Thoughts for serious language learners
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Why it’s so difficult to speak English without mistakes

In a new page, “Using English correctly requires a massive amount of knowledge”, I carpet-bomb you with examples showing why speaking English without mistakes is so damn hard, and why vocabulary and so-called “grammar” are just a small part of the stuff that you have to put in your head.

Why is it so difficult to learn a language? The main reason is that speaking a language correctly requires a vast amount of knowledge – far greater than is necessary to be a competent doctor or lawyer. A large chunk of this knowledge is, of course, vocabulary. To speak English fluently, you have to know the meanings and pronunciations of at least 10,000 words and phrases (for comparison, the average college student in the US knows about 20,000 words).

But while most learners realize vocabulary is a major area that requires a lot of attention, fewer are aware that there is an equally large body of facts that is described with the word usage.

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17 Comments so far ↓

  • Walter Isaacson

    Yes it is, however, as long as you can be understandable for the most part a few errors can easily be overlooked it is not like hell is crashing down on you out of nowhere being a foreigner we can afford to have such leeway.

    Speaking of acquiring a massive amount of knowledge, my question is, how can you go from C1 to C2 level on CEFRL? Plus, if you are not living and working in a Native English Speaking country?

    For your reference, here is the description:

    C2
    Mastery
    The capacity to deal with material which is academic or cognitively demanding, and to use language to good effect at a level of performance which may in certain respects be more advanced than that of an average native speaker.
    Example: CAN scan texts for relevant information, and grasp main topic of text, reading almost as quickly as a native speaker.

    C1
    Effective Operational Proficiency
    The ability to communicate with the emphasis on how well it is done, in terms of appropriacy, sensitivity and the capacity to deal with unfamiliar topics.
    Example: CAN deal with hostile questioning confidently. CAN get and hold onto his/her turn to speak.

    • Darek

      It’s not that hard to pass the C2 exam in CEFRL. And certainly going from C1 to C2 can be quite easily done without even using (speaking or writing) English that much. I did it and I am far from a language prodigy, believe me.

      • Walter Isaacson

        How you did it?I’m told you can’t nail C2 level unless you spend a couple of years living the language in a target country.

        • Darek

          Well, you’ve been told wrong. I am not perfect with my English, but I do quite OK. I feel very comfortable with it. As for the advice:

          Listen and read a lot. Pay attention to what is going on in the language, just like Antimoon suggests. When listening, try to understand every single word. When reading, always ask yourself if you could reproduce similar sentences yourself. Be very curious about the mechanics of your target language. Learn pronunciation well and again, pay attention to it while listening. Speaking and writing also help obviously, so if you feel you need it, by all means go for it. It may all seem like a lot of work, but you are really interested in the language, it’s fun.

          • Walter Isaacson

            Darek, Yes, your English is very much native-like. When you say read a lot ,if I told you, I have read 32 non fiction books in 3.5 months, would you call it reading a lot? As for listening, I watch 2 hours worth of TV shows on Netflix. In total, Let’s say, that is 14 hours per week. Would you call it listening a lot? A lot could mean anything unless we measure in concrete terms.

        • Marcus Schätzle

          The original text for a C2 level is this:
          Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise
          information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situation.

          It does not say that with a C2 level you are near-native (a website of a language school I’ve recently visited stresses that point). The text also does not say your English has to be perfect, just “very fluently”, which leaves room for improvement. I think that is also a reason why an 8.5 score in IELTS is already equivalent to C2 (9 is highest, 8.0 is borderline C1/C2).

          Besides that, the “virtually everything heard or read” has to be taken with caution. If I encounter professional terminology of areas where I am a layman, e.g. medicine or mechanical engineering, I will have trouble understanding texts even in my native language.

          • Marcus Schätzle

            I wanted to say ‘Besides that, the “virtually everything heard or read” has to taken with a pinch of salt’ – Germanism… Well, I’ve not said that I’ve already reached C2 level ;-)

  • manolo

    Dear Tomasz,

    This is really an excellent article about the truth of learning a language.
    We don’t realize the enormous amount of knowedge that we need to learn sucessfuly English language.
    Many thanks, as alwarys, for your help.

    Manolo

    PS. Sorry for my poor level of English.

  • L

    Saying that the amount of knowledge needed for a language learner is bigger than the one needed by a doctor seems to be of an exaggeration.

  • Ivana

    Yes, it is very true. I became aware of that recently, after I returned from my 4 year stay in China where I was out of touch with the English language and where I forgot so many things. Also, after getting in touch with some native speakers, one becomes aware of how limited his knowledge of language is, even after so many years of hard study and achieved certificates that are supposed to show a high level of knowledge.

  • Ivana

    Language lessons taken at school fool us into believing that, if we achieve a good grade at some course, we have mastered the language. Nothing can be further from the truth and only in contact with native speakers can you see how limited is the knowledge you achieved after getting 100 percent score in the test.

  • Ivana

    heh, after getting 100 percent ON the test…that ‘s one mistake that I spotted

  • Delusions of Fluency

    Thank you for the article. I think it’s a perfect example of why you need massive amounts of real, native input to fully master a language. It’s the only way to know whether you’re using the language properly or not (ie. saying something the way a native speaker would).

    It’s also why people who spend too much time sitting in a classroom and not enough time getting input end up speaking so awkwardly. They just don’t know the proper “usage”, as you say. I should know since I used to be one of them.

    When all you do is memorize vocabulary and grammar rules (which is what they usually make you do in class), you often end up translating in your head from your native language. The problem is that proper “usage” doesn’t always translate from one language to the next, so you end up sounding weird.

    I can already think of an example… In Spanish, I’ve heard people say “pensando en ti” which word for word translates to “thinking in you” (wrong usage), but what you really want to say is “thinking of you” (correct usage). I might have never known, had I not heard it sung that way in a song.

  • Ivana

    Delusions of fluency, how did you manage to master English?

    • Delusions of Fluency

      Hi Ivana,

      English is actually my native language. It’s Spanish I’m trying to master… lol. I found this site when I was looking for alternative ways to learn a language after failing to do so taking classes. I know this place is geared toward learning English, but the principles here apply to any language. I’m really impressed with some of the ideas here.

      What I was trying to say in my other post was I would’ve never expected it to be “pensando en ti” because you would say “thinking of you” to express the same thing in English. Good thing I’m learning through input now like this site suggests, otherwise I would’ve been going around saying “pensando de ti” (which is a word for word translation from English … but wouldn’t be the right “usage” in that context)

  • Tony Chen

    It’s not “so difficult to speak English without mistakes”, it’s difficult to speak any “foreign language without mistakes”.

    Language, if it’s your mother tongue, is embedded in a certain part of your brain (Brocas area, if I am not mistaken) and when you speak it, you don’t have to worry about things like grammar or vacabulary, and the Brocas area will do the magic for you and make sure your speech is “all correct”.

    When you speak English as a 2nd language, you are using a different part of your brain, which pretty much like to be the “memory area”. You have to fight with the grammars and vacabulary, and the chances to be both smooth and correct are small for you….

    The solution will be “2nd language acquisition”, but that’s going to be a large topic for us to discuss here…

  • Rishi Sehrawat

    Learning English is a very hard and a time consuming process. Most of the people try to teach and learn English like a technical subject. Even though it is a technical subject but being a language it’s not like physics or mathematics.

    Like mentioned by others – yes vocabulary and grammar are important and difficult to some extent. But there are millions of people who speak English correctly and fluently. If they can do it then anyone can.

    Repetition is the mother of all skills. You can’t start and stop learning English. Just replace English with the language you are currently speaking and you will see that within a couple of months you would be speaking correct English.

    Replacing your primary language with English in you daily use is not going to be easy. You can do your research or get the right mentor for it.

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