Is English difficult to learn?

Twice today I’ve read on the SDMB that English is considered a very difficult language to learn. Frankly, this baffles me. I’m not a native English speaker and I’ve found English very easy to learn. I’ve studied German and Spanish, and they were infinitely more difficult to learn with all their different conjugations, cases, and whatnot. Ancient Hebrew, while not all that horrid, was also harder than English. As for my native language, Swedish, I can only imagine the hell a foreigner must go through to learn it. It’s probably not as bad as German, but it’s close.

What I know of French, Italian and Japanese lead me to believe that they’re worse than English too, whereas I’ve heard that Russian and Swahili are pretty easy, as these things go.

Seriously, is English difficult? Why? It has next to no peculiarities of grammar to deal with, unlike virtually every other language I know of.

IMO, the basics of English are really easy, one can communicate with other people after only a short while. As for German, it is my mothertongue but I can imagine that it is hell to learn.
As for Swedish, I dont think it’s hard to learn, I think French is harder

One of the reasons that English is considered difficult to learn is that there are so many exeptions to every rule.

In many languages, such as Spanish, a letter of the alphabet has one and only one sound. When you see a word written, you know exactly how it should be pronounced.

This link has some humorous examples of words that cause confusion among non-English speakers.

I personally find English to be simpler and more logical than my native tongue (Japanese). I can’t compare it with other languages though.

Perhaps you hear more comments about its difficulty because for most people, it’s the only foreign language they learn (or try to).

The pronunciation can be tricky, I’ll grant you that. Possibly the spelling. But the grammar is so easy as to make up for it and more, in my opinion.

About Spanish: each letter does not have one sound. The l in “la” isn’t pronounced like the l in “allí”.

And I hope they’re not serious. There’s not a single natural language in the world that doesn’t have similar kinks.

That’s because l and ll are two different letters. So they have two different sounds. G and c have two different sounds though. Guerra and general, or calle and cinco.

I know that n and ñ are considered different letters (which was counter-intuitive to me at first), but l and ll? I’ve never heard that. Surely ll is two consecutive l’s?

Anyway, I see that we agree that I’m right even if my example was wrong.

In Spanish, ll (doble ele) is indeed a letter in its own right and has its own section in the dictionary.

Despite some irregularities, reading Spanish is very straightforward compared to English.

Is English difficult to learn? For whom? Native speakers of Swedish, French, Japanese and Arabic will have different opinions on the subject.

Actually Russian is considered by the Defense Department to be the second-hardest (commonly-spoken) language for English speakers to learn. I think it is tied with Japanese, and I think the hardest might be Chinese, with the tonal thing going on.

English is pretty hard to learn as well. It has many tenses, many modifiers, and many correct ways of saying the same thing. There is no offical gender to nouns but some nouns have gender you’re just supposed to “know.” Articles can be confusing for native speakers of languages that don’t use them (Russian for example, has no word “the”). Word order and context are very important in English, not so in all languages. There are many homophones (words that sound like other words but have different spellings and meanings) and many homonyms (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings) because English has borrowed from many languages.

Personally I really don’t see how English grammar is “so easy.” English has many many tenses, each with their own slightly different shade of meaning. The fact is, most native speakers don’t know a lot about English grammar, because they’ve been exposed to it all their life. Can you tell me, for instance, the differences between the Simple Present, the Present Continuous, the Present Perfect, and the Present Perfect Continuous?

Spelling is very non-intuitive and certainly not phonetic as a rule (I mean duh, native speakers spend their whole childhoods learning to spell, and as adults rely on spellcheck!)

These are just some of the reasons why English is a challenging language to master.

I’ve always thought it made a big difference depending on what your first language is.

English is my native tongue. In high school, I took Spanish and was very good at it. I grew up in California and have heard Spanish all my life. I knew how it was supposed to sound, and it’s similar enough to Engilsh that I never had any wacky logic problems with it.

In college I studied Modern Hebrew. WOW. Big difference. Semitic languages are so wildly different from Indo-European languages, I had a severe problem just getting a handle on the thought process behind the grammar structure. I was a great speller in English and Spanish, but made terrible errors in Hebrew.

Then I took Arabic, which is related to Hebrew. I won’t say I was great at it (I should have studied harder), but I didn’t have the same problem with the grammar structure, because I was already familiar with it.

I think there are several things that make English intimidating for many people:

Phonology: English is a high-phoneme-count language, so it may have more phonemes than the mother tongue of the learner – a problem for the likes of Spanish and Japanese speakers. Combine this then with getting your textbook and facing…

Phonetics: The Biggie, for many, as in “How many &^%# ways can you pronounce the same &^%#characters and still be in the same &^%$# language?” What makes the a in “many” different from the a in “can”. What makes the cha- in “character” be different from that in “champion”; what makes the th in “those” different from the th in “Thor”? Why is “cooperative” different from “cooped”? When is the -ed pronounced in “Blessed”? Can you really pronounce “goat” as “fish”? Etc., etc. Concurrent with the variable phonetics, a stripped-down ortography where there are NO diacritical marks to clue you in on what you should pronounce how. And you have to struggle with the phonetics while you learn…

Vocabulary: part of the root of the problem – English has a huge vocabulary accreted from many, MANY many other languages throughout a thousand+ years, and sometimes the imported word was “anglified” in pronunciation and spelling, sometimes it was retained as-is, sometimes it was hobson-jobsonned into something else. No obvious system or rule.
Also, English is one of, if not THE, language most friendly to coining words on-the-fly and transforming sentence parts: See the above use of “hobson-jobsonned”. This can confuse speakers of a structured language where a verb is a verb is a verb. Speaking of which…

Assembly of Verb tenses: This one doesn’t seem nearly as hard, to the casual observer. However
… having so few distinct forms of the root verb(write/writing/wrote/written) means that English calls on a heap of auxiliary verbs and sentence constructions to do what others may do with distinct tense forms (for instance Spanish, with 18 or so). Also lacking person declension (xcept for 3rd singular) means you always have to stick “I”, “You”“He”“We” in front of the verb, which to speakers of languages with person declension can be extremely awkward.
These are only a few. The fascinating thing is that, of course, they work in both directions. An English speaker could be just as flustered by the 18 verb tenses in Spanish, by tone accent in Cantonese, by the sch-/ch-/shch- phonemes in Russian, or by formal(upward) vs. formal(downward) vs. casual mode of address in Japanese.

Oh, Priceguy, ** Neurotik**, jovan? The Academia de la Lengua Española* dropped the mandatory classing of the digraphs ch- and ll- as separate letters 1994. Now it is optional to give them their own section in the dictionary. This caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among intellectuals across the continents as it was viewed as a capitulation to Anglo Cultural Imperialism, but it was really more a realistic tactical retreat in the face of ASCII code :wink: STILL, the rule, in modern Standard Written Spanish, remains that each digraph is to ALWAYS represent the same sound, ll- distinct from l-, and ch- distinct from “c” (“h” is just a placemarker letter in Spanish); c and g are always pronounced one way before a, o, and u, always another different one before e and i. Otherwise, T is always T, A is always A (kinda Randian).

Well, I could try, but since I’ve only studied grammar in Swedish, it’s nothing but a guess.

Simple Present: I walk.
Present Continuous: I am walking.
Present Perfect: I have walked.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been walking.


By the by, if Spanish doesn’t have more tenses than English, I’ll… can’t eat my hat, haven’t got one… I’ll do something damn memorable, that’s what.

I’ve always found this funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha). I am not a native English speaker, have never used a spellchecker in my life, and I challenge you to find ten spelling errors in my 1100 posts. If you do find any, they’re probably typos.

I just cannot see what’s so difficult about spelling. I guess I’m anti-dyslexic or something.

[sub]Checking post for instances of Gaudere’s Law… seems clear.[/sub]

I don’t consider Swedish to be that difficult. It is a very well ordered language, there are very strict and definite rules, much more so than the likes of English. There also appear (and according to what I have read) to be far fewer irregularities. OK, so there are seven or so different forms of the plural, but things like the rigid word order and much smaller number of words more than make up for this.

Swedish also doesn’t appear to take any meaning from the (hmm, terminology of language failing me here) stress on words. Take a simple example:

You can drive me?
You can drive me.

In Swedish this becomes:

Kan du köra mig?
Du kan köra mig.

With English you cannot derive meaning always by just hearing the words and the order, you also have to hear the stress on the sentence to work out whether it is a question or not. Things liek this don’t, at least in my experience, happen in Swedish.

Still, doesn’t stop me being crap at Swedish.

English is difficult. Other than the reasons JRDelirious, there’s also this thing called “connotations.” That means two seemingly identical words are just coloured so slightly differently that they aren’t exactly interchangable.

And don’t forget slangs. The word “faggot” has a perfectly good meaning - in fact old Bill used it in his plays. However, nowadays, most people automatically assume that you are smearing homosexuals.

I’ve studied Mandarin, French and Russian. I think English was the easiest to learn. No tones, no crazy verb conjugations, no sh/ch/shch.

English will probably take over as the universal human language, thanks to the Internet. It’s too bad esperanto uses crazy non-ASCII letters. What we really need is a New English with a logical rule structure that is easy to type. Lol would be a valid word in New English. Teached would be a valid word (replaces taught). etc.

German is my native language and I had no problem whatsoever learning English. French and Latin on the other hand were a problem and as a result I’m not fluent in French.

Personally I think English is a very “easy” language as the basic rules are quite simple and in comparison to other languages the exceptions aren’t overly abundant either. Let’s have a look at all the advantages of English:

  • English sounds great (even better than my native tongue, imho).

  • Despite my above classification of being “simple”, you can convey highly complicated issues with English as well.

  • It’s fairly easy to learn.

If it weren’t so easy to learn, English wouldn’t have the appeal it has got, imho.

Well, doesn’t it also have to do with how early you start to learn a language other than your native one? I took Spanish myself, and it wasn’t too bad to learn - to read and to speak it was OK - to listen and try to comprehend being spoken TO was more difficult. It’s hard (and I think this might be true for someone trying to listen and repsond in their non-native language) to catch everything that someone is saying, since people speak rapidly in thier own mother tongue. I’ll bet if I would have started earlier or had more exposure to it it would have been different. It seems like students in other countries start their language studies much earlier than US English speakers.

And, for the linguists, isn’t English a basically Germanic language? So it would almost logically seem that it would be slightly easier for speakers of those two languages to learn the other?

Controvert, you probably know that such arguments for improving English have been around for a long while. However, consider that there are millions of books, articles, and papers written in traditional English, as well as innumerable VCR manuals, tickets, posters, computer programs, traffic signs . . . Do I need to go on? You have all those already existing texts in old-style English which you’d need to convert to the new-type. That would be a massive undertaking in itself.

Since there would be a large number of old English texts for quite a while, you’d also need to teach two writing systems at the same time for decades afterwards. And what about 50 years down the road, when someone who hadn’t even been born at the changeover wants to read, say, his great-grandfather’s diary?

Also consider that many countries speak English, and not all of them will probably agree to whatever system is proposed, leading to mutual unintelligibility down the road. This is a bad thing, since English is the de facto language of science, which means that new-type English would potentially inhibit the international exchange of ideas and knowledge.

I don’t think anyone can argue that English is inherently easier or harder to learn than any other language. It’s harder or easier to learn depending on your first language, but there is no quality of English that makes it fundamentally easy or difficult.

The biggest advantage for English today is that it’s becoming the international language. This does not mean that English is superior to other languages, or to French or Latin, which in previous times have been de facto international languages. It only means that English is the language of the United States, the greatest economic, scientific, and industrial power today.

By the way, Priceguy, I’m not a native speaker of language either, and I’ve also noticed that my English is better than lots of people who have English as a mother tongue. A Polish friend of mine in high school also noted the difference in standards between him and our classmates.

I didn’t see austen’s post before. I understand that talented German speakers who learn English as adults can sometimes learn to speak it without a foreign accent, whereas adult students from other languages never do.

The Engrish site is good proof that English is a difficult language for foreigners to use.