5 reasons why English is difficult to learn

If you teach English language learners, give them credit! English is difficult to learn, but since it is the current lingua franca, it is a language that many non-native speakers need to know.

Why is English so difficult?

English spelling and pronunciation are quite irregular.

According to SpellingSociety.org, English has 43.5 different sounds (the half-sound being the schwa, or unstressed vowel sound):

English has 43.5 sounds

(from http://spellingsociety.org/irregularities-of-english-spelling#/page/1)

Yet English has 185 (!!) spellings for these 44 sounds. Yikes! I’ll bet Spanish- and German-speaking children don’t have to have spelling tests every week, because their languages have regular spelling patterns that do not change from word to word!

The English vocabulary is huge.

It is hard to quantify how many words a given language has, but by any measure, English has a huge quantity of different morphemes. Why? English has gone through several iterations as its native speakers have been conquered by foreign powers, and English has always readily accepted words from other languages and cultures. The richness of English vocabulary makes it quite expressive for speaking and writing but difficult for non-native speakers to learn.

Definition of morpheme

(from Google)

English has rules, but the rules have many exceptions.

You have heard the rule “i before e except after c, or sounds like such as neighbor and weigh“.

What about “science”? “Weird”? “Their”? “Seizure”?

English grammar can be challenging.

There are things about English grammar that are easier than some other languages:

  • lack of gender for articles and adjectives
  • not as much emphasis on case (for example, the object case of German prepositions varies, while the object of English prepositions is always accusative)
  • no polite and familiar forms of the pronoun “you”

However, English, like many other languages, has a slew of irregular verbs that must be memorized. Also, proper word order in English can be difficult. If you ask a native English speaker why one can say “the little brown dog” but not “the brown little dog”, the speaker may say “it just doesn’t sound right!” Some languages put the adjective before the noun, some after, but English speakers can do both!

The dog is brown.

The brown dog barks.

And then there are the regional differences…

English is so widely spoken that there are many regional accents. According to Dialect Blog, there are nine main dialects in the United Kingdom alone, and many other smaller dialects. Then add in the American, Australian, South African, and Indian dialects, and it can get complicated. Even native English speakers can have trouble understanding some dialects, so imagine being a non-native speaker and trying to make sense of what you are hearing. You might think this would not be as big a problem in the USA, where there are less regional variations over a much larger area than the UK, but imagine you learned English in Pennsylvania and then traveled to the southern US–it could be like trying to understand an unknown language, y’all!


Finally, which rhymes with enough—
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!

(from “The Chaos” by Gerard Nolst Trenité)

No, DON’T give up, just appreciate how difficult your English language learners have it!

Posted in Uncategorized.

Leave a Reply