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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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8 Things We Know About Stranger Things Season 3
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[Warning: There are lots of Stranger Things season two spoilers ahead.]

Stranger Things season two is in the books, and like we all hoped, it turned out to be a worthy follow-up to an addictive debut season. Now, though, we’re left with plenty of questions, mysteries, and theories to chew on as the wait for a third season begins. But for everything we don’t know about what the next year of Stranger Things will bring us (such as an actual release date), there are more than enough things we do know to keep those fan theories coming well into 2018. While the show hasn't been officially greenlit for a third season by Netflix yet, new details have already begun to trickle out. Here’s everything we know about Stranger Things season three so far.

1. THERE WILL BE ANOTHER TIME JUMP.

The third season of Stranger Things won’t pick up right where the second one left off. Like the show experienced between the first two seasons, there will be a time jump between seasons two and three as well. The reason is simple: the child actors are all growing up, and instead of having the kids look noticeably older without explanation for year three, the Duffer Brothers told The Hollywood Reporter:

“Our kids are aging. We can only write and produce the show so fast. They're going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can't start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing.”

2. THE IDEA IS TO BE SMALLER IN SCALE.

If the series’s second season was about expanding the Stranger Things mythology, the third season won't go bigger just for the sake of it, with the brothers even going so far as to say that it will be a more intimate story.

“It’s not necessarily going to be bigger in scale,” Matt Duffer said in an interview with IndieWire. “What I am really excited about is giving these characters an interesting journey to go on.”

Ross Duffer did stress, though, that as of early November, season three is basically “… Matt and me working with some writers and figuring out where it’s going to go.”

3. THE MIND FLAYER WILL BE BACK.

The second season ended on a bit of a foreboding note when it was revealed that the Mind Flayer was still in the Upside Down and was seen looming over the Hawkins school as the winter dance was going on. Though we know there will be a time jump at the start of next season, it’s clear that the monster will still have a big presence on the show.

Executive producer Dan Cohen told TV Guide: "There were other ways we could have ended beyond that, but I think that was a very strong, lyrical ending, and it really lets us decide to focus where we ultimately are going to want to go as we dive into Season 3."

What does the Mind Flayer’s presence mean for the new crop of episodes? Well, there will be plenty of fan theories to ponder between now and the season three premiere (whenever that may be).

4. PLENTY OF LEFTOVER SEASON TWO STORYLINES WILL BE IN SEASON THREE.

The Duffer Brothers had a lot of material for the latest season of the show—probably a bit too much. Talking to Vulture, Matt Duffer detailed a few details and plot points that had to be pushed to season three:

"Billy was supposed to have a bigger role. We ended up having so many characters it ended up, in a way, more teed up for season three than anything. There was a whole teen supernatural story line that just got booted because it was just too cluttered, you know? A lot of that’s just getting kicked into season three."

The good news is that he also told the site that this wealth of cut material could make the writing process for the third season much quicker.

5. THERE WILL BE MORE ERICA.

Stranger Things already had a roster of fan-favorite characters heading into season two, but newcomer Erica, Lucas’s little sister, may have overshadowed them all. Played by 11-year-old Priah Ferguson, Erica is equal parts expressive, snarky, and charismatic. And the Duffer Brothers couldn’t agree more, saying that there will be much more Erica next season.

“There will definitely be more Erica in Season 3,” Ross Duffer told Yahoo!. “That is the fun thing about the show—you discover stuff as you’re filming. We were able to integrate more of her in, but not as much you want because the story [was] already going. ‘We got to use more Erica’—that was one of the first things we said in the writers’ room.”

“I thought she’s very GIF-able, if that’s a word,” Matt Duffer added. “She was great.”

6. EXPECT KALI TO RETURN.

The season two episode “The Lost Sister” was a bit of an outlier for the series. It’s a standalone episode that focuses solely on the character Eleven, leaving the central plot and main cast of Hawkins behind. As well-received as Stranger Things season two was, this episode was a near-unanimous miss among fans and critics.

The episode did, however, introduce us to the character of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), who has the ability to manipulate people’s minds with illusions she creates. Despite the reaction, the Duffers felt the episode was vital to Eleven’s development, and that Kali won’t be forgotten moving forward.

“It feels weird to me that we wouldn’t solve [Kali’s] storyline. I would say chances are very high she comes back,” Matt Duffer said at the Vulture Festival.

7. OTHER "NUMBERS" MIGHT SHOW UP.

We're already well acquainted with Eleven, and season two introduced us to Eight (a.k.a. Kali), and executive producer Shawn Levy heavily hinted to E! that there are probably more Hawkins Laboratory experiments on the horizon.

"I think we've clearly implied there are other numbers, and I can't imagine that the world will only ever know Eleven and Eight," Levy said.

8. THERE MIGHT NOT BE MANY SEASONS LEFT.

Don’t be in too much of a rush to find out everything about the next season of Stranger Things; there might not be many more left. The Duffer Brothers have said in the past that the plan is to do four seasons and end it. However, Levy gave fans a glimmer of hope that things may go on a little while longer—just by a bit, though.

“Hearts were heard breaking in Netflix headquarters when the Brothers made four seasons sound like an official end, and I was suddenly getting phone calls from our actors’ agents,” Levy told Entertainment Weekly. “The truth is we’re definitely going four seasons and there’s very much the possibility of a fifth. Beyond that, it becomes I think very unlikely.”

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Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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