Why is English so difficult to learn? Blame the French!

A Little History on the English Language

Okay maybe it’s not just the French’s fault altogether. While it may be impossible to count the exact number of words in a language, nobody argues that English is in the top 5. Some argue there are more than 750,000 words in the English language, others argue it’s more around 150,000. Korean seems to dwarf most with over one million words. Vocabulary alone; then, can makes English language learning a headache.


Then, there’s dialect. Among linguists the term dialect simply designates a variety of particular language which has a certain set of lexical, phonological, and grammatical rules that distinguish it from other dialects. Travel the four corners of the United States and you may not believe everyone is speaking English. An ESL friend of mine recently visited me in Utah and said, “I can’t understand a word of what they say in New York!”

New York Subway


Daniels, from his book The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, describes the challenges of dialect, “Where do these different varieties of a language come from and how are they maintained? They underlying factors are isolation and language change. Imagine a group of people which lives, works and talks together constantly. Among them, there is a good deal of natural pressure to keep the language relatively uniform. But if one part of the group moves away to a remote location, and has no further contact with the other, the language of the two groups will gradually diverge. This will happen not just because of the differing needs of the two different environments, but also because of the inexorable and sometimes arbitrary process of language change itself.”


Given that English remained a peasant language for many years, it’s no wonder we have so many variations and dialects. But, I digress, what do I mean a peasant language? Let’s look a bit of how English has been managed over the years.

English through the “Wars”

Angles & Saxsons – 400 AD

While most languages that develop within the boundaries of one country (or geographical region), English evolved through invasions, wars, and combinations of other languages. Most attribute the beginnings of English abound 400 AD. Three Germanic tribes invaded (modern) Britain from Denmark and northern Germany. They were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. At the time of invasion, natives of Britain spoke a Celtic language. The natives were pushed to the fringes and the new common language became what we know as “Old English.” While today we wouldn’t understand most of old English, it is the foundation of English today. 

Vikings 1,100 – 1,500 

vikings

Next, came the Vikings. Vikings ransacked northwestern Europe for hundreds of years. Old English was mixed with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse added thousands of words to the English language, including those like: egg, knife, husband. 

The French 

Medieval French Village

Just as English was becoming its own language and widely spoken in the Isles, the Norman invasion changed English forever. William the Conqueror (1066) declared French the national language of the royal courts, and of power. English was left to the peasants for over 300 years. Can you imagine a language carried on for 300 years by uneducated people? Latin, German, French all crept into the language. Grammar went out the window. Very little was written in English. Just look at the silly examples below of English pronunciation and rules. 

100 Years War! (1500 – 1800) 

Finally, after years of war that ended French rule over the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence once again. Add in some impressive scholars through the renaissance and English gets a bit of structure. William Shakespeare alone invented over 1500 English words, including: alligator, fashionable, puppy dog. 

Britain starts to expand its worldly influence and draws rules from other languages. The invention of printing created a common language in print and standardization to English.  Books became cheaper and education became more prevalent. 1604 the first dictionary was published.

Industrial Revolution and Expansion 1800 – Present

Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution added new words as new technologies were invented. America, in its own way, becomes a dialect of British English and new words (and old words) are created and preserved. (Some would argue that Americans speak more Shakespearean words than the British). With the influence of Spain, Portugal, France on America, English continues to gain words from other languages such as: Canyon, ranch, vigilante. 

English becomes the epicenter of scientific progress, also requiring more vocabulary. Vocabulary today is increasing by approximately 1,000 words a year. Words such as: Cineplex, bromance, staycation have all formed within the past decade.

Okay, it’s not all the French’s Fault 

English has had a tumultuous past.  The difficulty to learn stems from the lack of purity of the language. When learning English, you’re really learning a combination of many languages. Grammar rules are as extensive as the vocabulary, pronunciation can change just by how the word is used, hundreds of irregular conjugations exist. Hence, the difficulty of learning English from a historical perspective. 

It’s not Just History.

Linguists have tried to scientifically (mathematically) determine which language is the hardest to learn. Turns out it is not as simple as vocabulary or grammar rules. “Most linguists, however, have identified three fundamental dimensions of language as appropriate areas for research: phonology, morphology, and syntax. Phonology is the study of the sounds of a language. Morphology is the study of the smallest meaningful units of language and of their formation into words. It includes inflection, derivation, and compounding. Syntax is the study of word order.” Other studies have also included lexicology, writing systems and honorifics as other criteria. 

Sparing you the long details of the studies, the conclusion is fairly obvious—the greater the difference of the listed criteria from your native tongue the greater the difficulty in learning a new language.  For someone whose native language is English, Japanese is more difficult to master than Korean, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Russian (in that order). French, Italian and Spanish are then some of the easier languages for English as a first language learner.

Student Studying

In Conclusion

I don’t envy those that have to learn English as a second language. Even with similar roots the rapid evolution of English has created a nightmare of rules and irregularities. We haven’t even accounted for challenges English language learners will face in learning English in specific content areas such as literature, mathematics and science. I’ll save that for another time. For now, know that we blame the French for our peasant language! 

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4 thoughts on “Why is English so difficult to learn? Blame the French!

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