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Tongue tied? Problems English speakers have when learning new languages

Did you vow to learn a new language this year? Good for you – don’t be put off by some of these common stumbling blocks for native English speakers…

LEARNING A NEW language can open up the world to you – so maybe you’re determined to finally master French or nail Arabic.

But, despite their enthusiasm, some beginners get put off by early stumbling blocks. Here are a few tips to bear in mind if you’re embarking on  linguistic journey soon…


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A common problem for English speakers attempting to learn Spanish is phonology, specifically vowel sounds and sentence stress. Beginners – and even more proficient Spanish learners – also have problems rolling their Rs… (although it can come a bit easier if you’re lucky enough to be Scottish).

Another thing for English speakers to watch out for is the subject, which is often conveyed by the ending of the word. So ‘quiero’ means ‘I want’ – there is no need to add ‘yo’ (I).


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The gender of French nouns matter – really matter. Unfortunately that’s non-negotiable. While most nouns in French have single gender, some are identical in pronunciation but not in meaning, so you need to know which gender they are in order to make yourself understood/ not look like a raving lunatic. (For example, ‘un auteur’ means ‘author’ but ‘une hauteur’ means ‘height’.)

Other than that, beginners should get their heads around the verb ‘to be’ – it will make life infinitely easier.


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English is a West Germanic language (with Romantic influences) so, you could be forgiven for hoping that learning German might be a doddle. That is, unfortunately, not the case.

Compound words can make your head spin – eg the often quoted ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän’, meaning ‘Danube steamship company captain’ – umlats can be tricky, and sentence structure can seem confusing. But verbs and adjectives are not gender specific – just like English – so you can side-step the problem inherent in many European languages.

Other Germanic languages include Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish and the Frisian languages.


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The Polish alphabet has 32 letters, in contrast to English’s 26; and 9 vowels and 23 consonants, in contrast to English’s 5 vowels and 21 consonants. So, as might be anticipated, there are some different phonemes in Polish (sounds).

In Polish, nouns can have three genders and each noun and adjective can appear in one of seven cases. And, to make things just a little harder, verbs come in two ‘aspects’ (English doesn’t contain grammatical aspect).

But it’s not all bad news – there are no articles in Polish. So forget about figuring out the equivalent to ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘an’ – they simply don’t exist. Another bit of luck is that, in stark contrast to English, Polish is almost entirely phonetic.


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The alphabets of English and Japanese are very different from each other – English is written in Latin script and Japanese is (mostly) written in kanji (漢字). This can cause obvious difficulty to learners.

But, on the plus said, learners of Japanese don’t have to worry about matching nouns to different genders, like you must with Romance languages. If you don’t like to spend your time guessing the sex of chairs, tables and houseplants, maybe Japanese is for you.


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Chinese can be a little more difficult to English speakers than Japanese – and a large part of that is owed to the fact Chinese is a tonal language. That means, as you might image, that pitch and tone are used to  represent lexical and grammatical meaning.

Other tonal languages include Cantonese and Vietnamese.


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Arabic also uses a non-Latin script, which can be daunting to native English speakers, and is written right to left – which is the opposite to English. However, it contains just 28 letters, so it’s broadly similar to English in that respect.

If you feel you could get used to opening your books at what you instinctively view as ‘the end’, why not try it?

In terms of pronunciation, Arabic learners have to get ready to make a lot of guttural, back-of-the-throat noises. It is also a VSO language, meaning the verb mostly comes before the subject and object.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg – do you have any tips about learning a new language? Let us know in the comments below…

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