The English language has evolved from a melting pot of influences, from Latin and Ancient Greek to French, Italian and Portuguese. But what is it about English that makes it so tricky to pick up? As native speakers, we struggle to learn and remember these rules ourselves early on, often just using them out of habit and ignoring how confusing and illogical they really are. But imagine if you are trying to learn English online as a second language or trying to pick it up as you go along working with native English speakers…it is tough! The following are just a handful of reasons why English is such a confusing language to learn.
When you’re new to a language, knowing how to correctly spell new words is one of the most difficult things to learn. In English, this is definitely the case as often the words don’t follow the same pattern as other spellings, nor do they often have any resemblance to how they’re said. For example, laugh is pronounced ‘larf’, yet the similarly pronounced word ‘half’ doesn’t follow the same spelling pattern. And these silent letters crop up often throughout different spellings, such as in ‘knife’, ‘island’ and ‘oak’. Then there are the irregular verbs, like ‘fought’ being the past tense for ‘fight’, yet the past tense of ‘light’ being ‘lit’. With other languages, you can apply the same principle to new words and develop your learning quickly, but that’s not the case with English. It can seem to a new speaker as though each word comes with its own unique rule.
Regional dialects and pronunciations
Whether you’re learning English as a second language or you’re a native speaker, regional dialects and informal phrases can be confusing to what you’re used to. For example, in Newcastle, the term ‘pet’ is an affectionate and friendly way to refer to someone, not just a word for an animal. Or in Manchester, the word ‘mint’ means good, not just a flavouring in food. From accents to words being used in different contexts, the English language varies from region to region and it can make understanding conversations tricky. The best way to learn these types of conversational rules is to surround yourself with people from each region’s culture and you’ll soon learn the different ways that people speak.
Exceptions to the rules
All languages have rules and English follows this pattern, but the difference is that for almost every rule in the English language, there’s an exception that you also have to learn. For example, the popular spelling rule that’s taught early on is “I before E, except after C”, which is used for words such as receive and receipt but not for believe. But then there are also exceptions to this rule, with words such as science and weird. Learning how to spell words can become incredibly difficult because of this – not only are you having to learn the rules of the language, you’re also having to learn all the exceptions as well.
Anyone who thought they were able to keep up until now will be well and truly confused by homophones. These are words that are spelled or pronounced identically but have different meanings. For example, the sentence ‘the door was too close to the table to close’ may look like it has the same word twice, but in fact they are pronounced slightly differently to give each ‘close’ a new meaning.
The first use has a soft ‘s’ sound and means ‘near’ while the second has a hard ‘s’ and means to shut something. The same rule applies to ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’ – the first is the sweet course at the end of a meal, while the second is a sandy landscape in hot countries. In the English language, so many words work like this – including the ever-confusing ‘they’re’, ‘their’ and ‘there’ – which adds plenty of complexity to an already baffling language.
As with any language, English is evolving and adapting to new words and sentences all the time. Yet there’s a distinct historic element to some words that have lingered on throughout decades of use. Words such as ‘alas’ and ‘apothecary’ can still be used in sentences despite dating back as far as biblical times in some cases. And thanks to Shakespeare, we have plenty of words that have old literary and poetic references that we still use hundreds of years later.
While these aren’t the only issues you’ll come across when learning English, it’s important not to be deterred. The English language may be challenging to learn but with practice, a positive attitude and plenty of enthusiasm, it can certainly be done. After a while, you won’t even give the contradictory rules a second thought and for those of us who speak it as a first language there is always something new to learn.