So, what is English like, relevant to Cree?
Here are some important features of English that you’ll need to take stock of if you want to understand what you’re facing in learning Cree (or, really, a lot of other languages):
1. English does not build very complex words.
Most of the words in English are made up of one “piece” (one “morpheme”). Words like “horse” and “kick” and “want” are all single “blocks” of English. English has a few “pieces” in it; things like -s (dogs) and -ed (kicked), but they are very, very limited. That’s not true for all languages.
2. English likes to tell you who is doing what to who by the order of the words.
In “John kicked the ball,” we know it’s John doing the kicking because the word is in front of the verb. Some other languages might put “John” after the verb (like Turkish or Japanese). Some languages might say “screw it” and skip the whole “word order” problem here entirely (e.g. Greek or Polish).
3. English doesn’t care about the difference between dependent and independent clauses terrible much.
You typically just add a word like “because” or “then” or “that” to the normal sentences. “John kicked the ball” vs. “because John kicked the ball.” So, in English, you can use basically the same sentence for “John kicked the ball” and “I know that John kicked the ball.” This is not true for all languages – in fact it’s not true for quite a few. Take German, for example. Good luck there, if you think you don’t need to know what a “dependent clause” is. Ha ha ha! The entire Symposium, written by Plato, is written in dependent clauses (because it’s a quotation).
4. English has very complicated syllables.
Huge, in fact. Words like ‘strength’ are one syllable, but look at all those consonants in there! Wow! English doesn’t have the world’s most complicated syllable structure, but compared to the world’s languages, English is much, much more complex than average.
5. English has a lot of vowels, and a lot of sounds in general (compared to an average language).
English has a lot more than the average language does – particularly in the vowel department. I know you think English has a, e, i, o, and u for vowels, but actually there are more like 15. Listen to any second-language speaker of English and you’ll hear them struggle with the vowels. Most languages won’t have that many vowels.
6. English loves its definite articles ‘the’ and ‘a.’
These are used a lot, and they have complex and powerful meanings that we linguists have still not sorted out very well. Don’t expect these words to show up in whatever other language you want to learn, because they won’t. I don’t know of another language that uses words like ‘the’ and ‘a’ with the same meanings and patterns that English does. You will have to expect to unlearn them, wither it’s for French or German or Malaysian or Huarani. The meanings that ‘the’ and ‘a’ convey in English will be there in these languages, but they could be done in all kinds of other ways. For example, some of what ‘the’ does in English is done in Czech by putting the noun in front of the verb. In some African languages, it’s nasalization. You don’t know until you come to the new language.
7. English likes to use tone of voice to emphasize and change meanings in complex ways.
You don’t hear it as a native speaker (and even many linguists have a hard time noticing it), but it is definitely there in force. “JOHN kicked the ball, vs. John KICKED the ball, vs. John kicked THE BALL. vs. JOHN kicked the ball?” etc. etc.) We also use tone to indicate a question. You might think that’s normal for language, but it isn’t. Most languages use some kind of particle to do this (e.g. Japanese ka).
8. English uses special, independent words called “pronouns” and it uses them A LOT.
I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, you, him, her, it, us, them. They are busy, busy, busy in English. Not all languages have these little words. And even if a language does, it may not use them how English does (e.g. Mandarin has them, but prefers not to use them in a number of context where English would). Be on your guard!
9. English uses a lot of unrelated words instead of making sets related of words.
We have “snow” and we have “slush” and we have “flakes” and we have “flurries” and so on. These words are not related in any straightforward way. This is not how all languages work. For example, you could imagine “snow” and “slush” in some other language being made from the same base word (e.g. “snow”) and then adding a suffix that means “watery.” And then make “flakes” by adding a suffix that means “little pieces” and so on.
The way English does it seems fine enough to English speakers, but it tends to make them think that part of the job of learning a foreign language is vocabulary. These kinds of learners then complain loudly when you start giving them systems and rules instead of vocabulary lists. Actually, the expectation that you need to learn a lot of vocabulary is not necessarily true. If the language you’re trying to learn is one of the “builder” kinds of languages, you’ll actually be better served learning the system it uses, instead of memorizing needlessly. It’s needless because you’ll be memorizing the same things over and over again, without learning the system that makes it simple to build new words.
10. English doesn’t have very many kinds of nouns
In English, we don’t have a great deal of noun types. We have “count” and “mass” nouns (“dog” vs. “water”) and that’s about it, from a grammatical point of view. You can say “I saw three dogs.” but not “I saw three waters.” This is one of the only grammatical differences you have to worry about in the noun system of English. That’s almost never true for other languages. In European languages, you have “gender” (la vs. el in Spanish, for example). In Some African languages (like Dinka), you have as many as 200 classes of nouns. In other languages, you only worry about these classes when you count them (e.g. Mandarin), while in some languages, you have to indicate which “class” a noun is every time you use it, and on every verb you use it with (e.g. isiZulu).
When you’re trying to learn a foreign language, a good way to approach these issues is to think about the abstract concepts laying underneath the surface. All languages care about the meaning that underlies English tone of voice. If you begin get what those underlying meanings ARE, you will begin to look for them in the new language, using them as guideposts for your learning.