Introduction: Why Learning English is Difficult


A hundred years ago, there were numerous number systems in use in the world.  But with a vast increase in trade, the twentieth century saw a comprehensive movement of various nations around the world to drop their indigenous numbering system in favor of a set of numbers that originated in the Indus Valley and later was adopted by Arabic traders.  From the Middle East this system spread to Europe during the Middle Ages, as people abandoned the cumbersome Roman Numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, etc.) that Europeans had previously used, in favor of the much more efficient set of number symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.  What became known as Arabic Numerals, spread around the world.  Today, from China to Chile, and from Iceland to Indonesia, people use Arabic Numerals.

Because of the obvious economic advantages to adopting a standard numbering system, business throughout the whole world is now totally committed to using Arabic numerals.  Imagine the mass confusion that would result if every person doing international trade had to convert to unique symbols for every different language.  Today, in Southeast Asia, Thailand and Cambodia still have their own unique symbols for numbers, but no one in Thailand or Cambodia today—no matter how nationalistic—attempts to do business in those symbols.  Every Thai or Khmer person uses 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10… as their way of representing numbers.  Every Thai or Khmer person uses a 24-hour clock with seven days of the week and twelve months of the year.  It would be archaic and, at this point unthinkable, for each nation to try to have its own separate numbering system.  No one in their right mind would think of trying to conduct international business in any other system.  No matter what language someone speaks, they can look at the written Arabic numbers and know exactly what quantities are being represented.

This drastic change in the spread of an international symbol for numbers occurred quite rapidly, within only one century.  With mathematics leading the way, humanity is moving toward a more comprehensive means of communication.  Globalization has now proceeded to the point that similar ways of thinking need to be applied to language in the 21st century as happened with numbers in the 20th century.

However, the need to make a sensible international language has met much resistance.  The way that communication in written and spoken form is conducted in the world today presents many problems of communication.  Many nations, chief among them China and Japan, have writing systems based on characters of meaning rather than an alphabet.  Southeast Asian peoples like Cambodians, Lao, Thai, Burmese, and the Dai of Yunnan in southern China fiercely retain their ancient alphabets, even though none of those forms of writing are indigenous to Southeast Asia.  They were adaptations of writing systems adopted from India. South Asians have adopted the Roman alphabet for writings in English, but still retain indigenous writing systems in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and other native languages. Arabic speakers, Armenians, Central Asians, Koreans, Ethiopians, Hebrews and other peoples each continue to use their own unique writing systems.

In contrast, when Indonesia became independent in 1947, its leader Sukarno wisely gathered a group of linguists together to come up with a national language.  The linguists decided to abandon the dominant Javanese language (which had its own difficult South Asian alphabet) and to write the language they invented (Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on Malay) by using the Roman alphabet.  This was one of the most significant long term results of the Indonesian Revolution.  Generations of Indonesians since then have benefited from the wisdom of President Sukarno and the team of linguists.  Those who argue for the preservation of languages have a point, and the teaching of multiple languages should continue, but the world today desperately needs a global language.


In the mid-20th century Russians hoped that their language would become dominant. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union attempted to expand its own Cyrillic alphabet, but fortunately for the linguistic happiness of future generations that cumbersome writing system and grammatically complex language was abandoned with the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since the end of the Cold War English has definitely become the world’s most widely spoken language. In recent decades English has continued to expand in use among people all around the world.  Because of the economic and political dominance of the United States and Great Britain, English is by far the world’s most important language in terms of international business and trade, intellectual activity, technological and scientific advances, social trends, and popular culture. The combined resources of the descendents of the English, and the English-speaking former British colonies (most notably the United States, India, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria, and many other countries in Africa, as well as many islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific) are tremendous. In addition, the European Union has virtually adopted English as its major means of communication, to the point that every educated European speaks English.

International public discourse is increasingly in English. Like it or not, English is the power language of our times.  English is the closest thing the world has ever had to a global lingua franca. It is the language with the most potential for global communication.

In some respects this development is a positive step for humanity, because English language offers significant advantages over other languages. English has an especially wide and precise vocabulary, and a fairly straightforward way of speaking.  It is part of the huge Indo-European language family that stretches from Iceland to India, with about half of its vocabulary being derived from Germanic languages and about half from Romance languages.  This history of shared vocabulary with the two main branches of European languages makes English easier to learn by speakers of both of those large language branches.

Throughout its history English has adapted new words freely from other languages, and it continues this openness toward adoption of new vocabulary today. Scientists today continually make up new terms using Greek and Latin prefixes like “macro-, micro-, poly-, para-, maxi-, mini-.”

Besides its adaptibility and flexibility, English is not plagued by wide use of tones, which make learning more difficult. For example, a tonal language like mandarin Chinese uses the word “mai” to mean either “mother” or “horse” depending on the tone in which “mai” is said. In Thai, which has five tones (high, low, rising, falling, middle) the word “mai” means “mother” and the word for horse is “ma.” But besides meaning “horse,” the word “ma” can also mean “dog,” or “come,” depending on the tone.  Though context can help discern the meaning of those words, in Thai the word “gai” can confusingly mean either “nearby” or “far away” depending on the tone with which the word is spoken!  Tonal languages are much more difficult for outsiders to learn.

English also has the advantage of being a basically egalitarian language. English does not require different language use according to a person’s gender and socio-economic class. Unlike Javanese and other status-conscious languages, an English learner does not have to memorize several different forms of the pronoun “you” when addressing a person depending on their gender or their class relation. In Thai, the word for “you” is “khun,” except when people address a close relative or intimate friend they say “Theu.” And in addition, when addressing members of the royal family or government officials one must remember to use “Thanh” which is another word for “you. ” Multiple pronouns make language learning more difficult.

English is easier to learn because it lacks much gender terminology. English has one word that can be learned by all persons, as opposed to a gendered language like Thai, where men and women use different words.  For example, a Thai man refers to himself as “Phom” (masculine I) while a Thai woman refers to herself as “Chan” (feminine I). A Thai man says “Sawadee kop” in greeting but a Thai woman says “Sawadee ka”.  The idea of gendering words is obsolete and obstructionist in the modern world, and makes a language more difficult to learn.  Hopefully in the future Spanish, Deutsch and Thai will abandon these archaic holdovers from the past.

English is the only European language that does not have different adjectives depending on gender. For example, English learners have to remember only one word for “tall” whether applied to a man or a woman, whereas Spanish learners have to remember “alto” for all masculine-identified words and “alta” for all feminine-identified words that relate to tallness. Every learner of Espanol has to learn not only the name of all nouns, but must try to remember which nouns are preceded by “La” (feminine article) or “El” (masculine article), just as every learner of Deutsch needs to remember “die” (feminine article) or “das” (masculine article). Learners of English only have to remember one article “the” which can be used for all nouns.

English also has the advantage of being fairly clear in its verb conjugation for regular verbs. English has regularized endings like “ed” to indicate past tense.  Imagine how difficult it is to learn a language where every verb tense has a different word, similar to the English verb “to be” where the learner has to remember “I am, you are, he is, she is, it is, we are, you are, they are, I was, you were, he was, she was, it was, we were, you were, they were, I will be… I will have been…”  It is bad enough that English has five forms of a verb like the infinitive “to ride” (ride, rides, rode, riding, ridden), but in Deutsch the verb “reiten” has sixteen forms!

Despite the advantages of the English language, however, there is a huge problem with English as an international means of communication. English spelling, grammar, and word forms are extremely inconsistent. The reason for this inconsistency is due to the history of the language itself, and the fact that it was written down so long ago. Beginning with Briton and Celtic influences, Old English is most closely related to Icelandic, Frisian (spoken by the inhabitants of the Dutch province of Friesland), Dutch, Flemish, and German. Old English shares with German and Scandinavian languages basic root words like many numbers, kinship terms (“father, mother, brother, wife, husband”), environmental terms and colors (“land, tree, summer, winter, year, house, white, gray, green”), verbs (“come, bring, get, meet, hear, see, sit, stand, think, welcome”) and prepositions (“over, under”).

Many words are spelled exactly the same way in German and English, such as:

adapter, advent, agent, alarm, alphabet, altar, analog, angst, arm, artist, aspirin, automat, baby, badminton, ball, band, bank, bitter, blitzkrieg, blind, blizzard, block,  boxer, bratwurst, bus, butter, dachshund, deli, diesel, ersatz, explosion, Fahrenheit, fair, fallen, familiar, fan, farm, fest, film, filter, final, finger, fit, flak, flirt, frankfurter, front, gang, gas, glitz, glitzy, hamburger, hammer, hamster, hand, horn, hunger, idiot, information, intelligent, job, joker, jury, kaput, ketchup, kindergarten, kidnapper, killer,  kitsch, kitschy, knockwurst, leitmotiv, link, live, liverwurst, masochism, mild, mineral, minus, mission, motor, Neandertal, nest, nickel, organization, out, pager, puzzle, report, room, rucksack, sand, sauerkraut, sex, sheriff, show, song, strudel, student, vegetation, verb, volt, vulgar, waltz, wanderlust, wienerschnitzel, zeitgeist, zinc.

These are only a few of the long list of identical words shared by these two close languages. Many other words would be spelled exactly the same, except that German does not have so many needless silent letters as English. So, for example, figure is spelled “figur,” favorite is spelled “favorit” and exclusive is spelled “exklusiv.” German uses a “k” consistently, while English sometimes uses a “k” and sometimes a “c” as in words like: “accord (akkord), act (akt) alcohol (alkohol), calendar (kalender), candidate (kandidat), card (karte), compass (compass), complex (komplex), credit (kredit), doctor (doktor), local (lokal), objective (objektiv), obscure (obskur).” And German consistently uses a “d” for similar words while English inconsistently uses either “th” or “t” as in “feather (feder), leather (leder), thank (danke), north (nord).”

There are even more words in English that came from German, but are spelled slightly differently, such as: “address (addresse), all (alle), apple (apfel), blue (blau), boat (boot), book (buch), drink (trinken), dumb (dumm), effective (efectiv), eight (acht), end (ende), English (Englisch), father (Vater), flesh (fleisch), folk (volk), friend (freund), good (gut), house (haus), ice (eis), ideology (ideologie), mother (mutter), new (neu), nine (neun), sit (sitzen), son (sohn), word (wort).”

When the Romans expanded their empire to England two thousand years ago they brought in many Latin words (like “genius, gratis, bona fide, terror, camera, ad nauseam”) that were absorbed into English. Latin words form the basis of many English words such as: hour (hora), action (actio), discipline (disciplina), directly (directus), advocate (advocatus), examine (examina), grade (gradus), grammar (gramaracticus), plant (plantare), primary (primus), quarter (quarta), sixth (sexta), republica (republic), study (studere), university (universitas), wine (vinum).

Not only traditional Latin appeared, but after the later Roman emperors embraced Christianity Catholic missionaries brought more Latin words as well as Hebrew religious words like “amen, sabbath, jubilee, hallelujah, manna, messiah.”

Centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the language spoken in England was influenced by Scandinavian languages due to Viking incursions. Scandinavian words include nouns like “law, band, birth, bloom, crook, dirt, egg, knife, loan, race, score, seat, skill, sky, thrift, window.” Scandinavian verbs include “call, clip, die, droop, drown, gasp, rid, scare, snub, thrive, thrust, want,” and adjectives include “awkward, flat, happy, ill, loose, rotten, rugged, tight, ugly, weak, wrong.”

In every century of its history English has absorbed words from those nationalities with which it had most contact. Dutch seafaring traders in the Renaissance era contributed words like “deck, dock, buoy, leak, pump, skipper, yacht, boss, cookie, snoop, waffle.” From Italians, English adopted musical terms, literary terms, and architectural terms, including words like “crescendo, stanza, canto, extravaganza, cupola, grotto, pedestal, piazza, corridor,” terms like “molasses, veranda, marmalade” from the Portuguese, and from Spaniards words like “galleon, guerrilla, mosquito, cannibal, cigar, canyon, lasso, pueblo, rodeo, bonanza.”

And then, with the Norman Conquest, French made a “coup” and entered the English language in a “grand style.”  Modern English is heavily influenced by French vocabulary, especially with political terms like “president, representative, legislature, congress, parliament, constitution,” and concepts like “liberty, amity, enmity, affection.”  French cooking is duly recognized by the adoption of words like “boil, broil, cuisine, fry, grill, roast, toast, dinner, supper, scent,” and French fashion is noted by words like “tailor, fabric, draper, haberdasher, painter, mode, elegant, salon, wine, drama, ballet.”  English travelers in France brought back such words as “souvenir, tour, hotel.” The French, unfortunately, brought with them their writing style that includes many silent letters, for “example” in everything from “omelette”  and “cigarette” to “milieau,” in their “entourage” of spellings.

English did not just limit its incorporation of foreign words to other Indo-European languages. From Arab traders in the Mediterranean, Englishmen absorbed words like “zero, algebra, almanac, arsenal, assassin, zenith, syrup, sugar,” and from Turks they adopted “turban, coffee, caviar.”  From Persia, words like “paradise, bazaar, caravan, chess, shawl” came into English usage, and as British ships sailed to the corners of the globe Englishmen also brought back new words like “taboo, tattoo, ukulele, hula” from the Pacific Islanders, “kangaroo, boomerang” from aboriginal Australians, “chimpanzee, voodoo, gumbo” from Africans, “kayak, igloo, totem” from Native Canadians, “hurricane, hammock, tobacco, maize, tomato, iguana” from Native Caribbeans, “bamboo, ketchup, amuck, orangutan, compound” from Malaysians, and “tycoon, samurai, tsunami” from Japanese.

By the modern era the end result for the English language was not so much a “bonanza” (Spanish) of “multi-lingualism” (Latin), but instead a “de facto”[Latin] “bizarre impasse” [French], a “nuanced debacle” [French] of confusion “en masse” [French], with a “catalogue” (French) of “words” (German) that have a “penchant” [French] for many inconsistencies and silent letters that are “impediments” [Latin] to youth (German) and adults alike.  The “status quo” [Latin] in English is hardly a “mardi gras” [French] celebration, but an “absurd” [Latin] and “awkward” (Scandinavian) “crescendo” (Italian) of conflicting sounds, a “marriage” [French] of “convenience” [French] that is a “modus operandi” [Latin] that does not work.  My “critique” [French] is that English is the “persona non grata” [Latin] of languages. It is time for a “change, a rapprochement vis-a-vis reality” [French].

In calling for changing the language I am not suggesting anything new here.  English has been changing drastically for the past two thousand years.  For example, the medieval epic poem “Beowulf”  is almost impossible to read by modern people.  When English people first came to North America, the English language that they spoke is considerably different from the way we spell words today.

English is not static, but is constantly evolving.  Living languages are constantly changing, with new terminology arising from technological invention and from slang.  A number of Pidgin English forms, which draw on other languages as diverse as Polynesian languages and African languages, have emerged in various parts of the world.  More research needs to be done on Pidgin grammatical form, but to the extent that I am familiar with Black English, Caribbean Creole, and Polynesian Pidgin, I have drawn on some of their innovations as the basis for my suggestions in making English grammar more efficient.  As literacy became more common, and more important in business, shortened forms of words became acceptable.  Today, short words like “ad, exam, lab, gym, tech, vet” are listed in dictionaries alongside their longer and more easily misspelled previous forms “advertisement, examination, laboratory, gymnasium, technical, veterinarian.”

The most recent change in English is due to the internet and telephone instant messaging.  When impatient teenagers text message each other on their cell phones, having to punch in letters individually on the keypad is time consuming.  Text messengers have come up with convenient abbreviations to get across their message just as clearly with fewer keystrokes.

“Are” becomes “R” “why” becomes “Y” and “you” becomes “U”.  Apostrophes are dropped, so that “don’t” becomes “dont”  and “can’t” becomes “cant”.  After grading college student papers for over thirty years I have concluded that so many people cannot tell whether to put an apostrophe in “it’s” or “its” that it is a hopeless task to try to educate people about this spelling.

Though spelling teachers bemoan this “deterioration of spelling” in text messaging I think all of this is a good trend.  English spellings have so many useless letters that the language is badly overdue for an overhaul.


I did not recognize the international importance of this need, however, until beginning a research project in Thailand.  In 2006-2007 I took a year sabbatical leave from my university to live in Thailand.  I chose Thailand because of my interest in doing research on Thai Buddhism. I made an arrangement to live at a Buddhist temple in a town in north Thailand.  Whenever I do ethnographic fieldwork, I always try to do something to contribute to the needs of the people I am studying.  Soon after my arrival I realized that, what the Buddhist monks most wanted from me was a chance to improve their English.

I had taught English language before, in 1987 and 1988 while living in Indonesia. The Indonesian language is easy to learn, because it is logical, consistent, and efficient.  In studying Bahasa Indonesia I gained new awareness about how chaotic English is as a language. But when I arrived in Thailand I was presented with a setting in which Thai uses a complex alphabet of Indian origin that has no relationship in the least to the Roman alphabet. Plus, Thai is a tonal language.  My ear has not been trained to recognize the various different tones that Thai people use, and it has been very difficult for me to learn this language.

Not only is it difficult for Westerners to learn Thai, but because of the extreme differences between Thai and European languages, it is equally difficult for Thai people to learn English. The novice monks at the school that is located on the grounds of the temple had been taking English classes every year they had been at that school. But, I was shocked to observe, even those students who were in the upper grades could hardly carry on a basic conversation. And their pronunciation was horrible. They consistently said “yet” when they tried to answer yes to a question, they said “tree” for the number three, and mangled 4 as “fo”, 5 as “fi”, 6 as “sick”, 8 as “H”, and 9 as “ni.” Saying the number twelve was just impossible for them. I would say “good” and they would repeat “goose.” It usually took about forty or fifty repetitions just to get them to hear the difference between those two words. And anytime an “s” sound was at the end of a word it was left off. They would say “I see you in two day” and “I want study English becaw I want a goose job.” The word “house” became pronounced “how” and “rice” became “ri.” I made them say the sentence “His house is nice with ice” which often came to be pronounced “He how e nye wi I.”

I thought these were the dumbest students I had ever seen, but when I later taught at other schools I found the exact same patterns of mistakes. Since then I have taught English in Cambodia, and find many of the same mistakes there. What I later learned is that the places where the Thai and Cambodian students were having most difficulty were precisely the points at which those languages and English were most different. What I learned from this experience is that hearing is cultural.  When they said their words in different tones, I could not tell the difference because as a baby my ear had never been trained by cultural experience to listen for different tones. And, conversely, their ears had never been trained by experience to listen for the sound at the end of a word. When I said “nice” those students actually heard “ni” because their languages do not have the “s” sound at the end. But, for the life of me, I still do not understand why they say “goose” after I have said “good” with heavy emphasis on the “DDDDD” at the end. This happens with a few other words, like when I say I want to drink tea, they repeat “tis.” It is words like that, when I have not made an “s” sound, are the only times I can get them to actually make that sound. Strange but true.

What I have learned in my experiences teaching in many classrooms across Southeast Asia, is that English is extremely difficult for many people around the world to learn. Because of its confusing and inconsistent grammar and spelling, I have come to the conclusion that if English is going to have this predominant role as the prime medium of global communication, it is a necessity for English to change. English must become easier for people to learn to pronounce and to write. My crusade is to begin, with this book, a new stage in the spelling and grammar reform movement for the English language.

Some might say it is more of a revolution that I am mounting rather than a reform, but I will let the reader decide when you see what I am proposing. If we native English speakers are going to expect the rest of the world to adopt our language, the least we can do is to make the language as consistent and easy to learn as possible. The ideas contained in this book are all directed toward that goal.

About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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