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July 2018

Overcoming the Difficulties of Learning English

The biggest challenges with learning English

English, whether we like the language or not, is the lingua franca (or bridge language) in many non-English-speaking countries. It’s useful for travel, conducting business, and pretty much any transaction you might need to conduct with someone who does not speak your language in another country. All things considered, English is one of the most useful languages to know in the world.

Depending on whom you ask, English is either an easy or a difficult language. A post by The Economist states that it all depends on where you’re starting from:

“Whether English is confusing or easy mostly depends on the learner’s native language. A native speaker of German or Dutch—Germanic languages closely related to English—will find English relatively straightforward. Learners whose first language is Chinese (completely unrelated) or Russian (distantly related) will find English much harder. This is roughly true of languages all around the world. If you learn a language geographically close and from a common ancestor of your first language, there will be fewer nasty surprises, at every level from sound to word to sentence.”

English is "big" and "simple", according to The Economist. Because it's so ubiquitous, the language has evolved to become less complicated over time. Non-native speakers who use a common language avoid unnecessary endings, simplifying the language over time. This is the case with English.

Unfortunately, the complexities of the English language lie deeper:

“How would you explain to a learner the use of ‘do’ in the following? ‘I don’t normally drink, but I do like a crispy lager on a hot summer’s day’. The first use is simply standard with negative statements: we say ‘I don’t drink’ rather than ‘I drink not’. But the second ‘do’, just a few words later, is quite different. It is emphatic, stressing the unusual behaviour on a hot summer’s day. These and other wrinkles can be mind-bending for learners of English.”

Idibon, a language-processing company, conducted a study on how "weird" a language is relative to others. English did not rank very high; it took 33rd place among the 239 languages, behind Spanish, German, Swedish, Dutch, Kurish, Kasmiri, and many other languages.

What makes English hard to learn?

A post in The Conversation identifies some of the most problematic features of the English language for non-native speakers. Two of the biggest pain points are in spelling and pronunciation.

With words such as “knife”, “island”, and “receipt”, we see letters used that are not pronounced. How does a new student begin to comprehend these strange rules for just a handful of words? It all takes familiarity and practice. There’s simply no easy way to avoid these roadblocks.

The aforementioned post presents a particularly funny poem that shows just how different pronunciations can be for words that seem similar:

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.


Another pain point is the polite form of English; there simply isn’t one, at least not like with romance languages like French and Italian. There is no polite version of a word (in romance languages, one could use the third-person form to speak politely to another individual). With English, it’s all in the way you speak. Of course, throwing in a “please” and “thank you” can be a simple fix if you’re a beginning student. Observe how the following phrase grows in formality (to an absurd level) with each rendition:

Pass the gravy.
Please pass the gravy.
Could you please pass the gravy.
I don’t suppose you could pass the gravy.
I don’t suppose you could find it in your heart to possibly pass the gravy, please?


What other students complain about

A recent article by Yahoo! lists “35 Confusing Things About The English Language” from different students around the world. If you’re learning English as a second language, perhaps you too can relate to some of these notable frustrations.

“I feel like” vs. “I feel like having” can cause great confusion. Saying you feel like a fish might draw some funny responses, especially if you meant “I feel like having fish”. The former suggests you relate very much with the aquatic creature, while the latter posits that you hunger for a fish dinner.

The Yahoo! article, like the one prior, also identifies pronunciation as a point of pain for English students, namely with words like “table” and “comfortable”, “cough” and “though”, “daughter” and “laughter”, “good” and “food”, and “read” and “red”. Can you identify the differences in pronunciation and meaning between each set?

Some students take issue with the pluralisation of words. Some words require an ‘s’ at the end, while others do not. For example, “fish” and “feet” can be plural on their own, though one could also say “fishes” in certain contexts:

“Look at all the fish in the water. That’s certainly a lot of fish. I think I can see ten species. Yes, ten species of fishes”.

There are a multitude of other confusing rules when it comes to English, such as when to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ (two paragraphs up, an “an” was placed before ‘s’ because ‘s’ begins with the sound of a vowel, even if the letter itself is not a vowel). The important thing to realise is that it takes time to learn these details. As with learning any language, patience and dedication are the keys to success.

What confuses you most about the English language? Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

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