English used in different countries and regions – in terms of phonetics and phonology, and sometimes also vocabulary, grammar and spelling – English-speakers from around the world are able to communicate with one another with relative ease.
The mongrel vocabulary of English
In terms of specifics, if you look at the vocabulary of English, 26% of English is Germanic in origin, nearly 30% is French in origin and nearly 30% Latin in origin. So this means French speakers are likely to have a comparatively easier time learning English, because they recognise a lot of the vocabulary. Similarly with German and Dutch speakers. If we already have a head start, because our native tongue is more similar, or more closely related to the language we are attempting to learn, that makes learning it a bit easier.
But despite all this, in certain respects, English is, nevertheless, inherently difficult to learn. One reason is that English has a baffling spelling system, even for native speakers, or kids going to school. Take words like ‘dough’, ‘tough’ and ‘bough’ – they all have the same spelling, but are pronounced completely differently. This spelling, using ‘-ough’, is actually a relic from Middle English – Chaucer’s world – where the spelling reflected the Middle English pronunciation. Many of those pronunciations have disappeared over the years, but the spelling remains – for example the ‘ch’ sound in the Scottish word ‘loch’ no longer exists in standard British English pronunciation. So it’s hard for non-native speakers to get to grips with the downright baffling spelling system of English.
Another reason is that English has a peculiarity: the phenomenon of phrasal verbs – a verb whose meaning is changed by a small word added to it. Take ‘run’ for example. We can ‘run over’ someone, have a ‘run in’, we can ‘run something down’, or ‘run up a bill’, or even ‘run something by someone’. On each occasion, when you add a word like ‘in’ or ‘over’, you’re changing the meaning – and it often seems to be with no rhyme or reason. Why do we ‘add up’ a bill, but a house gets ‘burned down’? So these prepositions change the meanings of verbs. For Spanish and French speakers, for example, who don’t have this in their language, it can be very difficult to understand – and to learn.
Another tricky phenomenon to learn is idioms. An idiom involves a number of words whose meaning can’t be predicted from simply adding together the meanings of the individual elements themselves. For example, ‘she kicked the bucket’, means ‘she died’ – you just have to know the meaning of the whole unit. Other examples include ‘She jumped down my throat’, or ‘He hit the roof’. The literal meaning is not what’s actually meant. Even things like ‘all of a sudden’ count as an idiom – someone learning the language couldn’t predict what this expression might mean. And there are tens of thousands of these in English. All languages have idioms, but the range, variety and unpredictability of English idioms is difficult for foreign language learners to acquire.
The final phenomenon that makes English so difficult to learn is grammatical patterns – English has a number of unusual grammatical patterns and sentence-level patterns. One example is the so-called ditransitive construction, e.g. ‘John gave Mary the flowers’. To understand what’s been given, who is the recipient, and who does the giving, you have to know the grammatical construction. This becomes clear from examples that are less obvious from the pragmatics of the setting, such as the story world of Narnia, where animals can talk, e.g. ‘The King gave the horse a boy’, from C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic: The Horse and His Boy. Imagine a non-native speaker having to work out that it is the horse that gets the boy, rather than vice versa. What makes this all difficult, for some non-native speakers, is that, unlike many other languages, English no longer has much of a case system where speakers can clearly mark who’s the recipient and what’s getting transferred. This has been lost during the development of English over the last 1,500 years.