How hard is it to learn English?

(Test prep and writing instruction in Paris next month)

Quite a few of my students are L2 writers, and now that I’ve immersed myself in language apps I’ve been thinking even more than usual about the challenge of needing to be fluent in a second language in order to go to school, find work, etc. Those of us born in Anglophone countries are incredibly lucky not to have to do what my students must do–if only in terms of the opportunity cost. The hours my L2 students spent learning English can’t be spent learning something else.

I should stress that I’m not remotely saying English-speaking students should stick to English and leave the language learning to other people.

Not at all !

I think English-speaking students should learn other languages, and should do so as early in life as possible. (This was a chronic bone of contention in my erstwhile school district, where parents have spent decades lobbying for early foreign language instruction and still don’t have it.)

I’m saying only that any child who is born into a family of native speakers of English has an advantage in not having to learn English as an adolescent or adult.

That’s all.

Here is Michael Skapinker on the question of how hard it is to learn English (behind a paywall):

At first glance, English looks an easy language to learn. Anything that is not obviously male or female is “it”. There is no need to worry about the gender of “phone” or “stapler” or “stupidity”. (Lloyd’s List, the shipping newspaper, stopped calling ships “she” in 2002.)

Adjectives remain the same regardless of the gender of the associated noun: a brave woman, a brave man, a brave new world. Apart from the -s in the third person singular present tense (“she sings”), verbs do not change, no matter what their subject is (“he ran”, “they ran”).

The word “friend” remains the same whether you say “he’s my friend”, “hello, my friend”, “I kicked my friend” or “it’s the house of my friend”. In Greek, as I discovered in my Piraeus days, these require an array of noun endings, which differ depending on the gender of the friend.

But there are aspects of English that are devilishly complex. The spelling fails to provide consistent guidance to pronunciation. Consider “cough”, “through”, “bough”, “though” and “hiccough”.

There are the irregular past tenses: arose, became, fell, swore, and many more.

There are also phrasal verbs — verbs followed by prepositions, with wild swings in meaning. Learners have every right to feel put out when they put up someone for the night, only to discover that they can’t put up with them. They may want to put off learning English for another time.

My guess is that the new language-teaching apps, not to mention sites like, will be a huge help with pronunciation and listening comprehension.

They certainly are for me.

And see: How hard is it to learn English, part 2

5 thoughts on “How hard is it to learn English?

  1. “I think English-speaking students should learn other languages, and should do so as early in life as possible.”

    I think this is almost exactly as true for Americans as saying, “I think Europeans should learn other measurement systems and should do so as early in life as possible.” 😎 There is value, but perhaps not sufficient for the cost.

    I will note that a single common language has a very similar network benefit to that of a single common measurement system. And there are costs to both.

    If you have a need or desire to learn another language or a non-SI measurement system, great. (As noted previously, I do and have.) But in many cases the advantages accruing to that learning are less important than other advantages that you could accrue in other activities.

    As to the difficulty of learning English: there are certainly difficulties — meaningless “do”, when to use definite and indefinite articles, and of course the spelling that you allude to among other things. But it’s not at all clear that these are worse in principle than gendered nouns and adjectives (virtually all other European languages), strongly tonal speech and ideographic/syllabic writing (most East Asian languages), clicks (parts of sub-Saharan Africa), multiple complex writing systems (Japan), absurdly complex tenses, or any of the other complexities that exist in every naturally evolved language.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re completely right — and he makes that point, which I edited out so as not to copy too much of the piece.

      The difficulty of English is specific to specific other languages, not to all languages —–

      Liked by 1 person

    2. re: learning another language as early as possible …. yeah, I would change that to “parents should be able to have their children learn another language as early as possible” —– although it does seem there are some brain benefits from actual bilingualism, assuming those all hold up to further research

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I tell my Latin students that once they master the basic conceptions of declining and conjugation and attributes of parts of speech, it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there — it’s just a matter of accreting new knowledge — new endings, new vocab, but it’s not a whole lot of terribly new and weird concepts, just a Taco Bell menu of a handful of ingredients recombined in interesting ways. “Hey, this verb is declined like an adjective, but I already know how to do *that*, and declining an adjective wasn’t far off from declining nouns, so it’s fine.”

    Liked by 2 people

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