I am due to start my Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) on April 13th and, like the über-keen and uncool language student that I am, I have been trying to be conscientious and prepare myself for it in advance. I had such good intentions at the beginning of the year, but my day job working for Routledge, combined with my penchant for being constantly busy, and my participation in four different badminton teams in three different leagues have meant that progress has been slower than I planned. I continue to hope, however, that my existing knowledge of German, Spanish and (dodgy) Italian will provide a semi- decent foundation for me to understand English grammar…
But of course, I’m not being quite so arrogant and naive that I’m just going to assume the grammars of the aforementioned European languages are somehow backwards-compatible with my own mother tongue, nor do I pretend to already have all the answers just because I am a native speaker. I am taking my CELTA course at the Berlin School of English, and once I had passed the (nerve-wracking!) phone interview and paid my initial deposit, I was sent some pre-course work to do before arriving in Berlin in mid-April.
One of the items on the list was a ‘Grammar Development Course’ by Jeff Mohamed, which you can download from his website TESOL Tips. As per his own description,
‘…this self-study course is specially designed to help teachers to improve their practical knowledge of grammar. It enables teachers of EFL/ESL to learn essential grammatical terminology and to become familiar with: major verb tenses; the relationship between tenses, time and function; and a range of key grammatical structures and features (modal auxiliaries, conditionals, reported speech, phrasal verbs, etc.). Each exercise is accompanied by a detailed answer key and commentary. Completion of the exercises requires approximately 25 hours.’
This course contains seventeen units, which I have been completing here and there between other bits of reading (…and far too much faffing around on Twitter and WordPress!). After getting properly stuck into all things ELT at the beginning of the year (2015), I have now finished this course and, whilst going back over my notes this morning, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to pull out a few key things about English that I did not know before starting it. But rather than list fifty things in rather unmanageable fashion, as I did for the Teach Yourself book, I thought I’d stick to a slightly more manageable ten things this time:
*Disclaimer: at the time of writing, I am obviously still unqualified as an official English teacher, so apologies if any of these statements are actually incorrect – I believe them not to be, but it is Sunday evening, so I can’t promise anything!
1) A ‘regular verb’ is defined as a verb whose simple past and past participle are formed using the formula ‘base verb + ed.’
This means that ‘walk’ is a regular verb, as its simple past is ‘I walked to the shops yesterday‘ and its past participle is ‘walked’: ‘He had walked 50 miles to reach the coast.’ Apparently there are 200ish irregular ones, which at least means that the large remainder are regular – hallelujah for my future students, then!
2) Conjunctions are not just for ‘joining two clauses’ in a sentence, but for showing how the meaning of both clauses is related.
For example, the subordinating conjunction ‘because’ tells you the reason for the action described in the first clause, and the coordinating conjunction ‘or’ offers an alternative.
‘I am quitting my job at Routledge in just over a week because I am shortly flying to Malaysia.’ (A true fact at time of writing!)
3) Differences between British and American English go beyond the confusion over men’s trousers, fried potatoes and people-transporting devices.
For example, American English speakers use the Present Perfect Simple much less often than British English speakers. For anyone unsure of what I’m talking about, in practice, this means that you would hear a Brit say ‘I’ve already seen that film about Stephen Hawking’ whereas an American would more likely say ‘I already saw it’ in a similar situation.
4) Learning the phrasal verb ‘used to‘ is very hard for learners of English.
I think this is suitably exemplified by the fact that I, as a person with approximately 24.5 years’ experience speaking English, still have to check whether I should write ‘used to’ or ‘use to’ in my sentences…
5) English has some strange rules for according gender to nouns.
Of course, there are nouns for male and female versions of certain people and professions (such as ‘actor’ and ‘actress’), although these are slowly being phased out. There are also male and female pronouns – that much I did know. The real confusion I found is the general rule that ‘most English nouns do not have grammatical gender’ and yet, bizarrely, we refer to ships as females (‘She’s moored at Wargrave’). To someone who has spent hundreds of hours trying to master German noun and adjectival declensions, this is somewhat baffling…
6) English does not inflect its adjectives, except in one random instance.
Similarly to the above point, I have slaved over tables of German adjective declension since I first started learning German in 2001 – is it ‘der kleine Mann’, ‘dem deutschen Volk’ or ‘die neugierige Engländerin’? Luckily for the citizens of the world trying to master my mother tongue, they don’t have to bother with this lunacy. Unless they want to talk about their blond-haired father, or their blonde-haired daughter. Because apparently this is the only adjective to decline in English: with no -e for the masculine form, and an -e for the feminine form.
(Note: I have studied a small amount of historical linguistics, and I do of course acknowledge the fact that, on account of its conglomerate ancestry from other Indo-European languages, Modern English does technically still feature declensions elsewhere in its grammar, such as ‘this’ and ‘that’ declining to ‘these’ and ‘those’ in the plural, but this specific exception being called out in Jeff’s guide just tickled me.)
7) There are three different types of infinitive.
I have sadly few memories of my first language learning experiences, but one incident I do remember is my Spanish teacher putting up the base form of a Spanish verb in probably Year 9 or 10, and asking the class if they knew the ‘technical word’ for it. My hand shot up, Hermione Granger-style, and I proudly shared my knowledge of the term ‘infinitive’ with the rest of my class. Ever since, I had always thought every verb just had one infinitive form; almost like its root. However, Jeff Mohamed has taught me that there is a progressive infinitive (‘to be eating’), a perfect infinitive (‘to have eaten’) and a passive infinitive (‘to be written’).
8) There is a reason I have corrected so many German friends on their use of the words ‘information’ and ‘advice.’
So often, you hear Germans saying ‘*informations’ or ‘*advices’ when they speak English, and, of course, there’s a reasonable explanation for this. ‘Information’ is what’s known as a non-count, or uncountable noun, which means that they cannot be directly modified by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement, and that they cannot combine with an indefinite article (a or an). So you can’t say ‘*two informations’, you have to say ‘two pieces of information,’ and you can’t say ‘*Could you give me some advices?’or ‘Could I ask for an advice?’ because ‘advice’ is a singular, uncountable noun in English and must be accompanied by its friends ‘some’ or ‘any’ instead.
9) Just like winning the lottery in Spanish, there are rules for using conditional sentences in English.
A joke at GCSE Spanish was that, no matter what your examiner was talking about in your oral exam, you would always try to shoehorn in a sentence beginning ‘Si ganara la lotería…’ [If I were to win the lottery], because it then required the use of a shiny conditional form and the two together in one sentence were guaranteed to get you bumped up a grade. Of course, that wasn’t strictly true, but I never stopped to consider that similar patterns existed for forming conditional sentences in English – I only ever back-translated from the formulae I learnt to essentially ‘show off’ in other languages I was learning.
English, as it happens, has three main types pf conditional sentence, exemplified by the following sentences:
Type 1: If I find her address, I’ll send her an invitation. (It is possible and also very likely that the condition will be fulfilled.)
Type 2: Example: If I found her address, I would send her an invitation. (It is possible but very unlikely that the condition will be fulfilled.)
Type 3: If I had found her address, I would have sent her an invitation. (It is impossible that the condition will be fulfilled because it refers to the past.)
10) My final, and not-at-all earth-shattering point on this list is that English is confusing!
It might roll off my tongue because I grew up hearing my mum and dad speak it, but with its irregular plurals of nouns (why does ‘knife’ become ‘knives’?), its crazy use of separable verbs (who says you can separate ‘to turn the lights on‘ but not ‘to look after your things’?); its 200 or so incredibly common, but incredibly irregular verbs (go, be, buy, see, to name just a few) and its inconsistent forms for adverbs from adjectives (how on earth did we get from ‘good’ to ‘well’?), it’s no wonder that teaching this language is such a booming industry! I feel like I need some lessons myself now, to unscramble the can of worms I have just unleashed in my linguistically curious brain…!