After doing my shopping today, I was approached by a young couple. They were from Argentina, and were travelling round Ireland as part of their journey across Europe. They were looking for the apartment they were couchsurfing in (I hate giving directions in Galway, as there are too many small, non-parallel streets, and no-one in Galway knows streetnames apart from the best-known ones).
I spoke with them for a bit and was impressed by their level of English. I knew immediately that they were Spanish speakers, but they spoke quite fluently, and were very easy to understand. Of course they made some tiny errors, none of which affected my ability to understand them, and I probably didn’t notice some other errors. That can actually be a drawback to teaching English: you get so used to some of the more common errors that you stop noticing them.
We English speakers tend to be impressed by non-native speakers with a high level of English. I think that’s largely because most of us have never learned a second language to the level of using it regularly in everyday conversation. We may learn another language in school, but most of us never have to use it, expect maybe for a few phrases on holiday (Excusez-moi, ou est la gare?, or Due birre, per favore). We therefore usually don’t have to learn a language to a high level. So when we meet someone who speaks English very well, we’re impressed, and we compare their English to our French/German/Spanish etc. and see a gulf in quality between the two levels.
What’s interesting though, is that what impresses the native speaker might not be what impresses the learner, or their teacher. Understandably, we notice when someone speaks English politely and uses quite formal phrases that the average learner might not know.
Equally, we notice if someone speaks very fluently and uses idioms and casual phrases. But what we also notice are errors. And sadly, while we’re appropriately impressed by good usage of English, we can get an overly-harsh impression of someone’s level of English from the errors they make.
Probably the most common error learners make is to leave out the letter s from the end of third-person verbs (e.g. He goes…, She eats…, it arrives…) This is an understandable mistake for a few reasons. It’s easy to forget because it’s the only person for whom the verb changes in English, e.g. I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go, you go. It’s very easy to forget to conjugate the verb, especially for speakers of Romance languages for whom the verb changes for most if not all forms. And when native speakers speak, that s can be quite hard to hear for a learner.
So I understand why learners can forget about it, but sadly it doesn’t always make a good impression when people make that mistake. As native speakers, we notice it. Our ear expects to hear the s and when it doesn’t, we’re frustrated, and the lack really stands out. The average person isn’t going to consider why someone might not pronounce that s, and how easy it can be to forget about it. All they notice is that they make the mistake, and it is noticeable. There are many other common, understandable errors, but this is a pretty representative one.
It’s a pity that it’s errors like that which can inform our opinion of someone’s English. Someone might have got comfortable with using different grammar forms and have developed their vocabulary, but if they make a simple but noticeable error, that’s what their listener will remember. And most of the time, the speaker knows that they should use the s, but they don’t think of it while they’re speaking. Because someone is going to become more fluent and less conscious as their language ability increases, ironically, this means that they’re still likely to make this mistake for those very reasons, even if they have a high level of English. When I’ve pointed out this error to students in class, they’ve often said Ok, but I know I’m supposed to use the s, I just forgot! But I explain that I know that, and they know that, but an average English speaker won’t.
The fact is, that a lot of the toughest accomplishments for a student will be noticed by them (maybe) and their teachers (hopefully!) but not necessarily by ordinary English speakers. We might not notice anything special if someone says I bought a new bike last week, but bought is an irregular verb form and it’s not an easy task to remember to use it, and not buyed. If someone says I’ve been living here for three weeks, we don’t consider that in an instant they’ve processed that they’re referring to an ongoing state that began in the past, that may be temporary, and that they’re focussing on the duration of that state. And yet that’s what the speaker has to do to correctly use that sentence. These are the kind of everyday language forms that we native speakers take for granted, but can take a long time and a lot of hard work to learn.
Why don’t we notice these achievements? I think there are two elements of psychology at play. The first is that we acquire our native tongue fairly unconsciously, so we never have to think about whether we should say I go to France or I’ve been to France. We just know, and so it can be very hard for us to consider all the work that goes into someone learning which is correct, and why. Second, we tend to notice when something goes wrong, as opposed to when something goes according to plan. We’re more likely to complain about bad customer service to friends than praise good service, because we expect the latter. Similarly, most English speakers deal with other English speakers on a day-to-day basis, and so get used to hearing fluent, fluid English. So if a non-native speaker uses forms that are very difficult to master but that we use every day, we don’t really notice. But if they drop an s or use the instead of an, it disrupts that flow of language for us, and frustrates us. As an English teacher who’s seen students struggle and strive, and gradually improve, it annoys me when people can’t appreciate how hard they’ve worked to be able to communicate in a basic way, but I do understand it.
So let’s all take a moment for everyone who’s worked hard to improve their English. And if you do forget an s occasionally, don’t worry too much about it. People will still understand you, and think of all that you’ve learned to be able to have a conversation with a native speaker in the first place. It’s more than many English speakers could hope to do in your language.