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Common Difficulties in Learning English

Difficulties in learning English can make you feel lost.

Without some help, it can be very hard to stay motivated.

But overcoming those difficulties is a lot easier than you think.

In this post, I’m going to show you the six biggest difficulties in learning English, and some super useful tips and tricks to overcoming these difficulties.

After reading these areas to focus on and tips, I promise you’ll feel more confident and more hopeful, and ready to conquer the difficulties of learning English.


Vocabulary Words with Multiple Meanings

Have you ever seen an English word that you thought you knew—but used in a completely strange way?

English vocabulary is especially difficult because there are so many words that have multiple definitions, so it’s easy to misunderstand their meanings. It’s also difficult to memorize many different definitions for each word.

Take the word date, for example. This word can mean:

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  • A specified day of the month
  • A time two people spend with each other romantically

The only possible way to understand which definition is being used is to pay attention to context clues. This means using the surrounding words and sentences to find out which definition for the word makes sense.

Even if you haven’t learned all the definitions for a difficult English word, context clues can help you figure out the right definition!

Can you figure out which definition for the word date makes sense in the two sentences below?

  • When’s the date for the first day of school again?
  • Would you like to go on a date with me?

In the first sentence, someone is asking for a specific day when school starts. This isn’t a romantic event that two people will spend together. The first definition applies here.

The second sentence is trickier, but you can tell that the person isn’t asking for a single, specified day. They’re asking to spend time with you. The second definition applies here.

Another trick is to pay attention to the part of speech (noun, adjective, etc.). Very often, the different definitions for an English word will have different parts of speech, so it’s easy to tell them apart.

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If you’re looking for more help in learning English vocabulary words that have more than one meaning, this video shows more examples and explanations!

Words That Aren’t Pronounced the Way They’re Spelled

In the English language, a large number of the words aren’t spelled phonetically. That means they sound very different from what you’d expect based on their spelling.

Look at these words, for example:

  • February: We don’t pronounce the “r” in this word at all. You might sound it out as feb-you-air-ee.

  • Choir: You might expect to pronounce the “ch” sound here, like in the word chair. But this word is actually pronounced like kwai-er.

  • Knife: The “k” is completely silent!

So how can you overcome this difficulty in learning English?

There are two very useful tools for hearing the correct, native pronunciation of difficult English words:


  • Forvo: Forvo is an audio dictionary. You can type in any word and you’ll get recordings of native English speakers pronouncing the word!

    Better yet, Forvo will even show you where the speaker is from, so you’ll know if you’re getting the pronunciation in American, British, Australian or some other type of English.

Confusing Intonation Patterns

Intonation is the rise and fall of pitch in speech, and it plays a crucial role in conveying meaning and emotions in English. However, mastering English intonation can be really hard. 

The first important thing to know is that English is a stress-timed language, which means that stressed syllables in a sentence occur at roughly regular intervals, while unstressed syllables are shorter and less prominent.

This means that when you place the stress on the wrong word, or even the wrong syllable, sometimes people won’t understand you, or they’ll misunderstand you.

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For example, the two words “conflict” and “conflict.”

If you say CON-flict, you mean that there is some sort of disagreement between two people, like in this sentence:

Steve and Marie are in conflict over whether to get a dog.

But if you say con-FLICT, you mean that two stories or accounts aren’t the same, like in this example:

His story conflicts with Lucy’s, so I don’t know who to believe.

English uses a system of rising and falling intonation. 

The rise or fall in pitch at the end of a sentence or phrase can change the meaning of a statement or question. Mastering when to use rising intonation (indicating a question) versus falling intonation (indicating a statement) can be tricky, too.

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English also uses contrastive stress to emphasize certain words or phrases in a sentence to convey meaning or clarify information. Understanding which words to stress in a sentence and how this affects the overall meaning can be challenging.

Take this sentence, for example:

I didn’t say she stole the money.

Depending on which word you stress, you change the meaning of the sentence.

  • If you stress “she,” that means that someone stole the money, but not necessarily this “she.”
  • If you stress “money,” maybe she didn’t steal the money, but she may have stolen something else.

It turns out each and every word in this sentence, if stressed, changes the meaning of the sentence.

Lastly, English uses emotional and expressive intonation.

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Intonation is crucial for conveying emotions, attitudes, and intentions in speech. Learners may struggle to accurately convey these nuances, especially if their native language uses different intonation patterns for expressing emotions.

To work on this, I especially recommend recording yourself. Most people have a smart phone with a voice memo app. Use that, read a text or just speak your mind and then see how it sounds to you.

Another tip is to watch a lot of English, American or Australian TV. I find that soap operas are great for this purpose because they’re all about the dialogue and the drama!

Check out this informative video for some more tips on how to master English intonation:

Complex Grammar with Lots of Exceptions

English grammar can be particularly challenging for English learners due to its complexity and the presence of various rules and lots of exceptions.


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English verbs change form to indicate tense, person and number. This means learners must memorize the different forms of verbs for present, past and future tenses. Also there are lots of irregular verbs that can be especially tricky because they do not follow regular conjugation patterns.

Articles (a, an, the)

Determining when to use “a,” “an” or “the” can be really confusing. The rules for article usage are not always straightforward, and there are cases where no article is used at all.


English prepositions can be tricky because they often do not have a direct equivalent in other languages. Additionally, the choice of preposition can significantly impact the meaning of a sentence.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs (such as can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would) are used to express various degrees of necessity, possibility, permission, and ability. Understanding when and how to use these can be complex for learners.

To overcome the grammar difficulties, I’m afraid there is no real short cut that will get you there faster than a lot of old-fashioned practice.

Keep in mind, though, that you can pretty much avoid the more complex verb tenses and still get your point across. Save the past perfect for when you feel more comfortable with the present, past and future tenses.

To focus more on modal verbs, which is perhaps the most confusing aspect of English grammar, check out this video for more great tips:

Lots of Confusing Idioms

Idioms are sayings or expressions that have a figurative, non-literal meaning. They are commonly used in English to add color and depth to language. However, they can be particularly confusing.

For example, take these two super common English idioms:

  • Bite the bullet
  • Break a leg

“Bite the bullet” has nothing to do with guns or bullets. It simply means to deal with something unpleasant now, rather than later.

“Break a leg” means the opposite. It means “good luck.” How would an English language learner ever figure that out from the words alone?

In addition to this, most idioms are culturally specific.

This means that they are deeply tied to the culture in which they originated. For example, an idiom related to a specific sport or historical event might not make sense to someone from a different culture.

To navigate idioms, learners should use as many authentic English materials (such as books, movies and TV shows) as possible, to familiarize yourself with idiomatic expressions in context.

Check out this informative video to learn the 100 most common English idioms:

Finding Real-life Speaking Practice

If you truly want to gain the full experience of speaking in English, you need to actually talk with native speakers. This is the only way to practice having real English conversations. But it can be really difficult for a couple of reasons.

For starters, if you don’t live near or in an English-speaking region, you might not know where to find native speakers to practice with.

Second, English conversations can be scary! There’s a lot of pressure when someone is waiting for you to come up with an English sentence.

It’ll be tough in the beginning! But fear not.

There are other ways you can meet and talk with native speakers without feeling lots of pressure, no matter where you currently live.

Language Exchange Apps

A language exchange app is one of the best options to practice speaking and typing in the English language.

You have the comfort of messaging native speakers without leaving home! You can wear your most comfortable pajamas, sit in your favorite spot in the park or even use online apps in between classes while messaging native speakers.

You won’t feel too much pressure since everything is done by either your phone, tablet or computer. Some popular apps you can find to download for free are:

  • HelloTalk: A convenient language exchange app with audio and text chat. There are built-in tools for translation, correcting errors and more.
  • TandemSimilar to HelloTalk with lots of great language learning features. However, this one also has the option to seek out a professional tutor.

In fact, as seen in the following video, being able to speak English with a native speaker is one of the best ways to reinforce what you’ve learned. Alongside watching and listening to native English media and reading a lot, having a conversation in English—even a short one!—can take your English a long way.

Language Voices


If you enjoy meeting new people and would like to converse with native speakers in a comfortable setting, language cafes can be another great option for you! These are in-person events where you can meet native speakers as well as other language learners.

They’re relaxing events where people can teach, read, write or meet with friends, so it doesn’t feel like you’re studying but having loads of fun and drinking loads of coffee!

Language Voices is a great option to find a language cafe near you! Their language cafes cover lots of different topics, whether it be business English, grammar, listening skills and much more.

Their options are mainly Europe-based, with cafes from Finland to Turkey.

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How to Overcome English Difficulties with Others

Have you thought that your classmates and other English-learning friends might also be frustrated with difficulties in learning in English?

They probably are!

They’re probably pulling their hair and drinking cups and cups of coffee because of the same stressful feelings you have.

But what better way to overcome these difficulties than as a group?

Studies have shown that studying in a group can boost your learning! Group studying makes learning more fun and reduces the stress you might feel about difficult English topics.

Group learning also doesn’t have to take place only in an educational setting. It can take place in a cafe, pub, classmate’s home, restaurant, park or even in public transportation.

Your group can make learning more effective by creating role-playing games where you act out real-world English situations. You can also try a drinking game or even a bet where a reward is involved—whatever you need to make it fun and motivating for everyone.

But what happens when your group isn’t really sure if you’re studying the right way?

Ask a native speaker to be part of the learning time, if possible. He or she can be the referee, keeping score for the games or listening for mistakes in your role-playing exercises.


Learning the rules of pronunciation, definitions, grammar and speaking in English may seem like a very difficult thing to do. But with these tips, consistent practice and confidence in yourself, you should have no trouble overcoming these difficulties in learning English.

And One More Thing...

If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:


If you want to watch it, the FluentU app has probably got it.

The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.


FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:


FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.


FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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