My students often ask me: ‘Is English difficult to learn?’. I am telling you what I think about how difficult it is to achieve fluency in English comparing to other languages in a new episode of ‘Figure Out English’ podcast.
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What are levels of English mastery?
You have probably heard of Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). If not, this is how we measure levels of knowing the most common European languages.
You can check the CEFR for English here
I will explain these levels in a more practical way.
There are three basic levels of proficiency in English:
- First of all, what we call ‘survival English’ – it is what you need for travelling, basic communication with non-native speakers of English. This is mostly basic dialogues (listening and speaking), everyday vocabulary, and easy grammar structures.
- People at the second step to proficiency will be using language for ‘functioning’. By functioning I mean either living in an English-speaking country (using English in your everyday life) or using English for your work. At this level, you are already a confident speaker but still have some minor gaps in writing, speaking, and listening.
- And when we talk about advanced and proficient users – we mean that they know how the language functions from the inside, use it without hesitation in any situation (with both native and non-native speakers) and even can teach it.
So, the first thing you need to understand for yourself – it is what level of proficiency you want to achieve. You will not need or be able to learn all 100% of the language – I recommend aiming at the level which is close to HOW YOU WILL BE USING ENGLISH.
Differently from some languages, in English, it is a bit difficult to learn how to pronounce and read the words correctly. That’s why beginners sometimes feel that English is not an easy language to learn.
There are a lot of people in the world who, being non-natives, have become fluent speakers of it – remarkably higher percentage of them comparing to learners of other languages.
Can you become fluent in a foreign language like in your native one?
Why learning your own language wasn’t difficult for you?
You learnt your native language in a different way – you were completely immersed (spent so much time listening and practising it). You didn’t feel it as learning.
That’s why many people think that it is very easy to master your native language and that’s why we need to find a cool method for learning foreign languages the same way we learn our native one.
I am afraid it is impossible.
The number of hours you spend as a child in your native language environment making experiments is very hard to recreate in a foreign language learning.
It doesn’t mean that only very small kids can learn languages up to fluency, it simply means you need to use other methods for learning English as an adult. You are able to analyse the language you are listening and reading and start to use it in your own language.
Statistically, it takes shorter time to learn a language using logic, attention and active learning.
Is English difficult to learn, comparing to other languages?
English is usually included in the group of the easiest languages to learn.
It has neither verb conjugation nor noun genders and cases. The pronoun system is quite simple because of the absence of personal endings. Even the dreaded verb tense system is much easier to master comparing to ever-changing personal endings of Polish verbs, for example. Grammatically speaking.
It has nothing similar to exquisite intonation variety of Asian languages. It uses much less vocabulary than Romance languages. Its punctuation is not as complex as the one in Russian.
And there are two very important factors why English is MUCH easier to learn than any other language :
- English has acquired a lot of vocabulary from Latin and Germanic languages in the past but also it has given LOTS of words to the modern languages being the language of the Internet and international business. The chances are you could know plenty of English words even as a complete beginner!
- Because it is the most popular language in the world, there is the biggest number of learning and authentic materials for you to practise. Learners of Icelandic, for example, are not so lucky!
I hope I have persuaded you that English is not that bad at all and it can be mastered at any age. Then, why does it feel so hard at times?
The sad truth is: any language is difficult to master
The problem is you use your native language intuitively, it is in your subconsciousness. It doesn’t take too much effort to speak every day because, through so many years of listening and reading to your native language and practicing, experimenting, you have developed some automatic patterns you don’t think about.
And when you try to operate with something absolutely new at a conscious level, with a different signal system, of course, you
will feel confused because you need to add new subconscious tools to your toolset.
And in this way, learning ANY foreign language is actually difficult.
You need time and practice to get used to other ways of expressing your thoughts – to switch from logical understanding of the rules to intuitively using them.
And this usually happens at middle levels. When you just start learning English, you can see the results, right? I mean today you knew nothing and tomorrow you know 100 words. You feel good about it.
But when you already know enough words and grammar but you still can’t FEEL the language, yes, you will feel frustrated.
You need to be ready for that, you need to know about that, and you need to stay positive. When you start thinking about it as a difficult thing, you block yourself and you can’t progress anymore.
If you understand that it’s a part of the game but it is a very important thing to do, you will deal with it. Use the help from the community (Facebook groups, Telegram communities, Reddit), from your friends, from your teachers – and in this case, you will overcome this barrier and become fluent.
Please let me know in the comments if these tips help and what are your personal difficulties with English.