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Why is the English language one of the most difficult to master?

Why is the English language one of the most difficult to master?

The English language, as we know it today, has its origins in many different languages, such as Latin, French, German and Dutch. Its wide roots make it one of the most difficult languages to learn, simply because a lot of it just does not make sense!

A quick example: a pineapple - which was observed for the first time in 1664 - was so named because it looked like a pinecone, but it does not taste like pine nor does it taste like apple!

Take a look at the linguistic obstacle course below:


There are inconsistencies with the way the language is used. One of those is the ‘I before E, except after C’ rule, which changes with words like “science” or “weird.” There are irregular verbs also, such as the word “fought”, which is the past tense of the word “fight” and yet the past tense of the word “light” is “lit.” So, a foreign person is not just learning the English language and its rules, but they also have to learn the exceptions to those rules.

Because there are so many irregularities, it is hard for a person who is learning English to use what they have already learnt and then have to learn a completely illogical, new word for a different tense or use, which is why the process for learning the language is hard.


Those of us who use English language all the time, do not realise how hard it is grasp the way we construct sentences. For instance, we would say a sentence because we think it sounds right - the subject comes first, i.e., “she”, then the verb, let’s say “throws,” then the object, i.e. “ball.” Then we would put a word like ‘the’ in this sentence so that it looked right and flowed. Our sentence would read, “She (subject) throws (verb) the ball (object).” In other languages across the world, objects can come before subjects and verb conjugation is usually much more straightforward.

Silent letters

Words with silent letters are confusing. Consider the word rough, which derives from the Germanic language and which sounds as though it should be spelt ruff. Also, the word knife with a silent K, which is also an old Germanic word.

Other words with silent letters include, knapsack (which can also be known as a rucksack and was introduced into our language in the early 17th Century), wrangle, (another word for quarrel; derived from the late middle English language) and subtle (from Latin, meaning not easily understood).

Words that sound the same, but have different meanings (Homonyms)

Then there are words that sound the same, are spelt the same, but have different meanings. Examples of Homonyms are words like ‘arm,’ which can either be the part of the body that is attached to the shoulder, or a weapon - such as a gun. Another such example would be ‘bark,’ which can either be the hard covering of a tree, or the noise that a dog or fox makes.

Words that sound the same, but have different meanings and are spelt differently (Homophones)

There are words that we use in the English language and they sound the same, but they have different meanings and different spellings. These are such words as: Pear, as in the fruit and Pair as in couple. Ate, as in I ate my dinner and Eight, as in the number.

A confusing homophone is ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ because although they sound the same when spoken, they look different when written down and the two words have different meanings. ‘Its’ can be used in a sentence like “the cat got into its bed”. ‘It’s’ is used as an abbreviation for it is and, when written down, has an apostrophe in between the t and the s. An example: ‘it’s my car.’

Other examples of homophones are the words ‘their’ (which comes from the old Norse language and was first used in the late 14th century), ‘there’ (which originates in proto-Germanic and is also from the old Saxon word thar) and ‘they’re.’ They all sound the same, but have different meanings.

Words that sound different, but have the same spelling (Homographs)

Homographs are words that sound different when spoken but, when written down, look the same. Examples of these words are ‘bat’ - the implement cricketers use to hit the ball which is also an animal with wings that some people associate with vampires!

Words that have the same spelling, but with different sounds and different meanings (Heterophones)

Heterophones are words that have the same spelling, but sound different and their meanings are also different. Examples of these words are, tear, which can be pronounced as though it is spelt ‘tehr’ (to rip). Tear can also be pronounced ‘teer’ which is the fluid that comes from the eyes.

Other Heterophonic examples are, wind which can be pronounced as it sounds and this means breeze. Wind can also be pronounced waind and this means to wind up a watch or a clock.

It's all just so confusing!

Even for native speakers, mastering the English language can be an arduous task. It is by no means a bad thing to ask for help and support with checking your written work (even the most masterful linguists make mistakes!).

It is my job to support businesses and individuals to present themselves in a high-quality manner, with accurate, well-written language on their marketing materials, bids and proposals, reports and other important documentation.

Your brand relies on a positive image in order to create a consistently positive reputation: can you afford to let little language mistakes cost you business?

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