Englis is the most difficult European language to learn

Adam   Saturday, February 21, 2004, 15:09 GMT
Despite being the world's lingua franca, English is the most difficult European language to learn to read. Children learning other languages master the basic elements of literacy within a year, but British kids take two-and-a-half years to reach the same point.
In the most extensive cross-national study ever, Philip Seymour of Dundee University and his team compared the reading abilities of children in 15 European countries. They found that those learning Romance languages such as Italian and French progressed faster than those learning a Germanic language such as German and English. "Children do seem to find English particularly complex and problematic though," says Seymour.

The team focused on the earliest phase of learning to read. They tested the children's ability to match letters to sounds, their capacity to recognise familiar written words, and their ability to work out new words from combinations of familiar syllables.

Seymour's findings might explain why more people are diagnosed as being dyslexic in English-speaking counties than elsewhere.

In languages where sounds simply match letters, some symptoms just would not show up, says Maggie Snowling, a dyslexia expert at the University of York. The condition would be more difficult to diagnose in children who speak these languages, though subtle symptoms such as impaired verbal short-term memory would remain. "People might be struggling, but no one would notice," she says.

Consonant clusters

The Germanic languages are tricky because many words contain clusters of consonants. The word "sprint", for example, is difficult because the letter p is sandwiched between two other consonants, making the p sound difficult to learn.

Another feature of English that makes it difficult is the complex relationship between letters and their sounds.

In Finnish, which Seymour found to be the easiest European language to learn to read, the relationship between a letter and its sound is fixed. However, in English a letter's sound often depends on its context within the word. For example, the letter c can sound soft (as in receive) or hard (as in cat). Many words like "yacht" don't seem to follow any logic at all.

Historical accident

However, the things that make English difficult to read might have contributed to Britain's rich literary tradition. Words like "sign" and "bomb" are difficult because of their silent letters, but these hint at relationships with other words. The connection with words like "signature" and "bombard" is obvious.

Mark Pagel, an expert on language diversity at the University of Reading, acknowledges the irony that despite being the international lingua franca, English is the most difficult to learn. The dominance of English has more to do with historical accident than any innate superiority of the language, he says.

"People who speak English happen to have been the ones that were economically and politically dominant in recent history. Those forces greatly outweigh any small difficulties in language acquisition."

15:30 04 September 01

By James Randerson
Adam   Saturday, February 21, 2004, 15:15 GMT
"Sign" and "bomb" have silent letters. But the words "signature" is not pronounced like "sign" with "ature" on the eng. The "g" is pronounced. The world "bombard" is not simply the word "bomb" with "ard" on the end, becase the "b" is pronounced. This must infuriate foreigners trying to learn English, because they would assume that "signature" and "bombard" also have a silent "g" and a silent "b". That's one reason why English is more difficult to learn than other European languages. The Romance languages like french and Italian (Italian especially) are relatively simple to learn.
Adam   Saturday, February 21, 2004, 15:20 GMT
Is English easy or difficult?

Did you know that English SEEMS to easy to start with? (But it isn't)
by Louis Alexander

Babies are programmed to learn languages and they do so with incredible speed. They begin by learning to recognize the phonemes (= the smallest sounds) of the language that is spoken to them, so they soon learn to reproduce these sounds and they can cope with more than one language quite readily. Unfortunately, we lose this gift as we get older. If, for example, you are a speaker of Japanese, you will find it difficult to pronounce 'l' and 'r' in English because these phonemes don't exist in your language and you didn't hear them when you were a baby.

From the time we start school, we begin to learn foreign languages 'the hard way', having lost our childhood facility. We tend to think that some languages are more difficult than others. So for example, if we have a European background, we may think that Chinese is more difficult than other languages because there is so much to learn at the beginning, especially distinguishing between tones (four tones in Mandarin and nine tones in Cantonese). But once we have made this effort, Chinese is no more difficult than any other language. The fact is that all languages are difficult to learn 'the hard way'. The key question during the learning any foreign language is when the difficulties will begin to emerge.

In many European languages, the names of things such as 'book', 'chair', 'radio', 'table' have gender: that is, they are classified grammatically as masculine, feminine or neuter, although often gender doesn't relate to sex. Grammatical gender barely concerns nouns in English. It mainly concerns pronouns. We use 'he' or 'she' for people and 'it' for everything else:

My accountant says he is moving his office.
My doctor says she is pleased with my progress.
I haven't been to the exhibition, but I've read about it.
'A/an', 'the' and adjectives do not have to 'agree' with nouns
a nice man, a nice woman, a nice book, the old man, the old woman, the old book
the old men, the old women, the old books

For the learner, this absence of artificial grammatical gender is an agreeable surprise. The realization that you don't have to remember whether thousands of nouns are masculine, feminine or neuter makes English seem easy to start with. But after this initial euphoria, the learner discovers that other difficulties begin to emerge very rapidly.

One of the most notorious difficulties for learners is the use of phrasal verbs in English. These are verbs with very simple basic meanings which combine with prepositions or adverbs to make new verbs with very different meanings. For example, the basic meaning of the verb 'put' is to move something from one position to another: Put the bags on the table. But the moment we add prepositions or adverbs, we get different meanings, simple or idiomatic, for example: Put the light on. Put your coat on. She puts on such airs.
Put the fire out. I was really put out because he arrived late. (= inconvenienced)
Put the light off. We'll have to put the meeting off till next week. (= delay)
Put the letter through the letter box. They put us through a lot of tests.
This means that some of the simplest verbs in the language (put, take, get, keep, make, etc.) can yield some of the most complex meanings, something the learner discovers
Khatiya   Saturday, February 21, 2004, 17:00 GMT
"...C can sound soft (as in recieve) or hard (as in cat). Many words like "yacht" don't seem to follow any logic at all."

That's because "yacht" isn't English, its a Dutch word that started to be used by New Yorkers when the Dutch ruled New Netherland. Later it became widespread. Perhaps English is so hard to learn because it is really a combination of English and so many other languages.
Adam   Saturday, February 21, 2004, 20:28 GMT
Many foreigners would think it's pronounced "yakt", and would be surprised to find that it's pronounced "yot."

Another reason that English is difficult is because the many ways to pronounce "ough." There must be at least 10 different ways to pronounce that combination of letters. And in easier languages, such as Italian and Finnish, ALL of the letters in each word are pronounced, and each letter is usually spoken in the same way, whereas in English it would be hard for foreigners to decide whether or not the "g" in "bought" should be silent. Nothing is certain in English, wereas in Italian a "c" followed by a vowel is always and mercufully pronounced "ch".
Sérgio   Tuesday, February 24, 2004, 03:23 GMT
I partially agree with what is said. My mother language is Portuguese. At school I first started learning English as a foreign language. Until I was 20 the only foreign language I knew was English (besides "spaniguese", wich every Brazilian seems to speak...). When I started taking French and Italian lessons I found the power of the language roots. It seemed so easy to learn them ! But when I tried to go deeper I found how latin based languages are difficult compared to English. For a brief example, let's take the past tense. In French you can express yourself very well using the Passé Composé. But if you want to learn the Passé Simple (or in Italian the Passato Remoto) you will have to use your memory and will find that the similarity of the languages won't help much. In Portuguese we don't have the Passé Composé and because of the many sounds the consonants may have. "x" for example:
=> in "exato" sounds like the "s" in "easy"
=> in "extra" sounds like the "s" in "desk" (or "sh" in Rio's accent)
=> in "xícara" sounds like "sh" in "she"
=> in "nexo" sounds like the "x" in "Lexus"
Sérgio   Tuesday, February 24, 2004, 03:26 GMT
sorry, I pressed the "send" before ending...
... because of the many sounds the consonants may have, it seems to be a very difficult language for a foreigner to learn.
psc   Tuesday, February 24, 2004, 19:42 GMT
just for future reference, Adam
'c' (and 'g') in italian can be pronounced in different ways, depending on the following vowel: hard if followed by a,o, and u soft if followed by e or i