Because, er, it’s English.

Learning a language is hard. Teaching a language is hard. I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of this school year in an ESL position and it got me thinking again about how difficult languages are for the student and teacher. Every language has its own foibles and idiosyncrasies that native speakers don’t normally think about. As a teacher of languages, it is important to always remember that the subject matter is often completely foreign and without logic or consistency.

Take the sound ‘er’ in English. It appears in words like ‘mother’, ‘better’, and ‘can opener’. Native speakers may not realize how ubiquitous (and confusing) that simple syllable can be.

Perhaps the least grammatical of places we find the sound is at the end of nouns from which they are inseparable. A short list may include her, ever, other, flower, conquer, leftover, willpower, and radiometer. In these words, the syllable is simply part of the word. Removing the ‘er’ makes the word unrelated to the original or incomprehensible. For language learners, this may be the easiest or hardest type to learn because there is no pattern or rule. It is simply a list of words that have to be remembered.

A more active function of the ‘er’ sound is to make a word, usually a verb, into someone or something that does something. This form of the syllable is found in words like seer, flyer, opener, teacher, informer, filmmaker, and programmer. In this role, the ‘er’ serves as changing the word to a noun that serves some function or does some action. For example, a founder is one who founds something and a computer is something that computes.

Another grammatical configuration of ‘er’ is in the comparative. Examples are words such as bigger, smaller, faster, and taller. The sense is to be more of the referenced quality than another thing. So if something is harder, it is more difficult, more resilient, or more solid than something else. This function has the happy exception that many common adjectives do not follow this convention. Better, not gooder. More beautiful, not beautifuler.

These are the grammar book examples, but spoken English has the sound in a few more places. It is often uttered as a filler word, used as a signal that the speaker hasn’t finished but is searching for a word. It fills a pause in the conversation. Other sounds that play the same role are ‘ah’, ‘uh’, and ‘um’. The ‘er’ sound is also frequently heard in between two or more options and corresponds to ‘or’. Finally, there are some colloquial expressions where the sound represents ‘her’. Get ‘er done or Take ‘er easy come to mind.

This is just a few places where a simple English sound can have a variety of different meanings and confuse speakers of other languages. Have you come across a sound or grammatical construction that has been particularly confusing in your learning or teaching of other languages? I would love to hear about it.


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