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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.

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.


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