Why is English So Difficult to Learn?
You have probably had at least one ESL student ask you, “Why is English so difficult to learn?” Were you able to answer the question to their satisfaction? I imagine, that like me, you may have started answering the question only to realize that there are many reasons. Trying to pinpoint one or two reasons that would be a segue into you giving advice to the student only ended up confusing the student more.
The English language is known for its complex grammar rules, extensive vocabulary, and challenging pronunciation. Many non-native speakers of English find it difficult to learn, even after years of study. While there are many reasons why English is challenging, one aspect that often goes overlooked is its pragmatic complexity.
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics that deals with how context contributes to meaning. It looks at how people use language to achieve their goals and communicate effectively. Pragmatics is concerned with the many ways in which people can convey meaning beyond the literal interpretation of words. This includes things like tone of voice, body language, and social cues.
English is a highly pragmatic language. In other words, the meaning of English words and sentences is often heavily influenced by context. For example, consider the following sentence: "Can you pass me the salt?" On its own, this sentence is a simple request for salt. However, the meaning of the sentence can change depending on the context in which it is used. If the speaker is yelling and pointing angrily at the salt, the sentence may be interpreted as a demand or even a threat. If the speaker says the same sentence in a polite tone of voice at a dinner party, it is more likely to be interpreted as a request. In the example it is doubtful that the speaker is asking about the listener’s ability to pass the salt as in, “Are you able to pass the salt?” However, if you change the verb and object pronoun in the request to “lift” and “box” the possible meanings of the sentence could include, “Are you able to lift the box?” Thus, “Can you lift the box?” could be either a challenge or a request.
This is just one example of how the pragmatics of English can make it difficult to learn. Non-native speakers may struggle to understand the many subtle ways in which context affects the meaning of English words and sentences. They may not be familiar with the social and cultural cues that are so important in English communication. This can lead to misunderstandings, confusion, and frustration.
Another aspect of English pragmatics that can make it challenging for non-native speakers is the use of idioms and figurative language. English is full of idiomatic expressions and metaphors that can be difficult to decipher for those who are not familiar with them. For example, "I'm feeling under the weather" is a common English expression that means "I'm feeling sick." Non-native speakers may not understand the figurative meaning of this expression and may take it literally.
English is also known for its indirectness. English speakers often use subtle hints and suggestions rather than direct commands or requests. This can be confusing for non-native speakers who may be more accustomed to direct communication styles. For example, an English speaker may say "It's a bit chilly in here, isn't it?" as a way of suggesting that they would like the temperature to be raised. A non-native speaker may not pick up on this indirect request and may not understand why the English speaker seems uncomfortable.
In conclusion, the linguistic subfield of pragmatics can help us understand why the English language is often considered difficult to learn. English is a highly pragmatic language, and its meaning is heavily influenced by context, social cues, and cultural norms. Non-native speakers may struggle to understand these nuances and may find it difficult to navigate the indirectness, idiomatic expressions, and figurative language of English communication. By studying pragmatics, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the complexities of English and become more effective communicators, whether we are native or non-native speakers.