What is the hardest thing for foreign speakers when learning English?

I notice they have youtube videos with tutors telling non-native speakers how to accent certain words in sentences, called “entonation”. Apparently English has a certain music to it, that foreigners must learn. Never thought about that before.

So what is the most difficult, or annoying thing about English that foreigners experience when learning it?

This’ll almost certainly depend on the foreigner’s native language. A Chinese speaker, for instance, will have difficulty with the distinction between L and R (since Chinese only has one sound somewhere in between those), but a German speaker wouldn’t have any problem with them, since their L and R are just like ours.

Minor correction: it’s intonation. All languages have it.

Prepositions and phrasal verbs (like ‘pick up’ or ‘turn down’) are by far the most difficult thing for learners to get right, universally.

It’s “intonation.” I’m not sure why English would be particularly difficult in this regard. There’s other languages (Asian languages, in particularl) where intonation can change the meaning of the word drastically.

As for the main question, I don’t know what would be the most difficult thing for foreign speakers to learn. In my experience, it would be the use of articles (“the,” “a,” and “an,”) in English, as well as the “th” and “r” sounds.

If you get into written English, spelling inconsistencies can be very vexing.

I can generally communicate well enough in English to be mistaken for a native speaker, or at least that’s what I’ve been told, but apostrophes still trip me up every once in a while. Then again, that seems to happen to a good number of people who have English as their first language, too.

  1. It depends on the native language of the speaker, as well as the individual ability of the person learning it: some people have a good “ear” for the different sounds, and thus learn new sounds, correct accents etc. easier than others.

  2. I haven’t seen these youtube videos, and IAMNAlinguist or language teacher, but my guess is that the teachers were adressing students wich Asian tonal languages as native language. If you have falling-rising or rising-falling accent on your syllables to differentiate the meanings of words, the intonation of a whole sentence as in Germanic/indo-European languages is very different.

  3. Generally, false friends are a big problem: words that sound similar in your native language and in the new language, but have very different meanings. For German, two examples:
    German - English
    bekommen - get
    werden - become

Geschenk - gift
Gift - poision

Aktuell - latest news
tatsächlich - actual

The problem with phrasal verbs is the change in meaning with just one tiny preposition “to look for” means to be happy in advance, “to look after” means to pay attention to children/take care off. Easy to confuse.

“The” and “a” are less of a problem in germanic/romanic languages, in fact, it’s far easier compared to male, female, neutral articles in the native languages.

“If” conditional sentences and the “ing” form of verbs are a big problem to get right.

I struggled for a long time with the third- person “s” on verbs (I goes, he go instead of I go, he goes)

Everything colloquial - phrases, double meanings- is hard because it takes extra time to learn and requires knowledge/understanding of the culture.

Puns and sound-alikes are often impossible to get until the last level of learning, with a very large vocabulary and good cultural knowledge.

Not difficult to learn, but weird to use, for germanic/romanic languages, is the lack of distinction between you (personal) and you (formal), along with the confusing cultural rules on calling people first name quickly, or when to use Mrs/Miss/Ms. Calling a man “sir” feels like military to me, for example.

A nitpick: “to look for” means “to seek” — “suchen nach” in German.

You’re probably thinking of “to look forward to (something)”.

:smack: Yes. I just wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to confuse these phrases, and it worked.:o

I seem to recall there used to be some sort of native English test used in WWII to suss out English-speaking German operatives based on some sort of definite article test in English. Am I just misremembering this, or does somebody know what I might be thinking of? Even with the articles in Germanic/Romantic languages, the way they’re used in English is not at all immediately obvious. For example, not how much a difference the article makes in: “He’s the shit/He’s a shit/He’s shit.”

Yes, absolutely. And even within one language group, individuals can vary a lot.

True, but in terms of communicative competence, this distinction doesn’t interfere with understanding as much as suprasegmentals such as intonation and stress, especially for speakers of Asian languages.

True, but not all languages use it in the same way.

That’s been my experience (15 years).

Well, that’s exactly why it’s so difficult. In those languages it’s semantic, while in English is pragmatic.

Again, it depends on the native language of the learner. Speakers of Germanic and Scandinavian languages don’t have that much trouble with articles.

I wonder how well that would work given the various levels of English competency even native-born Americans (not recently immigrated or second-generation immigrants) display (not only the Ghetto speak, but also rural/redneck or Texas differences to formal grammar).

I remember a “riddle” in a translated book that started “An official asks a man <a phrase> The man answers with <phrase> and passes. Why?” “An official asks a second man <different phrase>. The second man answers with <phrase> and is arrested. Why?” Turns out, these were test questions during WWII for entering the US, and were parts of the US hymn, so the first guy answered correctly, but the second guy betrayed himself by answering correctly with the second verse, which “nobody” knows, which meant that he was a (conscientous) german spy who had memorized the whole stuff, instead of the normal thing.
I found this ridiculous, because I could think of half a dozen reasons why a normal American would know the second verse even when the average Joe only knows the first verse - he had a special 8th grade teacher, he’s a professor of history, he’s in a choir studying the song with all verses, teaching/discussing it with his children, he immigrated 20 years ago and still remembers what he studied for, he’s a true patriot…

Actually, (and this might just be a typo):

“to look for” is to search: “He was looking for his keys”
“to look forward (to)” is to have a positive anticipation: “He was looking forward to his trip to Zürich”
“to look after” is to care for: “Mary is looking after the children while Jan is in Zürich”

I formerly worked in a multinational European agency where the working language was English, but most people spoke it as a second language. Many of my colleagues would say things like:

“Getting to Amsterdam is very easy, if you are having a car.”
“The weather is more important to me, since I am biking to work.”

These are certainly correct, but I probably would have said “… if you have a car” and “… because I bike to work” or “… since I’ve been biking to work”. If I wanted to pretend to be a foreigner, I’d introduce this into my speech.

As someone who learned English first, my difficulty in going the other way is gendered nouns. Who decided that a chair was feminine? (Une chaise, in French) Or a computer masculine? (Un ordinateur). And then a bicycle is both! (un vélo, une bicyclette).

Apparently this was a common idea, though, since many European languages make this distinction. But in French (which I’ve spoken since childhood) as well as Dutch and German (which also have gendered nouns), I constantly make mistakes. (Should I get on de trein of het trein? Die Zug oder der Zug? And what does that mean for the pluralization again? Oh, I give up; I’ll just walk. :wink: )

On preview: I see the ‘to look for’ matter has already been addressed.

Native speaker or native writer? Or can people see your apostrophes when you speak?

It’s not just the “prepositions” (technically they’re particles, not prepositions, as occasionally the particle would otherwise be an adverb). The same phrasal can have various meanings:

He accidentally knocked it off the table.

There was little work, so we knocked off early.

If you knock off 25%, I’ll buy two.

Hey, knock it off! (Stop what you’re doing.)

My wife is a Japanese native, and is pretty proficient now (after 50+ years in the U.S.). She has a slight accent, and a very large English vocabulary.

Among the frustrations with English is that in Japanese there is almost no intonation, all syllables pronouned equally. There are no plural endings, so the differnt ways we use plural endings are confusing. Of course, the problem with letters “r” and “l”, but she has pretty much conqured that now (except for the word “pearl” that still drives her nuts).

The so-called rules of grammar, which rarely seem to apply, are very confusing. Now and then, she still asks why we use come construction, and I keep telling her there is no use asking me, as it seems to me the useage is mostly a matter of playing it by ear.

Oh yeah, to this day she still has trouble with the articles, when to use “the” and when to use “a.”

I never realized how crazy English was until I began trying to help her understand it.

I’m still blown away by linguists who can master multiple languages when I can just barely get by in my native tongue. I think it is, to a great degree, a gift like mastery of music. You gotta’ hae an ear for it.

For a good example, she will ask why in the merry hell “tongue” is spelled like that. :smiley:

No cite, but one of my English teachers told me that English used to have two different forms of adress like the other romanic languages (French, Italian, Spanish,…) you and thou, still in older writings, but because English was used more universally as trading language when the British built their empire, a lot of stuff was made easier, so the you/thou distinction was dropped.

Maybe that also explains why English in general* has no gendered nouns, when both parent languages - Dutch/Germanic and French/Romanic - have it.

  • What’s really confusing for a foreign speaker is to be always told that there are no gendered nouns in English at all and then suddenly find out that ships are female when reading about “her” instead of “it”.

This Rolex I bought for ten euros outside the train station isn’t genuine afterall! It’s a knock off!

Whatever, I always have problems with naming grammar.

In this example, I would count 1) as the offical meaning of “knock off” and 2), 3), 4) as colloquial. (I’m sure they turn up in the OED, too, but they’re not part of the basic 1 000 or 2 000 words a foreigner has to learn to get by).

That’s part of learning a huge amount of stuff because there’s no direct relation between different meanings. (Sometimes you can see how meanings developed from literal to figurative, but often you can’t).

To be fair, that applies to pretty much all natural languages (not constructed ones like Esperanto - and even these betray the structures their inventor was familiar with, and have idiosyncracies of their own). Because languages are constantly evolving and changing and adapting, not designed by commitee, rules have exceptions, and those exceptions have exceptions, and then there are exceptions for those; forms fall out of use, letters get blurred in spoken words which reflect back on the spelling etc.

If a wrong usage becomes widespread through laziness, ignorance or because it makes more sense to the average Joe, then no gnashing of teeth of grammarians can correct “irregardless” or the “flammable/inflammable” contradiction or…

That’s an Asimov short story, and it’s written at one layer of remove: The events are the story are that two guys are sitting and talking, and one is claiming to be a former super-spy and regaling the other with tales of his super-spydom. And it wasn’t a hymn, but the national anthem (and realistically, even American choral singers don’t know the second or third verses of the Star-Spangled Banner). Perhaps it’s proving Asimov’s point that you, a German speaker, think that knowing those verses would be unremarkable.

And the distinction between “the” and “a” is actually pretty straightforward. You use “the” when you’re referring to one specific <thing>, but “a” when you’re referring to just any old <thing>. For instance, I might say “Hey, could you give me an apple”, since I don’t care which apple you give me; any of those apples in the fruit bowl would be fine, but if I say “Hey, could you give me the remote”, I mean the one specific remote that controls the TV we’re watching.