4 Difficulties English Poses for EFL Learners, and How to Overcome Them

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It’s no secret that English is one of the more challenging languages to learn.

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Of course, the difficulty students have with it will depend on what language or languages they already know; English is naturally going to be easier to learn if one already has knowledge of a language that has the same roots, and is therefore more closely related to it. But while the same may be said to be true of learning any language, there seems to be something about English in particular that makes it especially tricky. In this article, we look at some of the specific difficulties English poses to those learning it as a foreign language, and what you can do to overcome these problems if you’re in the throes of learning this complicated language yourself.

1. English has one of the biggest, trickiest vocabularies there is

One of the most arduous tasks when learning a language is committing to memory enough words to allow you to express yourself regardless of the situation or subject. This is no mean feat in any language, but it’s fair to say that English is one of the harder languages in this respect. Here are some of the reasons why people find it so challenging.

The sheer number of words

Image shows a large dictionary with a pair of glasses lying on top of it.
English has an unusually large and varied number of words.

English has a vast number of words – the biggest of any language, according to some scholars. It’s a particularly complex lexicon because it has many different roots and influences, including Old English and Latin, which means that there’s huge variety in how words are spelled. What’s more, there are numerous instances of words meaning essentially the same thing, but with subtle differences that are often lost on those who don’t speak English as their mother tongue. For example, the words “plump” and “fat” both mean basically the same thing, but their connotations mean that they can’t necessarily be used interchangeably (“plump” tends to imply a healthy roundness, as in a plump baby or a plump roast chicken, while “fat” has more negative connotations and could imply obesity or otherwise undesirable weight). There are also plenty of synonyms that make little sense to non-native speakers, or that appear to mean the opposite of each other; there are lots of examples in this selection of funny synonyms.


Image shows a sign with the word 'personnel' spelled incorrectly on it.
English spelling is hard even for native English speakers.

Idiosyncratic spellings mean that it’s often difficult to guess how to spell an English word based on how it sounds, which impedes the learning process. Although there are plenty of recurring patterns (such as words ending in “-ing”, “-tion” and so on), there’s often no substitute for learning spellings by rote, because there are plenty of exceptions to rules, meaning that logical deduction doesn’t always work. (Look at the word “pronounce” or “pronouncing”, for example, and watch what happens to it when it becomes “pronunciation”. The second “O” has disappeared, contrary to what one might have expected.) What’s more, the English language contains numerous homophones – words that are spelled and/or pronounced the same, but that mean different things – which makes it harder to learn the vocabulary and harder to ascertain the meaning from how the word sounds.

Idioms and slang

Image shows sailors with bales of rope.
“To know the ropes”, meaning “to know your way around”, is an idiom that comes from sailing.

As with most languages, spoken English tends to be more informal than written English, presenting further complexity for the student with the unenviable task of learning the language. Slang is yet another aspect of the language for learners to get to grips with, knowledge of which is necessary in order to understand informal conversation (a very basic example is “yeah”, which is slang for “yes”). English is also littered with idioms, which don’t always make sense to those learning English, but in order to speak English like a native speaker, a knowledge of idioms is essential. You’ll hear phrases such as “fat chance”, “turn a blind eye” and “call it a day” adding colour to everyday language, and it’s not just the phrases you need to learn, but their meanings and when it’s appropriate for you to use them. You can learn more about English idioms in our article on 20 English idioms and their meanings and origins.

2. English grammar is full of subtlety

Image shows a stand laden with cupcakes.
“Can I have a slice of cake?”, “Could I have a slice of cake?” and “May I have a slice of cake?” all express the same idea in differing levels of formality.

English grammar is notoriously problematic for EFL learners; its difficulty leads to a great many common mistakes, which even native speakers frequently fall foul of. But it’s not just these basic errors that EFL learners must conquer. English grammar is full of subtlety, and it’s only with experience that non-native speakers will learn to appreciate its nuances. Consider, for example, the difference between “I write” (the simple past) and “I have written” (the perfect present), to which other forms such as “I am writing” or “I had written” add even more complexity with subtly different meanings. Then there’s the tricky auxiliary verbs that many EFL learners struggle with – such as “Do you want a slice of cake?” and “She has given me a slice of cake” – and modal auxiliary verbs, which express things like likelihood or obligation (“I might join you”, for example).
Add to all this the idiomatic variations and their subtleties (it’s “make a promise”, not “do a promise”, for example), to say nothing of the complexities of punctuation, and you have a tremendously demanding task to master the finer points of English grammar. While the basic aspects of English grammar must be learned by rote from the moment you start learning the language, some of the more advanced aspects won’t be picked up until you’re speaking English more confidently and are able to start fine-tuning your existing English skills by listening closely to how native speakers speak the language, and by learning from your mistakes. Nobody would expect you to be able to master all this from the word go – it’s something you pick up over many years of speaking English.

3. Pronunciation is difficult and inconsistent

Getting to grips with pronunciation can be a tall order whatever language you’re learning; even within northern European languages, the prevalent sounds can differ quite dramatically. The following issues are some of the main aspects of English pronunciation that make it even harder for those learning it as a foreign language.

Certain sounds in English are particularly tricky

Image shows three trees in the mist.
The distinction between “three” and “tree” can be hard to pronounce.

Different nationalities have problems with different aspects of English pronunciation, and there isn’t a great deal they can do about it other than practise repeatedly until they start to form the ability to create the right sounds. Many EFL learners find the “th” sound hard to pronounce, because it’s comparatively uncommon in other languages. Those who speak languages such as Japanese and most dialects of Chinese find it hard to differentiate between “r” and “l” sounds, while the distinction between “b” and “v” is problematic for speakers of many other languages, including Spanish and Arabic.
Another difference between English and some other languages is the number of consonants it’s possible to group together in a syllable – up to three; “stranger”, for instance, has three consonants (“str”) strung together before the vowel “a”. This is not possible in some other languages, and it can lead to difficulties in pronouncing it, with some students inadvertently inserting extra vowels to break up the consonants. With this, as with anything, practice makes perfect. Those struggling long-term with English pronunciation may benefit from elocution lessons, which coaches students through how to create different sounds by using the mouth, teeth and tongue in a different way.

You can’t always guess the pronunciation from the spelling

Just as it’s not always possible to guess the spelling of a word based on how it sounds, pronunciation of already difficult sounds is made harder by the fact that it’s often hard to guess how a word is pronounced based on its spelling. Let’s look at an example to illustrate this. You’d be forgiven for thinking that because they all end in the letters “-ough”, the words “cough”, “tough”, “through”, “thorough”, “bough” and “dough” would all sound the same when spoken aloud. Not so. Each of these words is pronounced differently. The “-ough” sound in “cough” sounds like “off”; in “tough” it sounds like “uff”; in “through” it sounds like “oo”; in “bough” it sounds like “ow”; in “dough” it sounds like “oh”.
Unfortunately, there’s no substitute here for simply learning the individual pronunciations; with no hard-and-fast rules dictating the pronunciation of words ending in “-ough”, it’s a labour-intensive series of words to learn. Luckily, not all word endings are as difficult to learn as this one; words ending in “-tion”, for instance, are all pronounced “shun”. This means that for most of the standard endings, you only need to rote-learn the exceptions where pronunciation is concerned.

There are so many silent letters

Image shows two knights about to fight with a castle in the background.
A knight at a castle has a remarkable number of silent letters.

English has lots of silent letters that aren’t pronounced, which gives EFL learners even more pronunciation issues to contend with. An obvious example is words that begin with a silent “K”, such as “knife” or “knock”. There are also other silent letters at the beginning of words, such as the silent “H” at the beginning of “honour”, the “p” at the beginning of “psychology” or the “G” in “gnome”. Less obvious are words that contain or end in silent letters rather than beginning with them. Examples include the “G” in “benign”, the “B” in “thumb”, the “H” in “character”, the “N” in “autumn” or the “T” in “castle”. It’s usually possible to learn the patterns containing silent letters so that you can hazard a guess as to whether a letter should be pronounced, but it’s sometimes a question of trial and error: if you pronounce a letter that shouldn’t be pronounced, the person you’re talking to will almost certainly tell you!

Regional dialects alter pronunciation

English pronunciation is made even more difficult by the plethora of regional dialects that mean that the same word can be pronounced very differently depending on who’s saying it. A good example is the way the “a” is pronounced in the word “bath”; there’s a broad north-south divide between those in southern England, who pronounce it with a long “a” to sound like “barth”, and those in northern England, who pronounce it with a short “a” as heard in the word “cafe”. If you’re exposed to a variety of accents when you’re learning English, it will compound the difficulty of learning the correct pronunciation. You can minimise this potential confusion by ensuring that you do all your learning with someone with a neutral dialect (or at least with the same dialect if you’re studying with more than one person) throughout your English studies so that you learn to pronounce words consistently.

4. There are many variations of English

Image shows an Australian flag against the sun.
Different English-speaking countries have different varieties of English.

Finally, English is a particularly challenging language because there are so many variations of it. Though fundamentally the same language, it’s spoken quite differently in the various countries that have it as a primary language, such as the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. As we’ve already seen it’s even spoken with variations in the UK, with regional dialects introducing local vocabulary (including unique words and sayings) and the whole language sounding very different in Scotland to how it does in England, and different again in Wales and Ireland. Within England there are distinctive dialects, such as ‘Geordie’ up in Northumberland, ‘Brummie’ in the Midlands, ‘Scouse’ in Liverpool and ‘West Country’ in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, to say nothing of many other notable English accents. Getting used to the different sounds you might hear when conversing with a British person will take time, adding an additional layer of complexity to an already tricky language.

If you need more help with advancing your English skills, we offer English as a Foreign Language summer schools of up to four weeks’ duration, which will allow you to study the language intensively and make rapid progress within small classes. There’s no substitute for hard work and determination when you’re learning English, but studying with like-minded fellow learners will make a complex task seem much easier and more enjoyable.

Image credits: banner; dictionary; sign; ropes; cake; treesknights; Australian flag.