Frustrated English language student studying online

Language is layered and complex and for those who have specific language learning difficulties acquiring English as a second or foreign language is more challenging than we often realise.

A previous post has dealt with some of the reasons why students may not be progressing as quickly as teachers may think they should. Still, before discussing learning differences due to neurodevelopmental disorders, let’s look at the English language and see what inherent problems the language itself brings to the foreign or second language classroom.
Some of our students may encounter difficulties in learning a second or foreign language due to differences between their native language and English in:

•  phonology (sound system)

•  semantics (meanings)

•  morphology (word structure)

•  syntax (sentence structure)

•  orthography (writing system)

Similarities and differences in the above language components in languages can influence the ease of the acquisition of the four basic language skills, speaking, listening, reading, and writing of the target language being taught.

So what is so difficult about English?

Sounds – Phonology

Different languages have different sound systems and the closeness or similarity of the sound system or phonology of a native language to that of the target language affects greatly the ability to acquire a language successfully or not.
English has 24 consonant sounds – about the same number as other languages. Regrettably, it also has around 22 distinct vowel sounds. Even more regrettably, since there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, almost every sound can be spelled in more than one way, using different letters or letter combinations. To confuse the learner more, the same letter combinations can be pronounced differently.
A complex sound structure can cause inaccurate pronunciation and difficulties with listening and reading comprehension and spelling. In fact, it can hinder the whole language learning process especially if a student has phonological perception and awareness problems.

Spelling – Orthography

Into the bargain, English has over 80 basic spelling patterns – all of which have exceptions (through, though, tough, cough) and because of all the changes in pronunciation over time but not in spelling, hundreds of homophones exist – write, right, rite. It is also possible to find words with the same pronunciation but without any letters in common – you / ewe, for example. No wonder spelling errors are rife in written assignments.


English also has the most complex tense and aspect system of any Germanic language. Even though there are only three times: past, present and future, English has 24 active and passive tenses that are formed by conjugating main verbs or by adding modal or auxiliary verbs.
Just to complicate matters, the name of the tense can be vague: Present simple sometimes refers to the future but it never refers to “now”. Past tenses, with the help of conditionals, can describe present events (If I had my purse with me, I would buy the book) and future events (If you come tomorrow, you can buy the book then).


Apart from times, tenses and aspects, English vocabulary also has its drawbacks. The history of the development of the English language has resulted in a very large vocabulary, rich in collocations and phrasal verbs and a wide selection of prefixes and suffixes. For example, you can negate using un, il, dis, mis, a, in. Are there rules for when you apply these morphological chunks? Yes, sure, but just as many exceptions.

So, if your students are struggling, firstly, consider, could some aspect of the English language be diversely different from the same language component in their native language and is it possible that this difference is affecting the speed and ease of language acquisition?

Free Resources

Rushed and overwhelmed? Quickly and easily recognise and help struggling students and ensure you have useful information at your fingertips. Join other teachers and professionals and download my free how-to guides and handy checklists now. Enjoy!

Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Disclaimer: Content on this site is for educational purposes only.

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