Learning English? Why is it so difficult?

June 20, 2019

Why is it so difficult to learn English?

Out of the world's approximately 7.5 billion inhabitants, 1.75 billion speak English — that's 20% of the Earth's population. However, most of those people aren't native English speaker and have learnt the language to some degree.

Many students say learning English is like a riddle. For example, the words ‘see’ and ‘look’ mean the same thing, but ‘oversee’ and ‘overlook’ are very different.

Native English speakers seldom dwell on inconsistencies in the language. But for English language learners, who are taught every aspect of the language, there are many glaring points that bring about confusion.

Alternative Description

Students find there are too many rules to master. On the other hand, there are too many exceptions to these rules too.

For example, use ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. So you write ‘believe’ or ‘relieve’, but ‘receipt’ is different. And you spell ‘seize’ or ‘weird’, yet ‘science’ is different.

Spelling is one area that makes learning English difficult – but the student also has to contend with pronunciation.

In English, there are several ways to pronounce words that have almost the same letter combinations – such as ‘cough’ ,‘through’, ‘bough’, ‘though’ and ‘hiccough’. Silent letters are also present in the beginning, middle and end of some words too, for example, ‘aisle’, ‘knee’, ‘lamb’, ‘write’, ‘gnome’ and ‘wrist’.

The way a speaker puts emphasis on a certain word alters the meaning in a subtle way. Each time the stress is put on a different word in a sentence, it changes its meaning. Sometimes the emphasis is quite clear, but there are times when it is not, which could lead to misinterpretation. Putting emphasis on a specific word is often used to express how someone feels.

Putting stress on the last syllable of ‘contest’ indicates that you are arguing, whereas putting the emphasis on the first syllable indicates that there is competition.

Close with more of a ‘z’ than an ‘s’ sound means to shut a door or window, but when the word is pronounced with an ‘s’ sound, it means near.

When you pronounce the word ‘wound’ with an ‘oo’ sound, it means an injury. But pronounce it ‘wownd’ and it means to coil.

If you speak English naturally, you immediately know the order in which words are placed. This is something else that could hamper learning progress. Explaining why there is a logical order in the positioning of words can be difficult to grasp.

Another tricky area of the English language is homophones. These are words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, and they could also differ in spelling. The two words may be spelled the same – such as rose and rose, bow or bow – or differently, such as carat and carrot, or to, two, and too.

Many words in English mean the same thing, such as see and watch. However, it’s not always possible to swap them. For example, you can ‘watch or see a film’ or ‘watch TV’ but you should never say ‘see television’.

To make it more complicated, you are not called a ‘watcher’ when you watch TV or a movie, but rather a ‘viewer’, but this is altogether different. You cannot say ‘view television’, but you can say ‘television viewer’.

Idioms are expressions that cannot be taken literally. They are metaphorical. For example, if a person is ‘green with envy’. English is a very old language, and over the course of many centuries, interesting sayings have been incorporated into everyday language that make little sense if you haven’t grown up with them. ‘Barking up the wrong tree’, ‘cat got your tongue’ and ‘to go pear shaped’ are all examples of this.

Though English does move with the times, there are still plenty of archaic words that are used to impart an old-fashioned flavour to historical novels or television dramas, or in standard conversation or writing just for a humorous effect. For example, alas, anon, wend, apothecary and shilling.

Finally, another hurdle for English language learners to understand are regional dialects. The Glaswegian accent is a famously difficult one. Sometimes it’s bad enough for southerners to understand people from Glasgow. There’s a broad north/south divide in the pronunciation of certain words, a good example being ‘bath’ which is pronounced with a short ‘a’ by those ‘up north’ and a long ‘a’ (‘barth’) by those ‘down south’. Which you end up using when your native language isn’t English probably depends on whereabouts your English teacher is from, or whereabouts in the country you’re learning.

As we’ve said in previous blogs, all it takes to avoid these confusing situations is for native English speakers to put a little thought into what we’re saying, and stick to universally understood English. After all, it’s likely your non-native counterpart has made great concessions in learning your language to communicate with you.

Inspired?  Read our Blogs, 5 Tips to Help Non-Native English Speakers in Work Meetings and How to Speak with International English Speakers.


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