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Is English a Difficult Language to Learn?

By Sophia, published on 31/07/2017 Blog > Languages > ESOL (English) > ESOL: Is English Hard to Learn?

Irregular verb tenses. Illogical pronouns. Grammar rules and the many exceptions thereof.

Pronunciation: so difficult for speakers of other languages to master: this, that, the other and those sometimes result in zis, zat, ze ozer and zose – or dis, dat, de udder and doze.

Native English speakers sometimes pronounce the ‘th’ sound incorrectly. Isn’t that indication enough that phonology alone makes English a difficult language to learn?

It doesn’t have to be.

Let’s take a close look at many common mistakes in English that make learning English seem so difficult, and why Esl students work so hard to learn English.

English Vocabulary

The second edition of the Oxford English dictionary counts approximately a quarter of a million distinctly English words – without roots in other languages.

To make English even more complex for non native learners, many words function as both a noun and a verb.

  • Watch: a timepiece worn on the wrist, or the act of observing something?

  • Share: a portion of something, or the act of dividing something evenly?

  • Run: an unsightly snag in sheer leg wear, or moving at a rate faster than walking?

  • Water: a clear liquid, or something you do to your plants?

Between the stunning variety of word choices and the confusion over whether that descriptive would be a verb or a noun, it is no wonder that students enrolled in English language classes believe understanding vocabulary rules is difficult.

Verb tenses indicate when an action happens In English, verb tenses are time indicators (Source: Pixabay Credit: Steinchen)

Verb Tenses as Time Indicators

In some languages, the verb never changes form. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, I do remains the same whether the action was performed yesterday, today, tomorrow or every single day except April 21st.

English verbs change form according to the subject or pronoun preceding it: ‘they do’ and ‘we do’ versus ‘it does’.

In many languages, time is indicated using a qualifier at the start of the sentence and pronouns do not change the verb form:Yesterday I do…’; ‘Tomorrow you do…’ ‘Every day he do…’

The use of the English verb to be is even more contrary because it changes form three times – and that is just in present tense.

You can see where an English learner might balk at studying all sixteen verb tenses –  let alone use them correctly. 

And then, there is the issue of arranging words properly to form a question: “Are you going?” instead of “You are going?”

To make mastering verbs even more complicated, one has to determine whether the verb is linking or action.

Most action verbs are easy to spot because they describe an action. However, some verbs are both linking and action, depending on how they are used.

The verb ‘taste‘ will serve as an example:

She tasted the soup.

That soup tasted so good!

In the first sentence, taste is an action verb (because an action is being performed); in the second, taste links soup to its descriptive: good.

Courses in basic English usually cover the difference between action and linking verbs. You should be familiar with both linking and action verb usage before enrolling in your intermediate level English class.

English sentence construction is an art: full of clues that reveal more information than mere word interpretation. Grasping nuances of English can sometimes make the learner feel that fluency can never be achieved!

Knowing punctuation rules can help you learn English faster Knowing proper punctuation is critical in English (Source: Pixabay Credit: Zipnon)

The Importance of Proper Punctuation

It is true that, in most languages, omitting a comma can result in hilarity. Imagine leaving the comma out of this sentence:

Let’s eat, Grandpa!

Grandpa might cower in fear at the thought of being dinner instead of having dinner.

In developing English writing skills, punctuation is as vital to comprehension as spelling and grammar is.

The Oxford Comma

A court in America is currently entertaining a multi-million dollar lawsuit over a comma.

The Oxford comma, which separates the last two items on a list, can make a difference in what is included in the list. Let’s try this example:

I love my children, Ed Sheeran and Adele.

This sentence could easily be taken to mean that Ed Sheeran and Adele are the names of the speaker’s children.

Placing a comma after ‘Sheeran’ would make it clear that those two persons in question are a part of a list of people the speaker loves.

Some scholars believe the Oxford comma is vital to a clear understanding of English writing while others argue it is unnecessary. After all, the above sentence could be rewritten as: “I love Ed Sheeran, Adele and my children”.

However, rearranging the list of beloved people might indicate that the children are less loved than Ed Sheeran because word order is another important clue to deciphering meaning in English.

If the Oxford comma issue bedevils native English speakers and grammaticians, imagine how someone learning English as a second language must feel?

Another particular punctuation mark critical to understanding meaning in English is the apostrophe.

Apostrophe denotes possession: so goes the rule. “The cat’s ball” means “the ball that belongs to the cat”. “Sheila’s jumper” is, of course, the jumper that belongs to Sheila.

As with so many rules for English grammar, this one comes with exceptions.

Its, with no apostrophe, means belonging to it. The horse threw its shoe, for example.

It+’s is the contraction of it is. It’s cold outside. Or: take your umbrella; it’s raining.

A similar confuser is let’s, short for let us, with no possession implied. Let’s go see a movie tonight. Compare that to: he lets his dog run wild – no apostrophe, meaning the dog has permission to run about unrestrained.

A glance at social media or just about any Internet site reveals that this rule has been most egregiously broken by native English speakers.

Whether the English language is evolving away from that particular rule or if these violations are attributed to confusion over when to use an apostrophe is not clear.

One thing is sure: grammar deviations, especially those made by native speakers, make English learning more difficult for Esol students.

If the examples available online are inconsistent in their application of rules, how is an English learner to determine what is correct?

Wellies, galoshes or rubber boots all mean the same thing. In Britain, you might wear wellies and carry a brolly on rainy days. (Source: Pixabay Credit: Jill111)

Different Words for the Same Concept

Depending on where you live or which region’s English you are studying, you might stumble on words that mean something completely different if used in another English-speaking country.

  • In British English, a jumper is a knit sweater. Ask for a jumper in any store in the United States and you will be shown a selection of sleeveless dresses.

  • In America, the car’s engine is under the hood. A bonnet is a type of hat that women wore in the 1800s.

  • Do you put on wellies when you go out in the garden, after a rain? In other English-speaking countries, galoshes and gum boots are what is worn.

And speaking of: welly is a noun that means power or vigor. That is something only a person with a firm grasp of Oxford English and regional dialects would understand.

Another word that has several representations is boot.

It can be footwear or a sheath for mechanical parts. You can give someone the boot – meaning you are forcing them out or off of something, or you could get the boot. How do you turn on a computer? Boot it!

You can also reboot it, if it is a bit slow.

In Britain, we stow our luggage for holiday in the boot of the car.

With such manifold usage of the word ‘boot’, is it any wonder why students of English plead for words that don’t represent anything else?

The verbiage we use makes a difference in determining where we are from, and it’s challenging for those learning English as a foreign language to choose what word to use. – Rebecca Linquist

Native English speakers generally do not give much thought to the region their spoken English reflects. However, for people studying English, dialects, accents and vocabulary all impact their ability to absorb and use the language effectively.

The difference in accents, broadly divided into British and American in many Esol classes, impacts learners’ listening skills and comprehension.

Is Learning English Really That Hard?

Even a native English speaker from one region would not necessarily understand or be able to speak the language of another region.

Slang and idioms, the bedrock of native language, take years for ESL students to grasp and use properly.

To improve your English, you should select learning materials based on your goal.

Do you dream of being an international student at Cambridge? If so, IELTS or ESOL practise exercises would be for you.

Has an American firm enlisted you? Then Business English and TOEFL quizzes would suit your needs better.

If you wish to improve your language skills, you can take English lessons online or in a classroom.

Proficiency in English comes from work and dedication. Practice your English daily, enroll in Esl classes and learn new words every day.

You will soon find that learning English is not all that hard.

You can find a range of ESOL courses or a private tutor for learning English online with Superprof!

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