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Is English a Hard Language to Learn?

by Marisa Serrano

There’s a lot of debate around whether English is a hard language to learn. The short answer is that it depends on two main factors:

  • Your first language
  • Your learning goals

Let’s dive in. 

It depends on your first language

For starters, it often depends on what your first language is. If your first language is similar to English, like a Germanic or a Romance language, you may pick up the basics faster. But if your first language is extremely different from English, like Mandarin or Arabic, it can take some more time upfront to establish a foundation.

And the reverse is also true: Check out the easiest and the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, which largely depend on how similar the languages are to English.

And it depends on your goals

Generally, English is easy enough to start learning, but it can be difficult to fully master. This is because many of the basic building blocks of English are fairly simple, but as you move towards fluency, the intricacies become more evident. So, if you just want to learn a few basic words and phrases for your upcoming trip, you’re in luck—but if your goal is to speak English fluently, you’ll likely find it more difficult.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific characteristics of English that make this true. 

The simple stuff

If you’re learning English, here’s the good news: Some of the basics of English are relatively simple. Here are a few examples:

  • The alphabet. The Latin alphabet used in English has only 26 letters, which are used to make up any word you want to learn. If your first language already uses this same alphabet, learning becomes even easier, and this familiarity will give you a head-start.
  • English is not a tonal language. This makes the pronunciation less complex, and it’s not necessary to be as careful with the tone placed on each syllable. However, this can be difficult to get used to if your first language does use tones to communicate meaning.
  • English nouns aren’t gendered. In some languages, like French, each noun has a specific gender, and the articles and adjectives around it shift to match. This can be a lot to remember, and English doesn’t have this level of complexity.

Where it gets more difficult

Now that we’ve gone over some of the more simple elements of English, we can take a look at where things start to get trickier. Once you really dive into English, there are a lot of complexities that make it difficult to fully master. Let’s look at some examples:

English has a large vocabulary

English has a lot of words—Webster’s English Dictionary includes approximately 470,000 entries, and it’s estimated that the broader English vocabulary may include around a million words. That’s a lot of new vocabulary to learn, which raises the bar for true language mastery.

English has such a broad vocabulary because it’s a blend of several different root languages. While English is a West Germanic language in its sounds and grammar, much of the vocabulary also stems from Romance languages, such as Latin, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

One result of combining these various root languages is that the English vocabulary includes a ton of synonyms, or different words that essentially mean the same thing. For example, the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus includes more than 275,000 synonyms, antonyms, and related words. And unfortunately, most of these synonyms aren’t fully interchangeable, so the exact word you choose does have an impact on the overall meaning. For example, calling your friend “trustworthy” has a slightly different connotation than calling them “reliable.”

And in addition to these complex roots, the English language is ever-evolving. With an estimated 1.5 billion English speakers around the world, the language is constantly shifting and expanding every day. 

Spelling is a poor indicator of pronunciation

In terms of spelling, the good news is that all words in English are made up of the same 26 letters. The bad news is that many times, even knowing these letters can’t help you predict how certain words are pronounced. 

There are many strange inconsistencies in English that can be very confusing, like when the same exact combination of letters isn’t pronounced the same way across different words. For example, “rough,” “though,” and “through” are all pronounced differently. 

Then, to make things even more complicated, there are homophones—for example, “through” and “threw” are pronounced the same, but are spelled differently, and they mean different things. 

And finally, there are many heteronyms, or words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and different meanings. For example, “wind” can be either a noun that means “moving air” or a verb that means “to turn.”

If you’re trying to learn how to read and write in English, or even just master a good amount of vocabulary, these illogical intricacies will certainly pose a challenge.

English includes very specific rules

There are a few rules that can be hard to remember when learning English. One example is that there’s a very specific order that adjectives must be listed ahead of a noun.

The adjective order is: quantity, opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin/material, qualifier, and then noun. For example, “I love my big old yellow dog.” Saying these adjectives in any other order, like “I love my yellow old big dog,” will sound wrong, even when otherwise the sentences are exactly the same and communicate the same thing. Keeping rules like this in mind can be tricky, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right.

And some rules have a lot of exceptions

There are many other rules in English, and unfortunately, many of these rules can’t be applied in all instances, because they have several exceptions. 

For example, to make a noun plural, in many cases you add an “s” or an “es” to the end. But there are several specific amendments to this rule, like if the noun ends in “f” or “fe,” it’s changed to “ve” before adding the “s” (as in “wolves.”) And then there are several exceptions to this amendment, including “beliefs” and “chefs.” And finally, there are some plural nouns that flout the rules completely, like “mice,” and some that don’t change at all when they’re pluralized, like “deer.”

There are many other aspects of English where the rules aren’t straightforward, and have many exceptions. For example, English verb conjugation isn’t exactly simple, with a ton of irregular verbs. And of course, spelling isn’t easy, considering the many inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation. 

Rosetta Stone makes it simple

If English is your first language, you likely picked up many of these things automatically, without having to specifically memorize any rules (or their exceptions). Rosetta Stone mirrors this way that you learned language as a child, helping you learn through context and reasoning to build a deeper, more enduring understanding of the language.

With no need to read instructions or memorize complicated grammar rules, Rosetta Stone helps you tap into your innate ability to learn new languages. Visual and conceptual clues help you interpret the meaning of new words, phrases, and sentences. And you’ll learn correct grammar and syntax by reading examples and listening to native speakers model correct usage. 

Whether you want to learn the basics or achieve language mastery of English or one of our 24 other languages, Rosetta Stone can help you get there. Ready to get started? Learn more at www.rosettastone.com.

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