There are more second language speakers of English in the world than there are native speakers– that means a lot of people have been successful learning the English language. Nonetheless, English can still be considered a hard language to learn. It all depends on your existing language background, motivation, resources and ability to break the task of learning a language down into manageable steps.
Have a read through this list of the top 5 most difficult things about English, followed by 5 easy aspects every English language learner can be thankful for!
Difficulty in learning languages
It’s hard to make a general statement about difficulty in language learning as there’s more to learning a language than just memorizing the subject matter. Language is a flexible entity, something that has to be used and processed. Sure there are rules, but just learning them doesn’t mean you’ll be able to put them into action when the time comes (see our post on acquisition vs. learning).
Degree of difficulty is related in part to a language’s distance from your own mother tongue. Differences in phonemes (sounds), graphemes (letters), rhythm, the script or alphabet and the amount of cognates are all relevant factors that can make language learning hard in the beginning stages. A complicated grammar or one that functions very differently from your native tongue, an abundance of vocabulary and access to authentic content can all affect difficulty for intermediate learners and beyond.
Nonetheless, governments have come up with a scoring system to denote language difficulty and while tongues like Arabic, Cantonese and Japanese tend to fall in the “hard” to learn category, English is not one of them. That doesn’t mean English isn’t a hard language to learn. All languages are difficult to master, particularly if it’s your first time learning one. It just means that it’s not considered the most challenging (though remember the difficulty list differs based on your native tongue).
What makes English hard
There are a handful of features that can cause English language learners to pull their hair out in frustration. Luckily, they aren’t so bad as to make you stop learning altogether (as evidenced by the amount of learners AND native speakers who have been successful thanks to spell-check– this author included!).
Spelling English spelling is notoriously difficult to learn. Why? Because there are pretty much no rules. And, as native speakers who furiously study spelling in grammar school know, what rules do exist can always be broken. This is because English is a Germanic language that was heavily influenced by French when the Normans invaded England back in the 11th century. It has also had ample contact with various other world languages due to earlier invasions and England invading other places, causing even more irregularities in spelling.
As opposed to France, where the French language is guarded by an academy dedicated to maintaining the purity of the language (they govern on everything from spelling to new vocabulary allowed in the dictionaries), English is more prone to additions and changes based on common usage. It also has a population split between several continents which further enhances the challenges of enforcing any regular rules in the way words are written.
Abundance of vocabulary English has a lot of words to learn. In fact, of all of the world’s languages, it is considered to have one of the largest vocabularies (along with Russian, Chinese and Japanese). French, on the other hand, has one of the smallest collections of words, thanks in part to the work of that pesky regulatory body that kept so many new words out! The English language has absorbed words from languages as distant as Cherokee and Turkish and is growing every day as new words make it into the latest dictionary editions. What you should keep in mind is that while having a large vocabulary is definitely important for advanced and proficiency levels, it’s the high frequency words that are most important to learn when you’re first starting out.
Phrasal verbs and contractions One common feature of English that can really hamper progress at beginner and lower-intermediate levels is the abundance of phrasal verbs in the language. These are verbs comprised of two or more words that do not mean the sum of their parts. Phrasal verbs are used all of the time in English and typically require their own reference book as searching for definitions in the dictionary would be an exhausting and fruitless activity. For example, the addition of a few prepositions, say adding up to work creates the phrasal verb to work up to something. The meaning here has nothing to do with construction workers who perform their duties on the highest levels of sky-scrapers. Rather, it’s closer in meaning to performing a task that builds in momentum over time and is usually used in reference to a goal, such as: Slowly but surely, he worked his way up to advanced proficiency.
In addition to phrasal verbs, English is also peppered with contractions. These are two words that are combined into one word separated by an apostrophe that stands in for several missing letters, think there’s (there + is or there + has). These can be difficult to learn in the early stages of language learning because they are just one more complication of what you’re already struggling to remember. Contractions also make native speaker speech harder to parse.
Pronunciation When it comes to reading out-loud, matters are not necessarily simpler. English has some of the most bizarrely pronounced words as a result of all that irregularity in spelling. Sometimes you say a ‘p’ like the sound that starts the word pronunciation. However, if it shows up next to the letter ‘h,’ you’ll need to make the ‘f’ sound. Cough, what did you say? Yup, English has lots of letter combinations which create the same sounds and even a handful of words that are pronounced in exactly the same way but spelled differently (to, two, too). The good thing is, native speakers also had to struggle with the whole difficult pronunciation thing when they were learning how to read, so they are understanding. The more listening comprehension practice you get (particularly watching English tv and films with English subtitles) the more you will strengthen your sound to letter correspondence and the better you will get at pronunciation.
American vs. British accents Setting out to learn the pronunciation of English words is one thing, but ending up sounding like a native speaker is quite another! This is because there are so many different kinds of native speakers you could sound like. While the two most common accents in mainstream media are British and American, you also have Australian and South African dialects thrown in for fun, and let’s not forget the English they speak in America’s deep South or in the Scottish Highlands north of England.
The major English accents don’t just change pronunciation, but they also affect spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary words themselves. Americans and Brits say things in different ways, using different words and different sounds. Americans tend to think the short and punctuated sounds of British English are cute, while the Brits might find the diphthongs of American English slightly vulgar. Either way, you have two different systems to learn and this can make things hard as neither one is overly tolerant of the other.
What makes English easy
Before you decide to sell your dictionary and give up entirely, consider that there are a few features which actually make English an easy language to learn.
Minimal verb conjugations English verbs sound pretty much the same no matter which person you use them in– with the exception of the letter ‘s’ that gets added to third person singular. If you’ve spent any time trying to learn French, Spanish or Italian, you will be ridiculously grateful for this vast simplification as it completely excuses you from having to memorize verb conjugation tables.
Simple past tense Most verbs in English are very easy to put into the past tense. You don’t need any helping or auxiliary verbs to do it and you simply add -ed to the end (though make sure you watch the way you pronounce it!). Yes, there are a handful of common irregular verbs but once you memorize them, you’re good to go. For that matter, the English simple future is a piece of cake to express as well.
Loads of cognates Remember all of those foreign words English decided to adopt? Well they don’t just make the language difficult but can also render things a little easier, particularly if they came from your mother tongue. English has plenty of borrowed vocabulary words that give you a leg up as a beginner language learner, offering some familiarity and common ground you might not have known existed. For instance, did you know there are even some Arabic words in English?!
No gendered nouns, cases, subjunctives or formal you’s We mentioned the lack of verb conjugation required, but English grammar is also far less complicated in a few other respects. For one thing, you don’t have to learn the gender of its nouns as everything is neutral unless you’re speaking about people or animals. There are no cases to memorize (they did away with them a long time ago) and subjunctive rarely makes an appearance. Formal language is also marked in a much different way via phrasing vs. separate pronouns for addressing important people.
Keep in mind …
The last item to make our list of the easiest things about English is the prevalence of written and spoken texts. While there are a number of free apps for learning English and some great language exchange sites where you can practice you skills, authentic English content absolutely abounds on the Internet, which means you can create an immersion experience even if you’re living half way across the globe from an English speaking country.
Do you think English is a hard language to learn? Share your experience in the comments!