7 mars – English is hard

English is hard.

Well, sometimes it’s easy: no crazy verb conjugations, no gendered nouns to memorize and accord with adjectives, no difference between formal or informal “you”. But then it gets complicated: pronunciation that has absolutely nothing to do with a word’s spelling, exceptions on exceptions on exceptions, not to mention all of the variations of English spoken around the world.

This last one is what trips me up most often in my job. Overwhelmingly, British English is preferred over American English by my colleagues and those of my friends. Students are exposed to both, but by and large, BE is the rule. Things I’m asked to teach that aren’t natural to me, an AE speaker, include:

  • Have you got brothers and sisters?
  • I’m wearing trousers and a jumper.
  • It’s 23 past 4.
  • Today is Tuesday, the 7th of March
  • Take out your copybook and rubber.

François is a CM2 (5th grade) teacher who loves to teach English. In his class, I co-teach with him, rather than intervene on my own. He is teaching his students actions and hobbies, things like “to read” “to play basketball” “to dance, ” a unit I’ve also been doing in several of my other classes. As François describes to his class how to complete the interview questionnaire he’s just passed out (Ask your partner, Can you sing? and record the response) I pull out some flashcards labelled with action words.

We call on students to name the images: to play football, to swim, to ski. We get to the line with pictures of instruments. “Pay attention class. For instruments, you must say THE, like ‘I can play THE piano’.” He looks at me to verify. I shrug and mention that it doesn’t really matter if you say THE or not. It means the same thing.

“No, no. Maybe some instruments you don’t have to, but I am sure that piano is one where you must say THE.”

I raise my eyebrows, but figure it’s not worth arguing about right now. Maybe it’s just one of those weird things they decided to teach EFL learners so there is a semblance of rules. I hand over my flashcard labelled TO PLAY PIANO with another shrug.

Back at home, curious, I search for the “official” rule and find this post in a discussion on WordReference:  “I suspect that play the guitar is BE, play guitar AE. “

I am really starting to understand why we say the best way to master something is to teach it. ❂



Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.


12 thoughts on “7 mars – English is hard

  1. Gosh, I would have trouble remembering to care about these subtleties- I am always impressed when anyone just communicates in a second or third language. But I am also interested, and glad you are writing about the subtleties.
    PS- “play piano” sounds correct to this AE speaker. I laughed when you handed over your flashcard with a shrug!


    1. Oh, the number of times I’ve slipped up and said the American word… it’s great for the kids to be exposed to all different kinds of English, but it must also be so confusing for them, so I try to stick to the “official” vocabulary as much as I can. Couldn’t resist teaching soccer instead of football though 🙂


  2. Anne,
    I can still conjugate verbs in French better than in English. I’m guessing that we did that a lot in French 1 and 2. So interesting to see the BE and AE. And then I can laugh as well. In our neighborhood AE = milk! LOL!


  3. English is super complicated! So many words sound the same with different spelling and different meanings! I’m glad I learned English as a native language!


    1. Definitely!! Although french has even more homophones and homonyms if you can believe it!!! For example, all of these words are pronounced EXACTLY THE SAME WAY: Le ver vert va vers le verre vert – The green worm goes towards the green glass

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting that your teacher looked to you (a native English speaker) for confirmation on a technical question and disregarded your response. Maybe he wasn’t being intentionally condescending, but still, that’s kind of rude.

    I’ve also been asked a lot of really technical questions by my colleagues, and often times, I’m stuck, not because I don’t know English, but rather I hadn’t considered it in the first place, since it comes so naturally to me. Going by gut feeling over the hard-based facts sometimes can prove more correct than not, if you understand what I mean!


    1. Yeah, if he weren’t an amazing teacher and friend, I’d have been put off, but I figured it was some obscure rule he had learned and didn’t want to contradict him much in front of the class. Plus, it’s not like “play the piano” is completely wrong. I stood up for myself a bit more when they were learning “it’s 27 past noon” because it’s just so weird and even British people would just say 12:27 haha

      Of course we just know what sounds correct, but it’s fun to discover the little rules that guide the language. Like, I learned that to form the comparative and superlative, one syllable words and words that end with Y get the -er -est suffixes, and everything else is just “more” or “the most” !

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I completely agree with all of this! Sometimes I even feel like I’m not speaking English correctly anymore. The divide between British and American English is vast, but if it makes you feel any better, when I was living in England I didn’t understand about 33% of the British English (grammar, vocab, etc.) It is one language, but there are so many differences, grammatical and cultural!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! And it isn’t even limited to AE vs BE!! Luckily my colleagues all love the fact that I can show different ways of saying things and aren’t too strict or condescending about my American English, as I’ve heard some teachers have been….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think everyone should be required to take an introductory linguistics class as part of their education. LING 100 gave me a whole new appreciation for how incredible all my ESL friends are for mastering such a messed-up hodgepodge of a language.

    Liked by 1 person

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