Why is English so difficult to learn?

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language should be commended. With more words than any other language - including hundreds of ‘root’ words from Latin and ancient Greek - English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn.

Today, almost 400 million people speak English as their first language, but a billion more learn it as a secondary language. It’s the official language of at least 59 countries. English has been used by more people and spanned a greater portion of the world than any other language in history.

Having evolved over 1,600 or so years, English has picked up bits and pieces of other languages as it crossed borders and faced invasions. The English we speak today has absorbed vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Japanese, Hindi, and many others. A quarter of English is Germanic in origin, nearly a third originates from French, and another third from

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language should be commended. With more words than any other language – including hundreds of ‘root’ words from Latin and ancient Greek – English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn.

Today, almost 400 million people speak English as their first language, but a billion more learn it as a secondary language. It’s the official language of at least 59 countries. English has been used by more people and spanned a greater portion of the world than any other language in history.

Having evolved over 1,600 or so years, English has picked up bits and pieces of other languages as it crossed borders and faced invasions. The English we speak today has absorbed vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Japanese, Hindi, and many others. A quarter of English is Germanic in origin, nearly a third originates from French, and another third from Latin.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not easy to learn.

Native speakers rarely consider the many quirks and idiosyncrasies of the English language – simply because we don’t have to. English is easier to learn if you already speak a European language, such as French or German. But for those whose mother language is entirely removed from English colonisation – such as Mandarin or Arabic – the challenge is just that much greater.

How English developed: a brief history

The roots of the English language can be traced back to the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. The Jutes, Saxons, and Angles – all Germanic tribes – crossed the North Sea in search of new lands to conquer. Before then, Britain’s earliest inhabitants spoke various dialects of the Celtic language.

The invasion saw native Britons driven north and west into what later became Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The word England actually originated from the word Engla-land, which translates as “the land of the Angles” and where they spoke ‘Englisc’.

By 1400 AD, subsequent invasions from the Vikings and Normans had shaped English even further. The addition of Latin and French words made the language more sophisticated.

Then in the 1500-1600s, along came William Shakespeare, who alone created at least 1,700 words that are still used in English today.

It wasn’t until Britain became a dominant superpower in the early 20th century that the spread of English really gained traction. In establishing imperial control from Asia to Africa – more than a quarter of the world – Britain gained more than 400 million British subjects. At the same time, the English language acquired thousands more words – and many different rules.

The logistical headache of learning English

Grammatical rules – and their exceptions

Learning English isn’t just about learning the rules – it’s about learning the many exceptions to the rules. English language learners are often frustrated to learn a particular grammatical rule only to find that an ‘exception’ renders it obsolete.

One example is ‘I before E except after C’. This rule is often taught to learners as a means of remembering how to spell correctly. But whoever created this rule apparently forgot about words such as ‘forfeit, ‘weird’, ‘glacier’, and ‘seize’.

There’s a formidable list of irregular verbs. For example, the past tense of ‘fight’ is ‘fought’, and yet the past tense of ‘light’ is ‘lit’. Then there’s ‘bring’ and ‘brought’ versus ‘fling’ and ‘flung’.

Double consonants add to the confusion. When adding –ed or –ing to a verb, sometimes the final consonant is doubled (refer becomes referring) and sometimes it isn’t (enter becomes entering).

Now for phrasal verbs: verbs whose meaning is changed when a small word is added, such as ‘in’ or ‘over’. The verb ‘run’, for example, can be changed in many ways: you can ‘have a run in’, or ‘run over the road’, ‘run somebody down’, ‘run up a hill’, or even ‘run a workshop’.

The problem is that there is no literal explanation for most phrasal verbs: to ‘put up’ means to provide temporary accommodation for someone, while ‘to put down’ means to offend someone by making them feel small.

This can be particularly confusing for native French and Spanish speakers, who don’t have phrasal verbs.

Spelling vs pronunciation

In the Middle Ages, the English language underwent The Great Vowel Shift. This major phonetic change took place over the course of several centuries, effectively changing how the long vowels of many words were pronounced. These changes led to the way modern English is spoken and used today. However, the spelling remained much the same, which has proved a headache for learners and speakers alike. Even native speakers struggle with spelling.

Words ending in ‘-ough’ reflect Middle English spelling and have now morphed into six different pronunciations. ‘Tough’, ‘cough’, ‘dough’, and ‘bough’ are spelt using the same letters, but each word is pronounced completely differently.

Then there are words that contain silent letters. In fact, about 60 percent of English words contain a silent letter – well beyond ‘knife’, ‘knee’, ‘scissors’, and ‘tomb’ as just a few examples.

Some words owe their silent letters to other languages. ‘Psychology’ is from the Greek word “psyche”, while “tsunami” is Japanese.

To complicate things further, many of the Europeans who operated printing presses had the habit of adding extra letters to certain words to make them similar to their own native languages.

The idiocy of idioms

Idioms are present in all languages, but English idioms are notorious for their variety and irregularity – and can be exasperating for foreign language learners.

An idiom is an expression or phrase that has a figurative (non-literal) meaning attached to it. Although most idioms once had a literal meaning, these rarely apply in modern English. In other words – they don’t make sense.

To “beat around the bush” means to avoid saying what you mean. “Hitting the sack” means going to sleep, while “speak of the devil” means that the person you’ve just been talking about has shown up.

Idioms are everywhere: we pop them into our everyday conversation dozens of times a day, often without realising. This can be baffling for an English learner who may not know that “a piece of cake!” may actually not refer to food at all.

Words, sentences, and order

While it’s possible to bend or break most rules of grammar and syntax and still be understood, there’s one rule that can’t be flouted: the order of words in a sentence. You simply can’t say “I handbag brown bought” or “today school going I am”. Your reader or listener will be thoroughly confused.

English is strict about its sentence structure. The subject almost always comes before the predicate. This gets more technical when a number of adjectives are used together, and the order depends on the function of the adjective. The usual order is quantity, value/opinion, size, temperature, age, shape, colour, origin, material. For example, ‘the room has six large round glass tables.’

As native speakers, we don’t even think about this when we create a sentence. But for speakers of other languages, sentence structure might be completely different. The order of words in Japanese is subject-object-verb, while Arabic is verb-subject-object.

Emphasis and meaning

Changing the pitch, tone, or volume of spoken words can completely change their meaning. This helps us to communicate emotions when speaking to one another.

In English, a rising inflection at the end of a sentence will usually indicate that we’re asking a question. A falling inflection generally indicates a statement.

The words we emphasise through tone or volume can also change the meaning of a sentence, even just slightly. In this sentence, emphasis can produce seven different interpretations.

He said he did not take her money. It was not someone else who said it.
He said he did not take her money. So I believe him.
He said he did not take her money. But someone else did.
He said he did not take her money. But he won it gambling.
He said he did not take her money. But he took someone else’s.
He said he did not take her money. But he did take something else of hers.

This phonological system can cause difficulties for those whose native language is tonal, such as Mandarin or Vietnamese. While English uses changes in pitch to emphasise or express emotion, tonal languages use pitch to distinguish the meaning of a word. Mandarin, for example, has four tones. Each syllable spoken can be pronounced in several ways to communicate one of four different meanings of the word. But this pronunciation has nothing to do with emotion – it’s just the way the word is pronounced.

Formal vs informal

Formal or informal English dictates the tone, the choice of words and the way the words are put together. Formal English is generally used by mass media and for professional or academic purposes, including education, medical, and business environments. Formal language is less personal, does not use colloquialisms, slang, contractions, or first-person pronouns such as ‘I’ or ‘we’.

Informal English, however, is used for conversation between friends or family, social media, or other everyday situations. It includes slang, colloquial, and local dialects. It’s generally more casual, natural, and fluid.

For a learner, though, the unpredictable nature of informal English can make it more difficult to master than formal. Consider ‘want and ‘wanna’, and “Good morning! How are you?” vs “Yo! Howzit?”

While there are many languages that are even more difficult to learn than English – Mandarin and Polish are particularly gruelling – English is no walk in the park.

It’s said that learning English is like learning to drive: you can study the theory and the rules (and exceptions to rules), but it won’t make sense until you’re actually practising it every day.

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