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Things that native English speakers don’t know that they know

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I teach English as a second language. I see the learners’ struggles and triumphs with the vagaries of the English language. And when I started in this profession, I sometimes had to research the reason why we say certain phrases in the way that we do – in other words, grammar. There are many things that, as a native speaker, you have assimilated into your speech patterns without even thinking about it.

Our brains are amazing

A child’s brain is like a sponge. Think about the fact that any child learns their own language simply by imitating the other members of their family. But not only do children copy words, there are any number of grammatical formats automatically incorporated into their language patterns without ever having to learn the “rules” in a way that a non-native speaker does. And they assimilate these things with very little effort on their part.

This is also why being a native speaker of any language is not necessarily enough to be able to teach it. You may know the correct answer but often your students will ask you the reason why. I cannot deny that there are some things in the English language that are not terribly logical. I do apologise for my unruly language. However, there are many logical grammar rules which can be explained clearly to learners, and which reassure them that the English language is not just a crazy hodge-podge of madness,

Pesky irregular verbs

You may or may not know that English as a second language learners are often given long lists of irregular verbs to learn which is the most horrifically boring task. English teachers have invented a myriad of activities to make the task more palatable. Think be-was/were, drink- drank, eat-ate, go-went. Absolutely all over the place, right ? But as a native speaker you just learnt these terms as you heard them, started including them in your speech, and carried on.

Countables and Uncountables

Another thing you may not know if English is your first language is why we have two different ways to ask about quantity, using “How many?” or How much?”. The basic grammar rule is that “many” is used with things we can count – people, chairs, turnips, shoes. And “much” is used for things we can’t count – happiness, incompetence, wine, petrol, noodles ( ok, you can, in fact, count noodles, or spaghetti, or cereal but surely no-one in their right mind would want to ).

But as often happens, there is an exception. Any noun which is composed of a mixture of things such as traffic, fruit, furniture is classed as uncountable and therefore uses the word much. But not vegetables. We say There aren’t many vegetables. Why and who decided this, no-one knows. Most languages completely ignore whether something can actually be counted or not and have one word or phrase for all cases. This grammar rule for non-native speakers is pretty mind-blowing the first time they encounter it. Don’t you feel sorry for them trying to figure this out?

Order of adjectives

Another issue was explained in my post of 10th Sept 2019, “Order of Adjectives in English”. Check it out if you want to see why we say “lucky black cat” and “black lucky cat” sounds so horribly wrong….. http://order-of-adjectives-in-english

Somehow, as English speakers, we apply this grammar rule without having to go through much suffering at all.

The future

Maybe in years to come the world’s lingua franca, in other words, the global language of communication, will be Hindi or Mandarin. After all, the world’s dominant language is always directly in line with the strongest economic power at the time. But for now, my fellow native English speakers, be grateful for the fact that you are fluent in a complex language system that has placed itself in your brain without you having to do much at all. And should there be anyone who did not grow up in an English-speaking country reading this post, I take my hat off to you.

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

10 replies on “Things that native English speakers don’t know that they know”

I found this post really helpful and interesting. It is such a privilege to be able to learn from you. I am completely in awe of your knowledge and understanding! I was wondering if I could ask you about something that I thought of after I read the section on countables and uncountables. Is it OK for us to say things like “There is less than 20 minutes left”? It seems that “minute” is countable but to me it would sound a little strange to say “There are fewer than 20 minutes left”. If it is OK for us to say “less than”, should we say “There is …” or “There are …”?

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Hello Charlotte, Thank you so much for your kind words! With regards to your question, it is possible to say less than 20 minutes, because you are thinking about 20 minutes as a single block of time, not each individual minute. So if you are talking about quantities or amounts as a single unit, it is fine to use “less than.” Fewer v less has always been a hotly debated topic and it’s true that there is a tendency these days to use “less” when strictly speaking, it should be “fewer.”

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Thank you very much for helping me! It was really kind of you to write back to me. I was wondering if it would ever be OK to say something like “There isn’t much vegetable on the plate” in the same way that we might say “There isn’t much fruit in this pie”. I was thinking that if vegetables are chopped up it might be more natural to say “much” rather than “many” whereas if they are still whole it might be better to say things like “There are many vegetables in the fridge” (or maybe “There are lots of vegetables in the fridge”).

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We would probably say “there isn’t much vegetable on the plate” if the vegetables were mashed or puréed and therefore impossible to count. If the vegetables were chopped up, you could, in theory, count the pieces. (Although most sane people are not in the habit of counting vegetables on their plates!)

In everyday speech, we tend to use ” a lot of” much more than “many” or “much.” And we generally use ” many ” or ” much ” in negatives or questions, for example : “Do you have many exams this year ?” or “I don’t have much time.”
But we can use a “a lot of” to replace “much” and “many” in all cases, that is, affirmative/negative statements and questions. So I guess it’s just easier for people to use.

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Teaching English is very commendable. Now once you get your irregular verbs right and don’t drop your H’s, you’re on the right path. Hadn’t thought of the lucky black cat. 🐱 (No black cat emoji. My most sincere apologies). But it makes perfect sense.
A long time ago I did a research on speech recognition and artificial voice. GHOTI was given as an example of difficulty. It’s an “English” word. 😉

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Thank you. And I remember the GHOTI word as an an example of how English is so horribly unphonetic (probably not a word, but you know what I mean). When I think about words like “enough” or “yacht”, it’s a wonder how non-natives just don’t give up on the English language altogether….

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True. I was fortunate to learn English at a very young age. My father was bilingual, his mother, my grandmother was English, she taught him well. And we lived abroad so I could practice early.
But I understand non-natives, some words are mind-blowing.
Now, to be honest, irregular verbs in French or in Spanish are bl..dy murder. Every language has its “twist”.

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