Why is English so $%*(^) HARD???

Depending on who you ask, English is somewhere in the top five of most difficult languages to learn. Now, of course that’s completely subjective – after all, if your first language is Spanish or German, it might not be that hard! And if you are a native English speaker, you might have a LOT more difficulty with Chinese or Korean than with French! But, as an English language teacher, a former Chinese student and a current Spanish student, I can completely understand why so many ELLs (English language learners) have so much trouble with the language.

There are thousands of languages, and more than 100 language families. In general, if your mother tongue is in one language family, it’s probably not going to be super difficult for you to learn another language in that same family. For example, modern-day Romanian is a direct descendent of Latin. Therefore, if your first language is Spanish, Romanian would probably not be too difficult for you to learn. On the other hand, if your first language is Dutch, Japanese might be a real challenge, because they’re not related at all!

English is technically a member of the Germanic languages family, so a native German speaker might find English relatively easy. However, English is also very much a mongrel (mixed) language! About 26% of English vocabulary is Germanic in origin, nearly 30% is French in origin, and nearly 30% Latin in origin. What a mix! This mix of vocabulary creates a host of differences in pronunciation, spelling, and even grammar.

Take the words, “though”, “through”, and “tough”. All three have the “ough” letter combination, but each is pronounced completely differently from the other!

though /ðoʊ/
through /θɹu/
tough /tʌf/
Then there’s “meat”, “great”, and “threat” – all use the “-eat” letter combination, but again, very different pronunciations:

meat  /mit/
great /ɡɹeɪt/
threat /θɹɛd/
As we can see, it’s very difficult to try to pronounce English phonetically – sometimes it seems impossible!

And then, there’s grammar. I’m not even going to talk about phrasal verbs, a whole different set of problems. Let’s just look at the simple past tense. The past tense of “lead” is “led”, but the past tense of “read” is … “read”, but with different pronunciations. The past tense of “buy” is “bought”, but the past tense of “try” is “tried”!
I can’t find the original source, but this poem outlines these (and other) confusing things about English:

     I take it you already know
     of tough and bough and cough and dough?
     Others may stumble, but not you
     on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
     Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
     To learn of less familiar traps?

     Beware of heard, a dreadful word
     That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
     And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead.
     For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
     Watch out for meat and great and threat,
     (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)

     A moth is not a moth in mother,
     Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
     And here is not a match for there,
     Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
     And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
     Just look them up — and goose and choose,

     And cork and work and card and ward
     And font and front and word and sword.
     And do and go and thwart and cart —
     Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.

     A dreadful language?  Man alive,
     I mastered it when I was five!

You can learn all the tricky parts of English, and the correct pronunciation as well, and it won’t take as long as you might think. There are many free and low-cost resources out there to help, Like this one!

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