Date of Publication: 09 November 2021
For some time now, linguists and language learners around the world have argued that English is one of, if not the hardest language to learn.
Aside from the fact that many of the words in the English language stem from Ancient Greek and Latin, English also has some pretty complex grammatical, spoken and written rules – which even native speakers often get confused with!
But if the English language really is as challenging as many perceive it to be, why do so many people speak it? English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with over 1 billion people estimated to speak it as their second language.
Why English can be hard to learn
It’s widely accepted that English is hard to learn – if not the most difficult language to learn. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons why people find it so challenging.
There are lots of rules
In the English language, as with many other languages, there are a lot of rules for new speakers to learn. And these rules aren’t just applied to one area of the language either; from grammatical rules to learning how to spell longer words, there are a lot for you to try and learn.
But, and perhaps, most confusingly, these rules often get changed, refuted, or can just simply be ‘wrong,’ depending on the word or phrase you’re trying to say or spell.
For example, one of the most confusing yet widely used rules in the English language is: ‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘C.’
When it comes to spelling lots of words, such as ‘friend,’ ‘believe, ‘receive’ and ‘conceive,’ the rule stands true. However, there are many exceptions where the rulebook is thrown out the window, such as ‘science,’ ‘achieve,’ and ‘weird.’
Yet, the confusion doesn’t stop there. When it comes to the construction of sentences or even which nouns, verbs, objects and pronouns to use, there are several confusing rules to understand.
One rule that’s embedded into students early-on in their English learning is the ‘Me vs. I’ rule, which states that you should use the pronoun “I” in sentences when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. But, you should use the pronoun “me” when the person speaking is receiving the action of the verb in some way, either directly or indirectly.
For example, it is correct to say “Jane and I went to the theatre.” But in some sentences, you should use the pronoun ‘me,’ such as in; “My Mum met me and my Dad at the theatre.” It’s all about taking out the other person and seeing if ‘me’ or ‘I’ sounds the most logical. “Jane and me went to the theatre,” for instance, sounds incorrect and should not be used.
Native speakers have an intuition of which words to select, based on how they sound. For those trying to learn the language, getting used to all the complexities and exceptions to the rules can be really challenging if you don’t have this basic intuition to draw on.
And writing rules are on a whole other level
Written English is often considered the most difficult element – even native English speakers make mistakes within their writing, especially when it comes to punctuation.
There are so many different grammatical structures and rules that need to be followed when writing. From applying to the Oxford Comma in lists to using conjunctions to link ideas together in sentences, there are a whole variety of rules for new speakers to acquaint themselves with.
One of the strangest written rules is the capitalisation of the English pronoun, ‘I.’ When we examine different English pronouns, including ‘me,’ ‘you,’ ‘they,’ ‘she’ and ‘they,’ it is only the pronoun ‘I,’ which is written in capital letters, regardless of its form. Why? Well, no one really knows.
English vocabulary has mixed origins
Another interesting reason why English is hard to learn is that it has very mixed origins, with its roots found in different languages.
More specifically, the language is part of the Indo-European language family, establishing its foundations from German, Latin and French, but with languages like Persian, Hindi and Russian having an impact too. In fact, an estimated 29% of the English language is French, 29% Latin, and 26% has Germanic roots. The remaining 10% comes from all the other languages.
This can make it easier for French, German or Latin speakers, as they are already familiar with much of the vocabulary. But for new learners who do not have that jump-start, trying to learn a language which combines several others can be extremely challenging. Especially when trying to take rules and spellings you’re already familiar with, and applying them to new words and phrases which don’t even follow the same rules.
Idioms can make language learning confusing
Now, idioms can be found in every language around the world. They’re small, quirky sayings that aren’t meant to be taken literally, but are commonly used within a particular language to describe a characteristic act, process or expression.
In the English language, some of the most common – and most unique – idioms include:
- “Hit the hay” – to mean you are going to go to sleep
- “They hit the roof” – to describe someone as being very angry
- “All of a sudden” – to mean something happened quickly
- “It’s a piece of cake” – to refer to something as easy
- “It’s raining cats and dogs” – meaning that it’s raining hard
- “Costs an arm and a leg” – something that costs a lot of money
- “Up in the air” – to speak about uncertainty, no conclusive decision
- “Break a leg” – a way of wishing someone good luck
There are tens of thousands of idioms in the English language, and many of which can be regional – that is, only the people that live locally know and use them.
Understandably, when a new language learner hears a phrase such as “break a leg,” they may be rather perplexed by what you mean. Idioms are nonsensical, confusing, and unpredictable in what they refer to.
But for anyone learning English who plans on immersing themselves in British culture, learning idioms is a crucial element. Many common conversational idioms are used by native speakers, so you need to be familiar with them if you are to be able to hold a conversation.
There are so many tenses, and all mean something slightly different
Another common complaint surrounding the learning of the English language is the tenses. Tenses – whether spoken or written – can completely change the meaning of a sentence. And in English, there are lots of different tenses which can mean different things.
Before we get into the complexities of the tenses themselves, we should explain how there is a lot of argument around how many tenses there even are. Some experts argue that there are thirteen, while others claim it to be sixteen. And the very fact that we are unable to agree on a particular amount demonstrates the very difficulty of them.
Now we’ve established their complexities, let’s take a deeper look at the challenges that come with understanding each different tense.
First, learners need to look at the time frame of the tense:
- Past: It has already happened
- Present: It is happening now
- Future: It is going to happen
Seems simple enough, right? We either speak about an event in the past, present, or future. That’s like most languages in the world. Just wait.
Once we’ve established the time frame of the event, these three frames are then divided into three further sections to tell us how to look at an event or action:
- Past-simple: I ran
- Past-continuous: I was running
- Past-perfect: I had ran
- Present-simple: I run
- Present-continuous: I am running
- Present-perfect: I have ran
- Future-simple: I will run
- Future-continuous: I will be running
- Future-perfect: I will have ran
These tenses are all so closely related, and yet have the ability to completely change the meaning of a sentence or the way we understand it.
With so many different tenses to understand, it’s no wonder that so many find English hard to learn or often find it difficult to maintain the same tense when speaking or writing. Many native speakers often find themselves shifting tenses unknowingly, showing just how difficult it can be to maintain consistency.
The rules around plurals aren’t always synonymous
Now, if you thought that the rules around tenses were confusing, you’re about to discover a whole new level of confusion as we explore the rather perplexing rules around plurals.
In most cases, singular nouns are usually made plural by simply adding an -s on the end. But, there are cases where pluralisation rules change depending on what letter a noun ends in.
For example, if the noun ends in ‑s, -ss, -sh, -ch, -x, or -z, then you are required to add ‑es to the end to make it plural. E.g. ‘bus’ becomes ‘buses,’ and ‘tax’ becomes ‘taxes.’
But, if the noun ends with the letter ‑f or ‑fe, the f is often changed to ‑ve before adding the -s to form the plural version. E.g. ‘wife’ becomes ‘wives’ and ‘shelf’ becomes ‘shelves.’
To make matters even more confusing, there are some exceptions to the rule. For example the singular ‘chef,’ becomes a plural ‘chefs,’ while your single ‘roof’ will become multiple ‘roofs.’
These are just a couple of examples of the rules that exist around plurals in the English language. There are many more plural rules that language learners need to make themselves aware of, which are often illogical, irregular, or just outright confusing.
Pronunciation is difficult
As if the rules around written English weren’t difficult enough to understand, the way we pronounce words when speaking also causes much difficulty for those trying to understand and use the English language.
Firstly, many words in the English language are spelt with letters at the beginning of them which are silent when pronounced, such as:
- “Knife” – is pronounced ‘nife’
- “Mnemonic” – ‘new-mon-ic’
- “Pneumonia” – ‘new-moan-ee-a’
- “Gnash” – ‘nash’
When not pronounced, this makes spellings of the words with silent letters very difficult for new language learners to write down – as they often turn to phonetics to make spelling words that bit easier.
And secondly, and even more confusingly, when spoken aloud, many words that end in the same letters aren’t always pronounced in the same way. For example:
- “Cough” – is pronounced ‘coff’
- “Rough” – ‘ruff’
- “Through” – ‘throo’
- “Although” – ‘all-tho’
- “Borough” – ‘bu-ra’
Unfortunately there’s no common rule set that can be applied to the pronunciation of words. Much of the learning has to come through practice either speaking or listening to the words, which can be quite frustrating for new learners.
You can’t use synonyms interchangeably
When learning English, you’ll probably look in a thesaurus and discover that there are several groups of words that generally mean the same thing – these are referred to as ‘synonyms.’
Now, if these words all generally mean the same thing, it’s easy to understand why many English language learners assume that you can use them interchangeably. But you can’t.
English words have various definitions. Even those which share a similar meaning can refer to something completely different. And because of this, many learners end up misusing words.
For example, in common conversation you may say that you want to “see a movie,” or even “watch” it on television. But, it would be wrong to say that you would “see a television.” Similarly, when you “want” to purchase a new pair of jeans, you would never say “I desire a new pair of jeans.” It just doesn’t make sense in spoken English.
Even if the two words share very similar meanings, you should take a look at the context around them as they could be completely different from one another. Again, it’s something that comes with practice and intuition from speaking to locals.
Essentially, the English language can be nonsensical
Finally, and perhaps something you’ve picked up on while reading this article, the English language is often full of inconsistencies and illogical pairings that means reading, speaking, and listening the language is confusing to non-native speakers.
For example, take the word ‘strawberry.’ Now, what does the word ‘straw’ have anything to do with the red juicy berry fruit? Sometimes, the pairings just seem illogical.
And it’s not just words either. Often there are cases where nouns may become verbs, but the rules change depending on the word. For example, teachers will have ‘taught’ their students, whereas preachers will have ‘preached.’
Add to this different regional dialects adding different pronunciations and even idioms to the English language, and you can understand why so many inconsistencies have come to be common practice in the English language.
These inconsistencies can make it really difficult for learners to understand and adopt rules of the language. You have to learn the commonalities of the way people speak, rather than learning one simple rule.
Is English the hardest language to learn?
Throughout this article, we’ve demonstrated how challenging the English language can be for new learners. With its vast amount of rules, complex origins and illogical language patterns, it’s no wonder that so many learners complain of its difficulty.
But when you compare English against other challenging languages, such as Mandarin, Arabic or Japanese, its difficulty is often debated. Mandarin, for example, is known for having a famously-difficult emphasis pattern of speaking, which can change entire sentences and meanings based on the tone a person uses. Meanwhile, written Arabic has a different script for each variation of a letter, depending on where in the word it sits.
These different challenges mean the perceived difficulty of each of these languages ultimately comes down to the learner. It’s what is relatable to what you already know. E.g. If your native tongue is one of the languages which has its roots firmly in the English language, such as French or German, you may find it easier to learn compared to someone from a country which has no origins in the English language.
Likewise, if you are native in a language which uses symbols in written language, such as Japanese, then you’ll find it much easier to understand than someone who doesn’t. It’s all about the general understanding we have of our own language, and how we use this to translate and decode those which are similar or different from what we know.
Improve your English language skills in the UK
Want to improve your English skills? Study with Oxford Summer Courses next summer and learn in the UK’s best academic city – Oxford.
Studying in the UK has many benefits for language learning. Firstly, your classroom learning sessions will be taught by expert native speakers, who are qualified to teach you the fundamentals of the English language. They’ll also use role-play and fun project-based ‘Active English’ activities to build on your communication skills, helping prepare you for real-life conversations.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, you will enjoy a busy socio-cultural timetable which will give you plenty of opportunity to explore Oxford and communicate with the locals. It’s the perfect opportunity to put your new skills to the test!