Why is English Hard to Learn?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

How is English hard to learn? Sure, spelling is a mess, and there are a lot of exceptions to the rules. But other languages are more difficult, right?  

Whether one language is more difficult to learn is somewhat subjective. The structure of English is logical, and English avoids some problems that plague other languages. However, the number of exceptions and the lack of consistent spelling create reading and writing challenges. 

How English is Less Complicated

Verb conjugation.

Verb conjugation means how the verb changes based on time (tense), number, and use in a sentence. Although English has a total of 12 tenses, we regularly use three basic forms–past, present, and future (walked, walk, and will walk), and the same number in perfect form (have walked, will walk, will have walked).  Most verbs change based on number: The man walks the dog versus The men walk the dogs. 

Some linguists consider that English has only two tenses—past and present. Their argument is that we form other tenses by adding helping words. I mention this to show that the number of tenses varies depending on who you ask. Consider Spanish, where sources vary. Some claim Spanish has 16 tenses, while others list 10.   

Regardless of the exact number, another feature of simplicity in English verbs is that the majority do not change (except for number) according to the subject: I run, you run, they run.

In Romance languages, like Spanish, a verb’s conjugation depends on the subject. Look at the Spanish verb for walk: caminar. 

  • I walk: Yo camino.
  • You walk: Tu caminas
  • He or she walks: El or Ella camina
  • We walk: Nosotros caminamos.(Unless women are walking. Then you say, Nosotras caminamos)
  • They walk:  Ellos caminan.(Unless two women are walking. Then you say, Ellas caminan.) 

And that’s only the present tense conjugation of caminar. 

This brings up another feature of English that simplifies the language. 

No gendered nouns and pronouns

English has no gendered nouns and two articles: a and the. In English we say a dog or the dog. But in languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and German, we need to add gendered pronouns.

The German word for dog (hund) is masculine. So I need to use the masculine pronoun (der Hund) when speaking about a dog. Referring to several dogs? That requires another pronoun (die Hunde). 

Gendered nouns in most languages are not logical. For example, German grammatical genders are confusing: das Messer (the knife) is neutral, but der Löffel (the spoon) is masculine, while die Gabel (the fork) is feminine. In contrast, in Spanish a fork (el tenedor) is male, while a spoon (la cuchara) is feminine.


English also enjoys the advantage of familiarity. It is everywhere. Depending on who is doing the counting, English is spoken by 1.3 to 1.6 billion people. Granted, more people speak Chinese, but English is considered the international language of business.

English is the first language for less than a third of those speakers, which means nearly 1 billion people have learned English as a second language. The more you encounter a language, the easier it is to practice it. Because of the internet and social media, as well as the popularity of American music and movies, anyone with an internet connection can easily read and hear English. 

Let’s look at some aspects of the language that make English hard to learn.

The Number of Exceptions to Rules

Those whose first language is English internalize the exceptions to the rules. We know the 20+ verbs that don’t change form, often referred to as invariable forms. For example,  Today I shut the door, tomorrow I will shut the door, and yesterday I shut the door. 

We also know the 150+ irregular verbs that change their form.

  •  I break. I broke it. It was broken.
  • I choose because you chose yesterday, and what I choose will be the chosen one. 

Are these irregular verbs random? They seem that way, but actually, most irregular verbs come from Old English. These irregular verbs are classified as strong or weak, depending on whether the Germanic form they came from is strong or weak. Irregular verbs can then be further grouped based on vowel or consonant patterns. 

But wait—some irregular verbs mix strong and weak Germanic verb forms, and the tense changes of a few verbs, like “be,” come from different roots. A teacher of English has two choices when a student asks why so many frequently used verbs are irregular.

Either a) because it is or b) irregular verb tenses are based on whether the verb is of Old English or Germanic origin. But some verbs retained their irregular forms due to their strong or weak Germanic origins. 

After learning that, an English-learner can separate irregular verbs into Old English, weak Germanic, and strong Germanic. And then memorize those. Or skip the categorizing step, and memorize, memorize, memorize. 


Pronunciation is another aspect of English that seems highly arbitrary. Many English words have inconsistent pronunciation patterns, which can make it challenging for learners to pronounce a word they see. 

English has 26 letters but 44 phonemes (sounds). Twenty of those sounds belong to verbs. So a vowel can sound like one of three or four sounds. These “ou” sounds are a good example: 

Tough – tuf  Through – throo Dough – doe  Bought – bawt 

We could go on and on, considering there are tons of examples.  Reread the previous sentence. Does each “o” have the same sound? That should make the point. 

Does any student want to learn the 450 pages of the comprehensive description of British spelling in the Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks? I think not.

Again, a teacher often says English spelling is difficult because it is. All languages have inconsistencies and exceptions, but English has more than most, making it challenging to learn. 


Even native speakers struggle with spelling. Combine confusing pronunciation with equally inconsistent spelling, and you see why English learners have difficulty mastering the language.  

However, these difficulties apply to written English. Someone who learns English through conversation does not have these challenges if they rely on spoken English. A person can be considered “functionally illiterate” if they cannot read or write at a 5th grade level. Yet that individual can communicate in English.  

English Pronunciation Confusion in less than a minute.

And without consistent instruction, they are likely to remain “functionally illiterate.” Work that requires reading and writing will remain difficult to find.

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are another aspect of English that can pose challenges for learners. These combinations of verbs and prepositions or adverbs have unique meanings that cannot be easily understood literally.

For example, the phrasal verb “take off” can mean to remove clothing, but it can also mean to leave suddenly or become successful.  The challenges of prepositions, which are often used in phrasal verbs, are discussed in Why Prepositions in English are Challenging

Other languages have phrasal verbs as well. But few have as many as ours does. According to some sources, English has 5,000 phrasal verbs, while numerous sites list their top 1000 phrasal verbs. Add that to spelling, pronunciation, and the many exceptions to the language’s grammar, and it becomes clear that, yes, English is a hard language to learn. 

Bottom Line

Those who grew up speaking English and say, “Just learn English,” don’t realize how complicated and illogical it seems. It would obviously benefit non-native speakers to learn the language. There are numerous reasons they don’t, but, simply put, English is a difficult language to learn. Sometimes even for language lovers.     

#1. Gabble is the sound that large birds make.



Reading Time: 5 minutesTrue. It also means fast, incoherent talk.

Reading Time: 5 minutesIt means to talk quickly and incoherently. But the sound large birds make is another definition.

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