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Five Ways English Is Different from Other Languages

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If English isn’t your native language, there’s a good reason you may be struggling to master it. English has five characteristics that set it apart from your native tongue, and the first three are about having more things to learn.

1. English has more words.

English has far more words than any other of the world’s 7,100+ languages. The Oxford English Dictionary has more than 600,000 entries, but that’s not all. Technical and scientific terms, slang, and newly-coined buzzwords from technology and the media add hundreds of thousands more words, pushing the total to as many as two million words by some estimates. By comparison, Russian has about 200,000 words, German 185,000, and French fewer than 100,000, including terms adapted from English, such as le snacque-barre.

English often gives you at least three ways to say the same thing.

That’s because English words evolved from three differed sources–Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin/Greek words. Check out these examples from Richard Lederer’s The Miracle of Language:

Language:

Anglo-Saxon
ask
dead
end
fair
fear
help
rise
thin

French
question
deceased
finish
beautiful
terror
aid
mount
spare

Latin/Greek
interrogate
defunct
conclude
attractive
trepidation
assist
ascend
emaciated

3. English adopts more words from other languages.

Consider these sources, again from Richard Lederer’s well-researched book:

aardvark: Afrikaans
skill: Danish
oasis: Egyptian
kindergarten: German
saber: Hungarian
molasses: Portuguese
rodeo: Spanish
polo: Tibetan
shingle: Norwegian

moose: Algonquin
boss: Dutch
zebra: Bantu
bungalow: Bengali
mazurka: Polish
opera: Italian
smorgasbord: Swedish
boondocks: Tagalog
flannel: Welsh

alcohol: Arabic
boomerang: Australian
sauna: Finnish
camel: Hebrew
whisk: Icelandic
sugar: Sanskrit
ketchup: Malay
coyote: Mexican Indian
kibitzer: Yiddish

4. English may have lots of words, but the grammar is pretty simple.

English lacks all the complex noun and verb forms, word endings and gender markers of many other tongues. Compared to these languages, English is dramatically direct and concise. For a simple demonstration of this point, just look at the multi-lingual user guide for your smart phone, tv, or kid’s toy. The English copy will always be the shortest. Yes, brevity is the soul of English, and that’s a benefit to non-native English speakers.

5. The smallest English words can carry the biggest ideas.

College and graduate students fill their papers and theses with big, heavy words they hope will make them sound erudite. But real power in English is often packed into some small words that convey some big things: love and hate, night and day, life and death, war and peace. Short, quick words, of course, are easier for non-native English speakers to learn and use, and they’re great for making punchy, memorable statements. Those big words usually just bog down the message they’re trying to carry.

If you’re a non-native English speaker, understanding these five unique characteristics of English can take much of the mystery and challenge out of becoming proficient in the language.

If you have questions about accent or language issues, please contact us here, email us at ns@accentaccurate.com, or call/text us at 203-962-5444. We’re happy to help. 

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