10 Hardest Aspects of: English

(This article is part of an ongoing series that celebrates individual languages)

Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and while one language may appear difficult for speakers of another (Japanese seems monstrously thorny for English speakers), it would be much easier for a speaker of another language (native speakers of Korean or Chinese would find Japanese easier than French, for example). That said, here are 10 aspects of English that I believe could be easier.

 

1: Plural(s): OK, we have one car but two cars. Simple. To make singular nouns plural in English, we add an “s” right?

Rule: Add “s” to make plural. Car = cars

 

Wrong. Take “monkey” and “monkeys”. The “+s” rule seems to apply here as well, but another word ending with a “y”, such as “country”, has “countries” as its plural. Why? Because singular nouns that end in a consonant and a “y” must remove the “y” and add “ies” to form the plural. 

 

Rule 2: If a word finishes in “y” and has a consonant before it (country), we must take away the “y” and add “ies”. Country = countries

 

OK? Clear? Great. Two boxes for two rules. Wait! Boxes? Not “boxs”? Box + es? OK, so my grammar book tells me that words ending in -ch, -s, -sh, -x, -z, all take “es” to make the plural. The scientific explanation for this goes deep into phonology (the linguistic study of sounds), but basically, it’s because we cannot physically produce two /s/ sounds consecutively.

 

Rule 3: If a word ends with either -ch, -s, -sh, -x or -z, we must add “es”. 

 

Added to this confusion are hundreds of other words that just don’t make sense. Looking at you fishes, sheeps, and . . . . octopuses? Octopi? I’m off.

 

2: Nationalities: This is something that many other languages do surprisingly easily, but which English makes a mess of. You see, in normal languages, the conversion from country - nationality - language is simple and logical. But not English! Take a look at the following examples and true to find a consistent, universal pattern:

It’s horrific. Yes, we could find patterns, but there are simply too many patterns to remember! 

 

3: Order of Adjectives: Yes, this is a thing. Look at that blue, big, old, dirty man. This is adjectival slop. Let’s try “old, blue, dirty, big man”. Hmmm. Not right, either. As native speakers (who delight in using too many adjectives), we know instinctively that “He is a big, old, dirty, blue man” is somehow more correct than the other sentences. The non-native speaker may learn that “subjective quality comes before colour” in a textbook, but competency in this area comes from thousands upon thousands of sentences of input and nothing else. Grammar exercises will not help anyone to be able to fluently fire a tirade of adjectival insults at an unsuspecting interlocutor, only millions of examples (and a bad upbringing) can get you to that level.  

 

4: Phrasal Verbs: I’m writing, but if I “write off a car”, that means to demolish it. I ran yesterday (really), but if I “run up a huge bill”, then that means I ordered too much and now I literally have to pay the price. Phrasal verbs are simple in their formation as they just require a verb + preposition, but they can and often do completely change the meaning of a word. What’s equally problematic is that there is often a second, usually Latinate and therefore more formal, version of that same word that every learner of English is expected to learn. Here are a few more examples with “run”:

This is just with the word “run”. There are thousands of more examples, and as you can see from this very selective list, there are certain nuances that the phrasal verbs connote that their non-phrasal equivalent doesn’t contain. Frustratingly for the learner, there are many other meanings to each phrasal verb: “He ran off with the barmaid” doesn’t mean they escaped from danger! My mum used to say “I’ve been running around like a blue arsed fly” a lot. This pantomime of a sentence is just so much more interesting than “I’ve been busy all day”. Phrasal verbs are a huge part of English.

 

5: Phonology: The spoken sound of English can make listening extremely hard for learners of the language. ELISION is when a sound disappears because of its local environment, e.g. “He’s up in his room” becoming “He’s up inis room”. The “h” has been elided to facilitate connected speech. ASSIMILATION is when a sound changes, e.g. “Do you know what I mean?” becoming “Dja know what I mean?”. WEAK VOWELS like the “er” in “mother” (which is called a schwa and is written like an upside down “e”: /ə/), and the “i” in “tin” replace more fuller sounds in words that only have a grammatical function. For example, “I’m going to the beach for a swim” may become “I’m going tə the beach fərə swim”. If we put these phenomena together, we often get phonological mush: “Have you ever been to see the orangutans?” could quite easily be uttered thus, “‘Avyə ever bin tə see therangutans?”Can you see what’s happening in the sentence? 

Even if the examples above are considered extreme by many (which they really aren’t- that is how many people actually speak), even the language mavens and toffs at Oxford, as well as the boffins at Parliament will speak using the phonological flair created by elision, assimilation and weak vowels. If you are dubious, try phonemically transcribing one minute of real-time speech and see how people ACTUALLY speak. This was an exercise I had to do for my teaching qualification. The results are astounding, but more than a little bothersome for a non-native student of English.

 

6: Questions: Are you a chicken? Do you like chickens? Well, glad we have cleared that misunderstanding up. But what about the fact that questions are formed in two different ways here? One is with “do” and the other isn’t. We take it for granted that questions are formed with the verb “to be” by reversing the order of subject and verb (“You are a chicken” becomes “Are you a chicken?”), and that all other questions are formed by inserting the correct form of “do” in front of the subject (“You like chickens” becomes “Do you like chickens?”). English questions are clucking mad!

7: Modal Verbs: These verbs are missing from most other Indo-European languages and include words like shall, could, may, might, would, will, can, should, have to, etc. They lend a chromatic nuance to our language and completely change the meaning of a sentence. Put any of the modal verbs just mentioned in the gap in the following sentence and see how drastically different the meaning changes: I ______ go to the shop. 

Obviously, other languages have ways to express similar ideas (e.g. the subjunctive mood), but they do contain shades of meaning that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to convey without them. For example, “I have to give up smoking” versus “I must give up smoking” contains the distinction of external (have to) versus internal (must) obligation. The doctor may warn a patient with an underlying respiratory condition about the potential dangers of continuing to (have to), whereas an individual may conclude that an all-round healthier lifestyle could be had by giving up smoking (must).

 

8: Make vs Do: Many languages just have to make-do with one word for these two similar ideas, but English, somehow, has decided it wants two. The trouble is that the usage of the two defies reason. “I make my bed” but “I do the dishes”; aren’t they both household chores? “I do the dishes”, whereas “I make/do the dinner”. The student of English often only has recourse to the same strategy that I use when I play snooker- hit and hope.

Incidentally, I landed a job in Madrid teaching English because of my response to the question “Spanish speakers often have trouble differentiating between make and do. How would you help them?” My response? I said that I’d tell them that there is often no distinction in the meaning, but that they should learn each collocation as and when it turns up. My answer would change slightly now (this was nearly twenty years ago), but I’m sure I’d still advise a similar thing. I’d love to see how you’d answer that question in the comments!

 

9: Regular Verb Endings: Say the following to yourself: 

 

I wanted to eat.

My boss sacked me.

She grabbed her bag and left. 

 

Did you notice anything about the verbs with an “ed” ending (want, sack, grab)? They are all regular, but the pronunciation is different. See if you can work out why. 

So, what happened with the regular endings? There are three different kinds of pronunciation with each: want + /id/, sack + /t/, and grab + /d/. I won’t go into why this is (if you want to know, ask below!), but one thing is for sure- it isn’t easy to pick up for a non-native speaker!

 

10: Orthography: While our written system isn’t as formidable as Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic, our spelling is horribly irregular. Those 26 letters have somehow decided that “mother” should rhyme with “thorough” and that “trough” should rhyme with “off”. Our favourite subject, language, has managed to make itself rhyme with “ridge”, despite having a completely different set of letters! 

Granted, phonics can get us a long way with words like “cat” and “bat”, but given that the letter “e” has over 20 different kinds of pronunciation ensures that spelling-bee remains a typically English phenomenon. 

 

Conclusion

English isn’t traditionally known for its difficulty by speakers of other languages, but it does have its ungainly tantrums that make her, if not impossible, then very difficult to control. 

What aspects of English do you find the most difficult as either learners or native speakers? Do you agree with the above choices? If you find that you do have problems with some of the items on the list, pick out a challenge from one of the choices below:

 

  1. Try and transcribe 10 seconds of a Youtube video using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Make sure the speaker is a native English speaker;

  2. Try and find out why we have three different ways to pronounce the “ed” ending of regular verbs;

  3. Use the example sentence in number 7 and explain what the difference in meaning would be if we inserted different modal verbs.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you did, please share!

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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