On the Surprising Value of English

Growing up and throughout my traditional education the constant refrain comparing English and other world languages was simple that English is the poor, bastard child of language. Further than that, English was the ubiquitous and difficult system of language, a quality making it a true heroic feat to master as a second language. I do not know how many times I have heard English referred to as having complex, irregular, and often-times obscure grammatical features and a rich set of equally random vocabulary. On my recent foray* to Italy, a country whose language is synonymous with beauty, romance, and ease, all of my English related perceptions were tested. One of the first nights here my classmates and I–we’re here for a summer study abroad program to learn Italian–went out to a local bar that we heard was receptive to Americans and offering reasonable prices. Well, it was at this fine establishment, I will call it O’Conner’s, that we met up with a group of Italian youths. This group of young Italians were quite friendly towards us and most of them knew at least a passable amount of English, quite the feat given what I said above.

Little did I know at the time that these new, foreign friends would lead me to rethink all of my suppositions regarding the English language and other languages, in general. Naturally our friendship began as any casual acquaintances would: with small talk. Since we were foreigners this small talk too the form of why we were here in Italy and soon after to the question of ‘why Italian?’ Initially our answers satisfied them, claiming that Italy is a cool country with a lot of history and that as Americans we also gravitated towards the easy language (to fulfill the Boston College Core). Upon further questioning I realized that they, in fact, did not see the Italian Language as very easy, perhaps and more importantly, I found that they did not find the English language as particularly difficult. Some went to far as to claim that English was an easy language to pick up and that Italian would be much harder as a second language.

This shocked me. Not only did it burst my self-assured bubble of having some mastery of a difficult language (English) but that the language I was now learning was considered difficult by those who speak it. This left me with two possible frames of reference to consider the implications and statements I heard. First I could just assume that everyone’s native language is considered more difficult and stranger than other languages. This interpretation did make sense. Not only are the strangest things those which you know best (i.e. everyone is normal until you get to know them), but the grass is certainly always greener. So with two common proverbs you would imagine I would be happy, and my language world would still be intact. Yet my first issue with this interpretation had to be why they considered English as easy. Sure the grass can be greener on the other side, but why wasn’t that other side French or German or Japanese? Why English? And the nail in the coffin, so to speak, came from the method of response for this question. As I said, most of these youths spoke passable English, so it stood to reason that in order to be even versatile in a difficult several years of formal instruction would be needed (except possibly for the natural). Well I found out that a good number of these guys had only had brief formal instruction and had largely just picked it up from various sources. This set firmly in my mind that English could not be too difficult, at least on a relative scale. Therefore only the second interpretation for their response held possibility. So I now had to assume that English was not hard, and that Italian was actually not all that easy. I have to take a pause here to defend my previous belief that Italian is easy to learn by saying that Italian still may be the easiest romance language to learn for an American. And yes, I do realize that those are a lot of qualifiers.

But back on point, I now had to contend with the idea that English is not all that difficult after all. Well why is that? The answer for that question arised from my informal study of languages. I noticed that constructed languages (Conlangs) intending to be International Auxiliary Languages had one natural trait in common: the suppression of all irregularities in grammar. Well as a language learner I could see why this could help promote a made-up language, but this commonality did not explain my present conundrum.

The next feature I noticed was that conlangs could be split into two distinct and seemingly natural ways. The first group can largely be described as extreme romance languages with standardized construction (taking the form of grammatical regularization) which represent Italian to a fair extent. The second group, which contains relevance to English, can be described as almost creole and pidgin in its aspects. That is to say that the verbs, for example, are constructed from a number of unchanging modifiers (much like Japanese and Chinese). So instead of saying “andrei” (andr- + ei) meaning ‘I will be going,’ the verbs are constructed similarly to English by stringing together modifiers such as ‘will’ and ‘I’ and ‘going.’ This type of grammatical construction is given the term ‘aggulative’ and it is a trait contrasted with the highly inflected and conjugated natures of Latin (romance languages) as well as German. And it is in this feature that I believe any ease with English may stem from.

Upon my survey of conlangs I noticed that perhaps the easiest ones to learn may be those without the complicated agreement and conjugations that plague the romance languages. Lingua Franca Nova caught my eye as well as too did Toki Pona and Mondlongo. In addition natural languages such as Japanese also sport this aspect of grammar, and beyond its tonal-free aspects, Japanese may well fall onto my list of languages I hope to learn.

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