The 3 Hardest Challenges in Learning English
All languages have their own particular challenges.
German has a word order that’s completely counter-intuitive to speakers of most other languages, and as a result it takes learners an extra six weeks of intensive study to reach fluency compared to closely related languages like Danish and Afrikaans. French has many, many silent letters, which is a gift when you’re trying to speak and can’t remember your verb endings, but poses much more of a challenge if you’re listening to someone and don’t have any context clues to figure out which tense they’re speaking in. Spanish and Italian have enough verb endings to memorise to exhaust any learner. Celtic languages like Welsh and Irish have words where the beginning changes depending on which preposition, possessive or number precedes them.
Outside of Europe, it gets even trickier. Khoisan languages have click consonants (and some languages within that group have multiple different kinds of clicks). Japanese has special vocabulary and grammatical forms for honorific speech. Chinese has a tonal system that can be subtle enough for learners to struggle to hear the difference between tones, let alone pronounce them – and yet a different tone can completely change the meaning of a word. Turkish is an agglutinating language, meaning that units of meaning can be stuck together to form words of astonishing length and complexity. And rarer languages such as Berik in New Guinea and Chindali in Tanzania and Malawi have tenses to specify the time of day at which something happened.
In comparison with some of the languages above, it seems almost churlish to complain that English is hard to learn. But it has challenges of its own that have students tearing their hair out (idioms like “to tear one’s hair out”, meaning to be very frustrated, are just one example). In this article, we look at the most challenging aspects of the English language, and what, if anything, learners can do to cope with them.
1. Unreliable spelling and pronunciation
The greatest challenge in the English language for new learners and native speakers alike is its spelling and pronunciation. There is only a very weak correlation between how something is spelled in English and how it is pronounced, and most adult native speakers will have one or two common words that they struggle to remember how to spell – ‘necessary’ is a typical one that native speakers get wrong routinely, as is ‘receive’.
Compare English and Irish. Irish has horrific-looking words like ‘an fhuinneog’ (a window) and speakers of most other European languages will be baffled to guess how the ‘fh’ sound is pronounced. But once you know that ‘fh’ is silent, you can pronounce it in any word you come across. And the same is true of any other Irish sound; the language is completely phonetic. You only need to learn how to pronounce each sound once.
Try that in English and you’ll soon come unstuck. Take the ‘th’ sound, which is not normally given as an example where English pronunciation is tricky (that honour normally goes to the frightful variety of ways that ‘ough’ can be pronounced – ‘uff’, ‘ow’, ‘ooh’ to name only a few). It can be pronounced in two different ways – think about the difference between ‘that’ and ‘thing’. When you say the ‘th’ in ‘that’, your vocal chords vibrate (the technical term for this is that it is ‘voiced’). When you say the ‘th’ in ‘thing’, they don’t (which makes it ‘unvoiced’). For some other sounds, English makes this clear in the spelling – ‘s’ is unvoiced, ‘z’ is voiced, and so the distinction between ‘zinc’ and ‘sink’ (or ‘sync’, if you prefer) is clear. But there’s no such distinction made for ‘th’. Native English speakers never get the voiced and unvoiced version confused, but it’s less straightforward if it’s not your first language. And it’s even harder when something is pronounced the same way, but spelled two different ways, such as ‘air’ and ‘heir’.
The ‘th’ example also serves to demonstrate why it is that English spelling and pronunciation can be so unpredictable and irregular. The two sounds derive from Old English, and in that language the difference is clearly marked in spelling – ‘that’ would be ‘þat’ and ‘thing’ would be ‘ðing’. But over time, the distinction ceased to be made in writing, in part because of the introduction of printing, where imported fonts represented the German or Italian alphabet rather than the English alphabet with its þ and ð. English ditched the letters but not the pronunciation, and so this vestige of its linguistic history still haunts students today.
The same cause lies behind many of English’s peculiarities and inconsistencies. English is a hybrid language – it has a Germanic base, with French grafted on, Latin sprinkled on top and a generous dollop of mixed vocabulary from all the former dominions of the British Empire and beyond added to boot. Sometimes the spelling of the words and phrases from these different sources has been adapted into more typical English spelling, but sometimes not – so we end up with the German ‘fish’ but the Greek ‘phone’, starting with the same sound but spelled differently.
And on the occasions when people have tried to fix English spelling, they have typically made it worse. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a move to make English words more closely resemble their Latin roots – so ‘sissors’ became ‘scissors’ and ‘dout’ became ‘doubt’. When Noah Webster published his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he made many changes to try to improve English spelling. Some caught on worldwide, such as ‘public’ to replace ‘publick’; some only in the USA, such as removing the ‘u’ from ‘colour’ and changing ‘centre’ to ‘center’; and some didn’t find favour at all, such as his suggested ‘soop’ for ‘soup’. The result was that English spelling became even more inconsistent, including between countries.
There isn’t much that can be done to make learning English spelling and pronunciation easier. English learners have to figure it out much like native speakers do, by memorising the rules that can be relied on (such as the pronunciation ‘shun’ for the suffix ‘tion’) and learning the other spelling and pronunciation by heart. But if you’re struggling, comfort yourself with the thought that no native English speaker ever pronounced ‘hyperbole’ correctly the first time they said it aloud either.
2. Difficult futures
There are at least eight different ways to talk about the future in English, and all with subtly different meanings. Here goes:
“I will feed the cat at 8 o’clock” – the straightforward future tense, and the one that all students of English learn first. When it gets to eight o’clock, the cat will be getting its dinner. Easy? Well, not really. Because this implies that feeding the cat at eight o’clock is a new decision – possibly in answer to the question, “are you ever going to feed that poor cat?” It evokes spontaneity. If it’s not a new decision, you might say…
“I’m going to feed the cat at eight o’clock” – you’ve given it some thought. If you’re ‘going to’ do something, that suggests you’ve made a plan. It’s not a new decision. Responding “I’m going to feed the cat at eight o’clock” to “are you ever going to feed that poor cat?” has a hint of exasperation to it. Possibly there are arguments about the cat’s meal times ahead.
“I’m feeding the cat at eight o’clock” – this is even more definite, and as a response to a question, even more exasperated. It implies a definite plan; perhaps your bus gets you home for ten to.
“I feed the cat at eight o’clock” – this looks a lot like the present tense! But it can also be used with a future sense if this is something that always happens. “When are you feeding the cat?” “I feed the cat at eight o’clock” implies an “every night” at the end. This phrasing wouldn’t be usual in English; you might be more likely to use a colloquial phrase like, “the cat gets fed at eight o’clock.”
“I’ll be feeding the cat at eight o’clock” – this is the future continuous, which suggests the action takes some time. Perhaps the cat needs to be bottle-fed.
“I’ll have fed the cat at eight o’clock” – by eight o’clock, the action will have happened. It’s in the future now, but by then it will already be in the past.
“I will have been feeding the cat at eight o’clock” – the same as the above, but for a more time-consuming action. This suggests that the arduous process of persuading that finicky cat to finally eat something may have begun at 7.30, but thank goodness it’ll be done by 8.
“I was going to feed the cat at eight o’clock” – this suggests that the person is reconsidering the action, and is normally followed with ‘but’. Perhaps it’s “but my train is delayed, so could you feed her?” Or it might be “but she looked so hungry I had to give her something now.”
Eight different ways just to talk about feeding a cat. The best way to cope? Remind yourself that if you were learning Latin, you’d have to remember different endings for each and every one of them, and thank your lucky stars.
3. Phrasal verbs
For the most part, phrasal verbs come naturally to native English speakers – at least once they’re out of kindergarten – but they are a persistent challenge to anyone learning the language from scratch. For those who don’t know, a phrasal verb is one whose meaning requires two words, a verb and an adverb or preposition, used in a recognised phrase. English is full of examples of these, which most native speakers don’t notice at all. So we ‘look up’ to someone (or ‘admire’ them), we ‘put off’ a difficult task (or ‘procrastinate’), and we ‘set off’ an alarm (or ‘activate’ it).
Sometimes the same verb can mean something completely different when used in different phrases. So you would ‘break up’ with a significant other (or ‘dump’ them), but you would ‘break into’ a house (which might involve ‘breaking down’ a door), while on a sunny day the sun might ‘break through’ the clouds.
The phrasal verb ‘break down’ is challenging in its own right. Used intransitively – without a direct object – it means to stop working, as in ‘my car broke down’. At least, that’s if it’s used of an inanimate object. Used of a person, it means to show extreme sadness, as in ‘Sheila broke down’. But if it’s used transitively, with a direct object, it means to destroy, as in ‘I broke down the door’. And if it’s used of an abstract noun, it means ‘to explain’ or ‘to simplify’, such as ‘I broke down the budget for him’.
Nor is there much logic to the second part of the phrase. In English, you ‘get in’ a car or a boat but you ‘get on’ a train, plane or ship – that’s despite the fact that after ‘getting on’ a plane you’ll be inside it, and after ‘getting in’ a boat you’ll be on it. To go back to breaking things (something many English students will feel inclined to do at this point), to break down a door makes intuitive sense to native English speakers. First the door is up in the frame, then it is down in pieces on the floor. Similarly, the sun parts the clouds when it breaks through them. But no such logic applies to breaking up with a partner. You might think that bringing a relationship to an end would mean breaking it down, but if you break down with a partner, you’re either crying your eyes out together, or possibly you’re throwing some great shapes on the dance floor. Hopefully the context will make it clear which one it is.
You have two options when it comes to phrasal verbs. One is to learn them all, as native English speakers do as children, treating ‘break down’ and ‘break up’ like completely different words with separate meanings despite the fact that they’re phrases with a word in common. The other is simply to avoid them wherever you can. There’s usually another word or phrase that can be substituted – you can say ‘they left’ rather than ‘they set off’, or ‘she always thought she was better than me’ rather than ‘she always looked down on me’. English synonyms represent a world of challenges on their own, but they sometimes come in handy too.
Images: english dictionaries; big eyed cat; broken down jeep; hurdles; frustrated student