Why is it difficult to learn English?

by Ciarán Donnelly

Why is it so difficult to learn English? This is a question every English language learner asks at some point in their language learning journey.

English language learners get frustrated by being asked questions such as:

How is it possible you still speak with an accent?

Why do you still make some simple English grammar mistakes?

People need to understand that English is difficult. There are many exceptions and yes, at times it makes no sense.

What factors make learning English difficult?

Your first language (native language) is an important factor in determining how difficult it is to learn English.

In 1975, a study of the 10,000 most frequently used words in English by Joseph Williams found that 84% of the words had links to French, Latin and Germanic languages.

Image by Murraytheb via Wikipedia Commons

More recently in 2017, Andreas Simons researched 1,875 of the most frequently used words in English and found that ‘French and Latin dominate the English language’ achieving a share of 56% of the core vocabulary. While the criteria for ‘most frequently used words’ and actual origin of words can be debated, there is no doubting a strong link between these languages and the English language.

As a result of this, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian native speakers do have an advantage learning English. These languages derived from Latin and are also referred to as romance languages.

Why is it difficult to learn English? Romance languages origin and explanation

Furthermore, if your mother tongue is similar in terms of sounds, vocabulary, and grammatical patterns to English, this plays a role. It is proposed that for these reasons, if German or Dutch is your mother tongue, English is easier to learn. However, English is more difficult if your mother tongue is Chinese or Japanese.

A lot of research has been conducted on SLA (Second Language Acquisition). The below factors have been cited as being the most influential in learning a second language:

Age, Aptitude, Cognitive Style, Attitudes, Motivation, Personality, Experience, Curriculum, Instruction (Source: Factors Influencing Second Language Acquisition, Ellis)

These can apply to any language, but what makes English so difficult?

Pronunciation is difficult in the English language!

Without a doubt, one of the most frustrating parts of English is pronunciation.

Firstly, there are homographs. These are words that are spelled identically, but may or may not be pronounced the same way.

Why is English so difficult? Homographs definition and examples

Then there are homophones. Homophones are two words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings or spellings. Have a look at the below:

Why is English so difficult? Homophones definition and examples

These can be very difficult for English learners. One of the reasons pronunciation is so difficult is because of the confusing spelling in English.

Why is English so difficult? English pronunciation tips

For example, a rule we often advise in spelling is the use of ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. This is helpful for native speakers when spelling a word like received. However, I believe the below image nicely highlights that this is a good guideline rather than a rule.

Why is English difficult to learn? Spelling tip

Then there is there, their, and they’re

Actually, this is a problem that native speakers seem to have more than second language learners.

Their is a possessive of they e.g. It is not my house, it is not your house, it is their house.

There indicates a place e.g. My house isn’t here, it’s over there.

They’re is a contraction of they are. He is the new student, she is the new student, they’re the new students.

The below image is effective in describing the differences.

Why is English difficult to learn? Their There They are explained

Similar spelling, similar pronunciation, completely different meanings. Now we move onto word order, where the native speaker has a clear advantage. In fact, they are probably completely unaware of this procedure.

Word order in English

A native speaker knows the correct word order for making sentences, yet if you were to ask them, they are probably completely unaware of this. They wouldn’t be able to tell you the formula.

Well, here it is:

Quantity, Opinion, Size, Temperature, Age, Shape, Colour, Origin, Material, Purpose.

So you can have:

One beautiful, little, old, circular, gold, Irish ring.

If you mess up that word order, it does not sound right. However, we all know about the Big Bad Wolf and not the Bad Big Wolf. Again, another exception.

The explanation for this exception can be found in the ablaut reduplication rule.

Why is it always ding-dong, tick-tock and click-clack? Why do we eat KitKat bars and listen to hip-hop music rather than KatKit bars and hop-hip music? If there are three words then the order they must go in depends on the first vowel, the order is I, A, O. If the doorbell goes it must go ding-dang-dong. If there are two words, the first word will always be the one with I. So, when you’re with your friends don’t mish-mash these words in your chit-chat.

Phrasal verbs

There are over 10,000 phrasal verbs in the English language. A phrasal verb is a verb that has a preposition after it.

There are over a dozen phrasal verbs with the word take, some have more than one meaning, so the word take and a preposition after it can have over 60 meanings! Different examples are take in, take on, take up, take down, take away and take over. My favourite is probably the below example:

Why is English difficult to learn? Phrasal verbs take out

However, English is never rated as one of the most difficult languages to learn.

In fact, it is a language that ranks quite low on many lists on the length of time it takes to learn languages.

Taking the perspective that English is an easy language to learn, there are valid reasons why this may be the case.

In English, we don’t have to worry about the gender of nouns and this saves the learner a lot of time.

English is probably one of the most accessible languages to learn. There are so many resources such as books, movies, and TV shows that can help the learner engage in the language.

Conclusion

The difficulty of learning a language depends on a huge variety of factors. It is fair to say that English is an easy language to start learning and get to a basic/intermediate level, but it is a tough (pronounced ‘tuff’) language to master.

If you need help at any stage of your language journey, please contact us. Also, check out our online English classes.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. If you have any questions or opinions, please comment below.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy:

Difficult English Words to Pronounce and Understand

Two Life-Enhancing Benefits of Improving Your Vocabulary

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