Is English a hard language?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my guide to the Most Common Pronunciation Errors in English. It will teach you about commonly mispronounced words, pro­nunci­ation patterns, and the basics of English phonology.

This question may be somewhat controversial, but, in my opinion, English is a very hard language to learn. When speaking about difficulty, people generally tend to think only about some aspects of the language in question (the ones they find hard, for some reason) leaving out the rest. For example, people often say that Chinese is extremely difficult because you have to learn thousands of different characters, or that Slavic languages are difficult because of all the declensions. However, I think that it’s actually a combination several different aspects of English that makes it difficult.

Some people say that English has complicated grammatical rules, but this really isn’t the case. For example, the verb “to be” has the most forms an English verb can possible have: be, am, are, is, were, was, been, and being (i.e. 8 different forms, while most verbs have just 4).

On the other hand, French être (to be) has 40 different forms! (Just for fun: être, étant, été, suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, sont, étais, était, étions, étiez, étaient, fus, fut, fûmes, fûtes, furent, serai, seras, sera, serons, serez, seront, serait, serions, seriez, seraient, sois, soit, soyons, soyez, soient, fusse, fusses, fût, fussions, fussiez, fussent). Conjugation of verbs is much easier in English than in probably any other Indo-European language.

Although many people complain about the English system of tenses, it is just necessary to understand what the grammatical constructions are supposed to express (without trying to directly translate everything into one’s mother tongue); for example, the phrase “I have been doing something” conveys the idea of doing something continually for a period of time in the past (and usually also continuing the action in the present). Once you understand the concept, it is much easier to apply it to any verb than in most other languages, simply because verb conjugation is much simpler.

Similarly, English has no genders and only three different articles (the, a, an); or five, if you count the stressed variants separately. The form of articles doesn’t change according to the function of the noun in a sentence. Compare the two following sentences in English and in German:

The table is big.Der Tisch ist groß.
I like the colour of the table.Ich mag die Farbe des Tisches.
It’s on the table.Es ist auf dem Tisch.
I see the table.Ich sehe den Tisch.

In English, “the table” remains the same, whereas in German “der Tisch” (the table) changes according to the function of the noun, and this was just the pattern for masculine nouns; there’s another one for the feminine, neuter, and plural ones, giving 16 forms altogether to be remembered for what would be just “the” in English. The same applies to adjectives and other parts of speech, so English grammar can actually be considered quite rudimentary in comparison to many other languages.

English spelling is perhaps the worst in the world

So what is it that makes English so hard for foreigners to learn? The answer is: the combination of its vocabulary, orthography, and pronunciation. Most languages have a regulatory body which issues spelling reforms as the pronunciation of the language develops (which happens much faster than one might have expected). On the other hand, English spelling is “regulated” by influential dictionaries, such as Webster’s dictionary and The Oxford English Dictionary.

However, by the time these dictionaries were written (during the 19th century), English pronunciation had already been changing for several hundred years which, unfortunately, was mostly ignored by the creators of the dictionaries. As no surprise comes the fact that English pronunciation has diverged even further from its spelling since these dictionaries were written.

This poses a much greater problem to learners of English than to native speakers because native speakers know how to pronounce words; they just have to be able to spell them correctly, which is not such a big problem nowadays when anyone can use a spell checker.

Learners of English, on the other hand, meet most of their vocabulary in a written form first. It is often possible (and even appropriate) to derive the meaning of a new word from the context, but instead of looking up the correct pronunciation in a dictionary, learners tend to just guess what the pronunciation might be and then use this pronunciation internally when thinking about the word. Unfortunately, such guesses are wrong most of the time.

Complicated pronunciation doesn’t help it

One of the reasons they are wrong so often is an unusually large number of vowels and consonants present in English which must be distinguished in order to be understood correctly (the so called “minimal pairs”) which sound almost the same to the learner’s ear.

For example, none of the words “bed”, “bet”, “bad”, “bat”, “bud”, “but” is pronounced the same as any of the others, and they mean completely different things (they are pronounced, in the same order: /bɛd/, /bɛt/, /bæd/, /bæt/, /bʌd/, bʌt/). Nevertheless, these are all patterns that can be learned because all the differences are indicated by the spelling of the words.

A much greater problem is caused by spelling ambiguities and historical spellings that don’t follow current pronunciation rules at all. Why is “dear” pronounced the same as “deer” but “bear” and “beer” sound different? Or why is “colonel” pronounced the same as “kernel”?

In addition to the problems we have already mentioned, there is no indication of stress placement in English whatsoever. In most languages, stress placement is governed by relatively simple rules; in English it is almost completely irregular, and words can even change their meaning depending on the stress position.

Even worse, pronunciation of vowels usually changes depending on whether they are stressed, for example “angel” is pronounced /ˈeɪndʒəl/ whereas “angelic” is pronounced /ænˈdʒɛlɪk/ (i.e. not only has the stress shifted by adding the suffix “-ic”, but also the pronunciation of both of the vowels has changed).

To make the confusion complete, there is a large number of English dialects in which pronunciation of vowels, intonation, and stress placement differ considerably (to the extent that Scottish English and American English are virtually mutually unintelligible languages). A learner of English has no other choice than to learn to understand all of the major dialects since he or she will most likely meet them sooner or later.

And finally: Vocabulary…

In terms of vocabulary, English is like a patchwork. It is a mixture of (mostly) Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. As a result, there are often different words to express the same idea. For example, one doesn’t speak of “touchy feedback” but of “tactile feedback”, and not of “smelly system” but of “olfactory system” (the system in the body that perceives smells). If you do something using your hands, you don’t do it “handily”, you do it “manually”, and the “green” electricity you may be using doesn’t come from “sunny plants” but from “solar plants”.

This process results in vocabulary size that is somewhat larger than necessary. This is not a bad thing per se; it adds some expressive power to English and makes it a good starting point for learning other European languages. However, in combination with English pronunciation and spelling problems, this can be a huge nuisance to learners, especially since spelling of such words usually reflects the original spelling in the language of origin, not their contemporary English pronunciation.

This article was based on my guide to English pronunciation mistakes, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?