Why is English difficult to learn?
And what can we do about it as teachers?
Well, English can be difficult for a number of reasons. Consider the following 2 examples:
a) The farms produce produce for Tescos.
b) The bandage was wound around the wound.
Here you can see the dilemma our students face. In the first example, we have a verb (pro'duce) and a noun ('produce) right next to each other. But these are pronounced differently, the stress is on the second syllable in the verb and the first in the noun).
In the second example, we have a regular verb in the past tense (wound – pronounced /waʊnd/), which is pronounced differently from the noun, pronounced /wuːnd/ at the end of the sentence, but spelled exactly the same. You can hear the correct pronunciation of both produce and wound at the Howjsay website, a free online talking dictionary of English pronunciation and a great simple resource for your students.
And that’s just 2 examples!
So as we have seen, English can be very difficult to learn, at least to a high level. Stuffed full of irregular verbs, with the largest vocabulary of any language in the world and idiosyncratic spelling and pronunciation rules, you should be mightily relieved if you are reading this as a native English speaker who has simply absorbed this complex language from childhood.
So what can we do about this as teachers?
Well, part of your job as teacher will be to motivate your students to access English outside the classroom, so they are exposed to language in all its richness. One idea is to tell your learner that you will ask them to bring in new phrases they have discovered at the start of your next lesson. This will help them to focus on listening out language and to not 'tune out', which we can all be guilty of sometimes.
The beauty of the all the sites that we have suggested is that they require only 1-10 minutes, which means your students can easily incorporate a bit of English into their daily lives. This is key because if you overload your student, they are unlikely to even get started. Alternatively, check out this free site which also includes great tips for the autonomous learner.
For more advanced and motivated learners, encourage them to watch films in English, with subtitles if necessary. If it is an old favourite, all the better since the English will simply support a story line they know well.
When we stretch our learners outside of the lesson, we are also encouraging them to take more responsibility for their acquisition of the language. We do not help them if we only feed them full of English once or twice a week, and not encourage them to do anything with their English in-between.
Fancy a smile to end this article? Well, here is a fun clip to illustrate pronunciation problems to your students. Credit this one to Berlitz, a well-known English language school chain, who played on the difficulties Germans have with the pronunciation of the ‘th’ sound in the humorous youtube sketch below. Press play and enjoy!
Encourage your students to gain a wider appreciation of English and it will lead to increased motivation and improvement in all areas and help them gain mastery of our varied and complex language. Good luck!
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Louisa Walsh, Course Director, Global English
Updated November 2018
I used the "Berlitz German Coastguard commercial" video clip with my classes on 1st May a couple of years ago as a play on words - the difference between the festival May Day which occurs on 1st May, and Mayday the distress signal. They enjoyed the pun, and then had a short discussion on what they thought might happen next!
It's true, German learners often have problems with the 'th' pronunciation, especially older learners whose pronunciation was not corrected when they were beginners. This video clip shows the importance of getting it right.
Great post! English is a very difficult language to learn, and here us spoiled americans whine about learning somebody else's language!
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