Why is English a difficult language?

Why does much of the world perceive English as a difficult language?  Some reasons include:

  • The large number of consonants and vowels in English’s sound bank
  • Irregularities in diphthongs
  • (In)definite article usage
  • Irregularities in verb forms
  • Irregularities in spelling overall

Of course, as a native of the United States, I grew up hearing and learning English all my life.  The difficulties in learning English are usually highlighted by people from non-English speaking countries that learn English as a foreign language.  The inconsistencies in English, therefore, are probably what make English a difficult language to learn, with a litany of “exceptions to the rules” to learned along the way.

Most languages of the world do not have the same sound banks as each other, even languages that are in the same family.  Foreigners learning English have a tendency to use the sound bank or fall back on grammar rules of their native language, resulting in a tendency to make the same types of errors.  Read more

If you would like to tackle a poem that reveals the difficulties in learning the English language, go here.

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Francis M. Unson

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6 Responses to “Why is English a difficult language?”

  1. wordwand Says:

    Hi , I corroborate what you ‘ve just pointed out to .yet , I consider English easy in comparison to French ( which I master quite well) ; for instance the tense system of the english language is far easier than the French, the adjectives in French change according to number and gender unlike English .As a non-native speaker, the correspondance between what is spoken ( the phoneme) and what is written ( the grapheme) in English remains a challenging task mainly for my students.how can you make them understand that in the word enough there is no ” f”?
    thanks again

    • Francis Unson Says:

      I agree about the difficulties in learning the French tense system. There are many aspects in better structured languages that are, at times, difficult to find equivalents for in English, especially when centuries of borrowing from Latin and Norman French have simplified the formerly Germanic elements of English. It is hard to believe that English was, a millennium ago, as inflected as Ancient Latin or Greek, or Standard German.

      The idea of phonemes and graphemes are restricted to linguistics studies here in the United States and would not be covered until after high (secondary) school, but you bring up another valid point. Look up “Ough (orthography)” in Wikipedia. If you thought it was hard enough to bring your students to an understanding that “-ough” is pronounced “f” because, for lack of better understanding, “that’s just the way it is”, showing them how many other ways “-ough” can be pronounced will be even more challenging for them.

      Thanks for your reply. I always look forward to fresh perspectives.

  2. Arctic Chill Says:

    Hi, I personally don’t think there is a difficult…or an easy language. Languages are just different from each other, while the difference is smaller among related languages. The perception of difficulty arises when people are making comparisons. When we first start learning a new language, we compare the new grammar, pronounciation, etc, to our first language. In fact, some people may never stop comparing. It’s this process that makes the new language seem difficult.

    • Francis Unson Says:

      No two languages are completely the same. Even the people and governments that speak and use very closely related languages and are, according to linguists, mutually intelligible to each other, have a tendency to make their language their own. Many South Slavic and North Germanic languages tend to be treated thusly.

      I think that, if all languages were equal in difficulty of learning, our perception of difficulty comes down to the language just being different from our native tongue.

      • Arctic Chill Says:

        I don’t know much about South Slavic languages, but I have limited exposure to the North Germanic languages. It’s fascinating to see how similar Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are to each other. Yet, the mutual intelligiblity is not equal. Norwegians seems to, overall, have a better comprehension. Please excuse me if I am repeating something you already know.

        I suppose similarity is not the only factor when we decide whether languages are their own or dialects/varieties of another. But I just thought of something. English can be a difficult language because it’s illogical sometimes. For example, we drive on the parkway and park on the driveway 🙂

      • Francis Unson Says:

        A good deal of the illogical nature of English stems from the adaptation of loan words from different languages without bothering to take any measures to bring back English to its Germanic routes. 10,000-12,000 words of English’s working vocabulary is Romance or Greek in nature. Furthermore, given the large number of native speakers and fluent speakers of English as a foreign language, control of the English language has been lost long ago. Finally, despite the symmetrically pluricentric nature of English, mainly between Standard American English and Standard British English, neither variety is trying to displace the other.

        Linguistic purism, on the other hand, is easier to maintain with a smaller population, such as Icelandic.

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