If you’re an English language teacher or learner, then you know that English is not the easiest language to learn. In fact, English is often regarded as one of the hardest languages to learn. Not only does English have complex grammar rules, a vast vocabulary, and exceptions to nearly every rule, but it also includes challenges like irregular verbs, homophones, and idiomatic expressions that make mastering English particularly difficult. In this article, we will look at 20 reasons why English is so hard to learn while highlighting the fascinating nuances of the English language.
“Homophones” refer to words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings. For example, the sentence “They’re going to their car over there” contains three homophones: “they’re” (a contraction of ‘they are’), “their” (possessive form of ‘they’), and “there” (referring to a place). This can be particularly challenging for English learners because they must understand the context to distinguish between these words despite sounding identical.
Learn More: Homophones PowerPoint
2. Irregular Verbs
Irregular verbs in English do not follow a standard pattern of conjugation, especially in their past forms. For instance, the sentence “I read a book yesterday. I like to read” demonstrates the irregular verb “read,” which is pronounced differently in the present (reed) and past (red) tense but spelled the same way. This irregularity poses a challenge for learners as it requires memorization of each verb’s unique forms, unlike regular verbs, which typically just add “-ed” for their past tense.
Learn More: List of Irregular Verbs
Idioms are phrases where the words together have a meaning different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words. For example, the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” means it’s raining very heavily and has nothing to do with animals. For English learners, idioms present a unique challenge because they cannot be understood literally and often require cultural or contextual knowledge to interpret their meanings correctly.
Learn More: Funny English Idioms
4. Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs are combinations of words, typically a verb and a preposition or adverb, that together take on a new meaning. For instance, in the sentence “She made up a story,” the verb “make” combined with the preposition “up” forms the phrasal verb “made up,” meaning to invent or fabricate something. Phrasal verbs can perplex English learners because adding a preposition or adverb drastically changes the meaning of the main verb, and these meanings often cannot be deduced from the individual words.
Learn More: Phrasal Verbs Examples
5. Silent Letters
Silent letters in English are letters that appear in the spelling of a word but are not pronounced. An example is found in the sentence, “He knew the answer was written in the book.” The ‘k’ in ‘knew’ and the ‘w’ in ‘written’ are not pronounced, making the pronunciation of such words counterintuitive for learners. This aspect of English can be particularly challenging because it defies the phonetic principles that learners might rely on, requiring them to remember specific spelling and pronunciation rules for each word with silent letters.
6. Multiple Meanings
English words often have multiple meanings, which can change based on the context in which they are used. Take, for example, the sentence “The bandage was wound around the wound.” In this sentence, “wound,” in the first instance, is the past tense of the verb ‘to wind,’ meaning ‘to wrap or twist around,’ and the second “wound” is a noun referring to an injury. This characteristic of English can be particularly perplexing for learners, as they need to understand not only the word itself but also the context that is used to grasp the intended meaning.
7. Inconsistent Pronunciation
Inconsistent pronunciation in English means that the same combination of letters can be pronounced differently in different words. An example would be the sentence, “I thought through the tough drought.” Here, the “-ough” in “thought,” “through,” “tough,” and “drought” is pronounced differently in each word. This irregularity in pronunciation can be a significant hurdle for English learners, as it requires them to learn the pronunciation of words individually rather than relying on consistent phonetic rules.
Prepositions in English can be quite challenging, as their correct usage often depends on specific contextual rules that can seem arbitrary to learners. Consider these sentences: “She slept in the bed,” “She relaxed at the beach,” and “She read a book on the bus“. These sentences use the prepositions ‘in,’ ‘at,’ and ‘on’ in contextually specific ways. Understanding when to use ‘in,’ ‘at,’ ‘on,’ and other prepositions correctly requires learners to grasp nuanced usage rules that often lack clear patterns, making prepositions quite difficult for English language learners to master.
Learn More: Why Prepositions Are So Difficult To Learn
9. Articles (a, an, the)
The use of articles “a,” “an,” and “the” in English is a common source of confusion for learners. These articles are used to indicate whether a noun is specific or general. For instance, consider the sentence: “She saw a dog, an elephant, and the cat she loves.” Here, “a dog” refers to any dog (not specific), “an elephant” is used for a non-specific elephant (starting with a vowel sound), and “the cat” specifies a particular cat known to the speaker.
Knowing which article to use requires learners to not only identify the noun in the sentence but also to understand its role. Furthermore, the absence of such articles in the learner’s native language can make learning them incredibly challenging, often leading to errors when using such articles.
10. Subjunctive Mood
The subjunctive mood in English expresses wishes, hypotheticals, demands, or conditions contrary to fact. It often confuses learners because it deviates from standard verb conjugations. For example, in the sentence “If I were a bird, I would fly,” the phrase “If I were” demonstrates the subjunctive mood. Normally, “was” is the past tense of “to be,” but “were” is used in the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation. This usage is a distinct feature of English grammar and poses a challenge for learners who must recognize and apply these unique forms appropriately in various contexts.
Conditional sentences in English, often involving ‘if,’ express a condition and its possible outcome. They can be challenging for learners due to their strict structure and tense agreements. For instance, the sentence “If it rains, I’ll stay home” is an example of a first conditional sentence. It contains the ‘if’ clause in the present tense (“If it rains”) and the result clause in the future tense (“I’ll stay home”).
English has several types of conditionals (zero, first, second, third, and mixed), each with its own rules for verb tenses and structures. Learning these different patterns and when to apply them can be a complex aspect of English grammar for learners.
Learn More: Zero Conditional / First Conditional / Second Conditional / Third Conditional
12. Slang and Colloquialisms
Slang and colloquialisms are informal or non-standard phrases and words often used in casual conversation. They can be particularly challenging for English learners because they are not typically taught in formal language courses and can vary widely by region or culture. An example is the sentence “That movie was lit!” where “lit” is a slang term meaning ‘exciting’ or ‘excellent.’
This usage can be confusing as it deviates from the traditional meaning of “lit” (past tense of ‘to light’). Slang and colloquial expressions require learners to be familiar with contemporary language and cultural nuances, which can change rapidly and differ significantly even among English-speaking countries.
Contractions in English are shortened forms of words or phrases created by omitting certain letters and often replacing them with an apostrophe. While they make speech and informal writing more efficient, they can pose difficulties for learners in both understanding and usage.
For example, in the sentence “She’s going because she’d like to,” “She’s” is a contraction for “She is” and “she’d” for “She would.” Understanding contractions requires learners to be familiar with the expanded forms and the context in which they are used, as the same contraction can represent different words (like “she’d” for “she had” or “she would”). The informal nature of contractions also means that they may not always be appropriate in formal contexts, adding another layer of complexity for learners.
Related: Contraction Worksheets
14. Synonyms and Antonyms
Synonyms and antonyms are an integral part of English vocabulary. Synonyms are words that have similar meanings, while antonyms are words with opposite meanings. The challenge for learners is understanding the subtle differences in their connotations and appropriate contexts for use.
For example, consider the sentence: “The fast runner was hardly slow.” Here, “fast” and “slow” are antonyms, but the word “hardly” adds a nuance, implying that the runner was not slow at all. Grasping the fine distinctions between synonyms and the exact opposites of antonyms can be a nuanced and sophisticated aspect of English learning.
Related: Synonym Quiz
15. False Friends
“False friends” are words in English that look or sound similar to words in another language but have different meanings. These can be particularly misleading for English learners who speak those languages. For instance, the English word “actual” and the Spanish word “actual” are false friends; “actual” in English means ‘real or existing,’ while “actual” in Spanish means ‘current.’
Clichés are expressions or phrases that have become overused to the point where they lose their original meaning or novelty. They can be confusing for English learners because they often don’t make sense when taken literally.
An example is the saying, “Chance would be a fine thing.” This phrase is typically used to express a desire for something that seems unlikely to happen or a wish for an opportunity that’s not expected to arise. It’s a way of acknowledging that while one might hope for a certain outcome or opportunity, it’s understood to be a remote possibility. This kind of idiomatic expression can be particularly puzzling for learners of English because its meaning is not directly related to the literal meanings of the words it contains.
17. Punctuation Importance
Punctuation in English is crucial as it helps convey a sentence’s intended meaning and structure. Incorrect punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence, leading to confusion or misinterpretation.
A classic example is the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” The first sentence uses a comma to suggest that the speaker is addressing Grandma and inviting her to eat. The second sentence, lacking the comma, sounds like the speaker is suggesting that we actually eat Grandma. For learners of English, understanding and correctly using punctuation marks like commas, periods, question marks, and others is essential for clear and effective communication.
18. Figurative vs Literal Language
Figurative language involves the use of words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation. In contrast, literal language means exactly what it says. English learners often find it challenging to distinguish between figurative and literal meanings, especially in idiomatic expressions.
For example, the sentence “He spilled the beans” figuratively means ‘he revealed a secret.’ However, taken literally, it would imply that he actually spilled some beans. This distinction is crucial in understanding and using English effectively, as figurative language is pervasive in everyday conversation, literature, and various forms of media.
19. Word Order Sensitivity
The order of words in an English sentence is critical for its meaning, especially since English relies heavily on a strict syntactic structure. Changing the word order can lead to confusion or a completely different meaning.
For example, compare “I only painted the house yesterday” with “I painted only the house yesterday.” In the first sentence, the word ‘only’ modifies the time, suggesting that the action happened exclusively yesterday. In the second sentence, ‘only’ modifies the object, implying that nothing else was painted except for the house. This sensitivity to word order can be challenging for English learners, particularly those from languages with more flexible syntax, as it requires careful attention to the sequence of subjects, verbs, objects, and other sentence elements.
20. Spelling Challenges
English spelling can be particularly challenging due to its inconsistencies and the influence of words from various languages. Consider the words ‘weird,’ ‘height,’ ‘neither,’ and ‘sovereign.’ All these words are exceptions to the spelling rule ‘I before e except after c.’ This is just one example of many complex and irregular spelling rules that exist in the English language. Such exceptions can be confusing for learners, who must memorize and recognize these irregularities, making spelling a demanding aspect of English.
Thanks for reading! I hope you now have a greater appreciation of just how difficult the English language is. If you want to learn more about specific parts of the English language, head over to our Teaching Wiki page.