Endang Fauziati

Universitas Muhammadiyah Surakarta


Most students in Indonesia are not quite familiar with English in their life. English is a foreign language and is still one of the most difficult school-subject to most students. Through years of observation, we, teachers, have witnessed a lot of students have struggled in their study but unable to make significant progress. My own experiences of learning English have been pretty dismal.  I scraped through a very basic level of English at junior high school and only managed to acquire an advanced level after spending five years of intensive study at university. Obviously, learning English is a very complex activity and to acquire it one needs effortful effort.

One big question always occurs in every learner’s mind; why is English so difficult to learn? There are several factors which make English difficult to learn. All these are attributed to the nature of English itself. By understanding its unique natures, we, language learners, can create better strategies to acquire and learn it. This paper is an attempt to discuss several factors which make English difficult to learn. Hopefully, this can give us better understanding about the nature of English itself so as to improve our English.

What Makes English Difficult to Learn?

English is difficult to learn because of several factors. To mention just a few, the following factors are attributable the difficulty in learning English such as: it has lots of confusing words; there are words which are similar in meaning; English pronunciation system is notoriously irregular; there are words which are the same in form but different in meaning; the English spelling system is unspeakably awful; its phrasal verbs contribute another difficulty of learning it; and English has lots of irregularities in its rules.

Confusing Words

Some English words can be confusing and difficult to remember. A lot of words are similar in form (writing) but are totally different in meaning; Ringbom (1998) calls it false friends. These words are really confusing since they look quite similar and it needs some time to really recognize them. It is very common to make mistakes in such confusing words, but if we pay much attention to the differences we might be able to avoid making mistakes on these words. Look at the following examples: accept vs except, advice vs advise, affect vs effect, a lot vs allot, all ready vs already, all right vs alright, apart vs a part, beside vs besides, complement vs compliment, decent vs descent, certain vs curtain, career vs carrier vs courier, come over vs overcome, look over vs overlook, homework vs housework, desperate vs disparate, etc.

Words with Similar Meaning

Some English words are different in form (writing) but similar in meaning. Ringbom (1998) also calls it false friend. This false friend adds the difficulty of learning English since learners might have mistakenly used of such words, for example, the word to follow and to take part. Lexical distinction of such words often does not exist in their Indonesian equivalents. Thus, to follow and to take part have the same Indonesian equivalent mengikuti. Such words are potential to confuse and this might lead learners to erroneously employ these words in sentences such as They are also interested in *following sport competition (should be taking part), I have been *attracted to taste nasi liwet (should be interested in), We should eat a lot of fruit because they can *avoid  from some diseases (should be prevent)                                                              


Pronunciation System

Another factor which contributes to the difficulty to learn English is that English pronunciation system is different from its spelling system. Although most English words have been spelt the way they are for hundreds of years, the speech of English has changed dramatically. As a result, English words are not really pronounced as they are spelt. For example: Cough, Weigh, Weight, general, gigantic, chair, chef, cake, cent, cut, cute, change, lung,  etc. The English vowels have many different sounds. Unlike most languages, including Indonesian, where the vowels are usually pronounced as they are written, for example Indonesian ‘a’ is always an ‘a’ sound, no matter what word its in as in makan, aman. Whereas in English ‘a’ can have different sounds, for instance: the ‘a’ in Car, bar, and Cat, dad are differently pronounced. There is no specific rule why it is pronounced that way but; it is just how the speech of the English has evolved. The same way happens to English sound ‘i’ as in, live, live, life, bit, bite are pronounced differently. Another instance is sound ‘oo’ as in good, wood, blood, and flood are pronounced differently. The followings are few examples of words which are difficult to pronounce and spell.
– Queue [kyu] (line, line up)

– Quay [kee] (an unloading bay for ships)

– Deoxyribonucleicacid (DNA)

– silhouette [sil-oo-et] (shadow, shape)

– bourgeoisie [Boo(r)-Zhwaa-zee]

– denouement [DAY-NOO-MON] (end of story)

– tete-a-tete [tei-a-tei] (a private conversation)

– dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDTE) a chemical compound as a Synthetic pesticide

– Otolaryngology or ORL (ear, nose, and throat/ENT)

– pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis [Pneumono-ultramicroscopic-silico-volcano-coniosis] (a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, causing inflammation in the lungs)

Same Form but different in Pronunciation

English does not belong to a phonetic language. Many words look exactly the same but are pronounced differently. Some of the examples are: I have readthat book; I like to read; I am reading a book; I live in Reading; Oh…well…well…, I will dig a well to find out how well the well water will well up; Oh. . . I see, she sells sea shell in a sea shore; the bandage was wound around the wound; the soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert; since there is no time like the present; he thought it was time to present the present; the wind was too strong to wind the sail.

In other instances, it is the other way around; some words are different in form but similar in pronunciation, such as I have readthe book and My favorite color is red;I need to buy some flowers for the wedding party and I need to buy some flour to make wedding cake; I found a dead cat in the garden and My dad buried the dead cat; If you are available for me tonight, I’ll see you then and I am better at cooking than sewing. This is the end of the world and all my efforts come to a dead end.


Spelling System

The English spelling system is unspeakably awful. Most students are complaining  about its spelling system and even give up reading just because of the way the words are spelt. For example, the words monkey, debt, spinach, caterpillar, dwarf, circumlocution, handkerchief, pliers, soldiers, stomachache, bricklayer, pneumonia, etc. have all been included on the long list of words that baffle students. These words contain letter combinations that are more commonly pronounced in a different way. These words have all been identified as problematic for reading, because of their ‘phonic unreliability’; they have surplus letters such as the ‘i’ in friend, the ‘u’ in shoulder,  the ‘i’ in fruit, the ‘p’ pneumonia and psychology are not pronounced.

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs contribute another difficulty of learning English encountered by the learners. These would be perfectly clear to native speakers, but to English learners, especially beginners and lower intermediate students, these combinations would be confusing and illogical; thus it is difficult to learn. Check the following examples: Come forward with, Come up with, Come down with, Go through with, Drop in on, Drop out of, Check in on, Check up on, Look up to, Look down on, etc.



English is really a difficult language to learn because it has lots of irregularities in its rules. The subjection to more than a thousand years of external influences such as from Greek, Latin, and French, etc. has turned English into a mishmash. Such irregularity can be found in plural form such as box becomes boxes; ox should be oxen, not oxes; one fowl is a goose, but two fowls are called geese; yet the plural of moose should never be meese, but mice; and the plural of house is houses, not hice. What a confusing rules! Another instance is the irregularity of verb form such as in go – went – gone, drive – drove – driven, buy- bought- bought, cut – cut – cut, run – ran – run, hold – held – held, dig – dug – dug. One last example is the irregularity in adjective formation from noun with totally different word as in king becomes royal, moon becomes lunar, and sun becomes solar.


A good language learner is capable of handling the hurdle of English

It is undeniable that English is not easy to learn but it does not mean we cannot master it. One thing that we can do to face such difficulty is by being a good language learner. Who are good language learners then? Rubin (1975) believes that good language learners tend to have more various learning strategies to face the difficulty the encounter in language learning. She also mentions seven things that good language learners did as follows: (1) good learners are willing and accurate guessers; (2) they have a strong drive to communicate, or to learn from communication; (3) they are often not inhibited; (4) they think about correct grammar and sentence structure when they speak; (5) they seek out practice; (6) they monitor their own speech and the speech of others; and (7) they think about the meaning of the sentences they say and hear.

Rubin & Thompson further (1982) provide some characteristics of good language learners which can be summarized as follows: (1) they take and create opportunities to use the language. Good language learners use the language at every available opportunity. They are forever seeking out opportunities both to use and to hear the language; (2) they practice what they have just acquired; (3) they are willing to try anything in order to get their message across.  They possess a strong desire to communicate, willing to try out different ways in order to get their message across; (4) they are willing to live with uncertainty. They don not give up so easily. They are able to overcome their initial feelings of uneasiness, and in fact, may even enjoy it–seeing it as a game to be played; (5) they monitor their own speech as well as the speech of others. They monitor their own speech (listening to themselves speak and noting how their speech is being received by their listeners); such feedback is very important. They also monitor the other person’s speech (noting how they use words and phrases, as well as grammar structures); (6) they are constantly looking for patterns in the language. They constantly analyze, categorize and synthesize their new language. They know that learning a new language is a very complex matter (like putting together the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle). They absorb what they are taught in class, but they are also actively involved in discovering where new pieces fit in to the overall picture; (7) they are a systematic organizer. They recognize the magnitude of the task, set down a plan of campaign, divide their study program into attainable goals, and organize regular times for study. Then they systematically record what they learn about the language (the pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary) so that it is readily available for reference; (8) they are willing to experiment with different learning methods. They try out different approaches to acquiring the language, choose those that work for them and discard the rest. They also note how other people learnt the language, trying out their methods to see if they are suitable for them; (8) they make errors work. They recognize that errors are a part of the learning process itself and look upon them as a potential source of information, as well as a way of improving their language skills. They not only note their errors, but also try to understand why they made them and how to avoid making them again in the future; (9) they are a friendly initiator of conversation. They know that it is best if they start the ball rolling by initiating the conversation with a question or comment. And by doing it in a warm and friendly tone of voice, they find that the other person is usually very happy to chat with them.


Most English teachers will certainly agree with me that English is difficult to learn due to the very strange nature of the language it self. However, we have to convince our students that we can master it. We can use many kinds of learning strategy to help students feel comfortable learning English. It is true that most of students do a wonderful job of learning English. They are typical of good language learners. Language scholars have come up with their lists of attributes of good language learners. The lists indicate that they all differ in a variety of ways. We can see that conclusive views are still rare. With regards to good language learners, many of us believe that some learners have certain innate characteristics which could lead to more successful language learning. Good language learners take advantage of potentially useful learning situations. They develop learning strategies appropriate to their individual needs. Personally, I believe that some people are born to be good language teachers and good language learners. However, others can be ‘helped’ to become good.



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[1] Paper presented at National Seminar on English Language Learning held at Universitas Muhammadiyah Surakarta, June 10th 2011.