The English Sentence

Most people have an Achilles heel: an area of weakness or vulnerability. According to the ancient Greek myth, Achilles, the Trojan War hero celebrated in Homer’s Iliad, was invulnerable—except for one small spot on his body: his heel. Paris, a warrior for the other side, shot the poisoned arrow that killed Achilles when it pierced his only weak spot. 

As a non-native English learner, what’s your Achilles heel? Is writing your particular bugaboo? Maybe you freeze up at meetings when you’re expected to contribute your thoughts on the spot? Or do you have trouble with pronunciation? 

In my current TOEFL class, each of my students has strengths and weaknesses—but there’s one aspect of English that drives nearly all of them crazy: the structure of the English sentence itself

Back to Basics 

In time, with enough practice, learners take in the structure of an acquired language so that it becomes second nature. Earlier in the learning process, however, basic aspects of the language—word order, for example, and the way phrases and clauses hang together—are far from obvious. 

I was reminded of the way early-stage learners struggle with English sentences when students in my TOEFL class misunderstood an essay-writing prompt: 

The best things in life are free. 

That’s an old expression, and most Americans are familiar with it. 

The full prompt went like this: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: The best things in life are free. Give reasons and examples to support your opinion. 

Listen to the following song. As you can hear from the lyrics, the songwriter agrees that the best things in life don’t cost anything:

Now, here’s an opposing view—another old song called “Money (That’s What I Want!):

Guessing It Wrong 

My students proceeded to write on this topic for a half an hour, printed out their essays, and handed them in to me. Over the weekend, I took a look at their work—and I was shocked to see that none of them had understood the meaning of the prompt. Their essays all seemed to come out of left field

Most of them had responded to the prompt as if it meant: 

The best thing about life is freedom. 

Advanced English speakers will quickly recognize the source of my students’ confusion. First, they missed the fact that the subject of the sentence, “things,” is plural. The sentence is about things, not an abstract thing. “The best things,” then, are the things in life that make you happy. These wonderful “free” things may include air, trees, love, sunshine, and friendship. 

My students understood the concept of “free,” but instead of seeing it as an adjective describing “things,” they interpreted it as if it were a noun: freedom. That’s why they wrote copiously about the benefits of personal freedom, a very different topic from the one suggested by the prompt. 

If my students had paid attention to the final “s” of things—the plural—and the use of “free” as an adjective—they might have gotten the gist of the prompt. 

Easy for Me to Say 

It’s easy for a native speaker to shake her head and say, “What’s wrong with these students? Why don’t they get it?” Yet when I try to imagine the structure of the Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, or Korean sentence—these are just some of the native languages of the students I’ve been teaching—I can’t! 

The English sentence, so intuitive, so obvious to native speakers--even the most uneducated among us—is a puzzle of sorts for early-stage learners. When I put myself in their shoes, I begin to understand that what seems like a simple sentence—the best things in life are free—might be anything but. 

Here’s a final piece of gentle advice: Don’t let the TOEFL—that notoriously difficult Test of English as a Foreign Language—become your Achilles heel. Postpone it until you’re further along and have mastered the basics of the English sentence.

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