As a linguist, writer, and teacher, one of the questions that I am most frequently asked is why English is so difficult to learn.
This is not just a problem that second language learners have: it also perplexes native learners. Indeed, neuroscientists have found that children’s brains cannot process grammar such as the Third Conditional until they are around thirteen.
Therefore, when learning English it is helpful to know exactly why it can prove to be so challenging. This blog explores the main three difficulties with English.
Britain was invaded by the Normans in 1066 AD. Until this time, the language was very similar to German, and also had Norse elements. Indeed, large parts of the country were occupied by the Danish until the eleventh century, which is why we also have many Scandinavian words such as window and sky. Until 1066, English grammar had three genders and used inflections, just like German.
After the invasion, the official language became French. With its Latin roots, the French language was not only very different to Anglo Saxon, but was culturally different. The poor people living in England at that time might have kept a cow for milk, but only the rich French speakers could afford to eat beuf – now spelled beef.
The coming together of Germanic Anglo Saxon and Latinate French was very messy. It took several hundred years for them to finally become one language. The grammar became a mangled mix of the two, and evolved into different registers. One of the results of this linguistic chaos is that many ‘easy’ verbs in English have hundreds of potential meanings. Set has 464 official definitions, and run has 396. This was because the language of this time was like a big pot of soup, and people who were uneducated had to rely on a few important words.
Having so many words with the same meaning has resulted in the innovative – but frustrating – solution of the notorious phrasal verb. Set up, set to, set on, set over… all of the particles describe a slightly different meaning for set. This makes learning how to use the word quite a challenge. Most native speakers are oblivious to this: they find the Latin words more formal and difficult, so they make life harder for visitors by using the “simple” phrasal verbs.
Aside from one student that was studying phonology, I have never taught anyone who did not struggle with the pronunciation element of English. Indeed, writing skills are poor amongst native children for this very reason. But why is this?
As we have read above, English was in a state of fluctuation during the first few centuries of the last millennium. The language was changing rapidly as two different grammar and lexical systems came together. This was initially happening during a time when writing was not always preserved, and reading was not always taught. We know that people in one village often used a different word or spelling to people in the next village, but – although this made things complicated – it was a natural process of the language.
In 1476, the printing press came to England. This caused all sorts of problems. Printing meant that there had to be standardised spelling.
This was a nightmare, because the way that people pronounced words did not stop changing just because of standardised spelling. Words changed in response to many different influences, such as fashion, politics, and more people visiting Europe.
During this time there was even an occurrence known to linguists as the Great Vowel Shift, where the pronunciation of all of the long vowels changed places. Their spellings stayed the same, but their pronunciations moved. It took around 250 years (1350-1600), and has caused headaches and tears for British children ever since: the Great Vowel Shift made spelling and pronunciation entirely separate, and made English a much more difficult language for everybody to learn.
This problem between written and spoken English can be seen in the word knife. Originally, it was pronounced exactly as it is spelled: /k-nif- ə/. We know this from seeing the word written in rhyming poetry from several hundred years ago. Now the word is pronounced entirely differently (/’naɪf/), and the spelling seems very strange.
There are thousands of words in English that contain archaic pronunciations. Perhaps the most widely used is the preposition an. Originally, words such as apple and orange were once spelled and pronounced napple and norange. The ‘n’ has gradually migrated, so that we now have an apple and an orange.
This pronunciation problem has led to one final problem for the English learner: the schwa.
The schwa is an empty vowel sound, and the English use it for almost everything, especially the most important words in the sentence: the prepositions, the auxiliary verbs, and the articles. This means that have, of, in, on, to, an, and many other important words such as a, are pronounced almost identically: həv, əv, ən. ən, tə, ən, and ə (!!!!) English children always