Why is English so hard to learn? (Part 1)

Given the fact that many of the words we use in English stem from Latin and Ancient Greek words – in common with many other European languages – what is it about English that has attracted this reputation for being so fearsomely difficult? And is it really even that difficult, when so many other countries adopt it as their second language and speak it a lot more fluently than we Brits speak other languages? We’ll leave you to make up your own mind .

It just makes no sense!

One of the reasons why English is known for being difficult is because it’s full of contradictions. There are innumerable examples of conundrums such as:

  • There is no ham in hamburger.
  • Neither is there any apple nor pine in pineapple.
  • If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • “Overlook” and “oversee” have opposite meanings, while “look” and “see” mean the same thing.

As native speakers, we rarely stop to think how illogical many of the things we say really are – we’re just used to them. Unless you’ve been brought up speaking English, how can you possibly begin to learn all these oddities? It’s little wonder that people trying to learn English end up feeling confused. But it gets worse.

Exceptions to rules

One of the hardest things about English is that although there are rules, there are lots of exceptions to those rules – so just when you think you’ve got to grips with a rule, something comes along to shatter what you thought you knew by contradicting it. A good example is the rule for remembering whether a word is spelt “ie” or “ei”: “I before E except after C”. Thus “believe” and “receipt”. But this is English – it’s not as simple as that. What about “science”? Or “weird”? Or “seize”? There are loads of irregular verbs, too, such as “fought”, which is the past tense of “fight”, while the past tense of “light” is “lit”. So learning English isn’t just a question of learning the rules – it’s about learning the many exceptions to the rules. The numerous exceptions make it difficult to apply existing knowledge and use the same principle with a new word, so it’s harder to make quick progress.

The order of the words

Native English-speakers intuitively know what order to put words in, but this is hard to teach to those learning the language. The difference between the right and wrong order is so subtle that it’s hard to explain beyond simply saying that it “just sounds right”. For example, we often use more than one adjective to describe a noun, but which order should they go in? We would say “an interesting little book” not “a little interesting book”. Both are technically grammatically correct, but the first “just sounds right”. It’s a bit of a nightmare for those who are trying to learn, and it may prove one nuance too much. (In fact, there is some method to this particular English madness – but it’s quite involved, and beyond the scope of this article to explain it.)

Pronunciation

As if the spelling wasn’t hard enough, English pronunciation is the cause of much confusion among those trying to learn English. Some words are very low on vowels, such as the word “strengths”, which is hard to say when you’re not accustomed to English pronunciation. What’s more, words that end in the same combination of letters aren’t necessarily pronounced in the same way. Why is “trough” pronounced “troff”, “rough” pronounced “ruff”, “bough” pronounced “bow” (to rhyme with cow) and “through” pronounced “throo”? There are silent letters at the start of words, too. Why are there so many words that begin with a silent “K”, such as “knife”? Or even a silent “G”, such as “gnome”? If it’s not pronounced, what’s the point of including that letter in the first place, if it only adds to the confusion of both native speakers and learners? And don’t get us started on the number of hapless tourists who don’t know where to begin with pronouncing a town name such as “Worcester”. Sadly, many English learners have to learn the hard way when it comes to our confusing pronunciation; if you pronounce something incorrectly, most Brits will demonstrate the correct way to you – but not without a little chuckle at your expense.