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The Challenges of Learning English

written by: Leyla Norman • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/11/2012

English is full of contradictions, confusions, and annoyances. Nothing makes sense. If you are trying to learn English or are teaching English to ESL students, read this article to gain some insight into why English is so hard to learn.

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    English. The very word can strike fear into the hearts of English language learners everywhere. Native English speakers may wonder why English is so hard to learn. It comes to them naturally. Some things sound right and others do not. It is as simple as that. To an English as a second language student, however, nothing seems to make sense in this language. There are exceptions to every rule. Once you get excited you've mastered a rule, ten exceptions pop up. It is enough to make a student throw her hands up in despair.

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    Pronunciation

    English has all sorts of sounds. The same few letters in one word are pronounced differently in another word. Look at “ghost” and “fight,” for example. It seems like no one rule applies to the pronunciation of any grouping of letters consistently. English also has sounds no other language does. This is true of any language. The letter “L” is particularly difficult for some Asian speakers, and words beginning in “S” are usually difficult for Spanish speakers.

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    Same Word, Different Word

    Words used as different parts of speech but that are spelled the same also cause confusion. For instance, “produce” the verb not only means something different from “produce” the noun, but it is also pronounced differently. The words are not related in meaning, but they are spelled the same. Another example is “abstract,” which can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb.

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    Conjugations

    Try to figure out why the noun for the adjective “high” is “height” instead of “highness” when you can change “weak” to “weakness.” “Buy” becomes “bought” instead of “buyed,” and “teach” is “taught” instead of “teached” in the past tense. Memorization is the only rule that makes any sense in English. Memorize the spellings, the pronunciations and the conjugations.

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    Talk About Being Stressed

    English sentences can have subtle meaning changes when the speaker emphasizes a certain word in the sentence. For example, “I WALKED to the store” indicates a different meaning than “I walked to the STORE.” You know from the emphasis on the individual words that a conversation may be going on in which, in the first sentence someone asked the speaker how he got to the store, or that he misunderstood and thought the speaker got a ride to the store. In the second sentence, the other person in the conversation may have thought the speaker went somewhere else. Students may have a difficult time listening for the stresses in sentences and then decoding their underlying meanings.

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    Rules

    Rules are not rules in English. Spelling, pronunciation, word usage, transformation of words from one part of speech to another by adding suffixes (“weak” to “weakness,” but not “strong” to “strongness”) can drive an English student crazy. English words are derived in large part from other languages, so their spellings originate from an entirely different language. This makes it difficult to learn how words are spelled for English speakers. That words are spelled and pronounced differently in various English-speaking countries makes the language even more difficult to learn.

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    Figures of Speech

    If you think figures of speech do not make it difficult to learn English, this whole article section may be way out in left field to you. Think about it again. How many different ways can you say that something irritates someone else in figures of speech in English? Does it drive you batty or up the wall? Does it run or drive you crazy? Does this sentence make or drive you bonkers? Maybe this whole idea is making you nuts enough to concede that figures of speech can frustrate an English learner.

    The next time you encounter an English language learner, remember that she is most likely doing her best to get a handle on this difficult language. It is not easy in any case to learn another language. To learn English is not a feat for the weak. Encourage the English student in any way you can, perhaps offering to have conversations once a week together so that the student can get English practice from a native English speaker.

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