Why is English so hard to learn?
The prime minister, David Cameron, wants more Muslim women in the UK to be taught English to reduce segregation between different linguistic communities and even limit the lure of extremism.
Most of us who have tried it probably feel that learning a new language is difficult, even if that new language is similar to our own. So how difficult is it to learn English and especially if your first language is quite different?
The difficulty of learning a new language will depend on how similar that language is to one you already know. Despite English speakers often rating certain languages as being particularly difficult – languages such as French, which indicate the gender of nouns with articles like le and la, and the Chinese writing system – there are similarities between these languages.
If you were to learn French you’d immediately recognise many words, because the English equivalents have French Latin roots, such as ballet or amiable. If you were to learn Chinese you’d find that its grammar is similar to English in many ways – for example each Chinese sentence has a subject, a predicate and an object (though an English speaker would most likely find learning French easier than Chinese).
The most difficulty arises when people learn English when they don’t have the advantage of sharing many borrowed words or grammatical patterns with English. This will include speakers of Arabic, Urdu and Bengali – three of the most common languages spoken by Muslim immigrants in Britain.
In my experience, the most common complaint language learners make about English is that the spelling of words often has little or nothing to do with their pronunciation. It’s easy enough to teach someone how to write the letter “a”, for example, but then they must be taught that its pronunciation changes in words like hat, hate and father. In oak it isn’t pronounced at all.
Compare this to the simplicity of Spanish, a language in which an “a” and other vowels rarely change pronunciation from word to word.
Laugh is pronounced larf but the similar-sounding half is not written haugh – but of course there are regional differences in accent too. Like the “l” in half, there are silent letters sprinkled throughout English words: the “k” in knife and knead, the “s” in island, the “p” in receipt, and so on.
A recent poem of unknown origin, a favourite of English language teachers who want to amuse their students, contains tongue twisters such as:
I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Another area of difficulty that learners of English often comment on is the prevalence of irregular past verbs in English. It’s simple enough to remember that the past tense of walk is
walked, shout is shouted and pick is picked.
But what about all the irregular verbs, like hit, read and think? For hit, the past tense looks and sounds the same as the present tense. For read, the past tense looks the same, but is pronounced differently. For think, the past tense thought involves substantial change to both the spelling and the pronunciation.
There’s not always a pattern to many of these irregular verbs. For verbs ending with “ink” we have “think/thought”, but another irregular pattern “drink/drank” and a regular pattern “wink/winked”. English has several hundred such irregular verbs for learners to look forward to memorising, and many of them are very frequently used: be, get, have, see, eat, and so on.
A delicate difficulty concerns how English speakers show politeness. Some languages have quite clear ways for their users to do this. In French you can use the pronoun vous instead of tu to be polite.
English only has you, so that doesn’t work. In Japanese you can substitute polite forms of words, so that although kuu, taberu and meshiagaru all mean “eat” in Japanese, the longer words are more polite.
In English we can use longer words: “Would you like to consume nourishment?” instead of “Would you like to eat?” – but it doesn’t sound polite, rather a bit awkward.
There are less obvious ways of marking politeness in English: use a question (“Could you pass the … ” instead of “Pass the …”), express some doubt (“I don’t suppose you could … ”) and apologise, even for small requests (“Sorry to bother you, but …”).
If subtleties aren’t mastered then otherwise-fluent learners of English (or any other language) – even if they don’t intend to be impolite – may unintentionally appear rude.
So spare a thought for those picking up an English textbook for the first time – mastering the quirks of the language is tough (pronounced tuff).
Sean Sutherland, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Westminster