How difficult is the English language for non-English speakers?
As a native english speaker, I have no idea how difficult this language I was born with is. Yet sometimes we as natives tend to think of people with "bad" grammar as not trying hard enough. What makes English so hard and why? I'm curious.
I'm a 29y.o. Indonesian and I grew up with two languages that lack tenses. In my language, we work around this by using clear time signals.
Here's what my language looks like, compared to English:
I eat : I eat
I ate : I "already eat"
I'm eating : I "currently eat"
We also lack perfect tenses so I still have to stop and think before using it especially in formal written English. I sometimes write science articles about prehistory in English and I can't tell whether I should use past perfect or present tense when narrating how things happened—and when to/if I should switch tenses.
Also, we lack plural forms and simply use numerical signals (i.e.: two apple). And gendered nouns.
I've been playing English games since I was very young, but I only understood the grammatical difference between do/does when I was around 14 or so, when I started using English intensively (thanks, internetz). My language's lack of inflections is what's giving me trouble in learning German as well.
Oh, also, my young self found English pronunciation to be bafflingly inconsistent.
Oh, yeah, we have a lot of words that are spelled different but pronounced the same, and words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. I imagine that could make learning it a nightmare.
I assume it happened mostly because English has absorbed so many words from other languages? Also, the historic vowel shift?
As much as I'm annoyed by the inconsistencies, I'm fascinated by the history that turned English into the abominable Frankenstein of a language it is today. :p
Another reason is that when movable type was invented in Europe in the mid 1400s, printed media became more widespread. Spellings started to become standardized, and didn't keep up with changes in pronunciation. So a lot of spellings that seem weird today would have made sense several centuries ago.
The most difficult is the use of prepositions because it's often illogical and each case requires memorization.
Can't agree more. Prepositions are the most difficult.
I would also add:
- English is not phonetic. So you have to remember both pronunciation and spelling of many words.
- irregular verbs. You have to remember them also.
Most (but not all) of the “irregular” verbs are also regular. The systems they once were a part of just became obsolete. It often helps to learn them if you divide them into groups based on those previous rules. (V stands for “vowel”, C for “consonant”. Verbs listed are just examples. Each group has more of them.)
Group 1 (the i-a-u group):
- sing - sang - sung
- drink - drank - drunk
- sink - sank - sunk
Group 2 (the VV-V-V group for verbs that end in d or t):
- shoot - shot - shot
- meet - met - met
- feed - fed - fed
Group 3 (the VV-V-V + t group for verbs that do not end in d or t)
- keep - kept - kept
- weep - wept - wept
- feel - felt - felt
Group 4 (the ea-o-o (+n/en) group):
- swear - swore - sworn
- steal - stole - stolen
- speak - spoke - spoken
Group 5 (the d-t-t group for verbs that end in -end):
- spend - spent - spent
- send - sent - sent
- lend - lent - lent
Group 6 (the unchanged group, includes almost all CVC verbs, especially if they end in t):
- hit - hit - hit
- bet - bet - bet
- cost - cost - cost
There are more of these groups and they usually have a certain pecking order if a verb belongs to two or more groups. Also, adding prefixes rarely changes the forms, so
- come - came - come
- become - became - become
- overcome - overcame - overcome
- cast - cast - cast
- broadcast - broadcast - broadcast
I’m not saying that anyone should learn the actual rules (you can of course if you have the type of mindset that benefits from it), but that placing similar verbs together and learning them at the same time (even if it’s by heart) helps a lot. :)
I'm a native English speaker and this is the first time I've ever seen this written out like this. Never knew there were rules!
Wow, I've lived for a while in the US and now that I am back in France, I am sometimes surprised at how difficult my teacher makes English grammar, conjugation, etc... seem. He made us study a rather long (200 words or so) list of irregular verbs in alphabetical order, but I think I'll suggest my classmates to group them as you said. I noticed that some verbs were very alike but it's great to see it written down that way !
I always forget which one I should use in Perfect tense 'u' or 'a' in group 1. Thank you, it's just brilliant.
Prepositions are a real pain. I only really learned by just listening to English speakers for years, since there doesn't seem to be any rule to them.
Many of the difficulties arise from the “English grammar” we are taught not being the actual English grammar. The architects of the British Empire saw themselves as the heirs to the Roman Empire and hence tried to imitate it in every way. This means that English was forced into the grammatical mould of Latin, even though this often makes little sense, since the structure of English is in many places nothing like that of Latin. Some examples (there are many, many, many more of these):
- The English present tense is actually present tense only with a certain very small group of verbs. Existential verbs (be, seem,...), opinion verbs (like, think) and sense verbs (hear, see, feel,...) being the most obvious examples. The majority of verbs in present tense do not express present action, but repetitive action (I go to church, I sing,...). [Edit: One could argue that the existential and the opinion verbs do not express present action either.]
- Modal verbs are a nightmare. In most European languages (as in Latin), you take one verb and shape it to create forms for all possible tenses and moods. You may need a helping verb or two for some of them, but those are always the same. When you try to fit English modality into paradigms like these, things get really confusing. I’ll use the verb can as an example. For starters, it does not have infinitive forms. In fact, it only has two forms, the other one being could, which appears in the Latin influenced paradigm several times, since its function does not fit into the system. For example, how would you translate the following sentence: “Could you sing?” Is it about being able or unable to sing in the past, or is it a request? Most languages have separate forms for these. The rest of the paradigm is filled with be ables, shalls, shoulds, lets, and other things. Shall and should appear in another paradigm too. Go to the comments on Duo’s German course and you will find very confused English speaking people asking how this should word is different from that should word.
- English actually has only three tenses. The rest of the verb forms are about aspect, which is expressed with co-operating articles (and which is also one of the reasons for the present tense problem I used as the first example). Aspect is a grammatical feature used to express whether the action is finished or still ongoing. I am currently struggling with this myself as a contributor to the Finnish course. Finnish has aspect too but it’s a noun feature, not a verb feature as in English. The correspondence between these two is actually pretty straightforward. Or, it would be if English speakers knew that their language has aspect. So I am currently spending a lot of time trying to figure out how I am going to teach English speakers how a feature in my language is similar to a feature they do not know their language has, because several hundred years ago the imperialists in Oxford and Cambridge decided that English is exactly like Latin. Newsflash: it’s not.
This frustrates me, because you often hear people suggesting that commonplace native constructions are "bad grammar" because they don't fit some prescribed Latin rule. Case in point, the "split infinitive". In English, it is allegedly bad grammar to split an infinitive, despite this being something native speakers do all the time. In Latin, it is physically impossible to split an infinitive, because that would mean breaking the word in half.
Moreover, this makes it harder for English speakers to learn other languages, because teachers often make assumptions about their knowledge of their own language. People learn things that are different almost as easily as things that are similar. But things that you think are similar but are actually different are difficult to teach. So. English speakers learn that I and the French je are very similar really quickly. They also learn that French has two words for they almost as quickly. They have no problem understanding that the Finnish third person singular pronoun hän is not gender specific and is used for both he and she. But try to explain them the difference between the German du (singular you) and ihr (plural you), and most of them struggle. Often because the teacher does not understand that most (but not all) varieties of English really do not have a number specific you. They say things like “you have it too, they just look alike”. Nope. Apart from few exceptions (the US South, for instance), English really does not have a number specific you. It’s neither singular nor plural. It’s just you, a numberless second person pronoun. It not being number specific is probably the reason why it’s also often used instead of passive structures (“You should learn mathematics” instead of “Mathematics should be learnt”). The teachers have this misconception because of paradigms like this:
- I learnt
- you learnt
- he/she/it learnt
- we learnt
- you learnt
- they learnt
This is how both British and American universities create the materials that most English courses and study books worldwide use. This is supposed to teach conjugation. Except that English does not have conjugation except with the verb to be and in “present tense” third person singular (he sings, she walks). Some verbs don’t have even that! (He can.) Yet paradigms like this with the same verb form appearing six times are repeated over and over again. The only thing that they actually teach is that English has a singular and plural you when it has neither of them. The teachers, whether they are native English speakers or not, learn this through repetition and try to teach it to their pupils, who then think that foreign languages are really difficult. They’re not. They’re just taught as if English were Latin and not, you know, English. :(
This is an eye-opening post, and one that should be shown to English teachers everywhere!
Your post has just reminded me of struggling to work out how to say "she/he/it will be [doing something]" in Latin, age 13, and of my confusion when I started German, when my German lecturer kept crossing out my excess seins (German for to be).
It was a while before I figured out that the issue was English's excess verbs-forms/tenses/aspects.
Sometimes 'bad' regional grammar (as in some remote areas in America) is not 'bad' but they a remnant of old English. Read Jane Austen, she writes things like 'She shew it to them' (she showed it to them). Strong verbs eventually become weak verbs. In the beginning the weak past tense is considered wrong, until so many people use it, that it is accepted next to the strong variant. At some point there are fewer and fewer speakers who still use the strong variant, until that variant is considered wrong. In Dutch there are a lot of verbs that are making this transition right now. I still use a lot of strong passed tenses, but less so than my father. Younger people barely do that any more.
Yep! Another case in point would be the singular "they", which shows up in Shakespeare, Austen and Defoe, and even Chaucer and Caxton, but is usually discouraged by modern style guides and grammarians. Yet another is ending a sentence with a preposition, which was absolutely commonplace until 17th century grammarians decreed against it.
The same with preposition stranding. People have been doing it since Old English, but the "rule" against it was invented in the 1600s to make English grammar more like Latin.
Word. Ignorance of English grammar is what holds English-speakers back most in language-learning.
If I had a pound for every time I've heard a fellow language learner insist that they can't understand a particular grammatical point because "English doesn't have anything like that", I'd have a lot of money. And so far, they've always been wrong.
Wow. It took me more than 30 minutes to write a comment with pretty much the same content (based on the time stamps). :D
Yes, but I was replying to you, so I didn't really need to put anything like as much effort in to it. You'd done it all. I just had to tell you that you were right!
I was referring to the comment that uses you as an example of why learning languages is more difficult for English speakers than speakers of other languages. Sorry for being ambiguous. :)
Because of the aspects I found learning Russian from English way easier than from German, but also became aware that I actually didn't understand the English system at all, never having heard about aspects in school.
I found the same by learning Russian. It has made me scramble for my old English grammar books on many occasions. I didn't know English had any inflection. I confused my Russian language pal because in modern English we have abandoned using the second person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) instead we use the second person plural You exclusively (Ye has also disappeared). So when I use вы in Russian I embarrass her.
We use "вы" as the second person singular when we talk with somebody who older, need high respect or we just met. Among friends or family, it's weird, of course. What one will choose 'вы' or 'ты' when calls one's distant relatives or in-laws depends on relationships with them.
I hate this. We have it in Czech as well and for me it only causes problems. Yes, there are some rules, but for many people you end up with 2 points for "you should be the one proposing using less formal one" and 2 points for "you should wait for it to be proposed by the second person" and then what?
Is there any European language (other than English) that does not use this? Hungarian has three forms of the second person pronouns depending on your relationship - and the use is not always symmetrical!
Is there any European language (other than English) that does not use this?
Irish and Maltese do not have a formal/informal distinction with their second-person personal pronouns.
I think all larger European languages have second person pronouns in different registers, although they are quickly dying out in some of them. In Finnish, the formal You is nowadays only used when addressing the President during a formal occasion. Other than that, it’s pretty much nonexistent. :)
English is based on usage more than grammar. So, let's see what causes non natives (and some native) speakers problems.
Pronunciation Though, Thought, Tough, Through, Thorough
and spelling Colonel, Draught, climb, listen, breathe, clothes...
phrasal verbs and fixed expressions: ask for, ask about, ask out, ask around, take out the garbage, take my mother out for lunch, oh and so many more.
Many of these are dependent on the prepositions for which there are no rules, as mentioned above.
All these are only learned through examples which takes a lot of experience.
It depends on which languages you already know i guess. For me english was the easiest possible language to learn (german being my native language), but I guess it's much more difficult to learn if the grammar in fundamentally different from the ones you're used to (like japanese in my case).
As for the bad grammar, there can be many reasons. What you're used to (if you use english mainly to communicate with non-native speakers you'll start using their speech patterns as well often without even noticing it), a general lack of talent for languages (that's my problem), learning from the wrong sources (if you teach yourself) or it can even be caused by trying too hard (you start to doubt actually correct sentences).
In my opinion as a fellow native German speaker the easiest possible language to learn has been Dutch, followed by Swedish and Norwegian.
Unrelated to the thread, but do you German speakers find Dutch to be comprehensible if you hadn't tried to learn it? I'm aware of the historical relationship between both languages but I'm curious about people's experience in real life today.
If it helps, i'm Dutch and for me I can understand German well enough to get a general idea of what is being talked about. In terms of writing and speaking however, i'm not all that capable sadly.
A Hungarian friend with no English arrived in NZ and I met him four months later and we could converse in English. Granted he did have a month of full time English classes - and another month later - then some part time classes. So over six months maybe 230 hours of classes and he was pretty fluent. He passed his driving exam (all classes) in English and we would discuss a wide range of topics. Providing I didn't speak too fast or use obscure slang he could follow. So, how hard is English?
This is a fair point. I remember a thread here not long ago which made the case pretty strongly that English is actually a very easy language to learn, relative to most languages.
It’s not that English or any other language is harder to learn, but the way English is taught to English speakers (and others too). English speakers often find learning other languages harder than most other learners. It’s not because English is easier than other languages, but because the English grammar is based on Latin rather than English. Speakers of most (but not all) other Indo-European languages learn English easily because of this, but it’s harder for English speakers to learn their languages, because what they know about their own language is for a large part quite simply incorrect. It makes it even harder for English speakers to learn languages that are not related to English. As a student of Hungarian, this is probably old news to you.
When I went to uni to study languages, the things I learnt about Finnish, Swedish, French and German were new things that gave added information about things the basics of which I already knew. The English started from a scratch; forget everything you have learnt so far, this is how it actually works. So, the basic grammar of every other language can be learnt in comprehensive school, but you have to go to uni, if you want to learn how English grammar works. No matter what your native language is; Finnish, Japanese, Russian, or English itself. :(
Speakers of most (but not all) other Indo-European languages learn English easily because of this
True - but his language was Hungarian with a completely different root, grammar, and vocab. Oh, and he was in his late 60s.
I think we Finns, Estonians, Hungarians and the rest of Fenno-Ugrics are so used to linguistic weirdness that a messy Germanic language with misleading grammar feels like a holiday compared to our own languages. We are sort of expecting things to be complicated. :D
I feel like it also depends on the language someone is native to. For people who speak German and French or similar languages, especially with latin alphabets, it would be way way easier to learn english than it is for people particularly from places like Korea, or Japan (places with characters and different sentence structures)
French to English I could understand. But Hungarian? No links to English at all.
I've read that approximately 30% of English words have French origin. Likely thanks to the Normans and that French was the language of aristocracy in Britain.
Pronunciation of anglicized French is another matter.
29% has French (Latin) origin and 29% has Latin origin. It means that in modern English almost 60% of the words have Latin orgin.
I think your friend was gifted in languages. My relatives spoke Hungarian and no English when they arrived in America. One of them was in her 40's and still had a heavy accent in her 80's. One of them was 17 and speaks perfect English since she attended some high school and college in America. I know many who have been in America 10 years of more that still struggle with English. One of my kids had an English teacher who wrote on a report that "she often looses her homework". I had to correct the English teacher. In my experience, I'd say English is difficult to learn.
After 60 years my own father still has an accent (mind you so did my friend) and occasionally gets words wrong. I was talking about it with him recently. He had the luxury of a job with little pressure and lots of contact with people when he arrived (handyman/gofer) so he had lots of chances to play with English - yet he never had formal lessons (the closest he got was my maternal grandmother). My friend was retired and spent all day working on his English (6 hours in school then homework) - and he too was relaxed about talking to complete strangers.
He shared two of his out of class methods. One is he wrote a sentence with every new vocab word - his first 4 week course did the 1000 most common English words. The other was to find a landmark and walk away from it and ask directions. Next day he would repeat further from the landmark so the directions would be more complex!
A sentence for every new word. Make that (at least) three sentences for every new word and you’ll get Duolingo. Your father is a very smart man. :)
I backed my car into a tree. The trunk fell where an elephant wearing trunks got his trunk caught in the trunk that was in the trunk.
That explained why my Russian-English translation dictionary had 40,000 Russian words to translate 26,000 English words.
In case any British readers are confused between boot and trunk, I will spring over a spring on a spring next spring.
Spanish speaker here. English grammar it's quite easy but pronunciation it's so hard!
The hardest thing for my students is that English speakers link words together. They can read, but when understanding spoken English is a another ball game. I've always taught linking to my students...and it makes all the difference. The linking audio that I made for my students are available online to anyone...no cost.
English per se is not hard, it just lacks all logic and that is something that annoys me more than it holds me back using the language.
As pointed out before: pronounciation and spelling is completely random at times. The other thing is the completely useless continuous verb forms that exist - as far as I know - in no other language.
But as also pointed out by some: I have seen a lot more bad grammar from native speakers than of foreigners. I have never for example seen a European with English as second language use "should of" or "your" instead of "you're" or "expecially", while I see these from Americans all the time.
When I studied psychology at university, we used a lot of American textbooks. I was flabbergasted when the author of a chapter on the fear-system found it necessary to explain what a predator was! (Now, children, a predator is an animal that preys on other animals in order to eat them...) That said, those American texts were an easy read, precisely because the authors apparently assumed that even university students are quite deficient both in understanding of vocabulary as well as grammar. No extensive vocabulary nor complex language skills needed.
Compare that to the German scholarly tomes I had to read when I studied Hebrew. Long convoluted sentences full of words you never use in everyday life. Also, as (I believe) Oscar Wilde remarked: "The verb can be found in the second volume."
Might be worth noting that "predator" is a term of art in that context, and therefore they will have wanted to pick out the specific technical meaning, as opposed to the looser colloquial use of the word (c.f. "predator drone", "sexual predator", "Alien vs. Predator" and so on)?
A term of Art? What do you mean by that?
Personally, I'd think that any university student should be capable of understanding what the word 'predator' means and what is meant by it, when a professor explains fear in relation to human evolution.
I mean a technical term, one with a more precise meaning than in regular usage. Ecology jargon.
Though yes, probably in so far as that was relevant it should have been evident from the context.
Yes, this is something that really baffles me about US American school system: After they graduate from High School, they often not only speak no foreign language, but also they need to do some kind of "preparation year" in college that they are even fit for university.
What exactly did they do those 12 prior years?
At the cost of between $40,000 -$50,000, a minuscule number of high school graduates can afford to pay for an extra post-grad year. Many of those who chose to have an extra year hope to gain admission to more prestigious school where acceptance rates are very low.
The fifty most competitive universities and colleges in the US accept between 5%-15% of applicants; the competition for admission has been globalized with highly-qualified students coming from every part of the world. https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2019
I might have got the wording wrong, but here in Europe when you start university you only study your field from the beginning and nothing else, because you already got your general education in regular school.
I often hear from Americans that at college they first learn literature and language and math and chemistry.... and then they actually study biology (what was the literature part for?) or maybe linguistics (then why did they need chemistry?)
That's what I meant. We have all these subjects at school and when we study biology or linguistics (or anything else) we only have courses related to that particular subject.
American colleges/universities call the degree program that you choose and eventually end up with a degree in a "major." Majors consist of only courses in or related to that subject, but they don't completely fill the 120 credits required for a four-year degree. The general education courses usually add up to around 30 credits, which equals 2 semesters of full course-load, which is one school year. But it's not like you take a year of only general education before moving onto your major, you take them at any time and most people spread them out over 4 years. You just tend to take more general education courses in your first year and fewer toward the end because first year students get last pick of the courses and many courses have prerequisites.
Also, some people start without declaring a major, and in that case they can take the general education courses for a semester or two until they declare. Some have a career goal with more than one possible educational path and they need some time not committed to a rigid degree program. Some did very well in high school and decided to further their education but aren't sure of what career to work towards, so general education courses are a way to figure out what they want, or at least pass time while taking advantage of career counselors provided by the school.
It's also possible to fulfill some general education courses in high school (in the US, that's the last 4 years of compulsory education, you start at 14 years old and graduate at about 18). If your high school has the resources, you can take IB (international baccalaureate) classes, AP (advanced placement) classes, or you can be dual-enrolled in classes at a local community college.
The other thing is the completely useless continuous verb forms that exist - as far as I know - in no other language.
They’re not useless, and they also exist in Celtic languages. Several languages use periphrasis to express a continuous aspect. Cantonese even distinguishes between a continuous aspect and a progressive aspect.
They'd be useless if English would use its present tense for actions that happen in the present (meaning: now), but English doesn't do that for some reason. ;)
Tense and aspect are orthogonal to each other. Different aspects can occur in the present tense.
I do not know what that means. I am actually a scientist and have nothing to do with linguistics, I only know the term "orthogonal" in Mathematics, not in language. Sorry. :/
It means that they are independent of each other; different aspects can occur in any tense. “I write”, “I am writing”, and “I have written” are all present tense constructions, despite their different aspects. (“I have been writing” combines the last two aspects.)
Scilling already answered, but as a point of interest: in any humanities field, in the vast majority of contexts, "orthogonal" just means "unrelated". This use derives from statistics, in which orthogonal data points are ones which are not correlated, which is itself derived from the mathematical term.
Thanks to both of you for clarification. :)
A bit sad that somebody downvoted me for admitting not knowing something and trying to learn about it....
Note that "should of" for "should have", "your" for "you're" and "expecially" for "especially" are precisely the kinds of mistakes someone might be expected to make if they learned to speak the language aloud a long time before they learned to read it.
But then you go to school at the age of six and get rid of these mistakes... no? I could actually write at the age of 4, but of course I wrote like I heard words. My "written documents" of that time are full of these weird mistakes, but I stopped making them after I hit school and learned it properly.
Ideally! But not everyone receives the same quality of education, and some people just don't read very much.
In the US, at least where I'm from, "your" and "you're" have identical pronunciations, so are mixed up as easily as "to", "two", and "too". Even most people know the difference, when writing things out quickly, sometimes the brain plucks the wrong one out and you wouldn't notice it until editing.
Can't comment on "expecially", never heard anyone say it that way.
Depends heavily which language is your mother tongue. As a Finnish native speaker, I remember hating the English for making their language unnecessary complex. This was apparent in my first homework: remembering the difference between "he" and "she". For a 8-year old whose language has no grammatical genders (we have "hän" for people), the differences were hard. Other examples include some that you see with childrens' eye: why would the English go to a picnic with bread filled with sand ("sandwich" made no sense)? I could see grammatical rules being much easier to Germanic speakers.
But the major problem for Finns is the pronunciation. Even if a Finn has perfect grammar, the pronunciation can be pretty far off. This is known as "rally English" (google it). Finnish has no changing pronunciation on letters, so some people just use the Finnish pronunciation system with English letters. Expect some common words change form to something of a mix of English and Finnish. "Way" isn't pronounced "weɪ" or "waü", but "wei". Rally English seems understandable to both native and second-language English speakers, but it is noticeable and other Finns can easily recognize each other from either rally English or intonation.
And for non-native, it is a bit comical that native speakers have themselves no idea sometimes on how to pronounce new words. People give German bad rep for words, but at least you can fit the pronunciation rules to 2-3 pages. With English it is constant guessing.
But this applies to perfect UK/US English. English is forgiving in that pronunciation differs in areas (IN-AUS-NZ-JAM etc.) and that English doesn't have conjugations. So putting some words in some order and using Finnish pronunciation gets the message across. So at the same time English is easy in every day use, but achieving the best grade in matriculation exam isn't.
I'm a native Finnish speaker. There's just so much in English that we have no concept of; articles, prepositions, gendered nouns etc. I've spoken English for 30+ years, but I still occasionally forget to keep track if I'm talking about a male or female person and default to "he". I'm currently studying Spanish and it's even worse there, with inanimate objects still being "el" or "la".
There's some really confusing ways prepositions work with some cases. For example, what's on TV? If I'd translate that directly, I'd understand something is physically on the TV set.
And if that's not enough, there's the whole thing about English not being a phonetic language. As a kid I just couldn't comprehend the concept of Spelling bee competitions. As Finnish is phonetic, you can have a 3rd grader read out loud complex legalese and pronouncing it correctly. We have only couple of corner cases, like "ng" and "nk" in word.
Learning other Germanic languages through Finnish is just not an option for me. We had mandatory Swedish in school, but it never leveraged from the synergy of learning English, but started from the scratch. I recently skimmed the Duolingo's Swedish course for English speakers and it was so easy compared to the painful grammar oriented classes we used to have.
This is why I'm also learning Spanish with a course for English speakers.
It has a lot of quirks and an amazing amount of expressiveness and beauty that even native speakers will likely never fully explore, but that's true of many languages. I'm pretty sure most people are biased towards their native language because they can intuit its subtleties in a way few learners will grasp.
That being said, reaching a conversational level I don't imagine being too difficult. There's no language with more content or opportunities to speak than English. Exposure makes any language easier, as its sounds become more familiar.
Our spelling can be a little weird, and I've heard we have a few hard sounds for most learners (both th's, r... The rural Earl's worth. Try finding a learner who can say that right), but I think our grammar is among the simpler ones. We also have a lot of idioms and slang and a penchant for respelling words our own way or creating new ones. That can sometimes be confusing for native speakers.
I agree that its easy to default to criticizing as 'lazy' or 'dumb' people that can't speak English properly, and in some cases people reach a minimal level of proficiency and just stop progressing. I don't particularly find that an attractive quality, but we all have different thresholds of language proficiency that we expect from the people we interact with. Even among native speakers we judge people's intellect or educational level based on how they speak, and often look down on those speaking poorly. I'm pretty sure most of the world does that.
From my perspective as a German Native - English is easy to learn. This likely is due to the similiarities both in grammar as well as in vocabulary, English sometimes feels like a 'simplyfied German' since it lacks the components that make German hard to learn (grammatical genders, cases, more irregular verbs etc). That differentiates it from other, namely romanic languages, that gave me a much harder time when learning. Pronounciation is also a relatively easy thing (i am aware many Germans might disagree) that is not that hard for a Germanic Speaker. There are not really many obstacles in the English language, to my impression its a very simple and, more importantly, more flexible language. It's very forgiving.
What makes it so difficult is that a lot of native speakers get it so wrong themselves. "We was going to the shop" instead of "we were going", "Me and him was going..." instead of "He and I were going", "Come to dinner with John and I" instead of "John and me" and so on. The joys of texting don't help either. I support everybody learning English which is the only reason I occasionally offer corrections here. I am always so glad when my Italian is corrected. Ciao ...
My native language is Bulgarian (it's close to Russian). I've been learning English since kindergarten and I'm 30 y/o now and you could say I'm still learning it. I grew up watching a lot of 90s cartoons/movies/tv shows/music and got used to hearing English speech all the time, so the pronunciation was not difficult. Once I started learning the tenses though... That was the hardest part for me. Those damn tenses. I still confuse them to this day.
However the easiest thing about English compared to Bulgarian and Spanish for me is that nouns in English don't have gender and stressed syllables. It's so much easier not having to think of the gender of the noun and therefore all the other words affected by it. Or how the words papá and papa are two entirely different things in Spanish lol. Thankfully English doesn't have that.
Pronunciation is the hardest part for me, it never makes sense how “baked” and “naked” follow the same pattern and pronounced differently or “though” and “through”, but otherwise it’s not that hard
You should then appreciate the poem The Chaos (which was written by a non-native English speaker).
Past participles ending in “-ed” used to have the “-ed” pronounced as a separate syllable in past centuries; some still are when used as adjectives, but can be written as “-èd” now, e.g. to distinguish between the one-syllable past participle “learned” and the two-syllable adjective “learnèd”.
Had the Middle English verb “nake” survived into Modern English, then its past participle “naked” (which is the source of the adjective) might have had its pronunciation worn down to one syllable, to rhyme with “baked”.
As a Norwegian I started learning english when i was 6 years old. So i can speak both fluently. Prepositions are a real pain and the th sound.
It really depends on which is your native language. I am pretty sure that you can see yourself which languages are easier for you to understand or learn. For a Romanian person, learning Spanish is easier than learning English. For a German person, English may be easier than Spanish. I myself studied the English language at the university (not in "I have taken English as a foreign language" but in the "What the hell do you do with a degree in English?" sense) and one of my hobbies is to talk to ESL speakers around the world and guess their nationality by the mistakes they make when speaking English. For example Slavic people often drop the articles and have hard time understanding them and using them.
Similar deal with Estonian. My old flatmate never used articles, and said he couldn't see the point in them.
A robot meerkat character from a series of commercials in the UK, promoting an energy price comparison service.
The characters in the ads speak in faux-Eastern European accented English, and do not use articles.
More of a software construct (a "virtual assistant") than a robot, but yes, a fictional anthropomorphic meerkat. Sorry!
"Yet sometimes we as natives tend to think of people with "bad" grammar as not trying hard enough." Being a native English speaker, I can honestly say "Have you seen the grammar use of our youth and even adults?" LOL We really cannot judge someone else on their grammar when ours is horrible. I am not sure they even teach grammar in school.
I do know i have to be careful when speaking to others that are learning the language. I slow my tempo of speech and try to use more "formal" words. While i am a native speaker, it often looks like i am trying to learn English as i often have to sit and think about the words i need to use so the meaning of what i am trying to say is understood quickly. However every language has their nuances.
English is the official business language because it is a very linear language and generally not up for interpretation on the meaning of the words being used. While something like Spanish can be interpreted differently by different people.
Less educated people having “bad” grammar is the attitude of a prescriptivist, but that’s not the only frame we have for thinking about languages and grammar. Living languages are constantly changing and evolving, and this not necessarily a bad thing.
A descriptivist would say that if the grammar rules written in books and taught in schools don’t line up with the language as it is actually spoken by the communities who speak it, then the problem is that the grammar rules are actually no longer a good description of how to communicate in the communities that speak the language. There are different dialects of English, and the variations of English spoken today are not the same as the variations of English that were spoken 300 or 100 or even 50 years ago.
There is a significant body of research that explores the ways in which communities in the US that you might consider to have “bad” grammar actually just have their own grammars, and that these grammars are often just as precise and intricate as the “standard” English grammar taught in schools.
The assets to learn english are good (TV, music, books, cinema, internet etc). This gives a big hand. From this perspective it is the perfect 2nd language. I never say to a native english speaker they are lucky to have it as their language because in fact they miss out on the easyness of it as a 2nd language...for them learning a new language is more difficult and because of the spread of english how common it is in the world but it also made english speakers lazy...they expect english so don’t learn others. Where I am from it is common to have 2 or 3 languages instilled young when it is possible.
As many others have already pointed out, what you find hard when learning a foreign language depends a lot on what your native tongue is.
For example, I’m a native speaker of Croatian, which is a Slavic language. Slavic languages have ridiculously complex grammar, so English grammar is mostly easy-peasy in comparison.
However, there are exceptions. For example, having both “will” and “going to” for expressing the future still seems awfully redundant to me, after all these years, because my native tongue makes no such distinction. Articles? They seem completely unnecessary to me. (Of course, there is no such thing as an article in Slavic languages.) Phrasal verbs and prepositions are a pain in every language I have learnt so far - English is no exception. And so on and so forth.
The good thing is, as a student, you get to hear and use English a lot beacause of its status as a lingua franca. Most commercial films are in English, a good half of the Internet is in English, there are tons of great books originally written in it, music lyrics predominantly tend to be in English, there are many good learning resources written in English, thare is a huge amount of scientific papers in English etc. All of that makes language-learning at least 50% easier.
And oh, by the way, English spelling is incredibly inconsistent. :)
I'm a native English speaker. I suspect one of the most confusing things would be the common practice of English speakers saying things in a completely different way to how they would write them down.
I don't just mean slang and accents - I mean people often naturally and consistently string "wrong" sentences together without thinking, simply because it flows better that way in speech.
They usually wouldn't dream of writing in that same manner, because such constructions would look and feel so obviously wrong when written down.
(Actually, I'd guess that's the same for most languages, to a greater or lesser degree, thinking about it....)
I'm also a native English speaker and this seems right to me.
One thing that i've noticed is that English spelling tells you more about the meaning of the word than how it is to be pronounced. Take "choir". It's tricky, both because it's one of a number of words where "ch" makes a simple "k" sound (rather than the sound at the beginning of "cheese" and "cheer") and because it's not clear, at face value, how we might pronounce the vowel sound; we might expect it to rhyme with "noir", or even "lawyer". On the other hand, if you weren't familiar with the word, but were familiar with any of the related terms such as "choral", "chorus" or "chorister", you would most likely correctly infer the meaning from the context in which it appeared.
I would say that the biggest difference versus other languages I tried learning is that it is easy at the beginning because there is only a few rules so you progress much faster, but then it gets much harder, because it is lacking the structure created by the rules that other languages have. I am Czech and in our language the beginning has to be pretty awful, because we have 7 (possibly) different endings for each noun based on the case for 3 genders and each has 4 standard achetypes = 84 endings to remember plus special case and then bunch of other rules. But that is the biggest obstacle there is - it gets easier afterwards. So in school/university and work I met lots of people who stopped progressing in their English simply because they didnt care enough - they can get the point across and that is all they need - they dont care that they spell "scrap" as "scrape" or write "good in" something instead of "good at"... So I dont think English is much harder or easier than other languages - it just has quite different distribution of easy and hard parts in the learning process.
84 endings for every noun. That's insane! I'd imagine a few words could get very specific then.
No, each noun has 7, but you need to decide what gender it is and what archetype it is first in order to know whar 7 to use. Altogether you need to know 84 for all the combinations. Should have been more specific with the explanation. Sorry
ive heard it said its one of the easier, with the hardest things being pronunciation, and exceptions for phrases and such things. korean people have told me english is easier to learn than chinese by far, which is considerable because korean is 60% derived from chinese directly.
Interestingly, Hangul actually works more like the Latin alphabet than written Chinese, despite superficial resemblances.
A Polish person here. I must say English was a pretty easy language for me, especially the grammar. There are a few things which are still giving me trouble though:
spelling/pronounciation, especially of the vowels (I barely hear the difference between bed and bad for example)
when to use "a" and "the"
when to use which preposition
sometimes which tense to use, esp. Present Perfect/Past Simple
Regarding your last item, the difference between the simple past and the present perfect is the time of the results of the action, e.g. “I wrote a novel that no one bought” (simple past: action in the past, results in the past) vs. “I have written a novel that no one buys“ (present perfect: action in the past, results in the present).
But in your second example it would sound much more natural to say “I wrote a novel that no one is buying” so the rule doesn’t really seem to work.
The point of my examples was to demonstrate the difference in meaning between the simple past and the present perfect to mlekolaki44, whose native language uses one tense for both of these English tenses. Using your suggested replacement for the second example doesn’t demonstrate that difference.
But surely that isn’t actually exactly the difference if the sentence communicates the same meaning better with the other tense...
Your suggested replacement does not express the exact meaning of the second example.
Doesn't your first example actually suggest that you have stopped selling this book already, or that you are talking about some particular point in the past? What about sentences: "I wrote a novel that no one HAS bought" (yet), "I have written a novel that no one has bought" or (for the 2nd example) "I have written a novel that no one is buying" - are they not correct
The first example could be interpreted in that way, but that is not its only possible interpretation.
“I wrote a novel that no one has bought” is using the simple past in the main clause and the present perfect in the relative clause; the results of writing the novel are still in the past, but the results of the lack of buying are in the present.
“I have written a novel that no one has bought” uses the present perfect in both clauses; the results of both the writing and the lack of buying are in the present.
“I have written a novel that no one is buying” has the present progressive in the relative clause; the results of the lack of buying are present and ongoing.
All of those examples are grammatically correct, but they have (perhaps) subtle differences of meaning.
English is pretty easy because there is a lot of media in English (all the movies, music, books, newspapers are in English). The only problem in English is the weird pronunciation and sounds you don't see in most languages. PLUS: Verb conjugation in English is so good (I speak, you speak, we speak, they speak. Future: I will speak, you will speak, we will speak, ...).
Personally, I don't think it's difficult at all, annoying at the very worst, but that's it. It's much simpler than Italian (my native language) grammar-wise, which made learning it fairly easy even with dyslexia. My classmates in high school did have a lot of issues with learning it, but it was mostly due to the way it was taught and lack of practice.
I am native Greek speaker and we have English lessons at school (not very effective lessons, but still) compared to others I started learning English pretty late, I think the hardest part was the grammar and tons of irregular words but the fact that most of the internet and media is in English (especially back then) made practicing passively a breeze.
Native English speaker here, but i can recall some features of the language that give people i know trouble.
For instance, i used to have an Estonian flatmate, who couldn't distinguish the letters "b" and "p". Even hearing them side by side, as in words like "bet" and "pet", he would insist they were identical.
One rule that every non-native English speaker i know seems to struggle to remember is subject-auxiliary inversion. So instead of asking "Why are you studying English?", they would ask, "Why you are studying English?".
British place names seem to give American English speakers trouble, specifically those with lengthy first syllables such as Worcester or Gloucester, and those with a Welsh derivation like Betws-y-Coed and Aberystwyth.
I live in New England, and we have no problem pronouncing the names of our local cities like Worcester and Gloucester, etc...these towns have been in existence since the 17th and 18th century. Granted, someone who lives 3,000 miles away in California may have a problem with these names, but it is more likely to be because of the dropped second syllable.
Fair enough, cognate to the syllable that's retained in Lancaster, Manchester, etc.
And it goes both ways. America has place names like Bellefontaine, OH, which is pronounced "bell-fountain"; i'd like to see a Brit get that right on their first try!
The point being not "hur dur ignorant Americans" but that the spelling isn't a great indicator of pronunciation. You and i know these names only because we have local cities with these names. Someone who is familiar with Worcester, Leicester and Gloucester, noticing a pattern, might still be tripped up by the less famous Cirencester, which has four syllables and is pronounced, roughly, "siren-sester".
In Canada, we have many European town names, particularly Irish, Scottish and English. However, we also have some towns named for rough English approximations of French words, it can make pronouncing them correctly difficult. Also, many many French towns and cities. You learn to pronounce them as they wood be in French, because, well, they are French words and towns. It can be difficult when someone pronounces them with an English accent (particularly in my experience American tourists) For a moment, you don't know what they're talking about, then you remember. :)
Edit: By English accent, I just mean not pronouncing the word with the French pronunciation, just sort of reading it as it looks; Not a British accent.
West coaster here- I'll butcher those place names you have out East or the ones in England until I hear them. Even then I still might not be able to pronounce them. East coasters and Englanders have that unpronounceable "a" they use when they mispronounce words like "law." They even mispronounce state names: Instead of saying "Nevada" where the first 'a' is as in 'cat', they say it "Nevahhhhda", which sounds so pretentious. And my own state is Oregon, not Awwregon.
But then you guys always pronounce our local place names incorrectly as well, since many are based on local native tribal words.
Easier than many because of its proliferation across the globe. No matter where you are, in what language you speak, it's usually easy to have access to some oral, aural or written English language product, who to find someone who speaks English. Even better, someone who speaks English and the person's native language.
To me it was ezpz, I've never really done any "active" learning when it comes to English. Mainly because I had learnt it through things I like (watching TV series as a kid) and without being forced to learn it. In my opinion English is very easy. Sure there are arguments to say that a few specific things are difficult, but in an objective comparison with other languages, English should still come out as one of the easier languages to learn.
Most arguments I generally hear to claim that English is difficult, do not compare it to another language. Sure, learning any language can be difficult, but comparatively English should be easy.
To be honest, I'm no expert. However, I do believe that the fact that there are soooooo many languages that influenced English throughout history makes it a very difficult language to learn. Our sentence structure is also different from most other languages and even my mother (who lived in the Philippines until she was 24 and grew up speaking Tagalish) has trouble finding the right word and will often mix up genders because Tagalog has no separate he/she/it word. Everything is just sha. That's all. I honestly wish that Duolingo offered a Tagalog course though.
As a French native speaker, it took me one year of daily use of English to reach fluency level. At the beginning I had to use Google Translator for every single message I wanted to send to people online but I started to slowly grasp the vocabulary and the way the words synergize with others.
But it isn't really an amazing feat as - if I remember correctly - around 30% of the vocabulary is the same with French, especially the scientific words as they have a Latin root.
From my perspective of a native speaker or early learner of several Indo-European languages (Croatian, Greek, French and Italian), I'd say English is one of the easiest languages to learn.
I grew up learning English side by side with Mandarin and Cantonese, so I think the hardest part of English is the tenses and spelling.
My mother tongue is Spanish and I do have an issue with English pronunciation mainly the end of many words...and the word 'world' is not easy for me to pronounce it.
I knew a Brazilian who spent hours trying to say "the whole world". The combination of those three consonents "rld" can be challenging.
I'm a brazilian , but I don't know how to explain it. Some people learn easy, others not
I tutor high school students in the U.S. for the college admissions tests, which include some grammar. Many native English speakers have problems with verb-preposition combinations: agree with, agree that, agree to, etc. That said, I am finding a parallel challenge learning Hebrew - sometimes it is evident what preposition to use, but I frequently get it wrong.
Same in Hungarian. Learning which case a phrasal verb takes is not obvious - and sometimes it takes more than one with different meanings.
If you speak it every day for 50 years or so - you start to get the hang of it! (joke). There are plenty of English people who never seem to be able to grasp how to speak English - and don't seem to care either!
I'm a native English speaker, but all I can say is that the language itself is very unique and has different rules to other language, making it difficult for people with different native languages that are very different, mostly Asian languages.
Native speakers do not always use correct grammatical constructions themselves. You can soak up a lot of bad grammar from native speakers! Depends on who you surround yourself with.
Ah, but English grammar is fairly relaxed in practice. If you're making only the same mistakes native speakers make, you know your English is at least sufficient to communicate with native speakers!
Clean. And "He was went down the left wing..." A regular error by football pundits, bless em.
Haha, it's kind of funny when we non natives hear the mistakes of the natives speakers. Maybe their mistakes make sense to them, they have a different meaning of the correct grammar ...
I'm thinking of something that we say in french "aller sur Paris" instead of "aller à Paris" . I can use it because it's not the same meaning to me . It's like talking about the entire area of the city not just a dot on a map. But some grammarians would kill me for that ! ;))
Ever watch a foreign show with English subtitles? it's hilarious. Although, I'm sure our English tv shows with subtitles in other languages are just as funny/wrong to people who speak that language.
Ah, Footballese. That's a language which abides by a whole different set of rules.
If you study Dutch, Cruyffiaans (Dutch as spoken by Johan Cruyff) is an absolute must to take on the side. Dutch Footballese has different dialects. Gaaliaans is another one.
There is also German Footballese, paradoxically mainly spoken by Dutch supporters watching the European or World Championships.
"He was went down the left wing..."
"Was went" would be very strange. Perhaps you meant "has went", which could just be a difference of dialect. Similarly "has took", "has broke", etc.
She means "was went". Football commentators are not known for solid English grammar!
I'm not doubting what Linda heard, but "was went" is not by any means a common sort of mistake a native would make, and not a part of any English dialect as far as i'm aware. It's a bit surprising. Unless it has a football-specific meaning?
I heard some of the most beautiful English used and spoken in South Africa. I visited many townships and loved the care that was taken to learn and pronounce English. Totsiens!
It is the spelling. I live around a lot of non english speaking people, and they are really confused about the spelling, especially the Spanish speakers.
How difficult is Chinese for English speakers, how difficult is English for Chinese speakers.
I haven’t studied Chinese for a long time but I found it relatively straightforward as an English speaker, compared, for instance, to Vietnamese. The sounds of English are roughly the same as in Chinese and the Chinese grammar is not complex. The difficulties are in writing and the tones, of course. But compared to Vietnamese tones and sounds much easier.
Just by looking at the pronunciation guide in a dictionary, it’s probably possible to see that English pronunciation is very difficult. Other than having sounds that not many languages have (at least as far as I know) like the English ‘r’ sound and the ‘th’ sound, English writing also doesn’t seem to have much logic to it, which is very confusing as a learner. Words like “knight”, “rough”, “thorough” “indict”. I actually watched a video about it a while ago; https://youtu.be/EqLiRu34kWo Also, the grammar is kind of difficult, I grew up with Hebrew and Russian, and all of the have/had times are confusing to me.
For me personally, neither the pronunciation nor the grammar is difficult. However, when it comes to movies, and watching em without subtitles, I feel that the conversations are talked in a new language :| it's a pain in the neck. Nonetheless, there's no prom when I'm watching Youtube videos or TED talks.
The hard side of learning any language is the basic grammars especially when you want to make a conversation with someone in this situation you must care about : the speed , the fit vocabulary , the right grammars ... etc cause any wrong makes confusion between the speakers and that what i have noticed
I grew up with 3 laungauges and english was one of those laungauges. My kindergarten education to higher education has been in english entirely. Now i am 21 so its been 21 years of English in my life. It might sound funny but my english is better than my native laungauges. I prefer to talk in english than in my native laungauge. I love English and honestly it's not hard for me. I have had many friends from other countries whose english is not as good as mine but maybe it is because they are not learning or speaking english for a long time. That's the case with every laungauge, the more years you spend learning and speaking that particular laungauge the better you get in it. I am learning german now and it feels like i know nothing about it when i hear german podcast. But given the fact that I am only learning it for 5 months now, its quite understandable. I might become fluent in few years with constant effort and willingness to learn.
It's made more difficult by mixing English usage with American, as though they were the same thing.
There is no such language as "American" in the US we speak English which in some ways differs from that spoken in other English language countries but it's still English. Just as that spoken in parts of the UK differ from each other, not to mention Australia, South America, India and the many other countries that use English as an official language. Just because there is a country in the UK named England doesn't mean it is the only correct version of the language.
When the English came to North America they brought their language with them. Since then it has changed and evolved in both countries...England and the US.
Perhaps John242575 was referring to mixing English (British?) usage with American usage.
Yes, now that you point it out it does state clearly "English usage with American". My apologies to John242575 for my abrupt and impolite reply. Thank you stoopher for the heads up.
I think my least favourite thing about English are the tenses. In Hungarian we have 3: past, present and future.
A contrario (on the contrary), we have like 20 tenses in French, so learning just a few in English was a piece of cake :'D
Yes, after I studied French and Latin at school, I felt English had been cheated out of some useful way of using verbs. Then when I learnt Hungarian it was even worse - although I'm finding pre-verbs give a little of the precision back.
To be honest, English is one of the messiest languages. There are exceptions to exceptions, and it has really hard grammar.
I LOVE my native English! Always have, always will. But this is no easy language. Heck, it can be downright nonsensical. Let me count (just a few) of the ways:
- Spelling and pronunciation often (way, waaayyy often) do not correlate.
- Plural forms are all over the map. By map, I mean 1500s - 1890s maps.
- Verb conjugations. May I just say ... Yikes!
- Tenses. Hey, they make me tense! (See what I did there?)
And yet, and yet ... I LOVE my native English ... even though so many of us struggle with it at times. To those who are learning it as a subsequent language? Deepest respect! I am not worthy!