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What Makes English So Hard To Learn?

We know that it can take between 4-10 years to become fully English proficient. This is especially true for English in academic settings where ELLs are learning while using their language skills. Social English can be acquired in as little as six months to two years, but reading, writing, listening and speaking for academic purposes is a much more arduous process. There are many individual influencing factors such as motivation, instructional setting and effectiveness, aptitude, and self-esteem. But what is it about English that makes it so challenging?

Language is multi-faceted. Between context, content, purpose, setting, register and genre, language is extremely complex. Experts like the WIDA Consortium remind us that it’s important to attend to the instruction and assessment of language at the word, sentence, and discourse level. Understanding these features of academic language can be eye-opening for general ed teachers and very conducive for collaboration. Using this context as a starting point, it’s helpful to then look at the challenges of words and phrases, sentences, and discourse in English.

Consider the following:

  • Rules-and their exceptions. Hard and fast rules can help guide learners when processing new information. But what if the rules only apply sometimes? Well, we know that’s true about English! For example, consider “one foot, two feet” and other plural words. If you have one boot, do you have two beet?
  • Order of words. This is an area where rules might be helpful, but again they don’t always work. The sentence “The tall oak tree grew near the house,” sounds right to English learners, but why doesn’t “The oak tall tree grew near the house?” Why does tall have to come before oak if they are both adjectives? It would be difficult for any fully proficient English speaker to articulate that, so imagine trying to learn those nuances as a second language learner- especially a child!
  • Pronunciation. English doesn’t always sound exactly how it's spelled, nor does it spell how it sounds. For starters, many of the most frequently used words in English are not phonetic such as then, could, said, looked and some.
  • Emphasis. How different words and phrases are stressed, or not stressed, can impact both meaning and understanding. Think about placing emphasis on different words in the sentence, “She can’t drive to Florida tomorrow.” Depending on the word emphasised, it can change the meaning. Is the problem that she can’t drive, that she can’t drive, or that she can’t drive to Florida? Often ELLs aren’t attuned to emphasis as they are developing proficiency and the meaning may be lost on them, and vice versa!
  • Homophones. There are words that have different spellings but sound the same, and words that have multiple meanings. How confusing is that?
  • Synonyms. I’ve had many students who were so proud to reach for a thesaurus to expand their word choice, especially in writing. However, substituting one word for another is rarely seamless. Could you say that you are going to get quick food instead of fast food, or take a chair rather than take a seat?
  • Idioms and other tricky language features. “Not to have hairs on your tongue.” What would you think if someone said this to you? Well, it’s the direct translation of an idiom in Spanish, “no tener pelos en la lengua”, which means that someone always tells the truth. If you found that confusing, what do you think it’s like for a student to be told that a peer will “show you the ropes” at school. Or, to “learn these math facts by heart.” Where are the ropes at school? And what does multiplication have to do with my heart? Oh boy!

This is a pretty thorough list, but it isn’t even complete. There are additional considerations, such as collocations and dialects. But hopefully this gives you some ideas of the challenges your students are facing. Here are some other ways to put language teaching in the forefront. What can you do to shift your language and interactions with your ELLs to improve language and content learning?