It’s the Little Things

Learning any language is never easy. It takes a lot of time, and patience, and practice. But above all, it requires mental readjustment. And that’s the part that a lot of people find the most difficult.

You can get pretty far in any language by focusing largely on the three main language systems: lexis, grammar, and phonology. They’ll provide you with, in order: words you can use, grammatical structures to show you how to use these words, and what those words should sound like. These are the fundamentals of a language, and you can then practise your skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) to hone this knowledge.

That’s learning a language in a nutshell, and if you do all of that, you can gain a reasonable competence in a language. But every language has its little details, its unique aspects that don’t quite fit into the lexis/grammar/phonology categories. Figuring these out is what gives someone real proficiency in a language, but it’s tough.

I was thinking about this today, when a French speaker wanted to say something wasn’t urgent, and said (in English) It’s not an urgency. This is pretty understandable, because the common French equivalent would be Ce n’est pas une urgence (It’s not an emergency). You could of course say It’s not an emergency in English, but it’s much more common to say It’s not urgent. And, it sounds much less serious. Of course we can’t say an urgency in English, but you can see why a French speaker might think it’s ok.

This is something that can be tricky for French speakers, which I’ve touched on before: how in English we tend to use adjectives when they use nouns. This knowledge doesn’t quite fit into the three language-system categories. You can learn how to construct a sentence, which tenses to use, but knowing that we use an adjective in this specific phrase is something that can only come with experience. This is equally true for me in learning French by the way, but for today, I want to look at some of the aspects of English that prove tricky for learners, in three main categories:


Native speakers will invariably say I’ve lived here for five years, but a lot of non-native speakers find it hard to transition from saying I have lived here for five years. The same goes for other contractions like I’ll, you’re, he’s, don’t etc. This one is largely caused by the fact that non-native speakers have to learn English grammar, and therefore see each part of a grammatical structure as distinct (I + have + lived). It’s hard to then treat I + have like a single word, but for native speakers, we grow up hearing these contractions all the time, and they’re our standard form.


He’s here and He has now entered the house can have the exact same meaning in the right context, but obviously the latter is much more formal and would never be uttered by a native speaker. Still, it’s logically and grammatically correct: it’s just that the tone is off. This is a common problem for learners, where they learn grammatical structures, use words that are technically correct, but still produce something a native speaker never would. This is often the case for Romance-Language speakers, as similar words to those in their languages tend to be much more formal in English. I will say though that this is a valid technique for people who are still at a lower or intermediate level in a language. Heaven knows I still do it all the time in French. It takes a long time to learn the shortcuts of a language, and if you don’t know them, you can still construct something comprehensible from the structures and words you do know. It might sound odd to a native speaker, but they’ll still understand you, and be sympathetic and supportive, usually.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns

I touched on this distinction here. It’s a simple difference, but I find contributes greatly to the “feel” of a language. It feels odd for me sometimes that words like bread, advice, and information are countable in French, and it’s likewise confusing for French speakers that in English you can’t say Two breads please, or Let me give you an advice. This is basically a pretty simple distinction, but it’s very hard to get one’s head round. I find it hard to remember that information in French can be plural, because I always think of it as one mass of information, rather than distinct pieces of information. Changing a word from countable to uncountable or vice versa requires you to conceptualise it in a different way, which is never easy.

And while these specific issues affect learners of English, you’re guaranteed to find identical or equivalent problems in learning other languages. I certainly still have a hard time with such problems in French. How best to avoid them, then? Here are some advices is some advice:

  1. Stop thinking so much about your native tongue. Note, I don’t say stop thinking in your native tongue. I’m not sure I fully believe in the idea that you can think in another language, as thought is basically non-verbal. But you can certainly try using English or the language you want to learn when you consciously speak to yourself in your head. But mainly, it’s important not to translate directly from your own language when thinking of what to say. It works sometimes, but only sometimes, and it’s quite possible to say something with another meaning entirely, or that simply doesn’t make sense. This is more of a problem the closer your language is to English, as you can imagine words or sentences based on your native tongue that feel like they could be English. Like It’s not an urgency, for example. It’s easy to give this advice, and it seems obvious, but some people never get out of the habit of translating from their native tongue, or using its structures.
  2. Read, and listen to, the language you’re learning as much as possible. Speaking and writing are obviously important too, especially speaking, but paying attention to the language you’re learning, particularly how it’s used by native speakers, is the best way to notice the pecularities of how it’s used. It can be tough, and tiring, but I can testify that it works.

If you’ve learned English, or another language, what are the tricky things you found it hard to get used to?


25 thoughts on “It’s the Little Things

  1. Doesn’t this belong to the category “idiomatic” though? At least in the sense we use “idiomatic” in translation. I had German teacher who always talked about it as “We’re going to speak German like the Germans” as opposed to “just” understanding the words and the grammar.

    Which is still like hell. It’s as if there’s too much German grammar. Do they really need all those endings? REALLY?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It would to a large extent, and I think overall it’s the best approach to take to teaching/learning a language. It is tough though. I actually often think about learning German, but then I hear the term “neuter” and get scared! Even two genders is tough for an English speaker to get used to!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Forgive me, its more than 50 years since I did O level French and I may have got this wrong. I remember being driven through Rochester by a French priest, in a car with several visiting French schoolgirl’s. He was finding the road system confusing and grinned at me in the mirror and said ‘I’ll manque une rue!’ I remember it after all this time because on on level I knew, instantly (once I had got over the fright of being spoken to by a man, a French man, and a priest) that he meant A road is missing , or We’re a road short, but I couldn’t quite BELIEVE I had understood it. Another part of my brain was still reciting There lacks a road… It misses a road… So I think I was just at that crossover point where you stop trying to translate from your native tongue and start experiencing another language directly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It takes quite a while to make that crossover! I still get confused by the way “manquer” is used in French sometimes. I remember when I found out that “I miss you” in Italian is “Mi manchi:” it sounded odd as it doesn’t have a clear word for “you,” and sounded like “I’m lacking.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would be delighted if my Korean (or any other language) ever got to this level of almost-but-not-quite!

    This evening I heard one student say to another: “My grandmother born India, but my mother born Malaysia”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well Chinese no doubt has its challenges. There not being an alphabet is one biggie. But I find the grammar to be much simpler than English or Romance languages. The idea of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs is much more fluid and the part of speech changes only based on context, even though you are using the same character (word.)

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  5. I had a hard with translation. There are words in our language (Filipino) that have no direct translation in English. I got used to classroom lessons that there should be a word per word translation but later I learned that you can say something in a different manner with the same meaning. Watching American TV Series/Movies/Documentaries/Vlogs really helped me with conversational English (aside from learning other things). πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] I don’t mean to be too critical of such a mindset, because I understand where it comes from, especially in adults who feel their learning days are long behind them. But if you’re learning a language, you have to be willing to accept that, even if you have an amazing teacher, you have to put in a lot of work, and be imaginative and open-minded about how you think about language. To butcher a well-worn phrase: a second language is like a foreign country – they do things differently there. […]


  7. Contractions can be confusing too in those times when we wouldn’t use them. “Are you coming on Friday? If you are, I’ll give you a lift”. We wouldn’t say “If you’re, I’ll give you a lift”, presumably because of the comma, but nobody ever taught me that at school. The same applies to questions. “I’m trying to work out how long you’ll be. Can you tell me where you are?” (Not where you’re)


  8. I still find it difficult to understand the spoken English. Tomorrow morning I heard on Duolingo “We fall of the captain” … Ooookaaay, I thought, why not? 😳 … I have listened to it several times and the right version is “We follow the captain.” πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

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