- So, is English an easy language?

This page answers the question in its title.

So, is English really an easy language? Certainly, many people hold the view that it is. Indeed, the author of a popular book on the history of English* says that English "...has a grammar of great simplicity".

But if you have read the preceding articles in this series, it will be clear that I have a different opinion. My intention has been to show, not always so seriously, that English is in fact full of difficulties to the non-native speaker.

Indeed, the biggest book of English grammar** contains over 1800 pages and weighs three kilos. This doesn't necessarily prove that English grammar is difficult, but it does show that there is a lot of it!

So who is right? Is English an easy language or is it difficult? Obviously, to prove the case either way, it is necessary to compare English with other languages. @English can be said to be difficult only if we can point to many other languages that are easier.~ But already we run into problems, because English, like every language, is a hugely complex system consisting of many aspects.

It may be that some aspects of the language system are easier in English than in another language but other aspects are more difficult. It is certainly true, for example, that English spelling is more difficult than German spelling. But on the other hand, adjectives are easier to use in English because they do not change their endings as they do in German.

A further complication is introduced when we try to decide at what point in learning a new language we should make the judgement as to the difficulty of that language. @@It seems that some languages are easier at the beginning but get progressively harder, while for other languages the opposite is true.~~

I remember struggling terribly in my first few years of learning German to come to terms with the interaction of articles, case, gender and word order.

As an example of the difficulty of the case system in German, take the rather artificial sentence, typical of the grammar books from which I learned the language at school:

- The young man gave a red rose to the pretty girl.

To translate this correctly into German, you have to know the gender of the three nouns (including the fact that girl (Mädchen) is not a feminine but a neuter noun.). You must determine that man is in the nominative case, girl in the dative case and rose in the accusative case.

From this you can then work out the correct form of the articles and the necessary adjective endings. You also have to know that in sentences containing a direct and indirect object (both of which are nouns), the indirect object must come first.

Put all this together and you have the sentence:

Der junge Mann schenkte dem hübschen Mädchen eine rote Rose.

The learner of English most certainly has an easier job in putting together sentences like this.

However, once I had mastered this aspect of grammar, nothing else seemed very difficult in learning German. On the other hand, I have the feeling that English gets more and more difficult the further the learner advances. To be mistaken for a native speaker of English (the ultimate goal of any language learner), the learner has to acquire a large number of the everyday idioms and phrasal verbs that ...... spoken English.


What verb fits in the red dots in the previous sentence to give it the meaning: Spoken English is full of idioms and phrasal verbs?

Hint: One possible answer is a condiment.

The word that best fits is pepper. If you got that right, consider yourself a most accomplished learner of English! (Other words that fit are permeate, enrich, pervade, populate.)

The question So, is English an easy language? is yet more difficult to answer because whether a language is considered easy or not depends to a large extent on the learner's mother tongue.

It is certainly easier for a Dutch child to learn English than it is for a Japanese child. I see evidence of this every day in my teaching. On the other hand, I am sure that Japanese children can learn Korean more easily than can Dutch children.

Germans find the English article system relatively easy because it is largely similar to their own, but some Russian learners of English have enormous problems. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Russians, even those who are otherwise very accomplished in English, to use no articles at all.

So let's return to the question one last time: Is English really a difficult language, as I am claiming? (Or even: Is English a really difficult language?) Probably the best answer is: If it is to you as the learner, then it is!

I would also be interested to hear which aspects of English you find most difficult, particularly anything I haven't covered in these articles. Please write to me via the Contact page.

Following are links to external pages that to a greater or lesser extent address the issue of which languages are the most difficult to learn.

There is an entry on Language Log under the title Weird Languages.

According to Wikipedia: Hardest Language, Hungarian and Japanese are the hardest languages for a native English speaker to learn.

This page on The Economist is about notoriously difficult languages .

And here's another article on hardest languages, with interesting comments from learners of several languages.


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