How difficult is it to learn the English language?

The great Wurlitzer of language, the most perfect all-purpose instrument

DEAR RICHARD: Congratulations on your wonderful “Tense Time with Verbs” poem and its eminently well-deserved display at the Planet Word Museum. I’m glad visitors to the museum will get to enjoy it. The verb tenses in your poem make me reflect that the English language is just impenetrable for anyone not born to it! —Judith Leggett, Escondido

The English language gains its reputation for difficulty largely from its spelling inconsistencies. For example, manslaughter and man’s laughter, each containing the same letters in the same order, are pronounced very differently. In “A foul ghoul soul loves good blood food,” the spellings of -oul and -ood each yield three different soundings.

And the ear-rinsing letter cluster -ough plagues us with a dozen different soundings: bough, dough, enough, cough, hiccough, lough (ock, och), through, trough (awth), thorough (uh), Hough (ahf) and Colclough (ee)!

People often tell me that English must be an arduous and intimidating language for foreigners to master. How difficult can it be, I answer, when of the more than 1 billion speakers of English around the globe, only 378 million speak English as a first language while 793 million are non-native speakers. The vast bulk of English speakers worldwide did not hear English as babies and grow up speaking it as children. That’s right. A towering majority of English speakers are second-, third- or fourth-language speakers; and that group is increasing faster than the cluster of first-language speakers.

One of these come-latelies to English, Hungarian-born Stephen Baker, speaks of his love for his adopted language:

“No doubt, English was invented in heaven. It must be the lingua franca of the angels. No other language is like it Nothing comes even close to it in sound, eloquence and just plain common sense — and this from someone who spoke nary a word of it before reaching age 25, save for Coke, OK and drugstore.

“You will be surprised to hear me say this: English is probably among the easiest languages to learn — because grammatically it makes sense. Anyone who tells you it isn’t should take a trip around the world and listen to tongues wagging. He’ll be happy to come home again.”

Writer Michael Arlen calls English “the great Wurlitzer of language, the most perfect all-purpose instrument.” But, as elaborate as its keyboard is, it is a relatively easy instrument to learn how to play. Turns out that English possesses a fairly simple apparatus of grammar unencumbered by complex noun and adjective inflections and gender markers.

By RICHARD LEDERER first published on FEB. 20, 2021