The purpose of this article is to put language difficulty into perspective for native English speakers struggling with foreign languages. Languages like Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, or even easier languages like Spanish, can seem very difficult, just because we’re not used to them. English seems sooo easy and simple, but that’s because we’ve been raised with it. Here are ten reasons why English is actually one of the hardest languages in the world.
THE WORLD’S CRAZIEST SPELLING SYSTEM
English spelling is extremely counter-intuitive! Why is it that words like “through”, “trough”, and “though” sound so different? It seems like for virtually every “rule” a prescriptivist writes down to try and model English spelling, exceptions can be found.
The fact is, although it’s possible to make rough guesses at English spellings using phonetics, in order to really know English spelling, you have to memorize the spelling of every word. Even words whose spelling seems straightforward and simple, you still memorize (maybe subconsciously without even trying) just because otherwise when you wanted to spell it, you’d have no way to know it was simple and straightforward.
There is a method to the madness of English spelling. It’s based on etymology. Based on how a word is spelled, we can make guesses about where the word came from. German, French, Latin? Maybe somewhere more exotic like Japanese? This is very useful, because it keeps spelling consistent between different English-speaking nations.
English is pronounced rather differently in the United States, in Britain, in Australia, and in India. If, as so many people have suggested, spelling reform were attempted, which nation would be the standard? At most one nation could enjoy perfectly phonetic spelling. The others would just switch from one bizarre spelling system to another. And even for that one country, the spellings would become obsolete as the pronunciations of words changed. Even in the United States, pronunciations vary from dialect to dialect.
So, there’s good reason for the English spelling system. It’s one of the most successful spelling systems in the world, because of its flexibility and its strength across wildly differing dialects. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn! For a foreigner trying to learn English, spelling is extremely difficult!
THE SOUND SYSTEM IS SO RICH
When you study a foreign language, you’re liable to run into sounds which aren’t present in your native tongue. Part of the challenge is learning, mechanically, how to produce these sounds. In Japanese, there’s a different “R” sound, which actually sounds something like a mix between “R”, “L”, and “D”. In Mandarin, there are a dozen sounds which are all really hard to learn. German is famous for its hard gutteral sound, which we’d have to master if we wanted to get Johann Sebastian Bach’s name right.
Generally, more exotic new sounds mean more difficulty learning a language. English has a very rich set of sounds. It has the ability to string consonants and vowels together almost arbitrarily. Take a look at the word, “strengths”. There’s only one vowel out of six or seven consonants, depending how you count! Again look at “squirrel”. A very difficult word for foreigners to learn to pronounce.
And this is only made worse by the crazy spelling system. Not only are there a million sounds to learn, but there’s small indication from a word’s spelling which sounds are involved.
And, going the other direction, some foreigners must learn to identify certain sounds which they consider distinct. For example, English actually has two distinct “L” sounds, but we as English speakers can’t hear the difference because we never need to in order to understand the language. But to, e.g., a native Russian speaker, suddenly there are two sounds floating around and both are to be considered identical. It’s similar to learning Japanese, where the “g” of “go” and the “ng” of “thing” are treated as being identical.
In English, there are subtle ordering requirements which even English native speakers aren’t consciously aware of. We get them right every time, because we subconsciously know about them through practice, but that just makes it all the harder for foreigners, since these rules are so subtle and hidden.
The best example is adjective ordering. Compare, “a cute little puppy” to “a little cute puppy.” The first is fine, while the second sounds wrong. How is a foreigner to know which order to use?
Can you explain it to them? (There is actually a method, but it’s rather complex and better to just learn subconsciously)
WHICH SYNONYM TO USE??
Because of its diverse, promiscuous etymological origins, English has lots of synonyms which, just from a dictionary definition, seem very similar if not identical in meaning. Part of becoming a master English speaker, is knowing which words to use when. Although synonyms are grouped up in a thesaurus, that doesn’t mean the words are identical. Even if their official meanings are identical, different synonyms convey subtly different moods and ideas.
You can watch a movie or see a movie, but you can only watch TV, never see it. You can’t view either of them, even though when you watch either of them, you become a viewer (and never a watcher, much less a seer!) Try explaining that to someone who speaks Arabic!
In English, the entire meaning of a sentence can be changed by placing stress on a word. For example:
- I entered my room.
- *I* entered my room.
- I *entered* my room.
- I entered *my* room.
- I entered my *room*.
A grammar of English usually only even addresses the meaning of the first, stressless, version of the sentence, even though a foreigner will hear all variations if they’re immersed deeply enough in the language.
For native speakers of stressless languages, it’s very difficult to even hear the stress at all. This counter-balances Mandarin’s dreaded tone system which English speakers always cite as evidence of Mandarin’s horrid difficulty.
POETIC, OLDER ENGLISH IS EVERYWHERE
In order to be really fluent in English, you can’t just learn modern English, you must also know a little bit of older, more poetic English. Not actual “Old English”, since that’s a whole other language entirely, but “older” English.
Here in downtown Columbus, there’s a church which advertises with the message: “Which part of ‘Thou shalt not‘ don’t you understand?” This slogan always makes me laugh, because, having studied languages, I’ve come to see how the slogan must be extremely confusing to most ESL speakers. The truth is that, for a lot of speakers, “Thou” and “shalt” are both unfamiliar. And the fact that by stringing them together in essentially the same structure as “You will not”, you end up creating a command– that’s even worse!
Older English shows up in literature, plays, poetry… even video games.
WHAT’S UP WITH THESE QUESTIONS??
In English, it’s very strange how the whole grammar of a sentence changes when the sentence is put in question form. “It is warm” becomes “Is it warm?” Notice how the “it” and the “is” are switched. To us, this is totally natural because we’ve been raised with it. To a lot of speakers of other languages, the whole device seems needlessly difficult.
Continuing with the “It is warm” example, there actually is a valid question, “It is warm?” It’s interesting to ponder the difference in meaning between “It’s warm?” and “Is it warm?” In the latter, the speaker genuinely doesn’t know whether it’s warm. In the former, it seems almost like the speaker thinks it’s not warm, and is asking for re-confirmation.
These kinds of subtle distinctions make English a pretty difficult language grammatically.
IRREGULAR CONJUGATIONS OF VERBS, AND SIMILAR PHENOMENA
Some people who study Spanish think the verbs there are bad. English is stuffed full of irregular verbs! How come the past tense of “buy” is “bought”, and the past tense of “sell” is “sold”, and neither “buyed” nor “selled” are real words?
And that’s just the “usual” conjugations of verbs, i.e., past tense and third person singular. There are other verb conjugations, but they’re just so irregular we don’t even acknowledge them as conjugations. For example, taking an adjective and forming its “-ness” quality. As in, deriving “swiftness” from “swift”. This process is as irregular as you can get. “Strong” doesn’t become “strongness”, it becomes “strength”, even though its opposite, “weak”, does become “weakness”. “High” becomes “height”, and if you mess up and say “highness” instead, it sounds like you’re talking about some bizarre royal bloodline!
Sometimes you can even “undo” a conjugation and end up with a whole new word than what you started with. The word “truthiness”, for example, has recently been popularized. Another example is “awesomeness”. “Awesome” is actually derived from “awe”: something is awesome if it inspires awe (at least, that’s the original meaning). So in theory, “awesomeness” and “awe” should be the same thing, and “awesomeness” shouldn’t even be a word since it should be redundant, and yet, they don’t mean the same things and “awesomeness” is a word.
THE CASE OF THE LEFTOVER CASES
Being derived from German, which has a heavy case system, English originally had its own heavy case system. English cases have mostly been phased out, but the remnants of a case system still exist, which almost means in English it’s the worst of both worlds.
Let me explain what cases are. Cases are different “forms” for words to indicate what function they serve in a sentence. For example, in the sentence “the cat ate the fish”, “the fish” is the “object” (it’s getting eaten), and “the cat” is the subject (he’s doing the eating). There are no cases here; in order to tell who did the eating and who got eaten, we have to look at word order. If the sentence were “the fish ate the cat”, the meaning would be very different!
In a cased language, “the cat” might have different forms, to indicate whether the cat is the subject, object, or something else (German has four different cases and Russian has even more). Similarly with “the fish”. The advantage of a cased system is that word order is more flexible. The forms of the nouns tell us what roles they play, so the order of the sentence is less crucial. The downside of the case system is that it’s more complicated, and there’s more to memorize.
As I said, English is mostly case-free. But, there are leftovers from the old case system. That’s why we have “I”, “me”, “mine” and “my”. And why we have “you”, “yours” and “your”. And why we have “he”, “him”, and “his”, and “we”, “us”, “ours” and “our”. In each of these groups, it’s really the same word, just in different forms- different cases. So, part of learning English is learning a case system, even though it’s only used for a handful of words.
And English doesn’t even get the positive advantages from its case system. Even in a sentence entirely using cased words, like “I hit him”, word order is still important– “Him hit I” is totally incorrect unless your name is Yoda.
Incidentally, the leftover case system also explains the annoying “who”/”whom” dilemma, which many native English speakers are confused by, not to mention ESL speakers!
WHAT KIND OF WORD IS THIS, ANYWAY??
One of the most difficult things about English, is the fact that there’s very little in the way of signals to tell you what kind of word a word is. For example, in Japanese and Spanish, all verbs have similar endings. Not so in English.
The lone exception is the English adverb, which often ends in “-ly”, but even this isn’t a universal rule, and adverbs are about the least important words in a language anyway.
In English, the same word can even fall into multiple categories. “Trust” is a noun, but also a verb. “Quiet” is both a noun and an adjective (even though its opposite, “loud”, is only an adjective). “Abstract” is all three!
In fact, almost any adjective can be used as a noun, just put “the” in front of it: “The dead shall walk the earth.” And any noun can be used as a verb, like in the famous example, “I’ll cookie you!” The possibilities are endless, as long as you’re creative. All this makes English a lot of fun- but it also definitely makes the language complicated!
If you ever find yourself stressing out over learning a foreign language, just be glad you don’t have to learn English as a second language!!