According to the latest statistics, between 450 million and one billion people in the world speak English as a second language, all to varying degrees of fluency. In fact, as of now, there are more non-native English speakers in the world than there are native speakers of the language.
The fact that so many people speak English and that it is continually and constantly used across a wide range of domains and activities — from tourism to academic writing — has led to the common belief that it is a relatively easy language to learn.
But do not be deceived. No language is truly “easy” to learn, not even English. In fact, all languages are equally complex, and any simple aspects of a language are always counterbalanced by more challenging and less intuitive features.
If you want to speak, write, read and understand English to a proficient level, you have to master the most difficult aspects of the English language. Here are five of the most difficult features of the English language, presented along with practical tips on how to tackle them.
1. The Spelling System
One of the most challenging aspects of the English language is its spelling system, which is quite irregular and unpredictable. Instead of having a one-to-one correspondence between word and sound, any combination of vowels, consonants, or vowels and consonants can be pronounced differently than they appear.
Let’s take a combination of two vowels, called a “diphthong”.
In general, the diphthong spelled “ou” can be pronounced in 4 different ways. This can be seen in the following samples from Daily Writing Tips:
The sound /ow/ as in “found” – in words like “Loud”, “flour”, “hour”, “sour”
The long /o/ as in “four” – in words like “pour”, “course”, “court”, “gourd”, “mourn”, fourth
The sound /oo/ as in “you” – in words like “tour”, “group”, “coup”
The sound /uh/ as in “country” – in words like “cousin”, “double”
The first sound in the list, written “ou” (and pronounced /ow/) in this example, is even identical to the sound written “ow” in the following words:
Growl, town, clown.
So not only does “ou” sound differently from word to word, but the same sound has multiple different spellings.
The perplexing spelling system of English has been the subject of much discussion and ridicule over the centuries, from learners and native speakers alike. One of the best representations of the divide between English letter and English sound is a poem called “The Chaos”, written by Gerard Nolst Trinité in 1922.
Like many poems, this poem rhymes. In particular, each line of this poem shares an end rhyme with the line immediately following it, forming what are called rhyming couplets (and a rhyme scheme of aabbccdd…and so on).
The irregularities of English spelling make this poem very difficult to read, as you will need to know the proper pronunciation of each word in context to make the poem rhyme correctly.
The poem is quite long, so I’ll copy only the first few verses here to give you an idea. But take a look for yourself, and see if you can make each pair of lines rhyme properly!
THE CHAOS by Gerard Nolst Trinité
Dearest creature in creation,
Studying English pronunciation
I will teach you in my verse,
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,
You can read the whole poem here.
There are hundreds of other examples like the ones above, but illustrating all irregularities or delve into the origin of English spelling is not the aim of this article. Instead, I want to give you some quick, practical tips on how to deal with English spelling.
TIP 1: Listen and Read at the Same Time
When learning English, it is important to listen while reading as often as possible. This goes for all levels, from beginner to advanced.
Listening while reading is an extremely important task because it naturally reinforces the bond between the spoken and the written language. If you don’t listen but mostly read, you will not know how to pronounce words, and so will develop bad pronunciation. If you listen but don’t read, you will not know how to properly spell words. That’s why listening WHILE simultaneously reading is the most efficient solution. Fortunately, this has become extremely easy to do given the incredible amount of resources out there, ranging from language learning material for beginners, podcasts, audiobooks or movies, just to name a few.
Getting into the habit of listening while reading is key part of learning any language well. This is why developing that habit is a central aspect of my personal language learning method known Bidirectional Translation. To find out more about how listening and reading factor into my language learning process, more info at my LinguaCore course Bidirectional Translation: Build Your Core Skills in Any Language.
TIP 2: Write and Get Feedback
“Listening and reading” is the first fundamental step towards developing good spelling skills—but it is not enough. To close the circle, you also need to produce output and get feedback on your writing skills.
In the old days, the best way to do this was to write a text and get feedback from a teacher. This approach is still valid, but has become even easier in recent years thanks to free and easy-to-use spell-checking software on any computer. Nearly any word processing (document writing) software nowadays will underline words in red if you haven’t spelled them correctly.
The combination of these two simple actions can do wonders for your spelling, and all this without spending countless hours trying to figure out how to write words or remember how they are written. Remember: language learning is a skill that improves only through practice.
When I decided to learn English with a private teacher at the age of thirteen, I remember the initial frustration I felt when I tried to grasp how English tenses work. Some of them were challenging because there was no direct correspondence between the English tense and its Italian version/counterpart, and others had multiple exceptions that made them difficult to master outright.
Let’s take the present perfect continuous as an example:
“I have been travelling for two months.”
In English, you use the modal verb “have been” and the gerund (verb plus “–ing”) to express the idea that some time has gone by since an action started happening.
While this might sound like second nature to a native English speaker, it is not as evident to foreigners, especially those who speak languages which don’t express this concept with this form.
A common mistake Italians make with this tense, for example, is to express the concept by incorrectly saying:
“I travel since two months”
This happens because native Italian speakers use the present tense to talk about something which started happening and is still ongoing. In Italian, we say:
“E’ da due mesi che viaggio”,
“Viaggio da due mesi”.
Things got even more challenging when I learned the past perfect continuous, a tense required when one is speaking about an action in the past that continued up until another discrete event in the past, like so:
“I had been traveling for 2 months when I got the news about my friend”.
How did I master English tenses like these? Here are two strategies you can use to make this happen in no time.
TIP 1: Practice Tenses, Use Them Actively, And Get Feedback
While I appreciated the clear grammar explanations of the English book I was using at the time — not to mention those of my tutor — I really started to understand how things work by simply using the tenses in conversation and writing and by getting feedback. Pure theory, in fact, simply doesn’t work when learning a foreign language.
This is not to say that grammar explanations are not useful. In some cases, they were and are essential. What counts most, however, is the way you use them. Read grammar explanations that are brief, clear and to the point and use them primarily as a reference.
Once you have a basic understanding of a tense, aim to practice it as much as you can, either with conversations you can have with a language partner and which focus on tenses (like telling a story in the past for example) or by writing. Then, get feedback and try to understand what you got wrong. Use this feedback to grasp how tenses work in practice and re-read the grammar explanations after some time.
I call this cyclical process of learning, practice, and re-learning, “the cognitive circle”:
Read simple grammar explanation > Practice grammar structure > Re-read and reinforce grammar structure, while addressing mistakes.
This process is easy, practical, efficient and yields excellent results. Just remember: Don’t get stuck in grammar explanations for too long! As famed Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb used to say: “Don’t learn language from grammar, but grammar from language”!
TIP 2: Use Visual Aids When Possible
One practical tool which helped me quickly and intuitively grasp the mechanism behind tenses were visual aids known as timelines. A visual timeline is a very simple way of portraying how actions unfold or interact with each other within the framework of time.
Timelines are frequently used when discussing tenses, and you can find many online (or even draw your own!) Let’s look at some of my own as examples:
Let’s take the sentence we saw before:
“I have been traveling for two months”
You can visualize this with a simple timeline such as this one:
This timeline shows that the action (traveling) began two months ago, and is still ongoing now.
As for the sentence:
“I had been traveling for two months when I got the news about my friend”.
This timeline shows that traveling had been ongoing for two months before a discrete event (the news about my friend) happened. Using the timeline, we can also tell that the events all happened in the past, but we cannot be sure how long prior to now they occurred.
3. Polysemy & Context
We often tend to forget that words are often complex, multifaceted entities with more than one meaning and/or function. This is especially true in English, where words can have a surprising amount of different meanings and functions depending on where and how they are used.
To show you this amazing aspect of the English language, let’s consider the simple word like “game”
In most cases, the meaning of an individual word is completely ambiguous in isolation. To determine its intended meaning, a word must be understood within the context of the words that appear around it.
The word “game” is a perfect example of this ambiguity.
If I asked you what “game” means for you, you will probably answer that it is “an activity done for amusement or diversion”, which is the most common meaning of the word.
But the noun “game” can refer to other things, too.
For example, game can also refer to “wild animals hunted for sport or food”.
And that’s just a noun with multiple meanings. In English, there are even words that can be used as nouns or verbs, depending on the surrounding context.
Let’s take the word “tire”:
The whole thing tires me
Which means “the whole thing makes me tired.”
But what about this sentence:
My car has four tires.
Unlike in the previous sentence, tires here is now a plural noun, and not a verb. The noun “tire” here means the rubber wheels of a car.
So, the word “tire” in isolation doesn’t mean much, but it is immediately comprehensible in its different meanings when put in context.
There is a massive quantity of words like this which can take up different meanings and functions within a given sentence.
While the multiple meanings of English words give the language both richness and flexibility, they can often be a burden for English learners, who have a hard enough time learning single pairings of word and meaning, let alone multiple meanings per word.
TIP 1: Always Learn In Context
Context is king when learning new words and their multiple meanings and usages. There is no better shortcut than getting a lot of exposure to a variety of content and contexts. The more you expose yourself to the language, the more likely you will stumble upon a given word used in different ways, having different functions, meanings or fitting within certain expressions. Your brain will naturally pick up, diversify and integrate all this with time, exposure, and practice:
TIP 2: Be Curious And Search For Multiple Meanings
When you find a word in a given context, don’t settle for the simple meaning within that given context, but also try to explore its possible meanings within other contexts or sentences.
In this regard, many online (and offline) vocabularies provide many examples, sentences and different meanings and functions of a given word. Never take things for granted and settle for the first thing you see.
So, if an Italian stumbles upon a sentence where “game” is not used in the common sense, for example:
“You can become ill from eating game”
The dutiful learner wouldn’t take for granted that “game” has one and only one meaning, but would also try to understand what “game” means in this specific context. In addition, when he looks up the word in the dictionary, he will spends some time researching the other possible meanings of the word “game”
In the example of “game”, a native Italian speaker searching for the word “game” and using the famed online dictionary WordReference will find this page.
On this page, there is a deluge of meanings and expressions in which the simple word “game” can be used, as in:
What if someone asks you “Are you game”? Or if someone says “He is at the top of his game”. “It is fair game”, “This is a game-changer”, or even “He knows how to play the game”?
These are all very common expressions for a native English speaker to use, and if you want to master English as native speakers have, you have to know, understand and learn how to use these terms and phrases in context.
Exposing yourself to lots of written and spoken English, and developing a curiosity about words and their meanings is key to developing mastery of this enriching but challenging aspect of the English language.
4. Phrasal verbs
One of the things that scared me the most when I started learning English were these strange multi-word verbs known as “phrasal verbs.” There were so many of them, and I found them so confusing that I bought an entire book full of lists of them to help me learn.
Phrasal verbs are, to put it simply, a combination of a word and an adverb, a verb and preposition, or even a word and adverb and a proposition, which work as a one-word verb.
Just to give you an example, you can use the verb “put” in conjunction with “up” and “up with”, creating verbs with very different meanings:
“To put up” – to host in one’s home or other lodging for a period of time.
“To put up with” – to tolerate, to withstand.
Now, phrasal verbs are tricky in a few ways.
First, the meaning of the original verb often differs quite a lot from the phrasal verb you can build with it.
For example “to put” normally implies that you are putting something somewhere, you are placing an object in a location.
But “to put up with” means “to tolerate”, which has a completely different meaning.
Another tricky part of phrasal verbs is that the same phrasal verb can have multiple meanings, for example “pass out” can mean both “to faint” and “to distribute something”.
“It was too hot in the room and she passed out.”
“The teacher was passing out the test”
Now, phrasal verbs are very common in formal language, but are even more widespread in informal varieties of English. So, a learner who wants to master informal English, needs to understand and learn to use the most common phrasal verbs.
TIP 1: Learn In Context
The best thing you can do to learn phrasal verbs and how they are used is, once again, learn them in context. Since phrasal verbs are especially common in everyday language, make sure that you get exposed to a lot of content where people interact with each other in everyday life, thus using everyday language.
A great way to learn phrasal verbs is for example to watch movies or TV series and record the sentences in which they appear on a piece of paper or – even better – a notebook.
TIP 2: Focus On Phrasal Verbs That Are Interesting And Useful For You
There is no doubt that there are a lot of phrasal verbs and that they are used very often in everyday life. However, not all of them are equally important or equally used. So while a book specifically aimed at phrasal verbs can be a good point of reference, it is not a good starting point.
In other words, you should avoid the mistake of trying to understand and memorize all phrasal verbs in a mechanical way, because most of them won’t be interesting, useful or generally common.
In combination with TIP 1, expose yourself as much as you can to everyday language (using any variety of native materials, like books, movies, and music). When you stumble upon a phrasal verb which is particularly useful or interesting to you, write it down and look for more examples online.
5. Size of the English Lexicon
The size of the English lexicon (that is, the total vocabulary of the language) is huge and constantly growing. There are many reasons for this.
English —like many other languages — contains a huge variety of words borrowed from other languages. For the most part, these words come from Latin, Greek, and Germanic languages. On top of that, English has reached the status of a global language, and so is constantly assimilating new words from other languages, thanks in no small part to the rise of the Internet.
Let’s focus on the different forms that English nouns and verbs can have coming from Greek, Latin, and German roots.
For example, in English you distinguish the meat that you eat from the animal it comes from (something which doesn’t happen in other languages). The “meat” words generally come from French or Latin roots, while the “animal” words are typically Germanic in nature.
You eat “pork” (Latin root) that comes from a “pig” (Germanic root)
You eat “beef” (Latin root) that comes from a “cow” (Germanic root)
This phenomenon appears not only in nouns, but verbs, too.
In English there are often many possible verbs to describe the same action. The more formal way to describe the action often uses a verb with a Latin root, while the less formal way uses a Germanic root or a similar phrasal verb.
For example you can say:
“I had my spleen removed” or “I had my spleen taken out”.
Some other examples of Germanic-Latin parallel vocabulary can be found in the following table:
|GERMANIC ORIGIN||LATINATE ORIGIN|
You can find an entire list of such terms on Wikipedia.
But the complexity of the vocabulary is not only limited to the different origin of words.
Let’s take a look at some expressions related to groups of animals:
You can see a murder of crows flying in the air, a pride of lions roaming in the Savannah, a school of fish swimming in a pond, a pod of dolphins jumping in the ocean, a memory of elephants peacefully grazing together, a pack of dogs (or wolves) hunting — and this just to name a few!
These are called animal collective nouns and you can find an exhaustive list of examples here.
The above are just a few examples of how rich and complex the vocabulary in English is.
TIP 1: Focus On The Vocabulary That Is Most Important To You
Some people are obsessed with knowing every word they can in a language. However, I want to emphasize that language is about use and communication, and not about perfection.
English has more than one million words, so why and how could all of those words be useful and interesting to you in your life? What you need is to focus on are the words that matter the most to you and your life.
You do this, once again, by simply exposing yourself to the language. Make sure you expose yourself to content you find interesting. In other words, read content that you like, mark and review words that are interesting and relevant for you. Build a solid foundation of your vocabulary and expand upon that one. Avoid making list of every word you encounter and try to commit them to long term memory. Learn dynamically from context
TIP 2: Read Extensively And Intensively
Reading takes many forms. I always say that the best way to absorb new vocabulary terms is by reading. And there are multiple ways of reading which can benefit you, depending on your mood, mental energy, time on task and language level.
The two main forms of reading are called intensive reading and extensive reading. If you are beyond the beginner level of English learning, a combination of these two techniques done daily can do wonders to improve and quickly expand your vocabulary to the realm of less common words. You can read more about intensive and extensive reading here.
Every language is a complex system. The perceived difficulty in learning a language is mainly determined by how much some parts of a new language differ from parts of a language you already know (typically your native language).
English has some peculiar aspects which are alien to a vast number of languages. In this article you have just seen a few challenging features of the English language and how to tackle them in a natural and efficient way.
For the sake of brevity, I have just presented a few of them here to you today. However, there are many others such as prepositions, articles, accents, academic writing, and false cognates, not to mention the countless peculiar features of English phonetics.
I have gained extensive knowledge and a thorough experience of these aspects because I have struggled learning myself through the years, and persevered despite those struggles. I have found ways to learn even the most difficult aspects of English quickly and efficiently, and have trained hundreds of different native speakers around the world to do just that.
Thank you, and as always—Happy Language Learning!
Written by Luca Lampariello