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5 Things That Make English Difficult for Foreigners to Learn

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A billion people are learning English around the world and most of them are struggling with the same things. In 12 years of teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), I was surprised to find that there is little overlap between the mistakes foreigners make and the struggles native speakers have. English learners rarely mix up they’re/there/their or your/you’re and certainly have much less trouble with apostrophes than I do. The unpredictability of English spelling is hard for learners and native speakers alike but, for the foreigner, it’s the grammar native speakers use without thinking that proves the trickiest. Here are five of the biggest quagmires in English.

1. EVERYDAY WORDS THAT DON’T MEAN ANYTHING

How would you describe what you do in the mornings? Something like this, I expect: "When my alarm goes off, I get up, take off my pajamas, put on my clothes and set off to work."

That list looks basic, but it's full of one of the most frustratingly perplexing constructions in English: the dreaded phrasal verb—verbs followed by one or two prepositions. The key words in that sentence make no sense to millions of people around the world learning English as a foreign language. Your alarm goes where? Why do you get up rather than stand up? Clothing gets put on but not put off, taken off but not taken on. And as for set and off, neither of those words really mean anything at all if you think about them, so what on earth do they mean when they're together?

There are thousands of phrasal verbs, literally enough to fill special dictionaries just for them. To make it worse, any one of these unfathomable constructions can have several meanings. How many definitions can you think of for "to put off"?

2. TOO MANY WAYS TO TALK ABOUT THE FUTURE

When it comes to talking about what we’re going to do next, English makes things as confusing as possible. We have eight (or more, depending on whether you count expressions like It’s bound to rain tomorrow) different grammatical structures to express the future. They often convey extremely subtle subtexts which another native speaker automatically picks up on.

For example, I ask you about your plans for dinner tonight and you say, “I’ll get pizza on the way home.” I know you just decided spontaneously to do that. Whereas, if you tell me you’re going to get pizza, I understand that you’ve given it prior thought. And, if you say, “I’m getting pizza,” I know it’s fixed in your mind as part of tonight’s plan, maybe you’ve even booked the restaurant. Or, you might say “I was going to get pizza,” a structure that’s sometimes known as the future in the past, signaling you might be open to changing your mind. Finally, “The pizza guy delivers at 8 p.m.” tells me you’re a junk food addict with a regularly scheduled delivery.

There are at least three more future mashups (I’ll be eating, I’ll have eaten, I will have been eating) that make the plot of Interstellar look simple. When foreigners start learning English, they are taught to use will. And then they spend the rest of their English learning career unlearning everything they thought they knew. And that’s just to talk about the real future—when we start talking about the imaginary future, it’s even worse.

3. THE UNREAL FUTURE

Imagine two employees talking about their future. Neither of them are particularly in love with their jobs, so they share their dreams for changing their lives. "If I changed careers, I'd become a vet," one says. The other replies, "Yeah, if I change careers, I'll become a chef."

If we were eavesdropping on their conversation, we would unconsciously know that the first employee sees themselves as unlikely to ever follow their dream, just from their grammar. But the second person sees the possibility of changing career as much likelier to happen. The English learner, however, is struggling to work out whether the conversation is about the future at all, let alone the degree of likelihood it carries.

“If I changed careers …” in the past? “If I change careers…” now? In English conditionals like these, we use the past to show we’re talking about an unlikely future, and the present to show we’re talking about a probable future. Which makes no sense unless you’re Marty McFly.

4. LITTLE WORDS HAVE BIG JOBS

If you’ve never had to study grammar in any depth, you might not know that you use auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary supposedly means “helping,” but never has a grammar term been more misleadingly applied. For the student of English they are an impediment that begins at entry level and keeps on being a problem forever. English uses them to ask questions, to negate sentences, to give emphasis, and to show we already know the answer to the question we’re asking. They are the little words be, do, and have, their past equivalents was/were, did, and had, and the negatives of all seven of them. And any other words that get added in to “help,” like will, would, can, should etc. Now, has that made it clear? They aren’t easy, though they do trip off the tongue for native speakers, don’t they?

If that’s not unhelpful enough, the position of the auxiliary relative to the “main” verb in the sentence varies depending on the tense and whether it’s a question or a statement. Also, not all questions need an auxiliary (subject questions like “Who saw you?” as opposed to “Who did you see?”), and “to be” has its own rules.

5. LITTLE WORDS HAVE LONG RULES

English has some even smaller words that cause problems far out of proportion to their size: the and a/an, otherwise known as the definite and indefinite article. If you’ve grappled with Spanish or French at school, you might think English has it easy since there’s no gender to learn. But English makes up for that with its ton of rules about when to use a, when to use the, and when to use nothing. Even people who’ve been speaking English fluently for 20 years or more make mistakes with them where native speakers never would.

These are some of the general difficulties people have speaking English but, depending on the person’s mother tongue, there are other specific hurdles to face. Next time you think someone’s English could do to improve, try to consider how much they've already overcome.

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Martin Wittfooth
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Art
The Cat Art Show Is Coming Back to Los Angeles in June
Martin Wittfooth
Martin Wittfooth

After dazzling cat and art lovers alike in 2014 and again in 2016, the Cat Art Show is ready to land in Los Angeles for a third time. The June exhibition, dubbed Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again, will feature feline-centric works from such artists as Mark Ryden, Ellen von Unwerth, and Marion Peck.

Like past shows, this one will explore cats through a variety of themes and media. “The enigmatic feline has been a source of artistic inspiration for thousands of years,” the show's creator and curator Susan Michals said in a press release. “One moment they can be a best friend, the next, an antagonist. They are the perfect subject matter, and works of art, all by themselves.”

While some artists have chosen straightforward interpretations of the starring subject, others are using cats as a springboard into topics like gender, politics, and social media. The sculpture, paintings, and photographs on display will be available to purchase, with prices ranging from $300 to $150,000.

Over 9000 visitors are expected to stop into the Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles during the show's run from June 14 to June 24. Tickets to the show normally cost $5, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting a cat charity, and admission will be free for everyone on Wednesday, June 20. Check out a few of the works below.

Man in Garfield mask holding cat.
Tiffany Sage

Painting of kitten.
Brandi Milne

Art work of cat in tree.
Kathy Taselitz

Painting of white cat.
Rose Freymuth-Frazier

A cat with no eyes.
Rich Hardcastle

Painting of a cat on a stool.
Vanessa Stockard

Sculpture of pink cat.
Scott Hove

Painting of cat.
Yael Hoenig
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
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entertainment
11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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