This post is inspired by a similar post on Warren Ediger’s Successful English blog.
Personally, I always thought English is an easy language for giving information but a difficult language for getting information. As I continue with my Spanish studies, I think this is probably true of most languages.
For example, a low level learner’s vocabulary in English can be good enough to explain a problem they are having.
“I have very bad stomach-ache.”
But understanding the huge variety of possible replies needs a wider vocabulary (we say “wider” for vocabulary, not “bigger”).
“You should go to the doctor.”
“You might want to see a doctor then.”
“You’d best go and see a doctor.”
“I’d go to the health centre, if I were you.”
“You’d better make an appointment with the GP then.”
“Do you reckon you need to see a doctor?”
“There’s a clinic on the next street if you want to drop in.”
“It sounds like you could do with an appointment to see the doctor.”
“It’s probably a good idea to see your GP then.”
Think about all of these different phrases and parts of language you might need to understand the reply. There are modals verbs like ‘should’, ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘might’. Phrases like “You had better + verb” or “You had best + verb” which we use for suggestions. Direct questions using phrases like “Do you reckon…” or indirect questions “…if you want to see him.” The change in title from ‘doctor’ to ‘GP’ or not talking about the ‘doctor’ but about the ‘clinic’ or the ‘health centre’. The variety of verbs you could use; ‘see a doctor’, ‘make an appointment’ and ‘drop in at the clinic’.
As you can see, there’s a lot of English that you might get from this one simple sentence, “I have very bad stomach-ache.” For me, this also shows that vocabulary needs to be learned in phrases around topics instead of learning the grammar first. What I mean is that there are some complicated conditionals in there "I'd go to the health centre, if I were you." Do you think you should wait until you are Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate before you can understand that and reply to it? You need a doctor!
But I don’t think this problem is limited to English because I know I have the same problem not understanding replies to what I say in Spanish.
One of my problems in Spanish is anxiety. My worst skill is conversational listening. This is very different from passive listening. I can sit in a café or pub and listen to a group of people speak in Spanish and I will follow the gist of the conversation (gist = the general idea, the main points). But listening in a one-to-one conversation is more difficult because you have less time to think about the language you are hearing and you need to think about what you want to say as well.
The problem is that worrying and anxiety do not help learning. So how do we stay calm? Well, it is good to work together with other people who also want to learn English or other people who want to help you improve your English.
So, is English a difficult language to learn? Well yes, and no.
The main points I haven’t mentioned here are motivation and opportunity. Are you motivated to improve your English? What is your motivation? Do you have the opportunity to use your English? These are also important questions to ask if you want an answer to the question, “Is English hard to learn?”
What do you think? As always I look forward to your opinions.
P.S. And for a more humorous opinion about why English is so difficult, click here.