logo ELT Concourse: a simple, illustrated grammar of English
illustrated grammar

My language and English

Examples in red on this page are wrong.

compare languages

There are about 6000 languages in the world and they are all different.


help

How does comparing my language with English help me to learn English?

There are two good reasons to do this:

  1. If you know how your language is similar to English you can use the information to understand the grammar.
  2. If you know how your language is different from English you can avoid mistakes.

source

Where does English come from?

English is a Germanic language.  Its closest relatives are languages like German and Dutch as well as Scandinavian languages.
Most European languages are related to each other so they are similar in some ways.  The languages come from something people spoke thousands of years ago called proto Indo-European.


speak

What type of language do you speak?

Can you find your language on this map?

language map

For example:

If you come from North Africa or the Middle East, you probably speak a Semitic language like one of the varieties of Arabic or Hebrew.
If you come from Europe, you probably speak an Indo-European language but there are some different groups of these including Slavic (Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovak etc.), Romance or Italic languages (French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, Italian etc.), Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian etc.) and Greek.
If you come from the East Asia, you probably speak Japanese, Korean, a Chinese language, Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman or an Austronesian language.


differ

How do languages differ?

These are the main ways that your language may be the same or different from English and you should know about them.

1

The main word order

English puts the subject first, then the verb and then the object.  For example:

strawberry I like strawberries
  Subject Verb Object

Now translate I like strawberries into your first language.  What do you find?  Here are the six possibilities:
translation order  
I strawberries like Subject + Object + Verb This is the most common order.  Is your language in this list?
Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Basque, Bengali, Burmese, Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese, Kazakh, Korean, Kurdish, Nepali, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Sinhalese, Somali, Tibetan, Tamil, Telugu, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek
I like strawberries Subject + Verb + Object This is the second most common order.  Is your language in this list?
Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, Kurdish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Italian, Javanese, Kashmiri, Khmer, Macedonian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swahili, Thai, Vietnamese
Like I strawberries Verb + Subject + Object This is third most common order.  Is your language in this list?
Arabic, Berber, Breton, Cebuano, Classical Hebrew, Hawaiian, Irish, Malagasy, Manx, Māori, Scottish Gaelic, Tagalog, Tongan, Welsh
Strawberries  I like Object + Subject + Verb Your language does not normally do this.  No languages do but some allow it in certain structures.
Strawberries like I Object + Verb + Subject This is very unusual but possible in some languages.  It is not the usual order.
Like strawberries I Verb + Object + Subject This is very uncommon but some Austronesian languages do this. 

Almost certainly, your language is one of the first three.

Did you have Strawberries, I like them?
If you did, you probably have a topicalising language.  These languages like to put the topic (not the subject) first and then make a sentence.  English does not do this but many Chinese languages do it a lot.
Other examples are:
John, I saw him yesterday (in English, this must be I saw John yesterday)
John, he's coming tomorrow (in English this must be John is coming tomorrow)
etc.

Here's a list of some common languages.  Is your language here?

Subject–Verb–Object
The man took the money
Subject–Object–Verb
The man the money took
Albanian
Arabic
Bulgarian
Catalan
Chinese languages
Danish
English
Estonian
Finnish
French
German (in both lists)
Greek
Icelandic
Indonesian
Italian
Hebrew
Norwegian
Polish
Portuguese
Russian
Slovak
Spanish
Swedish
Tagalog
Thai
Ukrainian
Afrikaans
Armenian
Basque
Bengali
Burmese
Dutch
German (in both lists)
Gujarati
Hungarian
Japanese
Kazakh
Korean
Kurdish
Latin
Maltese
Marathi
Mongolian
Pashto
Persian (Farsi)
Punjabi
Sicilian
Sinhala
Somali
Tajik
Tamil
Turkish

2

Adjectives and determiners

In English, most adjectives come before the noun.  We have:
the blue house, the wonderful news, the most interesting film etc.
not
the house blue, the news wonderful, the film most interesting etc.
What happens in your language?
In lots of languages, e.g., French, Italian, Spanish, most adjectives come after the noun.
In English, too, we put determiners like my, that, twelve, those, our etc. before the noun.  Other languages do this differently.
In your language, do you say my house or house my?

3

Possessives

English is unusual because we can say:
The government's opinion
and
The opinion of the government
In the first sentence, the possessive ('s) comes before the noun.  In the second sentence the possessive (of) comes after the noun.

What does your language do?

4

Prepositions or postpositions?

In English, the preposition follows the verb and comes before the noun (that's why we call them pre-positions).
Some languages, such as Japanese, Hindi, Finnish and Turkish, have post-positions.
What does your language do?  Do you say:
He walked over the road
or
He walked the road over

5

Gender

lions
lioness and lion

Modern English does not have male and female nouns (except for people and animals).  English sometimes makes a difference between male and female people and jobs.  So for example, we can have
steward (male) and stewardess (female)
actor (male or female) and actress (female only)
manager (male or female) and manageress (female only)
Most of these words are no longer used so we just have actor, manager etc.

Many languages (including yours?) have genders for all nouns so, for example, in French, the moon is female and the sun is male, in German, girl is neuter, group is female and cheese is male.  In some other languages, there is a difference in gender between animate and inanimate nouns and so on.

In languages which have a gender, usually the article and the adjectives change to show if something is masculine, feminine or neuter.  So, for example, in Spanish a noun, the article and the adjective will all change to show if it is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.

English does not do this at all.  We never change an adjective or an article to show gender.  We have:
an unhappy man, an unhappy woman, three unhappy children and so on.
What does your language do?

6

Endings and other changes

A lot of languages change the form of the verb, the noun, adjectives, articles and so on to show changes to number and gender.  For example, in English we add -s to show that a verb is singular and in the third person:
He arrives on Monday but they come on Tuesday.
English also changes the end of a verb to show past tense:
He usually works in this room but yesterday he worked in that one.
English does not make many other changes but some languages are much more complicated.
For example, German shows whether a noun is the object or the subject of a verb by changes to the article and sometimes the noun itself.
In English, articles, nouns and adjectives do not change to show case.  Pronouns do change.  For more on that, see the section on pronouns.

7

Vocabulary

Sometimes, words are borrowed by one language from another.
Sometimes, too, languages which are close to each other will share many words.
English takes its words from earlier languages like this:
influences
It's easy to see that if you speak French or a Germanic or Latin-based language, many words will be easy to understand for you.
Be careful: sometimes the same word in English will have a different meaning from the word in your language.  For more, see the exercises on False Friends.

8

Pronunciation

pronunciation

Of course, languages are pronounced differently.
In some languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin, every syllable takes up the same time.  So we get:
I ... went ... to ... Lon ... don ... with ... my ... bro ... ther

In other languages, such as English, Dutch, Farsi and Scandinavian languages, some syllables take longer to say than others.  So we get:
Iwentto ... L o n d'n ... withmy ... b r o the(r)
Here's a list.  Can you find your language here?

LANGUAGES LIKE ENGLISH LANGUAGES LIKE FRENCH
ARABIC (with variations)
CATALAN
DUTCH
ENGLISH
FARSI
GERMAN
PORTUGUESE (EUROPEAN)
RUSSIAN
SCANDINAVIAN LANGUAGES
CHINESE LANGUAGES (also tonal)
FRENCH
GREEK
INDIAN LANGUAGES
ITALIAN
JAPANESE
PORTUGUESE (BRAZILIAN)
SPANISH
SWAHILI
THAI (also tonal)
TURKISH
VIETNAMESE (also tonal)
WEST AFRICAN LANGUAGES

Tonal languages such as Vietnamese can change the meaning of a word by changing the pitch of the voice.
Does your language do this?


ideas

What do I do with this information?

First, make a note of how your language is different from English like this:

  • What is the main word order in your language?  Remember that most positive sentences in English are SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT.
  • Can your language have something like: That factory, that is where my father works?  Remember that English does not do this.  You should say: That factory is where my father works or My father works in that factory
  • Does your language say a beautiful day or a day beautiful?  Remember that most adjectives in English come before the noun.
  • Does your language say This is Mary's pencil or This is the pencil of Mary?  Remember that English does both but with people you should say Mary's pencil.
  • Does your language say He walked under the bridge or He walked the bridge under?  Remember that English uses prepositions not postpositions.  Put the preposition between the verb and the noun: He is standing on the chair.
  • Does your language make a difference between masculine and feminine nouns?  Remember that English does not do this for most nouns so you should not use he or she for things.  Don't say: I have lost my pen and don't know where she is.  In English, that is I have lost my pen and don't know where it is.
  • Does your language change the end of adjectives?  English never does this so don't say The greens housesIn English, that is The green houses.
  • Are there lots of words in your language that look like English words?  Try these:
    land
    house
    democracy
    extraordinary
    notebook
    club
    sensitive

    Use this information but be careful to check that the meaning is the same in your language.
  • Listen to someone speaking in English (try the listening exercises on this site) and try to copy the pattern of strong words and syllables.  Don't say: I have been to London.  Try to say I'vebinto LONdn.