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History and Spelling of English

Knowledge of the history of the English language is extremely important to those interested

in improving their English language skills.  It’s important to understand the development of the English language, not only to be a knowledgeable teacher, but also to help explain the English language.  Students of a foreign language, in this case English, are excited about their new language and might want to know about its history.  An ESL teacher needs to be able to knowledgeably answer their questions.   It’s also valuable to explain to students why spelling is so difficult in order to prevent frustrations they might have trying to learn correct spellings.

On a more functional level it’s also beneficial to know why words are spelled a certain way.  For example, knowing that certain words have retained their original French spellings which cause words to be silent is helpful in providing context for non-standard spellings.  It also can be used to show students that despite the appearance that English spelling is chaotic, there are patterns.  For example, the pronunciation of ‘ph’ as ‘f’ can be confusing to students.  But once it’s explained that almost all words spelled with a ‘ph’ are of Greek origin it can provide valuable context for spelling future words like ‘pharmacy’.

One unique challenge of teaching ESL is that students come from diverse backgrounds and have different native languages.  Different language backgrounds come with advantages and disadvantages.  A speaker of a Latin or Germanic language will probably find themselves more comfortable than other students when learning English.  English has a vocabulary largely based on Germanic and Latin origins.  This isn’t to say that people who speak Latin based or Germanic languages don’t have difficulties.  There are a number of false cognates between English and these languages.  With careful attention they can learn to spot these false cognates.

Speakers of non-Germanic and Latin based languages such as Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic will encounter a unique set of challenges.  Firstly, these languages have a completely different writing system.  The Arabic alphabet is phonetic but isn’t written in the Roman alphabet, so they’ll have to learn a new alphabet.  Speakers of Japanese and Chinese however will have far more difficulties because they use a pictographic writing system and will have to learn the concept of having a phonetic alphabet then learn how to use their new alphabet.

Another challenge that speakers of all types of other languages will find is a different grammar and phonology.  Latin based languages and Germanic languages have differences but are relatively similar. Languages like Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic however, have many sounds or even tones that aren’t used in English.  Sometimes languages even lack sounds that are in English and pronouncing words can be difficult.

English has a complex spelling system as a result of a long history and contact with other languages.  Even native educated speakers sometimes have difficulties with English spelling.  There are several strategies one can use to combat this difficulty.  One strategy is preparing beforehand.  While preparing for a new lesson a careful review of vocabulary can help highlight potential spelling problems.  Another strategy is using a dictionary.  A dictionary can be in many forms such as a book or on the internet.  It’s important to note however that ESL classes can take place in many locations which might not have internet access so a standard dictionary is recommended.