What makes English difficult?


in Beyond the Basics

A student recently complained to me that English is difficult. “I’ve studied English for eight years,” she said, “and gotten good grades. Why can’t I use it any better?” What would you say to her? Is her problem English, or could it be something else?

Many people seem to think that English is difficult. They talk about it. Tweet about it. Blog about it. It seems to be an accepted fact. But is it true? And if it is, why?

If English is difficult, why?

If English is difficult, it’s often because we make it difficult. A simple comparison may help explain how it usually happens: Children’s toys often need to be assembled, or put together. And parents often spend hours – especially before Christmas – sitting on the floor or at a table surrounded by pieces of toys. They try their best to follow the instructions for assembling and using the toy. Parents work hard, sometimes desperately, to “get it right” before their children get up early the next morning to play with their new toys.

Many people try to learn English the same way. They reduce English to pieces and instructions, or rules. For them, learning English means memorizing the pieces and rules. And using English becomes a process of trying to remember the pieces and using the rules to correctly assemble them, to “get it right.”

You might ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Timothy Gallwey, well-known writer of the Inner Game books helps answer your question:

Any system of instruction [and learning] should be built upon the best possible understanding of natural learning, the learning process we were born with. The less instruction interferes with the process of learning built into our DNA, the more effective our progress is going to be.

In other words, we teach and learn best when we cooperate with our natural learning processes. This is certainly true with language. If we don’t, we may experience the kind of frustration students often describe and make English – or any language – more difficult than it needs to be.

Is there a natural way to acquire English?

Is there something better than pieces and rules for language learning? Is there an approach to language development that takes advantage of our natural learning processes? Happily, the answer is “yes.”

Dr. Lucy Tse describes two components, or ingredients, for developing and maintaining language ability: (1) comprehensible input and (2) “club” or group membership. Both of these components are active – naturally – when we acquire our first language, and we can use them again when we want to acquire a new language.

Comprehensible input is understandable written or spoken input in the language you want to acquire, such as English. You acquire new language when you receive comprehensible input that includes elements of the language that you haven’t acquired yet.

Dr. Tse describes scientific research that shows that language learners who read and listen more do better than those who don’t. It also shows that written input – reading – results in more vocabulary knowledge and better grammar, reading comprehension, writing ability, spelling, and even speaking and listening.

The research also tells us that there is a psychological aspect to language development. You acquire language more easily when you are not worried or nervous about it. And when you believe that it will happen, or even better, that it is happening.

Club or group membership means thinking of yourself as a member of the world-wide family of English users. If you identify with other English users and think of yourself as becoming one of them, you are more likely to develop English ability.

Try it!

If you’ve been frustrated by the “pieces and rules” approach to language development, I encourage you to try the natural approach Dr. Tse describes:

  • Read and listen to as much comprehensible input as possible.
  • Relax and enjoy the process; believe that you, too, can become an English user.
  • Join the club; when you do, we’ll gladly welcome you!

If you want to learn more about the natural way to acquire English, take a few minutes to look at these articles:

Warren Ediger

References: Chomsky (1996) Silent Children, New Language; Gallwey (2008) The Inner Game of Tennis; Terrell & Krashen (1998) The Natural Approach: Language acquisition in the classroom; Tse (1998)  Ethnic Identify Formation and Its Implications for Heritage Language Development.

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Sanaz January 8, 2011

Dear Warren,
I completely agree with you. I think … we should accept and trust the natural way. Be aware of aquiring English in natural, effective way still takes time. It is not a pharmaceutical product to take or use in order to treat our ailments in several days or weeks.

In the past, I didn’t know that I can enjoy learning English. Although reaching every goal has its own difficulties, I’ve learned to enjoy the process of acquiring English by your advice.

Many thanks!

Nele January 9, 2011

Sometimes I look on your page. It gives me hope, that I will learn english. Step by step. I read and I listen (ESL Podcast) as much as possible, the last half year. And now, I can feel a little bit that I learn, that it comes better.

Now it´s a new year, with new aims: I write my first comment.

Thank you very much for your helpful website.

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