9 Reasons why English is a difficult language to Learn

Drawing of a book with the word "English spread across it"
Many students find that learning the English language is not easy. English language learners may struggle to pronounce English, to learn English grammar, to memorize the meanings of English words, or to use the right metaphors or idioms. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the specific features of English that language learners often struggle to master, and explain why those specific language skills are so difficult to learn. English is the most studied language in the world, with over a billion second-language speakers worldwide. The English language, which was born in England, is now spoken globally, and in many places it functions as a “lingua franca” (or shared language) between people from different language backgrounds. As a result, many students today are learning English so they can work for international businesses, engage in international politics, travel the world, or just watch their favorite movies and TV shows. Interested in learning about some of the challenges that English learners face? Read on!

Table of Contents

1. English is not similar to your native language

Learning English will be most difficult for students whose native language is very different from English. The more different your native language is from English, the more you will have to learn in terms of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and cultural knowledge.

English belongs to a large group of languages called the “Indo-European Languages,” which includes most languages of Europe and some from the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent as well. In general, speakers of Indo-European languages will have an easier time learning English because they will recognize familiar vocabulary and grammar. However, some Indo-European languages (e.g., German, French, Norwegian) are closer to English than others (e.g., Persian, Hindi, Kurdish), so this isn’t a guarantee.

But if your native language is not an Indo-European language, then you’re probably going to struggle a lot more to learn English words, grammar, and pronunciation. The next several list items will outline aspects of English grammar that require a lot of memorization or which are unusual in the world’s languages, and so can present difficulties for learners from a wide range of backgrounds.

2. English verb tenses take practice

Learning when to use different English verb tenses is notoriously difficult for English language students. The reason English verb tenses are so tricky is that they carry a lot of information about when and how something happened. It’s more complicated than just past, present, and future!

Let’s look at some examples:

  1. Emily had cried when Patrick walked into the room.
  2. Emily was crying when Patrick walked into the room.
  3. Emily had been crying when Patrick walked into the room.
  4. Emily had cried when Patrick walked into the room.

In all four sentences above, Emily cried at some point in the past, so the verb to cry appears in the “past tense” in all four sentences. However, did you notice that in each verb looks a little different and in each sentence, there is a slightly different relationship between the timing of the two different past events?

  • In the first three sentences, Emily started crying before Patrick entered, while in the final sentence, the two things happened at the same time.

  • In sentences 2 and 3, Emily was finished crying by the time Patrick walked in, but there’s a difference between these two as well!

    • In the second sentence, we’re focusing more on the fact Emily cried for a period of time.

    • In the third sentence, we’re more focused on the simple fact that she cried.

Can you see how it might be tricky to learn all the nuances of these differences? To use the correct English verb tense, you need to keep in mind both the tense of the verb (when it happened compared to now: past/present/future) and the “aspect” of the verb (which describes how that event overlapped with other events or times under discussion).

This is a lot to keep in your head all at once, so it’s no wonder that picking the right tense can be very confusing for students who are just starting out!

3. Choosing when to use which article is difficult

Deciding when and how to use articles in English (a, an, the) is usually challenging for English learners. Articles are difficult for English learners because using them correctly requires you to get inside the mind of the person that you’re talking to. What does this mean?

Most English teachers and learners will tell you to use a(n) for something that isn’t specific and the for something that is specific. But the story is actually more complicated than that. Let’s look at an example:

The mailman came into the shop today and bought an iced vanilla latte.
A mailman came into the shop today and bought an iced vanilla latte.

In both of these sentences, a specific person came into the shop. The difference is that in the first example (“The mailman…”), the speaker is assuming that the person being addressed will know the mailman in question. Maybe he’s the mailman who regularly delivers mail to the coffee shop! But in the second example (“A mailman…”), we can assume that the person being addressed does not know the mailman in question.

In order to use the correct article, therefore, you need to know how much information someone has about a given situation, and adjust your language accordingly. If your listener can pick out the specific person or item you are referring to, then you use the. If your listener can’t or doesn’t need to pick it out, you use a(n). This may sound simple, but using articles correctly can be a challenge, especially for learners whose native languages don’t require a choice between “specific” and “not specific”.

There are other things to learn when it comes to articles. Some proper nouns must always be accompanied by articles (ex: the Bahamas, the Miami Heat) while others cannot have them (ex: Charles, New Hampshire). Sometimes we leave out articles after prepositions (ex: at school, in prison, after lunch), while some types of nouns, like mass nouns (milk, knowledge, grass), can’t occur with a(n). These exceptions must simply be memorized, and learning these rules can be tricky!

4. Phrasal verbs are unpredictable

Phrasal verbs are verbs made up of more than one word, usually a classic verb (ex: put, kick, move) and a preposition (ex: out, over, up). English is packed with phrasal verbs, and learning how to use them correctly requires a lot of practice. There are two main reasons why learning phrasal verbs can be tricky.

Reason 1: Most phrasal verbs are idioms, meaning you cannot reliably guess the meaning of a phrasal verb just from the meaning of its parts. Let’s look at some of the phrasal verbs based on the verb “to pick.” Notice that while you might be able to predict a few of these meanings based on the meaning of the preposition (ex: pick up, pick apart), most of them have meanings that need to be memorized.

pick outto choose
pick upto lift up in your hand OR to receive a signal
pick overto search thoroughly through a selection of options
pick onto bully
pick apartto break something carefully into pieces (literally or figuratively)
pick up onto notice
pick atto take small bites of your food, not really eat it
pick offto eliminate something one-by-one
pick throughto search carefully within a mess

Reason 2: Different phrasal verbs follow different grammar rules. As you can see in the examples below, some phrasal verbs can be split apart while others cannot. Learners simply have to memorize which phrasal verbs belong to each group. Let’s look at some examples:

These phrasal verbs can be split apart:

Sarah knocked over the can.   Sarah knocked the can over.
Mark picked up his kids from school.Mark picked his kids up from school.

These phrasal verbs cannot be split apart:

Sarah looked after Mark's kids.   Sarah looked Mark's kids after.
Mark got over his cold.Mark got his cold over.

Because phrasal verbs require a lot of memorization, both in terms of what they mean and how they’re used, these types of verbs are often a hurdle for language learners.

5. Negative sentences and questions are challenging

English questions (What does Ken like?) and negative sentences (Ken does not like cheese) are usually challenging for language learners. Questions and negative sentences in English are so difficult because they can have a different word order and sometimes involve changing the form of a verb. 

We can see this when we compare the word order of a question to the regular sentence you would use to answer it. Have a look at these examples:

Is Ken eating cheese?Ken is eating cheese.
What is Ken eating?Ken is eating cheese.
Who is eating cheese?Ken is eating cheese.
Did Ken eat cheese?Ken ate cheese.
What did Ken eat?Ken ate cheese.

We can also see this when we compare the negative form of a sentence with the positive form:

Ken is eating cheese.Ken is not eating cheese.
Ken ate cheese.Ken did not eat cheese.

If you want to correctly form English questions and negative sentences, you need to learn the rules for changing verbs and word order! These rules take a lot of practice, especially for learners coming from languages which may not alter the word order or verb forms at all in order to form these types of sentences.

6. English spelling is confusing

English spelling is one of the most difficult things for English language learners to master. English speakers like to think that we spell things the way they sound, but there are a lot of exceptions. There are places where the same sound is spelled differently in different words (ex: bread and bed), or the same spelling has different pronunciations in different words (ex: fig and sigh). There are lots of silent letters (ex: who, ride, psychology) and sometimes groups of letters have unpredictable pronunciations (ex: gh in rough, ch in chemistry). 

Learning to spell and to pronounce words can take a lot of work (even for native English speakers), and is especially tough if you’re just starting out!

Here’s an example of how confusing English spelling can be:

Did you know that, if you wanted to, you could spell the word fish as ghoti? Seems a little ridiculous, right? But let me show you how:

1) The word “enough” ends with an f sound, so gh can be pronounced f.
2) The o in the word “women” is pronounced more like an i, so let’s use o next!
3) In words like “ignition,” the ti sounds like an sh, so we’ll use that at the end.

Put that all together, and we get: gh+o+ti → fish!

You can see why English spelling might be hard to learn!  

There are several reasons why English spelling is a bit of a mess:

English spelling is fun for those of us who like to study the history of languages, but it can be quite a bummer for people who are learning to spell English!

7. English idioms are everywhere

Learning how to use and understand English idioms is crucial if you want to use English in the real world. Idioms are set phrases whose meaning you cannot usually predict, even if you know the meanings of each word in the phrase. Because the meanings of idiomatic phrases must be memorized separately from the meanings of words, idioms can be a fly in the ointment for people trying to learn English!

Did you see that? I used an idiom! The English phrase a fly in the ointmentcan be used to describe any annoying circumstance that causes problems in an otherwise good plan (just like idioms can cause problems for your plan to learn English!) It is an idiom because it doesn’t refer to actual flies getting stuck in actual ointment!

English learners need to learn idioms because idioms are everywhere in English. Have a look at the sort of “pep talk” a coach might give his losing basketball team:

Here’s the deal, team. I know you all expected winning this game to be a piece of cake, but now, here we are, 30 points down in the second half. So I’m going to need you all to step up and chip in so we can win this game! We haven’t missed the boat on winning this tournament yet! Come on, guys, let’s blow them out of the water!”

A sport team hugging each other before a game

Let’s look at the meanings of all those idioms!

"here's the deal"this is the plan/situation
"a piece of cake"something very easy
"step up (to the plate)"take responsibility in a crisis
"chip in"put your own energy into a goal
"miss the boat"miss an opportunity
"blow them out of the water"seriously impress or defeat someone

English courses often focus on teaching students how to assemble literal sentences (sentences that mean what you’d expect them to mean). As a result, many English language learners are left to learn to use non-literal language, like idioms, outside the classroom, through conversations with native speakers, watching movies, or reading books. This can mean that even learners who do very well in a classroom setting will struggle with things like idioms when they start using English in the real world.

One of the best ways to learn to use any language naturally is to consume media in the language you’re trying to learn. So if you’re trying to learn English idioms, try reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV shows or movies, or even just spending time on English-language social media!

8. English has irregular verbs and plurals can surprise you

Learning to use irregular verbs and irregular plurals is difficult for most English language learners because it requires a lot of memorization. Irregular words are those that do not follow “conventional” grammar rules. 

For example:
Sing is an irregular verb because the past tense is sang and not singed
Mouse has an irregular plural form because the plural of mouse is mice, not mouses

Learning to use regular verbs and plurals is quite easy. Once you’ve learned the pluralization rule (add -s or -es) and the past tense rule (add -ed), all you need to do is plug new words into each rule. You know that the plurals of fox, cup, and table are foxes, cups, and tables, and that the past tenses of walk, meow, and toss, are walked, meowed, and tossed.

But you cannot do the same thing with irregular verbs and plurals. With irregular words, each word must be memorized on its own. You just have to memorize that the plural forms of man, loaf, and fish, are men, loaves, and fish, and you just have to memorize that the past tense forms of is, bring, and have are was, brought, and had! There are some tips and tricks you can use to learn English irregular plurals and irregular verbs, but even if you learn these tricks, you’ll probably need to spend some time with your flashcards!

All languages have irregular words and English doesn’t have any more than is normal. But learning them for the first time still requires a lot of memorization, which can be quite a hurdle!

9. English has a large and diverse vocabulary

Most linguists would tell you that English has a larger and more diverse vocabulary than most other grammatically similar languages. The size and diversity of the vocabulary of English presents several different challenges to English language learners.

The 1989 full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 250,000 individual entries. This means that there are at least a quarter-million words in English. That’s a lot of words! 

Now, most English learners don’t need to learn anywhere close to 250,000 words in order to function on a day-to-day basis. Researchers estimate that most native English speakers can only actively use somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000 words. But even that is a lot to learn. Because English has so many words, memorizing enough vocabulary to sound fluent takes a long time.

A girl reading a book

English is spoken all over the world, and it has long been spoken by people from a wide variety of language backgrounds. Before English started spreading all over the world, it already had its own complete vocabulary. But as English has acquired new speakers, it has also acquired new words from all of those new speakers’ native languages. The result is that, today, words of English origin make up less than 25% of our modern vocabulary!

The diversity of English’s vocabulary not only means that English language students have more words to learn; students must also learn a lot of grammar and spelling exceptions that are associated with borrowed words. Words that come from non-English languages often follow slightly different rules from words that are native to English. 

For example, if a noun is borrowed from Latin or Greek, we usually don’t follow the normal English pluralization rule (add an -s), and instead follow these rules:

Replace -us with -ialumnusalumni
Replace -um with -adatumdata
Replace -a with -aelarvalarvae
Replace -ix with -icesmatrixmatrices
Replace -on with -acriterioncriteria

The size and diversity of the English vocabulary therefore not only presents challenges to learners’ ability to memorize words, but also to their ability to remember grammatical and spelling exceptions.

What are some tips for learning English easily?

The best way to learn English is to find the type of course or learning materials that fit your lifestyle. You can learn English with a face-to-face course, from a good series of recorded lessons, by reading books or online articles, or by using an app like Mango! If you are just starting out, try to find a course taught in your native language.

Learning English with Mango? We offer English courses taught in a variety of languages, including:

BengaliHatian CreoleHmong
(Mandarin, Cantonese)
(MSA, Egyptian)

Learning English requires the same skills as learning any other language. So if you follow all the methods for learning English that we discussed in our Comprehensive Guide to Learning a Language, you’ll be all ready to learn English as easily as possible!

How hard is it to study English?

While some things about learning English are hard, the good news is that it is easy to find opportunities to study English. English is the most studied second language in the world (with over a billion second-language speakers worldwide!), so you should be able to easily find courses, books, apps, online lessons, and many other resources wherever you are. 

You’ll still have to work hard if you want to learn English, but at least you won’t need to struggle to find materials and courses to help you along the way!

What is the most challenging part of learning English?

Most English language learners will find it challenging to learn English verb tenses, phrasal verbs, articles, spelling, pronunciation, and idioms. This is because these are features of English that are very different from most other languages in the world, or which simply require a lot of memorization. 

Keep in mind that the languages you already speak affect what about English is difficult for you. The things that will be most difficult for you are the things that English does very differently from your native language. 

For example, in Persian, there is only one pronoun for humans, او (oo, “he/she”), which can be applied to both men and women. If Persian is your native language, then you might have to work hard to remember to use he and she appropriately, because it’s not something you have had to think about doing before. However, speakers of Spanish would not struggle with this at all, as Spanish also has a distinction between masculine and feminine pronouns (él (he) / ella (she)), and so this feature of English seems only natural.

Because speakers of different languages will run into different sorts of challenges when learning English, it can be helpful to find an English course that is designed specifically for learners who speak your native language. This is why Mango’s English courses, designed specifically for speakers of Spanish, or Mandarin, or German, or Somali (etc.), are the best sorts of courses to take!

What is the average length of time it takes to learn English?

According to ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe), it takes 500-600 hours of study to learn English to an upper intermediate level (B2) and up to 1,200 hours of study to gain proficiency (C2). The ALTE estimates of how long it takes for a total beginner to achieve various levels of English mastery are given below:

CEFR LevelCEFR Level NameHours of Study
A1Beginner90-100 hours
A2Elementary180-200 hours
B1Intermediate350-400 hours
B2Upper Intermediate500-600 hours
C1Advanced700-800 hours
C2Proficient1,000-1,200 hours

The proficiency levels above are determined according to the Common European Framework of language Reference (CEFR). This is the most common language proficiency ranking system applied to most European languages.

Just like any language, the amount of time it will take one particular person to learn English can vary. The speed at which one person can learn English depends on many factors. If you want to learn more about how to speed up the process of learning a language, check out one of these articles:

Summing it all up!

There are lots of things about English that can make it difficult to learn, like verb tenses, articles, and idioms – to name a few.

We hope that this overview has been helpful and that the tips we’ve given you point you in the right direction.  Be sure to check out some of our other articles for some tricks and strategies that can help you or your friends to learn English (or any other language) quickly!

  • Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

  • English. (2022).  Ethnologue. https://www.ethnologue.com/language/eng

  • Finkenstaedt, T., & Dieter, W. (1973). Ordered profusion; studies in dictionaries and the English Lexicon: C. Winter.

  • Hoff, E. (2009). Language Development (4th edition ed.): Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

  • Lester, M. (2008). McGraw-Hill’s Essential ESL Grammar: A handbook for Intermediate and Advanced ESL Students.

  • McPherron, P., & Randolph, P. T. (2014). Cat got your tongue?: Teaching idioms to English learners: TESOL Press.

Meet The Author:
Isabel MCkay
Isabel McKay
Linguist and Editor at Mango Languages
Isabel McKay is a Linguist and editor at Mango with a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Arizona. She specializes in studying how speakers of different languages build words and sentences. Turns out, the world’s languages are more similar than you might think! Her passions also include bird watching, musical theater, nature journaling, and training her cat to do tricks.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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