I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:
There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.
I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of them—wa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system.
Actually, wa and ga are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too. Of course, they can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.
Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) Now that I have twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am currently trying to learn French. As a very “structural” learner, I like to study the grammar of the language, and I actually have a copy of book entitled “Teach Yourself French Grammar” sitting on my desk in front of me as I write this. The problem with French is that, being a direct descendant of Latin, the grammar is far more complicated than it needs to be. For example, French has masculine and feminine nouns. If ever there was a candidate for a mystifying language feature, this has to be it, although I found out recently that German is even worse, because it also throws an extra group called “neutral” into the mix!
The reason I mention noun gender is that my French teacher recently told me an interesting story. She said she was listening to an interview with a celebrity on the radio, and she noticed something that puzzled her. She said that although the woman spoke French exactly like a French person, she occasionally mixed up the gender of nouns, which a native speaker of the language would never do. It turned out that the woman was Jodie Foster, the American actress. (No, I didn’t know she could speak French either!) The point of the story is that it shows that even when you reach a level where native speakers might mistake you for one of their own, it’s still the small stuff that catches you out.
The other day, I was studying my French grammar book, and I started reading a section about something called “contracted articles.” Here is the first sentence.
The definite articles le, les contract with de (of / from) and à (at / with / to) to become du / des and au / aux.
Are you still awake? Good. Just checking. Anyway, underneath this sentence is a hopelessly complicated table showing examples like du football, de la natation, des sports, and de l’equitation. And that is before we have even started on à!
As I was reading this explanation, I noticed an interesting thing. When I was much younger, I would probably have panicked and tried to memorize the table. Now, however, I found myself thinking, “Okay, this is obviously one of those things you just get used to in time, so let’s not worry about it too much at the moment.”
As I mentioned in my post “Sowing the seeds of grammar,” I think a lot of people believe that language learning is a linear process, with learners proceeding smoothly from one step to the next. This causes problems because the high-frequency features of a language that have to be taught first are usually the ones that are actually the most complicated and difficult to master. The same principle also applies to vocabulary: the higher a word’s frequency, the more difficult it is to learn all of its meanings and usages. If you don’t believe me, look up “take” and “get” in the dictionary! Although it seems counterintuitive, words like “run” and “put” are actually far more difficult for learners than low-frequency words like “colloquialism” that generally have only one meaning.
The effect of this principle is that when you start learning a language, you inevitably meet the most difficult parts of it right at the beginning. For example, someone starting an English course from the lowest level is likely to meet articles and auxiliary verbs within the first few weeks, if not in the first lesson. If you attempt to master each of these as you learn it, you are going to end up getting very demotivated very quickly!
The title of this entry is “Don’t sweat the small stuff” because I think this is something we need to be telling learners all the time. Most of the things they find totally incomprehensible will, unfortunately, remain that way to them forever. The good news is that it doesn’t matter, because it is quite possible to learn how to use something correctly without understanding the rules behind it. And if you don’t believe me about that, find a native speaker of English who is not a teacher and ask them, “What does ‘the’ mean?”