What types of construction, syntactic elements and vocabulary make language easy or difficult for learners of English to understand?

Are there significant differences between the difficulties encountered in spoken and written language for learners? (And therefore the kinds of guidelines we might want to give teachers, and helpers of English language learners)

This might relate to written or spoken instructional and presentational language (in classrooms or in textbooks), or for example posts on ELL, where we might consider a lot of the answers to be either instructional or presentational .

This question is really important for teachers and people who want their posts to be accessible. It's also important for teachers who want their language presentations and classroom language to be understood by learners.

I'm interested in advice supported by evidence, and not looking for opinions or (primarily for) anecdotal answers.

  • 5
    +1, but IMHO it's not about the set of vocab or grammar, but it's about the closeness of the specific grammar/vocab to the learners' L1. L1 is often grasped naturally, thus anything like it fits their "instinct". (Not the best choice of words, but I hope you know what I mean)
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:12
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    I believe that en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_English and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English are worth looking for. Or in (my version of) plain English: These two pages have good information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_English, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English Apr 14, 2015 at 18:21
  • 2
    But … but … but, it's the pure opinion posts that get the most up-votes! :D
    – F.E.
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:25
  • 2
    I think it would be helpful if you limited your question to either what makes written language difficult or what makes spoken language difficult.
    – Shoe
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:32
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    I think this would depend highly on the native language and the language being taught. For example, someone teaching French to English students can afford to drop in words like "admirer", "élégant", and "simplicité" without even having to teach them as vocabulary, while if they are teaching a student who only speaks Chinese these kind of words won't be obvious. Beisides vocab, this kind of thing probably also applies to grammatical categories like inflection for tense, case and number--if the student has something similar in their native language, it will be easier for them to understand.
    – sumelic
    Apr 16, 2015 at 3:03

3 Answers 3


Regularity and a minimization of the need for rote memorization. Specifically:

  • Irregular verbs are a pain in any language. You want consistent conjugations, not inconsistencies like "am/is/are".

  • Needless genders drive learners nuts. In French, men's shirts are feminine while women's blouses are masculine. WTF? These take time to learn that could be spent on expanding vocabulary or grammar.

  • Accents. I don't think I need to go into details here; they're just more memorization that would be nice to not have to bother learning.

  • 4
    I think this is answering a different question from the one that was asked. The OP's question is about passive comprehension of language; for example, students in a language-learning class listening to their teacher, or reading a handout. In this context, it's hard for me to see how gender or accents could be a real confusion. Verbs that are irregular enough to be unrecognizable in some of their forms might be more difficult to understand, but usually there are only a few of these and these are the first words learners learn.
    – sumelic
    Apr 16, 2015 at 2:57
  • Could you please try to put your answer on this question too: english.stackexchange.com/q/328911/170668 I'm puzzled with this question, i will be waiting for your answer
    – yubraj
    Jun 1, 2016 at 1:44

While working with an international company, I've come across a few reasons that learning (and using) English can be a challenge.

I think that the biggest source of language issues is colloquialisms, idioms, and slang. The reason I give for this being the biggest issue is that native speakers do not realize how much of their writing and speech doesn't translate literally or very well at all.

Another source of language translation issues is multiple definitions.

Lastly, homonyms like too, to, two; their, they're, there are a challenge for natives and learners alike.

  • 1
    +1 I absolutely agree about idiomatic language. It's not easy for teachers and writers of instructional and presentational English to monitor their own use of idiomatic English when presenting to language learners. And this causes loads of problems for learners. Jul 20, 2016 at 7:47

I think people tend to think "irregular verbs" ( I mean, especially inflected verbs and adjectives so on ) are difficult, I hear this kind of voice many times, but to me, mostly uninflected lanuage, whose ideal model would be English, is in a different way difficult.

This kind of uninflected tends to have accumulate the vocablaries than the other types of languages, especially it becomes much clearer when we pay our attention to verb + particles, prepositions etc.

Why are there so many verb+*** types even just for one verb, get?

Examples are...

get in

get away

get into

get on

get along

get up

get down

get to

and furthermore these verbs + **** have more variables and we learners don't exacly know when to use most appropriately.

So, in conclusion, I think any language is actually "same", I mean in tems of the languae itself, only the difference among them is not the language itself but the power or the influence level of the nation of the language spoken ( think about the U.K English and American English ), so well, what we learners need to master for any language is, "just get used to it

I think.

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