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Difficulties that foreigners have learning English

Introduction

Most of the difficulties foreigners have in learning English are the degree to which their native language differs from English.  A native speaker of Mandarin, for example, may face more difficulty than a native speaker of German. German is more closely related to English than Mandarin.  Difficulties in learning English may be a problem for anyone of any mother tongue (also called first language or L1) setting out to learn another language.

Language learners often produce errors in syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation, a result of the influence of their mother tongue.

Examples of this are,

  • Word order – this is known as language interference
  • Failure to apply the third person present singular ‘s’ to verbs. For example, “She make cake”  should be “She makes cake.”
  • Problems with incoherent rules.  For example, “I am suffering terribly.”  Suffering, in this case, is used as a verb.  However, “My suffering is terrible,” the word suffering is used as a noun

Why does English have so many inconsistencies?

Inconsistencies brought from the Latin Language

The Normans invaded England in 1066 and introduced a Latin language (Old French) into Old English.  Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) was a language with Germanic vocabulary.  Middle English (Anglo-Norman) resulted from the two languages.  The introduction of the Norman language (old French) introduced many grammatical problems.  Word order became more critical.  The word order subject-verb-object became the norm, as well as the use of prepositions instead of verb inflections.

The French became the ruling class in England.  The French words that replaced Old English words were often to do with heraldry, law, cooking, royalty, property ownership, and war.

In many cases, the English word remained as well as the French word, but with a slightly different meaning.  There are hundreds of  examples, here are few:

The French influence is on the left.  The remaining Anglo-Saxon word is on the right,

  • infant – child
  • amity – friendship
  • battle – fight
  • liberty – freedom
  • labor – work
  • desire – wish
  • conceal – hide

Five of the most common difficulties that foreigners have learning English

1. English has one of the most extensive and trickiest vocabularies

The Second Edition Oxford English dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words.  A basic English vocabulary requires the student to learn at least 2000 words, regardless of the situation or subject.  It is not easy for foreigners to gain a basic vocabulary.  As mentioned, the number of complicated words is because of the Norman-French influence of the original Anglo-Saxon Old English.  As previously mentioned, this also means that many words have similar meanings.  These synonyms (words that involve the same thing) make it very difficult for non-native speakers of English as these words appear to be contradictory.

An example of how confusing English is,

There are many ways of saying Zero.  Tennis fans would know that ‘Love’ means zero.  To a foreigner that may sound like, ‘Love means nothing, or love is meaningless.’

2. Spelling

English does not have consistent rules for spelling.  There is an inconsistency between spelling and phonetics.  For example, in words ending in ing,  and tion.  

English has many homophones, words that are spelled or pronounced the same but have different meanings.  For example,

  • ‘meat or meet.’  
  • Fine (as in ‘I am ok’) or ‘Fine (as in ‘I got a traffic fine’).
  • ‘Flew (as in ‘I flew to New York’) or Flu (as in ‘i have the flu’)

3. Idioms and slang

English is littered with idioms, which do not make much sense to speakers of a foreign language.

For example,

  • To know the ropes, meaning “to know your way around,” is an idiom that comes from sailing
  • Fat chance – means no chance

It is essential to understand slang to understand conversational English.  An example of slang is ‘yeah’ which means ‘yes.’

4. English grammar is full of subtlety

For example,

Consider the difference between,

  • “I write” (the simple past) with “I am writing.”
  • “I have written” (the perfect present) with “I had written.”

The difference is very subtle and sophisticated.

5. Pronunciation is difficult and inconsistent

Pronouncing words in another language can be tricky.  Especially for Asians learning a European language.  The prevailing sounds can be quite different.

For examples specific to different cultures, please review the article Common grammatical errors that foreigners make.

The only way to learn correct pronunciation is practice.

Examples of difficult pronunciation,

  • ‘th’ sound is difficult because it is uncommon in other languages
  • Differentiating between ‘l’ and ‘r’  is difficult for speakers of Japanese and some Chinese dialects.
  • The distinction between ‘b’ and ‘v’ is difficult for speakers of languages such as Spanish and Arabic

There are so many silent letters in English.   An example is,

  • ‘k’ as in ‘knife.’
  • ‘n’ as in ‘Autumn’

Regional dialects can alter pronunciation.

Please refer to the article on pronunciation

Conclusion

It will take a long time for foreigners to learn the subtleties of English grammar.  The best way to learn conversational English is to be among English speaking people.   The fastest way to learn English is to live with an English speaking family and speak only English.  Your English family will correct you when you are wrong.

A good English teacher is essential.  If you are looking for one of the best teachers of English as a foreign language, then contact Lan@englishforforeignersonline.com

Please leave a comment or question in the section below.  I will reply to all relevant comments.

Grammarly is an online grammar checker and proofreading tool and can help avoid embarrassing typos and grammatical errors.

Aaron Skudder

9 Comments

  1. Your written English is very good. without a doubt, i strongly believe that your website will do very well. in the meantime, i have bookmarked this for future reference. If you happen to need some custom graphics done for your website, i am willing to do them in exchange for just a review.

    • Hi Sam

      Thank you for your kind offer. Yes, I will take you up on that offer. I will offer my best skills in reviewing your website in exchange for a banner that says ‘English For Foreigners’ with a small graphic to one side. Something to do with English or Learning. Maybe a pen or spectacles. The banner will be for a carousel on the front page.

  2. Very interesting history lesson I received. Yes there are many countless examples of where rules in English get broken. Even though the French have had a big influence on English I understand French is hard to learn from an English background.

    • I recommend learning at least one Latin language. If you learn one, then you will be able to pick up the others easily. It is worth the effort to learn another language.

    • I have summarised a huge amount of English language history into a few paragraphs. I have left out information about how French and English has changed over the centuries. Perhaps I can provide more information at a future date.

  3. Excellent article Aaron. Love how you illustrate the subtleties of the English language and why non native speakers may struggle with them.
    I’m also a big fan of your writing style and dare I say speed. Your site is full of great content updated almost every day.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Joshi

      I am going to Vietnam today. I will add a section based on what I learn about Vietnamese English students

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