Ever since those early years in Fenton I have heard different stories about either the difficulty or easiness of learning English. Teaching English as a second language (ESL) for eight years as well has learning Spanish as a second language for myself has given me a better perspective on the debate.
To begin with, regular verbs in English are rather easy compared to many other languages. To know the present, past and future tense for each regular English verb used with the six voices a person needs to only learn four different words. Heck and one of those words is even used for the future tense of all the other verbs.
Now, in such languages as Spanish, for those same three tenses and six voices it is necessary to learn 18 different words. Figure that to be somewhat able to communicate in a language you need to know a minimum of 300 verbs. That translates into 901 words to learn in English and 5,400 unique words in Spanish. So in terms of regular verbs English wins.
But now comes a couple killers for our native language. What gives those learning English a difficult time is both prepositions and phrasal verbs. In case you slept through English class a preposition is basically a word that links nouns, pronouns and phrases. These parts of speech usually indicate a temporal, spatial or logical relationship of the object in the sentence to the rest of the sentence.
Huh? Ok, let me try clarifying this by telling you what a few of those words are: at, above, beside, on, under, past. There are many more. Here is a page with many of them listed.
Now what causes ESL students problems is that our prepositions frequently make no sense. We sit in a chair, but we sit on a sofa. However if we decide to use the chair to get up higher then we stand on the chair. We watch a movie on the television, but at the theater. Not to mention that we live in a city on a street and at an address. We have only looked at prepositions of location, those of time, direction and position cause equal confusion.
It is the phrasal verbs that really cause problems. Say what? I know that is one of those things that seemed to slip through the cracks in English class for many of us. In the most simplistic sense a phrasal verb is a verb made up of a verb and a preposition or adverb. However, its meaning is completely foreign to the definition of the verb by itself.
Yes, for you grammatical purists out there I know there are prepositional verbs and phrasal prepositional verbs. But like many people, I like to link them all as phrasal verbs since they are made of a phrase.
OK let’s take a gander at one of them. The verb “look,” means to direct your eyes to a certain location. However “look after” means to take care of someone or something, such as look after your brother. Now by changing the preposition the definition changes to finding something in a book. Example: If you do not know what it means then look up the definition in the dictionary.
Now to further confuse ESL students we have the same phrasal verb with more than one definition. Take for example the following three sentences using “broke down.”
My car broke down on the highway. (Stopped working)
When told that our cousin died in Iraq my sister broke down and cried for hours. (Became upset)
The gunsmith broke down the gun into its components. (Put into pieces)
And if that is not enough, we confuse people by sometimes sticking the object between the two or three words of the phrasal verb. Example: John asked Jane out on a date.
There are just over 200 phrasal verbs that most Americans use in everyday speech. And there are a few hundred more that get heard occasionally.
The problem is that to learn prepositions and phrasal verbs is pretty much through memorization and use. So I do not envy those learning English as their second language. When you really analyze it, we talk funny.