As the international language of business, science, and academia, English is the most studied language in the world. There are 1.5 billion English language learners and 527 million native English speakers worldwide, meaning that approximately a quarter of the global population has at least some familiarity with English.
Despite its importance in global affairs and commerce, English is an immensely difficult language to learn. The language features grammatical rules that are often broken, an alphabet that can confuse people who are used to a character-based system, and spelling and pronunciation irregularities that perplex even native speakers.
Here are some of the linguistic inconsistencies that make the English language difficult for non-native speakers to learn and why it still might be a good idea to get some extra help when using English (or any other foreign language) in your business or organization.
Words with the Same Spelling Can Have Different Pronunciations
For English pronunciation, context and parts of speech matter greatly. Sentences like, “It's time to present her the present” have the same word (“present”) twice, but are pronounced differently each time (pree-ZENT and PREZ-ent). In both speech and when reading, non-native speakers may have difficulty remembering which pronunciation to use at which time.
It is helpful to remember that in many cases, words with the same spelling have a verb form and a noun form (“produce and produce,” “present and present,” “record and record”), with the noun form having the stress on the first syllable (“PRO-duce,” “PREZ-ent,” and “RE-cord”) and the verb form having the stress on the second syllable (“pro-DUCE,” “pre-ZENT,” and “re-CORD”).
Grammatical “Rules” Often aren’t Applicable
English speakers grow up hearing the phrase “I before E, except after C.” But what about words like “science,” “their,” or “foreign,” all of which flout this rule?
Or that pesky rule that English verbs in the past tense end with the suffix “-ed”—except you “ate” rather than “eated” and “slept” rather than “sleeped”?
English spelling and grammar have so many exceptions to the rules that non-native speakers can struggle to remember them all. Memorization of irregular verbs and irregular spellings are the best solution, which only comes with practice and repeated exposure to the language.
The Level of Formality is Unclear
Languages like Spanish, Korean, and Japanese have different verb conjugations based on the level of formality. In Spanish, the “tu” form is used to address friends and family, while the “usted” form is used to address an elder or a superior. The English language does not have a direct equivalent, and can therefore be considered “too informal” by some non-native speakers. Levels of formality in English, such as formal, semi-formal, and informal, are based more on vocabulary rather than a specific tense or verb conjugation, which can be a tricky adjustment for non-native speakers when using English in the workplace or other professional contexts.
English Uses a lot of Idioms
Not everything in the English language is meant to be taken literally.
English is full of idioms, metaphors, and other figurative language that can be confusing to a new speaker. An English speaker might say that taxis in New York City are a dime a dozen, but that doesn’t mean it costs ten cents for twelve taxis; it just means they are plentiful and therefore not extremely valuable.
As with irregular verbs, idioms are all about memorization and practice.
English Uses Different Dialects
Standard American English is different than British English, which is also different than Australian English.
Even within countries and regions, dialects can differ. Someone from the southern United States might use the word “y’all” (short for “you all”) to refer to the second person plural form, while most other parts of the U.S. would just use the word “you.”
Vocabulary can also differ -- the American “toilet” becomes the “loo” in English, while the “trash” becomes the “rubbish.” Non-native speakers are usually trained in one of the “standard” dialects, but depending on context, may need to adapt to a new dialect to suit the appropriate audience.
Finding the Right Words
There’s always value in learning new languages, especially those that your industry or organization will commonly use when interacting with customers, patients, business partners or other organizations.
While still attaining your learning goals, consider using a language solutions partner for any business translation or interpreting in English to ensure your meaning is communicated as clearly as possible.