English as Your First Language, Blessing or a Curse?

This post originated when I was asked to enter the Kaplan blogging competition. So if you find my words interesting, entertaining, or if you’d just like to help me win something please head over to the Kaplan competition page here and leave a comment along the lines of “I vote for SamsPlayground.com”. Thanks a million.

Blessing or a curse?

Is English your first language? It’s certainly my first language – the only language I can speak. Which makes me wonder; is having English as my first language a blessing or a curse?

English is now the most widely used language in the world. There are more native Mandarin Chinese speakers and more native Spanish speakers, but English is the most commonly used second language and combined, more people can speak English than any other language in the world.

I’ve travelled to many different countries where English is not the first language and I didn’t speak any more than a handful of words of their language – but I’ve always done just fine. A blessing you might say, to be brought up speaking a language which is understood in more countries than any other, but like a rich kid who can never appreciate what he has I’ve always really struggled to learn another language.

Why would I want to?

I’m always impressed by people who know more than one language. Two is better than one right? Communicate to more people, have more tools of communication at your disposal, more of a citizen of this world! I would love to be fluent in a second language; I just think it would be awesome to be able to ‘rock up’ to a stranger in a foreign country and to be capable of a proper conversation in their language.

So why haven’t I learnt a second language?

Time. Money. Excuses. I’ve been living in Montreal, a bi-lingual French and English speaking city in Canada for almost ten months now and I’m embarrassed to say I barely know any more French than I did when I first came here. The problem with knowing English, is that in my life so far I’ve never really needed to know another language – the curse.

Tips on learning a second language

So if you want to learn a second language, here’s what to do (don’t worry; I’m not telling you what I’ve done – I’m telling you the opposite).

  1. Give yourself time to learn  – immerse yourself in a foreign language
  2. Don’t work from home
  3. Don’t make excuses

English, most widely used yet still stupid as bat shit

I have enormous respect for people trying to learn English as their second language, it does have its oddities. Sometimes as a native English speaker I only realise how odd the use of various words are when a foreigner points them out to me. Why for instance does a hamburger not have ham in it, while a ham sandwich does?

There are so any instances of words which have the same spelling, same pronunciation and different meanings. What, same, same yet different?

  • Content (noun: the content on this blog or adjective:  a person can be content with a life of travel)

Words with the same spelling, but different pronunciation to give different meaning.

  • Wind (noun: the wind blew over the hills or adjective: to wind up your little brother)

Words with different spellings, yet same pronunciation and different meanings.

  • No and know (I say no to the pirate because I know he is not to be trusted)
  • There, their, they’re (They’re all going up their neighbours stairs to see who is there)

I’m not going to start on different words which have virtually the same meaning. The English language has over 250,000 official, distinct dictionary words!

English also offers some very versatile words, but for the life of me I can’t explain why they’re so versatile. Take the word ‘up’. If someone says “up” to you in no particular context you’ll probably, well, you’ll probably look up. But consider:

  • Give up
  • Turn up
  • Get up
  • Write up
  • Wake up
  • Eat up
  • Live up to someone’s expectations

Pretty cool how a single word can be so versatile, but I can understand how learning this language could also be rather frustrating. For instance, I may write up a blog post, however in the process of writing up that post I will actually be writing down words. If you don’t find the word ‘up’ frustrating, consider the words ‘make’ and ‘do’. While I may make a sandwich it would be incorrect to say I make the cooking – I do the cooking. I may make a mistake, but I do a favour. Speaking of ‘favour’, how should this be spelt? Well, if you’re from the United States you’ll spell it ‘favor’, while most other English speaking countries will spell it ‘favour’. While the US spellings may have been created to simplify the English language, the different spellings certainly create their own level of complexity.

I’ve known English virtually my whole life, yet I still find keeping correct ‘tense’ difficult at times. To do something, doing something, did something, now it is done. Correct use of plural can be seemingly bizarre, take these examples:

  • one goose, two geese
  • one mouse, two mice
  • one duck, two ducks
  • one moose, two moose

Find a pattern in that!

Then you have slang, different accents, common sayings and different words for different things in different countries…

Son of a gun Jim, give me my thongs back and I ain’t going nowhere till you skull that vessel – mate, am I feeling tanked…

To anyone who’s read this when English isn’t your first language – respect!

How do people learn English as a second language?

Kaplan put together the following graphic on how people learn English as a second language. Comment – let me know what you think, sign up for my emails and head over to the Kaplan competition page to vote for my blog. Votes (comments) count from May 19th through June 1st.

Devil and angel graphics in featured (header) image by John Olsen aka johnny_automatic

Infographic: How to learn Englishvia Kaplan Blog


  1. English drives me crazy, but mostly because I used to try to teach it to 2nd graders and it made me feel terribly guilty as an adult memberr of a society that was passing on such insane stuff and pretending that it somehow made sense. I blogged about that here: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/ten-things-that-bug-me-about-english/

    • It is difficult, thanks for your comment – nice to hear from someone who has actually taught this language of ours.

  2. It frustrates the hell out of me that I cannot speak another language. Same as you I like to learn a little bit for ever country but it never sticks around after I leave. At the moment trying to learn Italian since we are spending 6 weeks there next month. Probably should have started 3 months ago!

    • It seems to me that I’ll always try and learn a few words before visiting a new country which speaks a foreign language, but it’s going to take a miracle for me to ever be fluent.

      Good luck with the Italian – it’s always possible if you set your mind to it. Or so I understand from the success of others…

  3. It’s definitely a blessing and a curse. We almost take it for granted when we travel that people speak English, and get frustrated when people don’t speak it, in their own country!

    I made the decision to learn Spanish back in college and it was a real pain in the a**. I think the only real way to learn is to move somewhere where that language is spoken. It’s too hard to and time consuming to learn otherwise. I’m no language wizard either.

    • My girlfriend learnt a bit of Spanish during school and university, but never enough to communicate with the Spaniards. Now she’s finding it confuses her limited French. I always just go with English first now. Sad, but I have other things to learn which are higher priorities since I know a language I can get by on.

  4. Hello Sam. First-time visitor; great site you have here!

    Really interesting post, and you portray a dilemma that is at the heart of the English language – it’s culturally very important but as Eric says above and as you detail yourself it is frustrating and nonsensical for many learners.

    Not speaking anything else fluently, last year I decided to take up the international language Esperanto – largely because I was too lazy to work hard at the little French and German I have and I was unimpressed with the huge grammatical inconsistencies I kept stumbling across in them.

    Unlike French, German or English, Esperanto is a totally logical language: patterns and rules are never broken, all verbs are regular, there are no genders, you can piece words together like a really satisfying jigsaw. As it draws heavily on Romance and Germanic languages for its vocabulary it is both beautiful and familiar. I bet you won’t have trouble deciphering what “mia hundo estas en la aŭto” means!

    Because of all these points, it is on average ten times quicker and easier to learn than most other European languages. I started in September last year, and with an average of perhaps two or three hours a week (no more than you might spend on a foreign language at school) I am now not far off a good level of fluency. It’s ideal, really, for those who might have struggled with other languages in the past.

    I have used it for travel a little, and hope to use it a lot more in other countries. There are only a couple of million or so speakers around the world, but those that are out there are always keen to meet and greet new speakers. There is, for instance, an Esperanto equivalent of Couchsurfing, where you can meet and stay with other Esperanto speakers in obviously a culturally neutral way that English simply cannot manage.

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for visiting and your comment. I couch surfed with a guy in New York who was learning Esperanto – up until then I had never heard of it. It is a very interesting idea, a purposefully designed language, I would like to learn more about it. It could no doubt help unite the world, but it will be a huge up hill climb to see it become more widely used than English even if it is way easier to learn and more practical. Do you know of any countries which speak it as a first language, or even groups of people?

      • Hey Sam. Yes, you’re right – it is an uphill struggle, and to be honest the key lies in persuading authorities/organisations to adopt it. With virtually no official governmental or educational endorsement, though, it’s gone from zero to two or three million speakers in 125 years. English, despite the political, economic, cultural and military weight behind it in the last two or three centuries, has only gained about 15% of the world’s population, which if you think about it is a pretty poor bang for your buck.

        With even just a little resource, Esperanto would easily catch up and overtake because it’s so quick to learn and thus, importantly, very cheap to teach. And to answer your question, no, no countries or groups of any significance have universally adopted it, though there are pockets of uptake in occasional education programmes, certain small faith groups, and of course political idealists. Esperanto associations engage, however, with international organisations such as the EU and UNESCO, so there is hope for it.

        If you’re interested in finding out more, try the following:
        http://www.lernu.net – not the prettiest design in the world, but this learning site has a useful intro, plus a few exercises if you fancy trying it out!
        http://www.esperanto.ca/ – the Canadian Esperanto Association, and
        http://www.esperanto-usa.org/ – the American Association.

        Do drop me an email if you’d like me to tell you more!

        • Thank you. I’ll check it out and I’m sure some readers who stumble upon this language post may also be interested in learning more about Esperanto.

  5. I’m a native English speaker and had never heard the term “phrasal verb” until I volunteered as an English speaker at a total immersion English program in Spain for Spaniards. Phrasal verbs drive them and anyone else trying to learn English nuts. They are your “up” example. Pair “up” with different English verbs and voila, it doesn’t mean “up” anymore.

    I am always impressed at the English speaking ability of the Dutch and Scandinavians. We once asked a Flemmish cab driver about it, thinking they must start studying English at birth. He said, “no”, they actually start fairly late, around 7th grade, but a lot of their TV and movies are in undubbed English. There are too few Dutch speakers to make dubbing English programs into Dutch, so they grow up watching TV in English with Dutch sub-titles.

    • I find it interesting that you say the Dutch & Scandinavians tend to speak English well. I guess with the English TV their forced into ‘media’ immersion while other languages aren’t – everyone I’ve ever talked to about language and learning tend to agree that complete immersion is the way to go.

  6. Samual James says:

    I absolutely agree with your points, as much progress as a universal language and considered as a international language to communicate it should be flaw less. Very vital point you raised here thanks for sharing.Orlando yellow cab

  7. Being my first language, I don’t even realize how weird some of the grammar rules are. I am truly impressed by those who can learn English as a second language!

  8. English is my second language. Back in Finland we don’t dub any of our movies or tv; and that definitely helps as you get exposed to English a lot. I still flat out refuse to watch anything dubbed as any dubbed movie is always worse than the original without an exception, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    It’s possible to pick up another language quite well even in your own country if you expose yourself to it enough for a long enough, but you do have to put in quite a lot of effort. You can pick up another language by fully immersing yourself in it a lot faster, but even then you still have to make an effort to use it, just going to a different country is not enough.

    I think I’ll learn my next language by moving to a country that speaks it, as my Spanish and Japanese studies are currently progressing way too slowly.

    • I am in awe of your language aspirations Jarmo! Good luck with the Spanish and Japanese, great excuse to go live in another country for a while.

      I agree with the dubbing – I would never want to watch a foreign movie dubbed to English, if I can’t speak/understand the language, I am perfectly capable of reading subtitles.

  9. The most thoughtful and naughty is English.I love reading it ,because during my junior high school,i fail in English which makes me crazy about this subject.

    • I think I’ve failed in French. Perhaps it isn’t naughty enough for me. Thanks for visiting my blog. Keep up with your English.

  10. Interesting article! I’m Scandinavian and English is my second language, and just like Jarmo here told you, it does help when nothing is dubbed. But there’s also a huge focus on English (and other foreign languages) in Scandinavia, and we start to study it at a fairly young age (around 8-9). So you get a lot “for free” when you’re learning English in Scandinavia, but I do understand your difficulties in learning another language. After English I’ve started studying a whole lot of other languages as well, and I think I’ve started to realize which ways that work. If you want to learn a new language the absolute best way is to be at a place where the language is a natural part of your day, rather than just studying it in a class room (’cause I’d say you don’t get a lot of encouragement to learn when you get tons of homework and you’re worried about grades). Find a language that you’re excited about and go to a country where its spoken! :)

    • Hi Lina, Thanks for your input. It’s always interesting to hear from someone who learn’t another language before English.

  11. Hi Sam, I came across your website when looking for examples of travel blogs, but am interested in your comments on the English language, many of which I agree with. I’m a native-born British English-speaker, and also used precise legal English in some of my work. I’ll like to comment on some of your examples:

    A “hamburger” is so called because it derives from the German city of Hamburg [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburger] – it has nothing to do with ham! In fact, in the UK, we would normally just call if a ‘burger’.

    As regards same/different spellings, pronunciation & meanings, consider:
    • “led” – past tense of “to lead”, but pronounced the same as …
    • “lead” – a heavy metal, which is spelt the same as but pronounced differently from …
    • “lead” – as in “to lead” (current tense of “led”), which is spelt and pronounced the same as, but has a different meaning from …
    • “lead”- as in a dog’s lead or lease.
    As you say, there are, of course, many more examples like this in our strange language.

    I agree with you on lots of the verbs with “up”, but have to say that I think some uses of “write up” tend to be US English rather than British English. In your example sentence “I may write up a blog post, however in the process of writing up that post I will actually be writing down words.”, I think both “up”s and the “down” could be omitted without altering the meaning. I’m not saying we wouldn’t use “write up” or “write down” in British English, but I think we would use them (especially “up”) more sparingly: I certainly wouldn’t say “write up a blog post”, but just “write a blog post”. I would say “write it down”, where it may be an idea, a story, a piece of information (e.g. a name or telephone number).

    As regards US v. British spellings (especially the words ending –or / -our), my understanding is that in many cases the US has retained the older spellings if the words whereas the British have altered them over time.

    One area where you may not know we have different spelling is words like “license”. In British English, “license” (with an “s”) is a verb (“to license”), whereas the noun is spelt with a “c” as in “a licence”. In fact this follows the same as the verb “to advise” and the noun “advice”.

    I agree with you on the plural nouns, but as regards your final quotation, it’s not only non-English speakers who may have problems understanding it – this British English speaker doesn’t understand it either:
    • I understand that “Son of a gun” is an exclamation, but more than that I certainly don’t understand it’s import or meaning.
    • To me, a “thong” is an item of ladies’ underwear, or maybe a thin piece of leather.
    • “skull” is the bone structure of the head, and I don’t know what it means as a verb. Although “scull” is a type of vessel or oars or a method of propelling it.
    • “tanked” I would interpret as “drunk” – is that correct?

    • Hey Trevor,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Think you get the award for most in depth comment on my blog, nice one!

      Some cool points, ‘lead’ is certainly a good example. ‘Tanked’ can be used as slang for being drunk, yes.

      I’ve recently read a bit about pronunciation and hearing, and how what you can say and sounds you can distinguish is influenced by your background and what you are brought up listening to. Such as sounds: /Ta/ /Tha/ /Da/ /Dha/ /Na/ used in South Asian and Indian languages.