Is English Easier than Other Languages?

The article “English: the Inescapable Language,” which appears in the latest issue of The American, a journal published by the American Enterprise Institute, has a somewhat different focus than you would expect from its title.

The article indeed does discuss how English has becomes the world’s common language of the workplace, including some interesting “did you know?” material such as the following—

  • English is the only language used in air traffic control.
  • The prestigious and proudly French scientific organization, l'Institut Pasteur, now publishes its papers in English first and only later in French, a practice in which it is far from alone.
  • For 60 percent of all students studying any foreign language today, the language is English.

However, Gordon’s primary focus is on comparing English and other languages. Surprisingly, English is quite different from other languages emerging from Europe:

“Historically, English is one of the Germanic languages, but, because of its insular evolution, it now bears little resemblance to the other Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. And while there is some overlap in French, the two grammars are very different. Indeed, English grammar is quite unlike any other language in the world.”

The key question addressed in the article—is English easier than other (originally) European languages, or is it harder? Gordon compares the challenge along a number of different dimensions. To summarize his very informative and more nuanced analysis:

  • Verb conjugation: easier. A typical French verb has more than fifty endings that must be learned. A regular English verb has four.
  • Irregular verbs: easier. It would take less than a page to list all irregular forms of all irregular verbs in English, as compared with sixteen pages for Spanish. All English irregular verbs except “to be” and “to have” are irregular in the same way.
  • English noun and adjectival forms: easier. Unlike most other European languages, nouns are not more or less arbitrarily divided as being “masculine,” “feminine,” or “neuter.” Adjectives need not change to match noun gender form, nor do they change if a noun is plural.
  • Written versus spoken forms: easier. Some languages, including French, German, and Greek, among others are very different in their formal written and casual spoken forms. English is not one of these.
  • Spelling and pronunciation: harder. English has a lot of different vowel sounds—Spanish, for instance, has five; English, depending on dialect, has at least twelve. And English does not use the accents and other markers that many other languages use to differentiate how letters should be pronounced. Also, when a word is “borrowed” from another language into English, historically English speakers have moved away from the “foreign” pronunciation to a new version, but retained the spelling of the original.
  • Vocabulary: harder. According to Gordon, the average speaker of English has an everyday vocabulary that includes half again as many words as the average speaker of other European languages such as French or German. English includes more synonyms with subtly different meanings from one another. 

Gordon speculates that the large vocabulary of English is one reason for its wide adoption (beyond obvious historical reasons related to the long British and then American domination of world trade and politics). The large vocabulary available, Gordon says, “makes English a superb literary and scientific language, able to express fine and precise shades of meaning far more easily than other tongues….It also makes English more efficient. The English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages.”

Gordon’s final conclusion is that it is easier to learn the basics of English than those of many other languages but that it is as hard to fully master as any other tongue.

What do you think about the difficulty of English? At what points do you find students plateau, and which skills are the last to be gained?

—Lia Nigro, TOEIC USA Team


There are 2 Comments

Difficulties with English: the very forms are simpler in number but still very irregular: catch - caught, hatch - hatched not haught. Sing - sung, think - thought not thunk. The spelling is a nightmare for learners and is the worse for an alphabetic writing system. Consider all the silent letters in bean, head, (but not seen) debt, biscuit, build and salmon etc. We also do not have any consistent rules when we double consonants: ballad- salad, panel - channel, very - berry, common - comic. We seem also to be running a European and a English vowel system simultaneously: ice and police don't rhyme. While the grammar is really very simple (there is only one case ending - the possessive) it is marred by its archaisms in its written form. This goes a long way to explain why there are high illiteracy rates in the English speaking world. It is plain difficult to learn to read for many.

Appreciate your very informative comment. As I'm sure you noticed, the article discusses how English pronunciation versus spelling is one of the key areas that makes English hard to learn, but your examples really bring this home! The comments on irregular verbs and double consonants are also interesting.

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