Voices of Earlier English: William Harrison on Why Foreigners Can't Learn English

The English language in the 16th century was a bit like Icelandic or Danish in the early 21st, in that very few people outside the British Isles had much practical reason to learn the language, and of those foreigners who bothered trying, fewer still ever really learned it well. Why, after all, would you need English when anybody in England of real importance would know French and/or Latin? As John Florio put it "What think you of this English tongue?.....It is a language that will do you good in England but, pass Dover, it is worth nothing." John Donne, in The Will (written sometime in the 1590s) says "I...give...to them which passe among/ all forrainers, mine English tongue." i.e. nobody on the continent will speak any English to you. Literary works of prose and verse in French by non-native speakers, especially in the Middle Ages but continuing into Renaissance, are fairly common. Even in the 1700s one could find learned Englishmen like Sir William Jones composing verse in French as readily as in English. But I know of only one adult English-learner from continental Europe (Charles d'Orléans) who composed a literary work in English before the 18th century, and his circumstances were extremely unusual. William Harrison (b. 1534) in this passage from his Description of England (1577) describes how adept Anglophones are at learning other languages, whereas foreigners seldom manage to learn to speak good English. To Harrison, the reason why is obvious: English is just harder than other languages, whereas if you speak English that naturally makes it easier to learn other languages. Hard to disagree, no? English could never replace Latin and French as a lingua franca. The very idea is absolutely silly, amirite? I think of this passage in Harrison whenever I hear people spewing asininities about how English is just a really easy language to pick up (with "not a lot of grammar") and is therefore a natural choice as the world's lingua franca

Below are three different recordings of this passage in three different chronolects of English as it was pronounced by the well-read, well-fed and/or well-bred subjects of the crown at different times. Try listening to the first recording, and see how much you get. Then listen to the next two. Then take a look at the text, respelled according to modern norms. (Some time in the early 1600s, the pronunciation heard on the lips of courtiers and schoolmasters became close enough to the modern language that a time traveler would face little difficulty at that point) .

Early-mid-16th century London highborn "Mopsey" dialect, the pronunciation of John Hart. (This type of speech had a MAIN-MEAN merger, but MANE remained distinct. It is not ancestral to the next two) 

Mid-17th century elite speech (the pronunciation of Richard Hodges)

Early-mid-18th century elite speech of the "first British Empire" (the pronunciation of Benjamin Franklin)    

This also is proper to us Englishmen, that sith ours is a mean language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in utterance, we may with much facility learn any other language, beside Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and speak it naturally, as if we were home-born in those countries; and yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other means, that few foreign nations can rightly pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especially the French men, who also seldom write any thing that savoreth of English truly. It is a pastime to read how Natalis Comes in like manner, speaking of our affairs, doth clip the names of our English lords. But this of all the rest doth breed most admiration with me, that if any stranger do hit upon some likely pronunciation of our tongue, yet in age he swerveth so much from the same, that he is worse therein than ever he was, and thereto peradventure halteth not a litle also in his own, as I have seen by experience in Reginald Wolfe, and other, whereof I have justly marvelled.