If you’re reading this post, chances are your English is already pretty darn good. Fluent, in fact, or thereabouts.
English is one of the most widely spoken languages, with over 380 million native speakers. If that sounds like a lot, consider this: a further 700 million people speak English as a foreign language.
What’s hard about learning English?
We asked our lovely readership this exact question and it all boiled down to one thing: pronunciation.
Part of what makes English tricky as a foreign language is the fact that whilst there are only 26 letters, there are 44 sounds. This is because not only do some letters have more than one pronunciation (e.g. ‘A’) but there are also groups of letters that work together to make new sounds (e.g. ‘th’ ).
Not only this, but English is full of homographs, which are words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently. The change in pronunciation actually changes the meaning of the word and it usually depends on where the stress is placed on the word.
For example, wound and wound. I might wound myself cutting carrots, which wound me up (made me angry). A few more of these fickle friends include:
to /tɛə/ (UK), /tɛr/ (US) (rhyming with “fair”) means “to rip”
a /tɪə/ (UK), /tɪr/ (US) (rhyming with “dear”) is water coming from someone’s eyes.
a /beɪs/ (like “case”) is the lowest voice in a harmony
a /bæs/ is a member of a certain species of fish.
It also depends on which language you’re approaching English from, i.e. which language is your mother tongue. Two types of English sounds are comparatively rare compared to other languages: the ‘the /¶/ of this and the /q/ of thick. Even still, 18% of other world languages share the same or very similar sounds: the fricative you make with your tongue against your teeth. Try saying ‘this’ over and over again and you’ll see what I mean!
Some of the hardest words to pronounce in English aren’t necessarily the longest, either. Yes there are horrible words like otorhinolaryngology (pronounced phonetically as /ˌəʊtə(ʊ)ˌrʌɪnəʊˌlarɪŋˈɡɒlədʒi/) but words such as “rural”, “colonel”, “sixth” and “anenome” (which even Nemo had a hard time with!) prove tricky for learners for the language.
This is possibly why nearly all of our respondents cited pronunciation as one of the hardest things they had encountered when tackling English, especially when trying to achieve a specific accent (either British English or American English).
Other things people found difficult when learning English were:
- Grammar rules
- Idioms and slang
- Word order
English has one of the widest vocabularies of all the world’s languages, with over 500,000 words listed in the Oxford Dictionary (not counting technical terminology!) which makes vocabulary building seem a bit like climbing Everest. But take comfort in the fact an average native English speaker only needs 3,000 words on a regular basis, and this 3,000 will cover off nearly 95% of everything you hear and read.
Not only this, but there is also plenty of opportunity for learners of English to practice their language skills with native speakers. This, amongst other reasons, is what led 80% of those surveyed to say that English was one of the easiest languages to learn! More specifically, these were the best bits about learning English:
Top 5 Easiest Things About Learning English
- Verb Tenses
- Lack of subjunctive clause
- Availability of practice material
- Availability of practice partners
Finding people to practice with was cited as one of the easiest things about learning English, and with 380 million native speakers and 700 million English learners, it’s easy to see why! That’s a pool of over a billion potential practice partners!
Not only this, but there’s a wealth of available material out there that you can use to ‘immerse’ yourself in the language, including books, blogs, TV shows, movies and podcasts. Did you know for example that Sweden doesn’t dub movies, except for children’s films? That means every movie coming out of Hollywood is played in English, with Swedish subtitles. This is possibly one reason why Swedes were ranked the best in the world at speaking English in 2013, for the second year running. Nearly 90% of the population speak English to an intermediate/advanced level.
Advice for anyone learning English
“Watch movies and TV series in English with English subtitles, works like a charm” – Thordur
“Talk, talk, talk, and talk! You’ll never learn if you don’t try to speak your target language!” – Noucra
“Starting from pronunciation is very helpful since bad habits stays longer.If you learned proper pronunciation and accent then there is no chance to learn bad one.” Junji
“Listen to english songs. memorize the lyrics. even if you dont understand the meaning of the song. while you are doing that, learn basic grammar tenses and try to expand your vocab by reading comics.” – Virani
“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and don’t be shy!” – Ana Belen
“Never give up!” – Heike
Are you learning English? Let us know what you find the most difficult!