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MEP learning pack

Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19

3

Speech, language and communication development

3.4

The structure of the English language

Languages can be classified according to the order in which the Subject, Verb and Object usually appear in a sentence. English is known as an SVO language - Subject-Verb-Object - for example, ‘John (S) saw (V) the cat (O)’. Adjectives precede the noun and there is no gender categorisation of nouns.

English uses morphemes (parts of words that carry meaning) to add elements such as tense and plurality to the meaning of words. In ‘regular’ words these are often prefixes or suffixes. Examples of the functions that can be marked in this way are:

  • plurality, e.g. dogs, children, phenomena
  • possession, e.g. boy’s, John’s
  • comparison, e.g. bigger, highest
  • tenses, e.g. dragged, whispered
  • opposites, e.g. inappropriate, misunderstanding.

English contains a large number of words, and some claim that it has the largest vocabulary of any language. The proof for this has mainly been based on the numbers of entries in various dictionaries, but as pointed out in an article in The Economist (2010), it is very difficult to compare languages.

[English] certainly has the largest vocabulary . . . by a long, long, long, long way. Rather as China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words.

Stephen Fry

The Economist - The biggest vocabulary?

BBC News - The words in the mental cupboard

A large percentage of these words have come into the English language from other languages as English is very open to ‘borrowing’ words. About three-fifths of 20,000 commonly used words are borrowed from other languages.

In the written form, English is known as a non-transparent language, i.e. there is not a strong grapheme – phoneme relationship as there is in languages such as Spanish and Dutch. This means that children learning to read and write in English have to contend with various different spellings for the same sound, and are less able to use ‘sounding out’ techniques for working out the pronunciation of a previously unseen word.

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