Why English is Hard to Learn: A Crash Course

- October 28, 2022
      22054   0
Updated 2022

Have you ever wondered why someone that speaks Spanish, for example, as their native language, thinks English is hard to learn? English language speakers sometimes take for granted the structure and requirements of the language. English is part of the Indo-European language family and many of its words derive from Ancient Greek and Latin, which are also common in other languages spoken in Europe. However, for learners of the language, English is hard to learn.

What is more surprising is the fact that other countries made English their second language. In many parts of the world, English is spoken more fluently compared to natural American and British English speakers.

In document translation, English as a source or target language is very much in demand. According to the British Council, there are more than one billion English language learners all over the world.

However, there is still the question of why English is hard to learn.


Some Contradictions

Many students find that the contradictions in the English language are reasons why it becomes difficult to learn it. Maybe they are just finding that the language is like a riddle. Some of the things that they question:

  • Hamburger has no ham.
  • There is no pine or even apple in pineapple.
  • Taught is the past tense of Teach however, the past tense of preach is preached and not ”praught.”
  • Vegetables are the main food of vegetarians, but do humanitarians eat something else?
  • The English words see and look mean the same thing, but oversee and overlook have different meanings.

Native English speakers seldom think about the reasons why some of the things in the language are illogical. It could be because native speakers are used to these things. Someone who speaks English since birth would not find these inconsistencies weird. But for English language learners, who are taught every facet of the language, these are glaring points that bring them confusion.


Rules and Exceptions

Another thing that confuses English learners is that there are too many rules to follow. On the other hand, there are too many exceptions to the rules as well.

One rule that can confuse: Use ”I” before “E” except when either letter is positioned after the letter “C,” thus you write believe or relieve but write receipt differently. You spell seize or weird with “E” before ”I” yet science is spelled with ”I” after ”C,” which contradicts the first rule.

Likewise, English has plenty of irregular verbs. Overall, learners should remember 370 irregular verbs, such as:

Present Tense      Simple Past Tense
fight fought
light lit
seek sought
grind ground
bid bid
blow blew
bear bore
burn burned (or burnt)
drink drank
blow blew

When learning English, the student may be learning several rules, but also has to learn more exceptions to those rules. These are just some of the things that hamper the progress of students.


Word Order

If you speak English naturally, you immediately know the order in which words are placed. This is another thing that learners find difficult to understand. Explaining why there is a logical order in the positioning of words can be difficult to grasp. Another thing is that the difference between a right and wrong order is sometimes elusive to discern. It is not easy to explain that the order of words makes them sound right.

You can say “an interesting small cup” but it does not sound right if you say ”a small interesting cup.” It could be grammatically correct but it’s how it sounds that make a subtle difference in the execution. Understanding the nuances of the language, for example, is what native speakers innately know.



Spelling is only one area that makes learning English difficult. The student also has to contend with pronunciation. There are languages, such as Spanish, where you pronounce the words as they are written. In English, there are several ways to pronounce words that have almost the same letter combinations, such as through, bough, rough and trough. Silent letters are also present in the beginning, middle, and end of some words as well. Examples include:

  • knife
  • write
  • daughter
  • aisle
  • gnome
  • psychology
  • knee
  • lamb
  • knock
  • half
  • wrist
  • plumber

The problem is compounded by words that have more consonants than vowels and vice versa. You’ll find them in these examples:

  • Photosynthesis
  • Crystal
  • Scythe
  • Symphony
  • Rhythm
  • Gypsy
  • Motorcycle
  • Chlorophyll
  • Encyclopedia
  • Lightly
  • Myrtle

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, there’s more, as there are English words (or sounds) that do not have vowels such as brr, shhh, grrr, hmmm, mmm, psst, nth, pfft, or tsk. These combinations of consonants form sounds that are quickly understood to mean something, principally an action.


Emphasis on Certain Words

The way a speaker puts stress or emphasis on a certain word or words makes the meaning differs in a subtle way. Each time the emphasis is put on a different word in one sentence completely changes its meaning. Sometimes the emphasis is quite clear so it is easier to pick up the intended meaning. However, there are times when the emphasis is not very distinct, which could lead to misinterpretation. Putting emphasis on a specific word is often used to express how someone feels.


A Number of Homophones

Aside from the above, homophones abound in the English language. These are words that are written in the same way but the difference in pronunciation effectively makes the meaning different as well. This factor is very difficult for English language learners to grasp. For example:

Alternate – when pronounced as ALternit = succeeding choice

Alternate – pronounced as ALternait = switching from one to another

Attribute – to associate ownership to (something or someone) when pronounced as ahTRIByoot (emphasis on the second syllable)

Attribute – someone’s characteristic when the emphasis is on the first syllable, as in AHtribyoot

Bass is pronounced as written when you want to indicate a specific fish species.

Bass is pronounced as base when you want to describe a musical instrument.

Bow, when used to indicate lowering one’s head it’s pronounced as bau or baw.

When talking about a hunting implement, such as bow and arrow, it is pronounced as boh.

Putting stress on the last syllable of Contest indicates that you are arguing whereas putting the emphasis on the first syllable and pronouncing it with more of an ”a” than ”o” sound indicates that there is competition.

Close with more of a ”z” than an ”s” sound means to shut a door, window, or any opening. When the word is pronounced with an ”s” sound and silent ”e,” its means near.

When you pronounce the word Wound as woond, it means an injury. But if you say wownd, you mean that you coil or wrap up something, such as a rope or a bandage.

Some English words have several dissimilar meanings. For example, the word Course could be a series of meetings or lessons, a series of developments, actions or events, a line of orientation or flow, a mode of action, a route, and a part of a meal or a masonry layer.

Raise is another word with multiple meanings. It could mean to increase the level or amount of something, upward movement (such as hands or eyes), or cause to be heard or known. It can also mean to collect funds, grow or cultivate, call into action, provide and care for (children, family), build or construct, call out emotions, create a disturbance, improve quality, wealth, or condition, make something better, and more.


Synonyms Cannot Be Interchanged

Many words in English mean the same thing, such as see and watch. However, it is not always possible to swap them. It is all right to say, ”watch or see a film” or ”watch TV” but you should never say, ”see television” as the phrase does not sound right.

To make it more complicated, you are not called a ”watcher” when you watch TV or a movie, but rather a ”viewer” but the latter’s use is altogether different. You cannot say view television but you can say television viewer.

Synonyms of the word elegant include graceful, chic, refined and classic. While you can say that a swan’s or a ballerina’s neck is elegant or graceful, you cannot associate chic or classic with a swan’s neck because those two terms are associated with fashion.

So many things make learning English difficult and confusing. Its grammar structure, its spelling, meanings and rules that contradict existing rules are difficult to master. But remember that the situation is the same for English speakers trying to learn a foreign language.


Final Thoughts

What is important is your willingness to learn and putting more effort into learning the basic rules. Learning English is definitely challenging but the fact is several languages are more difficult to learn than English. This includes Mandarin, Japanese, Russian and Finnish. Mandarin Chinese makes you learn thousands of characters, which takes years to master. The written and spoken versions of Japanese differ as well.

If you have a choice, learn English if your native language belongs to the same language family as you’ll be able to recognize some of the words. If it is imperative for you to learn English, check out our blog on how to inject some fun into learning foreign language. You can also try practicing your English in realistic simulations and getting feedback on your performance.
    Categories: Languages