Understanding and Using English

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By Dr Sarala Krishnamurthy

(An academic perspective)
One of the most common mistakes that people make is the use of the verb “learn”. I have come across many instances where people say:

“You can learn me to write this correctly”.

“You learn me better economics/statistics”.

It is a mistake that even educated people make and I suppose it is because of First language interference. I am told that the word for both “learn” and “teach” in Afrikaans is “leer”.

So you can have sentences like:

Ek leer om dit te doen.
(I learn how to do)

Ek leer jou kook.
(I teach you to cook)

It must be remembered that in English the words “learn” and “teach” mean differently and are used in the same context to mean different things. Learn means: acquire knowledge of, gain an understanding of, acquire skill of, become competent in, grasp, master, take in, absorb, assimilate, pick up. It would be used as follows:

I learn classical music.

I am learning to speak Oshiwambo.

I have learnt a little bit of French, but I have forgotten most of it.

I learnt Kiswahili 20 years ago when I was in Dar es Salaam.

There are three more usages for the word “learn”:

a. Learn the poem, to mean memorise, commit to memory.

b. We learned that he had gone, to mean discover, find out, detect.

c. Learn of his departure, to mean find out about, hear of, get wind of.

Teach, on the other hand, means give lessons to, educate, school, tutor, coach, train, drill, ground, edify. And with “teach” it would be used as:
I teach at the Polytechnic.

I am teaching my daughter to play the guitar.

I taught Business Communication to office executives for several years.
I have taught African Literature, I know all about it.

It must be noticed that both ‘learn” and ‘teach’ get inflected to indicate the past tense forms and in both cases the present and past participle are “learnt” and “taught”, unlike the regular verbs where the past is indicated by adding “ed” to a word. For instance, “play” becomes “played”. However there are other verb forms such as “go”, where the past tense form for “go” (which is an irregular verb) is “went”, but the participle is “gone”. So we have sentences like:

I went for yoga practice yesterday.

I have gone to the Botanical gardens before.

Sufficient attention should be paid to the Subject-verb concordance in order to write correct English.

* For the sake and benefit of learners, teachers and the general public, this column by Dr Sarala Krishnamurthy, head of the Media Department at the Polytechnic of Namibia will be published from time to time.

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