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Is English Hard to Learn?

Is English really that hard to learn? Explore the challenges of this language and discover tips for mastering it.

Jun 25, 2024
  • English Proficiency
Is English hard to learn?

Learning a new language can be a tough but exciting journey, and English is no different. It's a language that opens doors to global communication, study and work opportunities, and tons of cultural experiences. But is it hard to learn? In this article, we'll explore the difficult and easy parts of English and provide you with some tips and resources to help you get started!

English: Basic facts

  • English is one of the most widely spoken (1.5 billion speakers) and written languages worldwide, with over 380 million native speakers
  • It takes about 120 hours to move up a level when learning English
  • It is a West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family
  • English is closely related to Frisian, German, Dutch, and somewhat similar to Norwegian, French, Swedish, and Spanish
  • Most modern English words came from Old English or French, and many stem from Romance languages

Complexities of English language

When you start learning English, it may feel overwhelming at first, and that's not surprising. Many aspects of this language could be challenging to grasp, especially if your mother tongue is from a different language family.

Extensive vocabulary

The Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries both contain around 470,000 entries and the estimate for English vocabulary is roughly 1 million words. Due to English being a "cocktail" out of several root languages, there are a lot of synonyms: more than 275,000 synonyms, antonyms, and related words in Merriam-Webster Thesaurus.

Not only that – most of them can't even be used interchangeably! And with that many speakers around the world, English is constantly changing and expanding, so it can be hard to keep up.

Spelling vs pronunciation

Let's be honest, the pronunciation of some words in English just doesn't make any sense. The complete anarchy in that aspect is very confusing:

  • The words with similar letter combinations can be pronounced differently, like "tough", "though", and "through"
  • The words that are spelled differently can be homophones, meaning they are pronounced the same way, like "threw" and "through"
  • Some words that are spelled the exact same but change meaning depending on the pronunciation, also known as heteronyms: "bow" pronounced as [boʊ] is a weapon (or a knot), while pronouncing it as [baʊ] would mean that you're talking about an act of bending the head or upper body
  • Certain letters can change their pronunciation depending on where they are, and some even become completely silent, like "k" in "knight"

Looking for fun and easy ways to learn English?

Check out these 10 ways to improve your English without leaving the sofa!

Rules with loads of exceptions

Right after jumping over the hurdle made out of pronunciation quirks, English meets you with rules with many exceptions, like a list of irregular verbs and plural forms that you can only memorize.

For example, the past tense of "light" is "lit" so, following that logic, you might think that "fight" would change into "fit" but no – it's "fought", and "fit" is actually one of the 2 variants of the past tense for "fit". Similarly, the plural forms of words can be unpredictable, with some following rules, some changing entirely, and some remaining unchanged.

Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are another thing that might be hard to understand. One small preposition can change the meaning of the verb entirely. For instance, the verb "go":

  • go+ahead – to start or to continue to do something
  • go+against – to oppose someone or something
  • go+along+with – to agree or to be willing to accept something
  • go+for – to choose a particular thing
  • go+on – to happen, to take place, or to continue
  • go+over – consider, examine, or check something
  • go+about – to deal with something
  • go+away – to move from or leave a place
  • go+by – to pass time or to be guided by something
  • go+through – to experience a difficult or unpleasant situation

Mother Tongue Influence (MTI)

One of the reasons you may struggle with speaking English, especially if you start learning at a mature age, is Mother Tongue Influence. MTI refers to how your native language affects the pronunciation and speech patterns of your second language, like pronouncing "th" similar to a "s" or "z" in English if your mother tongue doesn't have [ð] or [θ] sounds.

This influence can be positive and negative at the same time. For example, English and German are both Germanic languages and share a lot of similarities but the way they work is different:

  • English is an analytic language so it uses word order and auxiliary words to convey meaning and has minimal inflection (grammatical cases and genders).
  • On the other hand, German has a fusional language structure, meaning that those inflectional morphemes play a crucial part in identifying tense, aspect, mood, person, number, gender, or case.

So while native speakers of these languages will have an advantage when learning phonetics and vocabulary, sentence structure and cases can be hard to understand.

Easy parts of English

However, there's also good news. English is not the hardest language to learn – it has easy parts too!

Alphabet

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet (or Latin script to be correct) and no diacritical marks. About 36% of the world population uses Latin script for their native language, so chances are you already know it.

Not a tonal language

Unlike Mandarin, Vietnamese, and a few other languages, English is not a tonal language. So you don't have to worry that changing your pitch or tone will alter the word's meaning. It can be hard to get used to if your first language is tonal, but generally, it makes the pronunciation less complex.

No grammatical genders and cases

Although there is some tradition around using specific words to describe people of different genders, for instance, "handsome" is commonly used when referring to a man but not a woman, nouns in the English language aren't gendered. Moreover, English doesn't have grammatical cases, in contrast to Slavic and Baltic language groups. That means you only really have to remember one form of each word, making it much easier to learn.

A "go with the flow" language

The sentence structure is somewhat strict but simple and still allows for some freedom. Compared to German or Korean where sentences usually end with a verb, English word order doesn't require you to think the whole phrase through to that extent before you say it.

Students in an English speaking club

Resources for learning English

In this day and age, there are seemingly endless resources that can help you learn English: from private lessons and tests to casual learning through media.

Courses, programs, and private tutors

The easiest way to plan your learning is to turn to structured all-in-one resources:

  • Sign up for a course at a local English language school
  • Enroll in an online program on Coursera, edX, or AcademicCourses
  • Hire a private tutor who can tailor the lessons to your level and learning style

Speaking clubs

As speaking is one of the most important skills, and the goal you eventually want to reach, research speaking clubs at your school or community to practice. Usually, you'll get a topic for each meeting, prepare some materials, and discuss it with other members.

Textbooks and books

If you prefer to learn on your own, you can look up textbooks online or at a bookstore. They often have a well-rounded foundation to get you started. You could also read your favorite books in English. There are websites that create different versions of the same book to suit a specific level.

Pro tip: The most effective way to learn a language by reading is through an "extensive reading" method – choose texts where you know 95% of the words, so you'd be able to read for a long time, pick up words from the context, and not feel overwhelmed.

Apps

You have your phone on you at all times – why not use it for learning English? Many free apps offer fun and engaging lessons to add to your language-learning journey and expand your vocabulary.

You can find out more in our list of 10 Free Apps All Students Should Download.

Media

Consuming media in English is a great way to learn casual phrases and stay up to date with modern language standards and slang. Movies, shows, games, music, and blogs can be a great and effortless approach that may not even feel like learning at first glance.

💡 Tips on how to effectively learn English

  • Set goals: First and most important, you need to determine why you want to learn English, what level you want to reach, and how much time you have. Make sure to have reasonable expectations.
  • Immerse yourself in the language: You can switch your phone's language to English and watch your favorite shows without dubbing.
  • Start speaking as soon as possible: Don't be afraid to be doing the thing you're trying to achieve. Your goal is to speak English so do it from the beginning – there's no threshold.
  • Practice: Fluency largely depends on your active vocabulary and structures that you're comfortable with. That's why you need to practice to be able to use them easily and naturally.
  • Find the techniques that work for you: Everyone has different learning styles. There are numerous ways to learn a language, try as many as you can and pick the one that is the most effective for you.
  • Take it easy: It's a whole new language, don't rush and let your brain process it step by step. Focus on achievable milestones.

Conclusion

So, is English hard to learn? Yes and no. It certainly has some tricky parts, like pronunciation and exceptions, but it's not the most difficult language to master. You just have to find the right approach and the goal to keep you motivated. Make sure to utilize all the available resources, commit to learning, and remember that speaking a new language takes time – don't try to learn everything at once.

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