English is undoubtedly the most widely spoken language in the world and it is also the international language of business, with many companies communicating globally using English as their common language. However, as we explored in a recent article, English grammar can be pretty tricky to learn. With its strange laws, pesky plurals and not-always-straightforward subject and verb agreement, there are many rules of the English language that are a little illogical and have to be learned by rote – or experience. (For a light-hearted look at the quirks and foibles of the English language, the clever poem The Chaos covers around 800 different irregular spellings and pronunciations in English.)
Grammar is one sticking point when it comes to learning English, but there are other obstacles out there that can trip up even the most determined language learner. Fortunately, with a little practice, English becomes easier over time. In this article, we explore some additional aspects of the English language that can make it seem hard to learn, offering some tips to help you unlock the mysteries of this globally important language along the way.
Most words in the English language are pronounced exactly how they are spelt – such as all of the words in this sentence, for example! But English has some odd spellings for very common words that can really confuse a non-native speaker when they see them written down. Here are some examples of common words with silent letters:
- aisle – pronounced ‘iyall’
- half – pronounced ‘harf’
- knee – pronounced ‘nee’
- knife – pronounced ‘nife’
- write – pronounced ‘rite’
Also, English sometimes has different pronunciations for the same spellings, the most common one being ‘-ough’:
- tough, rough and enough – pronounced with an ‘uff’ ending
- bough and slough – pronounced with an ‘ow’ ending (the town ‘Slough’ also has the ‘ow’ ending, but note that the verb form of ‘slough’ has an ‘uff’ ending!)
- dough and though – pronounced with an ‘oh’ ending
- through – pronounced with an ‘oo’ ending
If you visit or live in Britain for a while, you may also struggle with pronouncing some of the city and town names. The way you say Leicester (‘Lester’), Gloucester (‘Gloster’), and Frome (‘Froom’), for example, often catches out tourists – and do not get us started on unpronounceable place names in Wales, including the infamous tongue-twister that is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!
Understanding That Some Words Have Many, Many Meanings
Lots of languages have words that double up to mean a few different things (homonyms), such as repasser in French, meaning either to come back or to iron. Confusingly, English has many words that can have myriad meanings, depending on their context.
A few common examples include:
- second, which can mean
- after the first – ‘the second day’
- an extra portion of food – ‘a second helping’
- 1/60th of a minute – ‘a second later’
- can, which most frequently means able – ‘I can do it’, but sometimes means an aluminium drinks tin – ‘a can of lemonade’
- shed, which can mean
- a small wooden building usually found at the bottom of the garden – ‘the bike shed’
- to drop – ‘the snake shed its skin’
- to impart – ‘shed some light on it’
Check out this article for many more examples of homonyms.
Perhaps the most famous word with multiple meanings is ‘run’, which, as well as meaning to go quickly, can also mean to melt, to flow, to push through, to stand for, to manage – in fact, the word has been estimated as having a whopping 645 potential different meanings! Not to mention the derivations such as runner-up, runner bean, running commentary, runaway, runabout, run down . . . Right, that example has run its course . . .
Finally, we cannot talk about the challenge of learning English without mentioning that Brits are very fond of using idiosyncratic idioms (certain sayings and turns of phrase that do not really mean anything on their own). You would be lucky to have an everyday conversation with a Brit without hearing at least one idiom! Here are a few common English idioms to get your head around (‘understand’):
- Chew the fat – have a lengthy, relaxed conversation
- Wind someone up/take the mickey – ridicule someone
- Over the moon – really excited or pleased
- Call it a day – stop doing something
- Under the weather – feeling mildly ill
If you visit London, you may hear some born-and-bred Londoners (Cockneys) using the occasional bit of famous Cockney rhyming slang – the epitome of idiomatic speech – especially in the markets of the city. Use this guide to navigate the apples and pears (‘stairs’) without getting into Barney Rubble (‘trouble’)!
Learning English may seem complicated at times, but if you can master the mysteries of its pronunciation, word meanings, and idiomatic phrasing then you can develop a degree of expertise that may find you speaking like a local. If you want to really immerse yourself in the English language and speak like a native – perhaps even dropping in the odd idiom to impress! – please do get in touch to find out how we can help you or your organisation achieve your language-learning goals.