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So, is English really an easy language? Certainly, many people hold the view that it is. Indeed, the author of a popular book on the history of English* says that English".. has a grammar of great simplicity". But if you have read the preceding articles in this series, it will be clear that I have a different opinion. My intention has been to show, not always so seriously, that English is in fact full of difficulties to the non-native speaker. Indeed, the biggest book of English grammar** contains 1800 pages and weighs 3 kilos, which doesn't necessarily prove that English grammar is difficult, but it does show that there is a lot of it!

So who is right? Is English an easy language or is it difficult? Obviously, to prove the case either way, it is necessary to compare English with other languages. English can be said to be difficult only if we can point to many other languages that are easier. But already we run into problems, because English, like every language, is a hugely complex system consisting of many aspects. It may be that some aspects of the language system are easier in English than in another language but other aspects are more difficult. It is certainly true, for example, that English spelling is more difficult than German spelling, but on the other hand adjectives are easier to use in English because they do not change their endings as they do in German.

A further complication is introduced when we try to decide at what point in learning a new language we should make the judgement as to the difficulty of that language. It seems that some languages are easier at the beginning but get progressively harder, while for other languages the opposite is true. I remember struggling terribly in my first few years of learning German to come to terms with the interaction of articles, case, gender and word order. [See an example] However, once I had mastered this aspect of grammar, nothing else seemed very difficult in learning German. On the other hand, I have the feeling that English gets more and more difficult the further the learner advances. To be mistaken for a native speaker of English (the ultimate goal of any language learner), the learner has to acquire a large number of the everyday idioms and phrasal verbs that .. spoken English.

(Quiz: What verb fits in the space in the previous sentence to give it the meaning: Spoken English is full of idioms and phrasal verbs?)

The question of the title is yet more difficult to answer because whether a language is considered easy or not depends to a large extent on the learner's mother tongue. It is certainly easier for a Dutch child to learn English than a Japanese. I see evidence of this every day in my teaching. On the other hand, I am sure that Japanese children can learn Korean easier than Dutch children. Germans find the English article system relatively easy because it is largely similar to their own, but some Russian learners of English have enormous problems. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Russians, even those who are otherwise very accomplished in English, to use no articles at all.

So let's return to the question one last time: Is English really a difficult language, as I am claiming? (Or even: Is English a really difficult language?) Probably the best answer is: If it is to you as the learner, then it is!

If any reader knows of research that has been conducted in comparing languages for their ease of learning, I shall be very interested to hear from you. (For example, I remember reading somewhere that Basque and Xhosian are two objectively difficult languages, but I can no longer find the reference). I would also be interested to hear which aspects of English you find most difficult, particularly anything I haven't covered in these articles. Please write to me at the e-mail address below.

UPDATE: There is an entry on Language Log under the title Weird Languages that partially addresses this issue.

Quiz answer

The word that best fits is pepper. If you got that right, consider yourself a most accomplished learner of English! (Other words that fit are permeate, enrich, pervade, etc.)

According to Wikipedia, Hungarian and Japanese are the hardest languages for a native English speaker to learn. [Read about more notoriously difficult languages.]

Here's another article on the topic, with interesting comments from learners of several languages.

* Robert McCrum et al. in "The Story of English" 1992 Penguin

** A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Quirk, R. et al. Longman (1995)

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)