Verbal Energy

Learning English at a snail's pace

A look at the BBC's efforts to help people learn English reminds the Monitor's language columnist how glad she is to be a native speaker.

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Dear reader, welcome to another round of "I'm So Glad I'm a Native Speaker of English Because I Don't Know How I'd Ever Have Learned These Rules."

The British Broadcasting Corporation, universally known as the BBC, offers quite an array of online resources for learning English. Other broadcasters make efforts at this (CNN, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), but for the BBC, it seems to be a mission. The French would call it a mission civilisatrice – although they would also say that to be really civilized, you'd have to learn French.

The Beeb offers little "Words in the News" video clips in which a presenter talks through a simple news story, highlighting key vocabulary. There are also animated series, such as "The Flatmates." Think of this one as "Friends" on a low budget – a very low budget. The story lines illustrate idiomatic expressions and grammatical nuances.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

There are also opportunities to write in with questions. This is not for the faint of heart. The exchanges illustrate both the subtleties of the "rules" most of us native speakers absorb without ever quite "learning," and also the effort many English learners make to get it right.

For instance, someone identified as "Mr. Smolin in Poland" writes, "Is it true that 'Hadn't it been for ...' (as an alternative to 'Had it not been for ...') is incorrect?"

Yes, indeed, the BBC responds; it is incorrect. A sentence such as, "Had it not rained, we would have gone to the beach," is perfectly correct. There are other equally correct, and more common, ways to say this, including, "If it hadn't rained, we would have gone to the beach." But "Hadn't it rained, we would have gone to the beach" is not one of them.

Mr. Smolin is clearly on to something. I don't know how many native speakers use the inverted construction, but I will venture that none of them would say, "Hadn't it rained...." This is a rule native speakers just know but learners have to master.

Phrasal verbs turn out to be another minefield. Consider "to check (something) out," as in, "We're going to check out the new club." What the Beeb calls "the particle" (in this case, out) can go either before or after the object ("club") – if it's a noun. "We're going to check the new club out" is a perfectly fine variation.

But if the object is a pronoun, the particle must come at the end. In other words, "We're going to check it out," but not "We're going to check out it." This is NOT CORRECT, the BBC warns sternly.

If the grammar sections of "Learning English" are about idioms and constructions, the "news stories" are about vocabulary and current phrases.

One of these recent items focused on a new thing in Japan: "snail facials."

Snail slime is supposed to make the skin supple – those are two of the vocabulary words in the piece. The customer gets into the reclining chair and sits there calmly (if the video is to be believed) as the snails the beautician places on her face make their way across her skin.

The BBC report is silent on the really big question here: How do customers get themselves into a frame of mind to accept snails slithering across their faces?

It may take time to know for sure. At about $100 a pop, snail facials are expensive. They may catch on only – and here I'll use the most useful vocabulary term from the piece – at a snail's pace.

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