Wondering why English is hard to learn?
And if you grew up speaking it…you’'re really lucky you don’t have to learn it from scratch
I bet I can give you a whole list of reasons that you’ve never even thought of why English is hard to learn.
And by the time I'm done, native speakers, you’re going to thank your lucky stars that your mum taught you English!
With some languages, once you know the rules you can use a bit of logic to figure things out on the fly.
But English? Well, the rules don’t always make sense…
Keep scrolling to read this post as an article or hit play on the video above to watch the video version to find out why English is hard to learn.
By the way, even if English is the global language, if you only speak English, you miss out on a lot of opportunities for connection.
If you want to learn a new language fast, though stories, not rules, check out my courses which teach you through StoryLearning®. Find out more and claim you free 7-day trial of the method.
#1 Crazy English Pronunciation
Read aloud this letter – Q
Now read out this word – “queue”
So what’s with all these letters at the end…?
Oh… and the word “cue”.
You could forgive a student for asking why we tack on 4 vowels that make absolutely no difference to the sound!
Of course, this word is borrowed from French…but in French it doesn’t even mean “queue”, it means “tail”.
Now, depending on what language you’re starting with, English pronunciation can be a bit of a nightmare to get your mouth around.
Take the simple ‘th’ sound.
Unless you are Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Swahili or Icelandic, you will probably have trouble with this one…
To be fair, ‘th’ is a pretty rare sound out there!
Only about 7,5% of the world’s languages have ‘th’ sounds. And it doesn’t help that it has two pronunciations: think of the‘th’ in “this” vs “the”.
And then some languages don’t use ‘r’ like we do – or at all: And here we are, crying about the Spanish Rrrrrrrrrr.
#2 Unpredictable And Perplexing Spelling
Pronouncing words as they’re written? Pft!
English gives you weird spelling rules, and then breaks those rules.
Like these two words:
Say them out loud. Go on.
Yep – they’re said exactly the same way. Explain that to your English student.
But let’s be honest with each other: even native English speakers find English spelling perplexing.
Why do you think our social media is so full of grammar police? The language is just asking for it!
Now imagine you learn a language really well in one country, then you fly to a different country to immerse for 6 months, only to find that the spelling rules have changed.
For the same language.
America, UK, Australia – yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
And to make matters worse, there’s often a humongous pronunciation gap between native speakers even within one district.
Slang can be extreme in many neighbourhoods, and travelers trying to immerse in English often have no clue what’s even going on…
And then, of course, I have to throw in the famous one:
bough – though- thought – cough – rough – through – thorough – hiccough
One grapheme, 8 sounds?
If you were a mean English teacher, you could punish your students with a sentence like:
“The rough, dough-faced ploughman fought through the borough to the lough, hiccoughing and coughing.”
These are real language learning problems!
#3 The Same, But Opposite
English has a lot of nonsensical words like “pineapple”. Okay, you could just learn those without analysing them.
But then you get words that mean the same thing although look like they should be antonyms:
Really – whose bright idea was this?
Same goes for “famous” and “infamous”. Not opposites!
They both mean that someone is well-known, but in different ways.
English prefixes certainly don’t have simple rules that you can just learn and apply to new vocabulary.
How about those same-but-opposite verbs?
- “To dust” means to remove dust from something.
- “To dust” means to sprinkle dust on something.
Speaking of verbs, nouns can become verbs and still make sense, somehow – at least to native speakers…
- “Stop horsing around! I’m trying to dialogue with my sister.”
Verbing is NOT a concept easily taught to learners of English – it’s all about context… and lots of time hanging out with native speakers!
Next up, read this sentence and guess the meaning:
- “I never said he stole my horse.”
Think it’s obvious what it means and I’m messing with you?
Think again…it all depends which word in the sentence you emphasise!
- I never said he stole my horse. (Someone else said it)
- I never said he stole my horse. (I didn't say that)
- I never said he stole my horse. (I just implied it)
- I never said he stole my horse. (I just said someone did)
- I never said he stole my horse. (I considered it borrowed)
- I never said he stole my horse. (It could have been someone else’s horse)
- I never said he stole my horse. (He stole something else of mine though)
Oh English, you prankster.
Well, perhaps emphasis is our equivalent of tones, and our Mandarin-speaking friends will find English quite a charm to learn!
I have a teammate who taught English in Asia and her recruiter, who had learned English to a high level, would often say encouraging things like:
- “Just keep being the teacher that you’re.”
and she’d wait for the rest of the sentence…
“The teacher that I’m…what?”
- “The teacher that you’re.”
See the problem?
Learning this cool English trick called ‘contractions’ is not easy.
You can end a sentence with “don't” or “can't”, but you can’t end with “you’re” or “it’s” … even though it’s fine to end with “you are” or “it is”!
And if “don’t” means “do not”, then why is it okay to say:
“Why don’t you?” but you can’t say “Why do not you”?
We must all seem crazy to learners of English!
And you should warn new students to get an up-to-date dictionary, because English is fickle…
“Egregious” used to mean “remarkably good”. Now it means “outstandingly bad”.
Okay. So you’re learning English and you’ve finally grasped plurals – and it wasn’t easy…
(s) The boy reads the book → (p) They (the boys) read the book
(s) She cries → (p) They (the girls) cry
So “they” is plural, right? Awesome!
Until you overhear a native English speaker say…
- “If someone reads this book, they are going to cry.”
This is how we speak. Even though it’s not grammatically correct, using “they”/”them”/”their” as a singular pronoun is so common that it’s accepted.
The reason we do it? We have no pronoun genders.
“Someone” could be male or female. So we say “they”.
You’ll recognize these, as well…
- House → Houses but Mouse → Mice
- Moose → Mooses but Goose → Geese
- Fox → Foxes but Ox → Oxen
Be honest with me now. You haven't really thought about this next thing: we have more vowel sounds than letters to express them.
First, there’s the schwa sound – a kind of weak vowel sound.
In a written word, this sound could be represented by an a, e, i, o, u, or even y.
- about, stolen, pencil, memory, supply, vinyl
Then, one little vowel letter can represent many different vowel sounds:
- hat, hate, all, art, any
So I reckon maybe we are missing letters from our alphabet!
The opposite is also true…
A single vowel sound can be made with different vowel letters:
- they, weigh, may, cake, break, rain
But that’s nothing. The vowel sound ‘ee’ can be spelled in at least 21 different ways!
This is why reading is so essential if you’re learning English (or any language) – reading will give you the same visuals of common words, over and over!
Now here’s something interesting: Did you know that most languages don’t have a thesaurus?
If you’ve read quite a bit of writing by intermediate English students, you may have noticed a common tendency to use synonyms as though they’re interchangeable.
For example, the linking word “moreover” gets used a lot…
- “Shelley decided she’s going to the wedding, and moreover, she'll be singing.”
But to a native speaker, this sounds weird in a casual context. English speakers rarely use “moreover” unless they’re being formal.
- “Shelley decided she’s going to the wedding, and what’s more, she’ll be singing.”
But it's understandable – modern English has an unusually large number of synonyms – wayyy more than other languages. Way more.
So it’s not easy to get a native-like feel for choosing the right one.
For a student, this means it’s always going to be a gamble when they reach for a thesaurus!
And then there are…
#8 Phrasal Verbs
Oh boy. How does an English learner get these right when even English natives mix them up?
- Give in, Give out, Give up, Give away, Give to…
And to make matters worse, certain phrasal verbs have multiple meanings.
Think you know what “take off” means? Think again.
Here are its different meanings:
- Remove something, like clothes
- Get time off work
- An airplane flying up from the runway
- Leave the people you’re with and go somewhere else
- Suddenly begin to see increased success
- Delete something
And don’t get me started on silent letters – we’ll be here all day if I get into that.
But probably the hardest of all English skills to master is one that even native English speakers get wrong every single day: writing.
- How do you use the Oxford Comma?
- Where do apostrophes go?
- Which adverbs get a hyphen after them?
Writing requires the most focus of all the language skills and even many English speakers battle with this.
And come to think of it, if you’re learning English I would NOT advise asking your new friends at the pub for punctuation tips!
#9 Borrowed Words
Look, one of the reasons for the endless inconsistencies in English is that it has borrowed words from so many other languages.
The writer, James Nichol, nailed it:
“English doesn’t just borrow words; English follows other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
As a matter of fact, English is the world champion of borrowed words!
So, dear friends, next time a foreign person speaks to you in broken English…be kind, will you?
And to finish up, here's a rule I'm pretty sure you don’t know you know.
#10 Rules We’ve Internalised Without Being Taught
Finally, read this sentence with me:
- It’s a lovely little old rectangular blue French diamond engagement ring.
Now try and mess with that word order. Go on. Suddenly you don’t sound very articulate, do you?
When you describe something using a list of adjectives, it automatically goes: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose.
But who taught you that?
Native speakers have an intuitive grasp of word order in English and I guess we take this ability for granted!
But it’s really difficult for students to distinguish right from wrong – making it almost impossible to fool a native speaker, ever!
One word and you’re out.
But to be fair… English isn’t the only hard language here are 11 really hard languages for English speakers.
So go on…get a taste of your own medicine !!
Why English Is Hard To Learn
So, why is English hard to learn? Well, thanks to these 10 reasons, now you know. And if you're learning English, you'll know that the language doesn't make it easy.
I’d love to make it easier for you, so if you haven’t tried reading simple stories in English, you should check out my Short Stories books. I want you to win at this!