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The 5 Most Difficult Things About Learning English



Learning English is a tough game for the uninitiated; endless contradictions and exceptions to every rule, illogical phonetics, ambiguous sentence structure and a diverse etymology prove a great challenge for learners, especially for those from entirely unrelated linguistic groups. The quirks of the language can be both frustrating and amusing. Included here is merely a sample of the obstacles you could encounter:

1. Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions!

It seems there are exceptions for everything when it comes to English grammar and spelling rules. One of the most commonly known to native speakers is the “i before e except after c” rule, which dictates the disparate spelling of words like “believe” and “receipt”, although it would seem that even this isn’t necessarily true! Even plurals change for mysterious reasons – box becomes boxes, but ox becomes oxen.

2. The language’s internal logic is not so logical

Getting to know this part of English can be especially challenging. With contradictions and exceptions at every turn, the rules of spelling, grammar and phonetics in English can be frustrating stumbling blocks. For example, pineapples have neither pine nor apples in them. Getting “on” a plane in reality is actually getting “in”. You recite at a play but play at a recital. Even ambiguity within sentences is common, leading to multiple meanings and plenty of confusion.

3. Links between spelling and pronunciation are tenuous at best

Yet another learning curve, pronunciation serves up extra challenges when learning to speak the language. Some words are spelled similarly yet have totally different pronunciations. “Bough” (pronounced bow) and “through” (pronounced thru) are just two of countless examples.

Phonetics are not often reliable for linking word pronunciation with their spelling, meaning that in many cases you just have to buckle down and memorize these. This is where learning etymology (or the origins) of individual words may help you to remember them. English has a rich background of intersecting language origins – German, Latin and French for example, resulting in a diverse etymology. Learning the origins of particular words will help greatly in memorizing them.

Pronunciation differences between English-speaking countries make learning spelling and speaking even more tricky. Spelling and accent quirks, as well as local slang, can prove yet more obstacles for the rookie.

Even emphasis in particular places can change the meaning of a sentence in subtle yet important ways.

4. Synonyms: not always interchangeable!

Although synonyms may be grouped with one another in dictionaries, it doesn’t mean that they are interchangeable. Simply swapping a word for one found in a thesaurus may end up with a confusing sentence or one that isn’t quite what you mean. This can be a problem even for native speakers!

For example, you may describe the movement of a ballet dancer as “elegant”. If you look up the word in a thesaurus, you’ll find that “chic” and “fashionable” are listed as synonyms. However, neither of these work in this context, but would be more appropriate when discussing clothing trends.

5. Complex word order

This is something that is innate to native speakers and difficult to learn as a new speaker. Word order is yet another seemingly illogical aspect to English, as rules change with the additions and placement of subjects, object, adverbs and adjectives, as well as clauses and tenses. Learning word order in any hard-and-fast way is very difficult, and tends to come more easily with the act of speaking the language often and being exposed to it daily.


Don’t be put off by these challenges! English is a fascinating and rewarding language, which will open many doors as you gain momentum. Contact us for beginner and more advanced English lessons.