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Non-Native English Speakers and the GMAT

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Ethan Hein is an editor and social media guru at Knewton.

As a non-native speaker of English, you may find the verbal section of the GMAT especially daunting. You’re not alone. English is a particularly difficult language to learn as an adult. It’s a blend of several different older languages that still coexist uneasily in the grammar and vocabulary. The roots of English in German rub uneasily against its roots in Latin in ways that resist intuition. A lot of “wrong” usage by non-native speakers is more logical than correct usage. Knowing some of the back story can hopefully make you feel less frustrated as you try to absorb it all.

England wasn’t even the first home of English. In ancient times the people there spoke indigenous languages that are the precursors to Irish and Welsh. When Germanic tribes invaded, they pushed the indigenous British tongues to the corners of what are now the British Isles. Old English was a blend of German and Scandinavian languages. A few Latin words also entered via the Germanic tribes’ long interaction with the Roman Empire.

When the Norman French invaded and conquered England in the 11th century, they brought their Latin-based language with them. While common people continued to speak their German-based language, the ruling class used the Latin-based vocabulary and grammar of French. Eventually the two blended to form a single language, but divisions remain. German-based English words have a “lower,” more casual connotation, while French-based words sound more formal. Compare the Germanic “sweat” to the Latinate “perspiration,” or Germanic “friendly” with the Latinate “cordial.”

As Great Britain expanded its colonial and imperial presence, English continuously appropriated foreign vocabulary. America, Australia and other former English-speaking colonies developed the language in new directions, creating a variety of new idioms and slang. These countries’ industrialization created the need for a lot of new scientific and technical vocabulary, also frequently borrowed from other languages.

Because it’s such a mutt, English has an unusually wide variety of irregular and otherwise eccentric verbs from its parent languages. Unfortunately, the most bizarre verbs are the ones English uses the most. The modern English verb “to be” seems grammatically insane:  I am. You are. He, she, it is. We are. I am not a runner now, but I used to be. She is not a good cook, but she will be. What possible logic ties it all together? “To be” is an amalgamation of several Proto-Indo-European verbs that all performed the same functions. Be, is and were all came from different verbs that all presumably made sense in their original form. Now, they form a set of arbitrary rules that just need to be memorized.

The illogic of “to be” extends to its use as an auxiliary. Dropping the auxiliary “to be” is “wrong,” even though it can make your speech clearer. Vernacular English drops the auxiliary all the time: “Where you at?” “We at the house.”

The dummy auxiliary verbs “to do” and “to have” are further historical oddities. “Did you take the bus?” “Yes, I did.” “He hasn’t taken the bus in a while.” “Will the bus have already left yet by nine o’clock?” “Do I have to take the bus today?” “Yes, you do, the car has broken down again.” It’s hard for a non-native speaker to keep all the idiomatic distinctions straight. Why do you make a mistake and not do a mistake? Why do you do a favor and not make a favor? It’s all arbitrary and historical.

Another challenge is the interdental sound “th.” English is one of the very few languages in the world aside from Icelandic to use this sound, and we use it in some of our most commonly used words: the, this, that, them.

So what can you do? Spending time talking to native speakers helps with your overall fluency, but for GMAT sentence correction it can get you into trouble, since native speakers routinely make grammar mistakes. The best bet is to read rigorously copyedited publications aimed at educated readers: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s. The Economist has wonderful writing but be advised that it uses British idioms rather than American ones. Opinion pieces by the editors use the most correct, least slang-y writing. General news pieces are written faster and aren’t as rigorous. They may also use more slang and informal language.

The one bit of good news for non-native speakers prepping for the GMAT is that you won’t be misled by a lifetime of non-standard usage. All five choices on a sentence correction question will look equally puzzling at first glance. Native speakers can glance at those questions and get an immediate intuition for which one feels right, but sometimes that intuition leads them astray. Non-Native speakers have the advantage of learning rules, and applying themselves analytically rather than following their gut.

For help with English idioms, check out these web sites:

Wiktionary English idioms (Very thorough)

American idioms

Good luck in your struggles with our mongrel native tongue!

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Written by Knewton

November 2, 2009 at 2:20 PM

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