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Geoff Johnson: English a major challenge for refugees

Spare a thought, if you will, for new immigrants to Canada who are faced with the challenge of learning to speak, much less read or write, English.

Spare a thought, if you will, for new immigrants to Canada who are faced with the challenge of learning to speak, much less read or write, English.

English is a frustrating language in which the letters “ghoti” can be pronounced as “fish” when you consider the pronunciation of the last two letters of “enough,” the “o” sound in “women” and the “ti” sound in “nation.”

Modern Canadian English is more like a jigsaw pieced together from Celtic, French, Latin, Greek, Scandinavian, even Dutch and Spanish words. Our language is replete with German words such as blitz, bratwurst, hamburger, frankfurter, gestalt and zeitgeist.

Numerous words come from Arabic, including admiral, albatross, camphor, candy, caravan, gauze, ghoul, and gazelle.

Innumerable verb tenses in English provide a bewildering array of options: present, present progressive, past progressive, present perfect simple and present perfect progressive. There is even one stunner called future conditional progressive.

Arabic, no matter which of its dialects is spoken by our Syrian refugee immigrants, has three tenses: present, past and future. There is much more subtlety to the language than that — moods and derivational forms — but basically just three tenses.

The real problem for immigrants hearing spoken English for the first time comes with the way English is littered with homonyms, words that sound the same when spoken but are spelled differently and have altogether different meanings: air and heir, aisle and isle, bare and bear, cell and sell, currant and current, dear and deer, which and witch, whine and wine are just a few.

Word order can cause confusion, as with the classic Grouch Marx joke: “I just shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How did an elephant get into my pyjamas?”

Learning correct pronunciation presents challenges even for kids brought up with English as their only language. Why is “trough” pronounced “troff,” “rough” pronounced “ruff,” “bough” pronounced “bow” (to rhyme with cow) and “through” pronounced “throo”?

There are silent letters at the start of words, too. Why are there so many words that begin with a silent K, such as “knife”?

Then there is that pesky silent “p” that begins words such as “pneumonia,” “psychic” and “pneumatic.”

Synonyms, words that mean the same thing except when they don’t, can confuse the newcomer to English.

For example, we “watch” television, and we can either “watch a film” or “see a film” — but we don’t “see television.” We are not a “watcher” when we look at TV — we are “viewers,” even though we don’t “view television” or “view a movie.”

That comes down to idiomatic usage. Having mastered the basics, the immigrant is then faced with English idioms — phrases and expressions that make sense to people who have spoken the language all their lives but that must be bewildering to everybody else: “It is raining cats and dogs,” “Bob’s your uncle,” “cat got your tongue?” “to chew the fat” and, of course, “under the weather.”

Linguists tell us that the most difficult languages to learn from scratch (learn from what?) are Arabic, despite having few verb tenses, Cantonese or Mandarin, followed closely by Japanese and Korean and then English.

Apparently, and again according to linguists, each language presents you with a different set of challenges in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing systems. The closer these are to your native language, the easier a language is to learn, but despite some derivative words, Arabic and English are worlds apart.

According to Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, it is possible for people new to Canada with no English language to acquire basic conversational fluency — the ability to understand and participate in ordinary conversations — in six to 12 months, even more quickly if the learner is immersed in the language and focuses on speaking it at home.

However, to acquire native-like abilities in understanding, speaking, reading and writing a language, as well as an understanding of the culture of those who speak it, could take from five years to a lifetime.

We should bear that in mind as we help our newest Canadians struggle with the complexity of a living language we take for granted.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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