Why Is English So Hard to Learn for Language Learners?
Language is a universal basic skill that we acquire from the day we are born. Because learning a native language is comparably easier than acquiring a second language, English can be tricky and challenging for language learners. English is the most spoken and studied language among around 7,000 languages worldwide. Approximately 1.5 billion people speak English natively and as a second language.
English is hard to learn because pure English does not exist. This means that English did not spring on its own rather, it is an amalgamation or combination and evolution of different languages like Latin, Old Norse, French, German, and other languages. Before English became English, it was something else —that part we will uncover as we discuss the origins of English as a language.
Another contributory factor to the difficulty of learning English is the view that language is arbitrary. The arbitrariness of language means that there is no inherent relationship between the speech sounds and their conveyed meaning. Native English speakers conventionally agreed to assign meaning to speech sounds which is why the symbol c-a-t, pronounced as /kæt/, means the animal that catches rats and meows. Language, therefore, is a social agreement that builds a sense of community.
Since language is arbitrary, learning the English language can be chaotic for second language learners because of its grammatical rules, perplexing spelling and pronunciation, and other irregularities.
Let’s dive deeper into the complexity of the English language!
The Origins of English as a Language
English, a part of the Germanic family of languages, can be traced back to the roots of the Indo-European languages. The three periods of the history of the English language are Old English or Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Modern English.
The Old English or Anglo-Saxon period started when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded the British isles during the fifth and sixth centuries and infused their Germanic language into the Celtic tribe. The onset of the Middle English period happened in 1066 during the Norman conquest of England. Romance languages like French and Latin were introduced to the existing language. By the end of the Modern English period, William Caxton introduced the printing press that standardized Modern English. Along with the rise of exploration, English started as a global language in the Modern English period from its roots as a regional European Language.
The great vowel shift and the establishment of the subject-verb-object syntax are notable developments from the Modern English period.
For Starters, Difficulty Depends on your First or Native Language
Your first or native language is the language you acquired by birth. Learning your first language is a subconscious process that does not require formal instruction or education.
The primary step of learning English is mastering the 26 letters of its alphabet and the 44 different sounds of its phonetic alphabet. Non-native speakers from Japan, Korea, Russia, and Israel may encounter difficulties in learning English. Those countries use various scripts such as Kanji, Hangul, Russian, and Hebrew alphabets respectively.
Studying English is simple if your mother tongue belongs to the same linguistic family as English. English is part of the West Germanic language group like Dutch and German. A German might find Beowulf an easy read when exploring English. Going broadly under the Indo-European branch of language, we can see Spanish, French, and Italian share many similarities with English. Since the modern English language comprises 29% French, people from France have the leverage to learn English.
Tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese are one of the hardest languages to learn. Pitch differentiates the meaning of a word in a tonal language e.g., the Chinese word ma, may mean mother or horse depending on the pitch. Fortunately, English is a non-tonal language making it easier to learn proper pronunciation.
The Level of Difficulty also depends on your English Learning Goals
The goals of non-native speakers in learning English may vary. However, the most common reasons are:
- to get around directions when traveling to English-speaking countries
- understand common English instructions
- network with English speakers for recreation or work
- appreciate English literature like novels, poems, songs, and movies
- communicate fluently through writing and speaking for the academic and professional purposes
The beginner level of English proficiency is the easiest among the six levels of English language proficiency. The six levels include beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced, and mastery. Knowing where your goal falls under those categories will determine the level of difficulty and amount of effort you need to face to improve your English skills.
If you visit as a tourist in England and your goal is to make friends with native speakers and avoid getting lost, you need to learn approximately 700 words and commit 100 hours of study time to achieve beginner proficiency. However, you need to devote more than 1,000 hours and comprehend 16,000 English words to have near-native mastery if your goal is to gain employment in English countries.
The twin of difficulty in learning English is its complexity. Below, you will discover what makes English tricky, and challenging.
Many Things Make No Sense and Contradict Other Rules
Language is a system of systems; this indicates that grammar rules must be followed for language to be understood. However, in English, it seems that some rules are made to be broken.
The grammar rule do not end a sentence with a preposition is derived from the Latin meaning of preposition to place before.
Prepositions indicate the direction, time, place, location, and spatial relationships of nouns, pronouns, and noun phrases. In, on, at, to, and with are examples of prepositions.
The sentence, Which cabinet did your place the file folder in?, is understandable in casual conversation. Consequently, In which cabinet did you place the file folder?, is also grammatically correct in formal English.
As Winston Churchill said, A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with. Ironically, Churchill ended his statement with a preposition.
Exceptions to Rules
The famous rule in spelling English words is: I before E except before the letter C. This rule is applicable to words wherein “I” and “E” are not precedented by “C” like alien, view, chief, relief, and field. Even so, what happened with the words like seize, and vein?
Following the same rule, when the word is precedented with “C,” “ie” becomes “ie” as in conceive, deceitful, ceiling, and receive.
However, if this rule stands true, why is science not spelled as sceince? Why is sufficient not spelled as sufficeint? Observe the following words which break this rule: society, glacier, ancient, and efficient.
Native English speakers can distinguish the subtle differences between words because they have an intuitive grasp of the language. As for non-native speakers, the spelling checkers of word processors is your friend when adapting to the tricky rule.
Structure and Grammar
Grammar is a set of rules that governs the English language while structure or syntax is the arrangement of words in a sentence. The word order subject-verb-object is the structure of most English sentences. Meanwhile, the grammar rule of the subject-verb agreement states that a singular subject must have a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb.
Determining whether the subject is plural or singular can be confusing. Take for example the number of vs a number of —which among the phrases should take a plural or singular verb?
The expression the number takes singular verb because it indicates one number as in:
The number of students we need to compete in the debate is four.
Conversely, a number takes a plural verb because it signifies many as in:
A number of arguments the students raised are worth the discussion.
When someone you know says, I need a kernel, will you give them a part of a seed or bring them a colonel? Kernel and colonel have the same pronunciation but differ in meaning. A colonel is a title given to an officer in state defense like a lieutenant colonel, not a piece of seed as in kernel.
Writing rules are guidelines that help writers organize their thoughts into coherent sentences. Two of the confusing English writing rules are the use of the Oxford comma and beginning a sentence with a conjunction.
The Oxford comma is the final comma in a serial sentence or list of things. Removing the Oxford comma in a sentence changes its meaning and makes it ambiguous.
I would like to thank my teachers, Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong for inspiring me to go above and beyond. The sentence conveys that Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong are your teachers who inspired you.
When that is not the case, the sentence should be: I would like to thank my teachers, Albert Einstein, and Neil Armstrong for inspiring me to go above and beyond. Placing the Oxford comma to separate the nouns tells the reader that you are thanking your teachers, Albert Einstein, and Neil Armstrong individually.
Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is avoided in formal writing to ensure clarity and conciseness. Coordinating conjunctions like and, but, and or connects nouns, and independent clauses. The sentence, “I’m allergic to chicken. And I’m allergic to seafood too,” can be written concisely as “I’m allergic to chicken, and seafood.”
However, it is also acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction for style and emphasis of ideas. Consider a quote from Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart, the conjunction, but provides emphasis to the statement.
Breaking some writing rules is acceptable when taking into consideration your own writing style. However, always remember to ensure coherence when doing so.
English has an extensive vocabulary
The English language has more than one million words that have been coined over time. Loanwords from French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese are used in English. Spanish-language loanwords include the terms cargo, patio, and cafeteria. The words dachshund, blitzkrieg, and wanderlust are of German origin.
English learners may find it hard to know, memorize, and use a variety of words from the English dictionary. Since language constantly evolves, it may be hard to keep up and build your vocabulary. You can start learning the common English words first to avoid getting overwhelmed.
English Vocabulary is mixed
Foreign languages heavily influence English. The two most important ones are Latin and French, which account for nearly half of all words in the language. English vocabulary has also incorporated some words from Malay, Persian, Hindi, and Japanese.
Having background knowledge of the origin of words makes learning English easier.
The order of the words
The order of adjectives makes English tricky to learn. The proper order of adjectives or descriptive words in English grammar is as follows: quantity, quality, size, age, shape, color, material, origin, and purpose.
“The beautiful little three teacups are too expensive,” may sound right to you, but following the grammar rule, the sentence should be: “The three beautiful little teacups are too expensive.” The sentence follows the order quantity-quality-size.
He bought two adorable huge three-year-old brown German shepherd home from the animal shelter. That sentence might be a mouthful, but that’s the English grammar rule.
Difficulties with Verbs and Verb Usage
Verbs are used to describe both external (e.g. find, write, call) and internal (e.g., believe, love, realize) actions. They tell us what someone does or how they feel about something.
Verb conjugation means changing the form of the verbs when they undergo a change in tense (e.g., base form → past tense). Regular verbs follow the usual patterns of conjugation. For example, the past tense of talk is talked. However, the past tense of buy is not buyed.
A verb is irregular if you cannot change it into past tense just by adding -d or -ed on its end. This grammar exception explains why the past tense of buy is bought. More examples of this are catch-caught, teach-taught, and seek-sought.
There are also irregular verbs that do not change their base form no matter the tense of the verb. Examples are hit, let, hurt, spread, and bet.
Auxiliary verbs do not have meaning on their own, but they help complete the meaning of the main verb by modifying its tenses and number. The most common auxiliary verbs are the “be verbs”: am, are, is, was, were, been, and being.
When the subject is plural, we use are for the present tense and were for the past tense.
The kids are playing in the park. (plural present tense)
The kids were playing in the park yesterday. (plural past tense)
On the other hand, the singular present tense uses ‘is,’ and the singular past tense uses ‘was.’
He is watching the kids play in the park. (singular present tense)
He was watching the kids play in the park two hours ago. (singular past tense)
There are four different verb forms in English: base verb or the present tense, past tense, present participle, and past participle. The forms of the verb indicate the time an action happened. Observe the table below:
|base verb/ present tense||present participle||past tense||past participle|
Antonyms of Verbs
Antonyms are the opposite meaning of a word. The opposite of to read is to not read, but it cannot be to unread.
I told you not to read my messages.
The sentence implies that the speaker does not want their messages to be read in the first place.
I told you not to unread my messages.
There is a change in meaning because the speaker now wants their messages not to be marked as unread in her inbox.
English is really confusing for English language learners. Here are three common verb antonyms you should know to improve your language skills:
1. throw v.s catch
Do not throw the ball outside the court.
I will catch the ball for our team.
2. teach v.s learn
I teach English to young learners.
My students learn grammar from my lessons.
3. put on v.s take off
Sally put on her glasses to see the text clearly.
John should put off his shoes before entering the house.
The English language has 44 phonetic sounds that can be confusing.
This poem illustrates the difficulties with English pronunciation:
“Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, sough, tough?
Hiccough has the sound of ‘cup’ . . .” –The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité
Spelling is often a poor indicator of proper pronunciation
Spelling is not always a reliable indicator of how words should be pronounced because the English alphabet differs from the phonetic alphabet. The word smile has five letters, but speakers do not pronounce each letter separately. Instead, we pronounce it with two syllables as /smai·uhl/.
Words with the Same Spelling Can Have Different Pronunciations
Heteronyms are words with the same spelling but with different pronunciations and meanings. Here are some examples:
Live (/lɪv/) vs Live (/laɪv/)
I live in Japan where I watch live concerts.
In this sentence, live (/lɪv/ ) means residing in one place while live (/laɪv/) means to watch in person.
Produce (/prə-ˈdüs/) vs Produce (/prō-, -ˈdyüs/)
The farmers need to produce 10 tons of vegetables from the produce they planted over the summer.
The first variant is the verb means to generate or to put together. The second variant is a noun that means agricultural products.
The 26 letters of the English alphabet make different sounds, but not all letters in a word are sounded. Silent letters may exist in the spelling of a word but do not make a distinct sound. For example the ‘k’ in knife, and knob; and the ‘m’ in autumn and hymn.
Difficult Combination of Letters
A phoneme (one sound) in English corresponds to several letters resulting in words that are hard to spell.
The words enough, though, through, bough, cough, and tough end in the same letters but has different pronunciation of vowels. The same is true with the words queue, ricochet, and bouquet.
Learning to Proper Emphasis Words and Phrases
The emphasis on writing is rooted in learning the sentence structure of English and writing in an active voice. Stress and intonation convey the emphasis of words in spoken English.
The two sentences below show the change in meaning when different words are emphasized in the same sentence:
I did not steal your money. (Someone else stole your money.)
I did not steal your money. (I stole something else, but not your money.)
Homophones are words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same. You can say that this is the opposite of heteronyms.
Some examples of homophones are aloud-allowed, course-coarse, flea-flee, build-billed, and cite-site.
Synonyms are not always interchangeable
The common misconception learners have is that synonyms are interchangeable. Although synonyms are words with nearly or the same meaning, sometimes, you cannot substitute one synonym for another. To decide which synonym to use, you must understand the connotation of the words and how they are applied in the sentence.
Walk and stroll are synonyms that can swap places in this sentence:
I’m planning to walk around the park on the weekend.
I’m planning to stroll around the park on the weekend.
However, you cannot use the word stroll when trying to guide someone.
Let me walk you through the process of using this device.
Often Difficult to Use Plurals and Tenses
The English vocabulary comprises 29% Latin words that contribute to irregular plural words. Most of those words are used for scientific or technical purposes such as hypothesis-hypotheses, criteria-criterion, nucleus-nuclei, and curriculum-curricula.
There are 12 tenses of verbs but only three are common in academic writing. Mastering the 12 tenses of verbs is a challenge for students whether they are native or not.
Idioms in English are Confusing
Idioms are a collection of words with distinct meanings from those of the individual words in the group. It can be challenging to understand idioms for English beginners because they typically learn words by translating them to their literal meaning.
Bringing home the bacon does not mean getting a piece of bacon and bringing it home; it means achieving success. You do not have to play basketball to say the ball is in your court because the idiom means it is now your turn to make a move.
Components of archaic English still in use today
Modern English still makes use of words from centuries ago. You may encounter archaic English when reading Elizabethan literature like the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
Most archaic words adapted to the demands of language today and changed in meaning. The Middle English word “abroad” was first used in the 13th century to mean scattered. In modern English, it now means going to a foreign country as in to go abroad. Anent which is part an Old English evolved to mean about or concerning.
Significantly Different Regional Dialects
Languages spoken in a particular area of a country are called regional dialects. There are 30 English dialects in the United States of America alone. To communicate with a native, a learner must focus on the neutral accent that is a Standard American accent.
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Bethany MacDonald has contributed articles LillyPad.ai since 2020. As their Blog Lead, she specialises in informative pieces on culture, education, and language learning