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Musings on Learning English


My experiences learning English―what can we take from that as a English native learning foreign languages?

I grew up in Switzerland, a little country in the middle of Europe and with 4 official languages: Swiss German (the written language is German), French, Italian, and a curious one: Raeto-Rumantsch.

Swiss German, my native language, is a collection of many dialects, close to Dutch. Like Dutch, they are in the alemannic language family. In contrast to Dutch, it isn’t written. That makes German the written language for all practical purposes and the language of official communication, like the news on the radio. 

Like many other little countries with weird languages, people are pretty proficient with other languages. It is even the law that students know German, at least one other national language, and then a third foreign language. We start learning German together with writing in school first thing and it’s the language used in school in general. French started in 5th grade, and in 9th grade we had the choice between English and Italian. 

In my time learning and speaking these languages, I noticed a few pronounced differences:


German is pronounced very straightforwardly. Every letter has a sound and is sounded out. 

French has a logic as well―how to convert from the written word to the spoken one and back. This logic is a bit more elaborate and all, but it’s there. Even if some “sounds” only exist as ghosts and lie just outside of the produced sound, but still are (not?) there. Spanish and Italian are pretty straightforward, too.

English is a different ball game. In short, just memorize the pronunciation of every single word. The approach to the language becomes then way more focused on the spoken word than on dry grammar. 

For English-speaking students of foreign languages that might mean that it’s important to recognize that these rules exist. These rules help a lot in this aspect of learning the languages and give a very easy and short-hand approach to the written language.

Sounds Used

Swiss German is notorious for using the whole mouth and throat, sometimes resonating as deep the chest. The model example is the “ch” sound. It makes the throat vibrate. Chuchichaestli―a kitchen cupboard―is a word which heavily relies on that sound and is used to have foreigners repeat for fun. Only Hebrew and Arabic languages have similar (and even way more nuanced) sounds.

Over Spanish and Italian, then English, and finally French, less and less of the mouth is used to produce the language, only the mouth, then almost only the tongue, and in french mostly the very tip of the tongue.

The “th” sound is unique to English (with the exception of nordic languages?). For Swiss/German natives, “thanks” will sound either like “tanks,” “sanks,” or “fanks.” It is first perceived as to be somewhere between these sounds (t, s, and f). A common misconception, given that those are the only similar sounds you ever encountered before.

The other way round, this is very challenging to completely change the way your mouth produces sounds. And in the other direction in the list above, it does add completely unknown modes. This is a point which needs some special attention and these new sounds have to be explicitly practiced. Part of this is as well the fine tuning, how much of that (completely new and weird) sound is appropriate.



Swiss German has a very pronounced melody and this melody very much is part of speech and can change a question over a loaded question, or even an insult and everything in between. 

French has a beautiful melody, like a poem. This melody comes with the language and isn’t really that much a structural part of communication. Italian and Spanish have their own rhythms. 

More in the direction of using rhythm lies Chinese. The same sounds can have multiple meanings, depending on its melody.

German has very little melody. English has more than that, but in a very colloquial, informal way.

To learn other languages, this is a point to keep in mind. Mostly because in the native language nothing similar exists, it is easily seen as an oddity and it’s hard to develop a grasp on it. This needs to involve a lot of spoken practice. 


German’s grammar is just beyond. Grammar is a huge list of cases, more exceptions than rules which follow their own rules… It is logical; it could be put in a tree diagram, at least theoretically. In small print, it would probably fill multiple football fields.

Polite forms are something like “Hello, Mr Miller” vs “Hey, Bob,” except that this changes grammar. Japanese is very nuanced is this point, with many levels of hierarchy and words and grammar changes depending on mutual standing. German and Swiss has two, Spanish the same two but less pronounced and having less influence. These points are sometimes very subtle and have a lot of interpersonal implications. The subtleties of the proper and adequate use of the polite or colloquial form is something not even natives are always good at all the time. The English language has none.

Sexes of words are important and influence all sorts of stuff around them. They have to be memorized for each single word. German has three sexes (der Tisch: table is masculin; das Bad: the bath is neutral; and die Lilie: the lily is female), French and Spanish two, and in English everything is the same. 

The verb can do very funny things, too. First they engender grammatical cases. (“I give the ball to the guy.” “The ball” and “to the guy” would be different cases and have their own thing, everything changes according to case. Finnish has something like 27 different cases, Latin 7, German 4, which one in danger of going extinct. Again, the cases demanded by verbs have to be pretty much memorized. In English, that doesn’t really matter.

Declensions of verbs are yet another jungle of things verbs do and cause and tables after tables of verbs to memorize. English is very easy in this respect too, the infinitive, the past and a perfect form, maybe we might count the -ing form too. Everything else is then just done with a little auxiliary verb. 

To learn English after other languages, that is a very welcome refresher, it is a breeze, very straightforward and charmingly easy. I can imagine that the other way round this is yet another point which will be hard to really acquire, given that it is so different from English.

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