Why is English such a difficult language to learn?

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5 January
10:28
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5 January
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Well, how difficult it is to learn relates to what your native language is; and this follows as some languages are more similar in terms of sounds, vocabulary and grammatical patterns than others.

There are around 6,000 spoken languages in the world today, and some are more distantly related to each other than others. In the discipline that studies language from a scientific perspective – linguistics – we tend to think about languages as families, having evolved from each other, and forming particular family trees. In addition, users of a language – people – move around, through migration patterns – which affects the development of languages over time. Moreover, new concepts and artefacts are constantly being invented, so we need new words for them. So languages are constantly evolving; but we can trace them back to a particular family tree.

"French speakers are likely to have a comparatively easier time learning English, because they recognise a lot of the vocabulary. Similarly with German and Dutch speakers."

For instance, Latin eventually led to modern day Romanian. It’s the closest surviving language to Latin, and the closest language we have today to that spoken in the Roman Empire. Other daughter languages of Latin include French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. English is part of the Germanic family of languages, so Dutch or German speakers are likely to find it easier to learn than speakers of, for instance, Japanese – which is unrelated to either the Romance or Germanic languages, and hence, sounds and looks very different indeed.

In terms of specifics, if you look at the vocabulary of English, 26% of English is Germanic in origin, nearly 30% is French in origin, and nearly 30% Latin in origin. So this means French speakers are likely to have a comparatively easier time learning English, because they recognise a lot of the vocabulary. Similarly with German and Dutch speakers. If we already have a head start, because our native tongue is more similar, or more closely-related to the language we are attempting to learn, that makes learning it a bit easier.

"It’s hard for non-native speakers to get to grips with the downright baffling spelling system of English."

But despite all this, in certain respects, English is, nevertheless, inherently difficult to learn. One reason is that English has a baffling spelling system, even for native speakers, or kids going to school. Take words like ‘dough’, ‘tough’ and ‘bough’ – they all have the same spelling, but are pronounced completely differently. This spelling, using ‘-ough’, is actually a relic from Middle English – Chaucer’s world – where the spelling reflected the Middle English pronunciation. Many of those pronunciations have disappeared over the years, but the spelling remains – for example the ‘ch’ sound in the Scottish word ‘loch’ no longer exists in standard British English pronunciation. So it’s hard for non-native speakers to get to grips with the downright baffling spelling system of English.

Another reason is that English has a peculiarity: the phenomenon of phrasal verbs – a verb whose meaning is changed by a small word added to it. Take ‘run’ for example. We can ‘run over’ someone, have a ‘run in’, we can ‘run something down’, or ‘run up a bill’, or even ‘run something by someone’. On each occasion, when you add a word like ‘in’ or ‘over’, you’re changing the meaning – and it often seems to be with no rhyme or reason. Why do we ‘add up’ a bill, but a house gets ‘burned down’? So these prepositions change the meanings of verbs. For Spanish and French speakers, for example, who don’t have this in their language, it can be very difficult to understand – and to learn.

Another tricky phenomenon to learn is idioms. An idiom involves a number of words whose meaning can’t be predicted from simply adding together the meanings of the individual elements themselves. For example, ‘she kicked the bucket’, means ‘she died’ – you just have to know the meaning of the whole unit. Other examples include ‘She jumped down my throat’, or ‘He hit the roof’. The literal meaning is not what’s actually meant. Even things like ‘all of a sudden’ count as an idiom – someone learning the language couldn’t predict what this expression might mean. And there are tens of thousands of these in English. All languages have idioms, but the range, variety and unpredictability of English idioms is difficult for foreign language learners to acquire.

The final phenomenon that makes English so difficult to learn is grammatical patterns – English has a number of unusual grammatical patterns and sentence-level patterns. One example is the so-called ditransitive construction, e.g. ‘John gave Mary the flowers’. To understand what’s been given, who is the recipient, and who does the giving, you have to know the grammatical construction. This becomes clear from examples that are less obvious from the pragmatics of the setting, such as the story world of Narnia, where animals can talk, e.g. ‘The King gave the horse a boy’, from C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic: The Horse and His Boy. Imagine a non-native speaker having to work out that it is the horse that gets the boy, rather than vice versa. What makes this all difficult, for some non-native speakers, is that, unlike many other languages, English no longer has much of a case system where speakers can clearly mark who’s the recipient and what’s getting transferred. This has been lost during the development of English over the last 1,500 years.

Vyvyan Evans is the author of The Crucible of Language: How Language and Mind Create Meaning.

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