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Two native German speakers have each told me that conversational English is easy to learn because its number of case-endings, agreement morphemes, and other grammatical morphemes is small. However, these same two people told me that complex English discourse was difficult for them to learn, owing to the lack of said morphology, which guides the speaker of highly inflected languages through long sentences, and the syntactic structures that English speakers used instead of said morphology in long sentences.

What are some of these English syntactic structures?

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    Unless I'm misunderstanding, you're talking about the trade-off between inflectional complexity and strict word order (see slide 13). Basically, English word order is extremely fixed since, other than word order, we have no way of, for example, differentiating subject from object. A native speaker of a language with a less restrictive word order may find English's fixed word order difficult to grasp. – acattle Sep 22 '13 at 6:23
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    Especially in complex sentences? – James Grossmann Sep 22 '13 at 6:42
  • Some research into the word order in German tells me that German word order is different from English, but still fixed. So the issue is probably that they simply aren't familiar with English's word order yet. Remember, English is SVO but German is actually a V2 langauge with some people saying it generates as SOV (as evidenced by embedded clauses being SOV). – acattle Sep 22 '13 at 9:31
  • Could you talk to your friends and get a specific example of sentence they find difficult and what exactly they find difficult about it? Right now I'm simply guessing at what might be the cause (thus why I'm commenting, not answering. Also I don't understand German). It would help guide people's answers – acattle Sep 22 '13 at 9:33
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    @acattle whether or not German is SOV underlyingly aside, the surface word order in German is much more flexible than in English. As you correctly note, German is V2. Pretty much any constituent may be fronted to the initial position before the verb (modulo information structure), so you get things like this (German with English words, roughly): (a) John went to the shops yesterday with Mary (b) to the shops went John yesterday with Mary (c) yesterday went John to the shops with Mary etc. German allows a wider range of movement operations to disrupt the canonical word order. – P Elliott Sep 22 '13 at 11:58
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acattle's comment that there is a trade-off between inflectional complexity and strict word order is a good answer to your question. I think it would really help to illustrate this with some examples.

First of all, let's look at English word order (actually it's the order of constituents, not words):

Subject Verb Object

The dog bit the man.

The man bit the dog.

English word order is SVO. If you move the object to subject position and subject to object position the meaning of the sentence changes fundamentally. The dog bit the man is not the same as The man bit the dog.

In German, however, you can reverse the order of these consituents without changing the (truth-conditional) meaning of the sentence:

Der Hund biß den Mann. (SVO)

Den Mann biß der Hund. (OVS)

Den Mann is accusative, so although it's in first position in the second sentence, it's still clear that the man/den Mann is the object in both sentences. Word order is free in German in the sense that these two sentences describe the same action. However, OVS word order is marked and might be used to stress the identity of the object, somewhat like It was the man that was bitten by the dog, not the woman.

In German you can move constituents around because they are marked by case. In English you can't, but there are other strategies to do that: It was the man that was bitten by the dog shows two: Passive and it-cleft.

(Other aspects like verb-second word order and the Vorfeld - Mittelfeld - Nachfeld distinction only show that German word order is not completely free - But still it is much more flexible than English word order.)

However, German also has these syntactic options. As a native speaker of German and with some experience in teaching English to advanced learners of English, I don't really see how English discourse structure should be terribly hard to learn for native speakers of German. There are some idiosyncrasies, in the sense that one particular structure is more appropriate in a certain context in English, but another one in German. But you get that with any pair of two languages. What I do think is challenging, particularly for advanced learners of English, are choices in English syntax where there is no hard and fast rule. For example whether to use simple past or present perfect to express an action in the past, or whether to use the of-genitive or the s-genitive/possessive.

Your friends might find English discourse structure challenging for their particular reasons - After all learners are individuals and everybody has their own way of learning a foreign language. Also, I think what you perceive as difficult in a foreign language and what actually is difficult for you can be two very different things (that's my personal experience from teaching - So I don't have any actual data to back this up).

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  • Thanks @robert, this was an excellent answer. By the way, there's a somewhat entertaining typo in your second example you might want to address :-) – P Elliott Sep 23 '13 at 9:22
  • @PElliott, thanks :) Where's the typo? Can't seem to find it. – robert Sep 23 '13 at 9:26
  • "The man bit the god" - unless that was intentional! – P Elliott Sep 23 '13 at 9:46
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English uses syntactic configurations that need to be learnt. According to some linguists, configurationality is a scale from completely fixed word order (no language has it) to completely free word order in so-called radically nonconfigurational language (Latin and Warlpiri are examples of such languages). Word order expresses information structure (topic-focus articulation) and since it's relatively fixed in English (as a result of impoverished morphology), I suppose that what your friends meant is that English discourse is seemingly less coherent for them because information structure is expressed by different means (syntax instead of word order).

On the other hand, non-German speakers have problems with intrasentential coherence in German because nonfinite verbs occur in the nachfeld (although word order in the mittelfeld is completely free). In my opinion, German sentence topology is much more challenging than English configurationality.

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One of the benefits of case syncretism in english is the lack of restriction between verbs and their objects.

English: I saw and helped her
The above example is not possible in Russian

Russian: Я увидел её и помог ей - I saw her and helped her
её = accusative case for увидел
ей = dative case for помог

The Virtual Linguistics Campus have a video clip named "Syntax - The Consequences of Case Syncretism" in relation to this topic.

Native speakers of English, and of course linguists, find it much easier to play around with word order.

It seems easy, to me
To me, it seems easy
It, to me, seems easy
Easy, it seems, to me

Note: I realize the last two examples are far less common but would be quite likely to occur in a stage play for effect. I can imagine Humphrey Appleby saying "It, to me, seems easy, Minister." with the appropriate pauses, naturally.

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  • Do you think you could provide transliteration for the Russian example? I can't read Cyrillic ;) – robert Sep 23 '13 at 22:18
  • ~ Ya uvidel yeyo i pomog yey – user2498 Sep 24 '13 at 15:59

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