English is a universal language and is spoken by 1.5 billion people (20% of the world’s population) according to babble.com.

However, only 360 million (24%) of that group are native speakers of the language. English is experiencing phenomenal growth across the globe as people use it exclusively to conduct business, speak it as a second language (ESOL) and use it as ESL students.

Young students often choose to teach English overseas where there are many such opportunities as well as slots in ESL programmes. Native language skills are the fundamental requirement for any aspiring ESL teacher and, therefore, when demand is great, an offer to teach may even include a certified teacher training programme.

For the committed learner who seeks proficiency in English, the popular choice is to hire a tutor or a language teacher. In a group setting, students can come to grips with reading-, listening-, writing- and, crucially, speaking skills.

team of people using laptop
Group sessions are enjoyed by some, but can be intimidating to a novice. (Source: Unsplash)

Each ESOL programme is designed to assist the student with coursework and examinations. Certain students, particularly novices, may find group sessions rather challenging or intimidating and, for them, an English class with a private tutor may be more appropriate. They are then in a position to learn a language, which is foreign to them, in a non-threatening environment.

Any student would be keen to learn to speak English fluently, but this will require time, patience, perseverance and daily practise.

Becoming acquainted with how to pronounce certain words and coming to grips with grammatical conventions and terminology can be quite complex and challenging.

Let’s have a look at how to overcome some of the challenges this old, history-rich language has to offer!

English Phonetics: 2 Basic Rules

  1. There sometimes appears to be no obvious rule: simply learn (memorise) it.
  2. Each word must contain a vowel.

For as many rules as there are, there often are exceptions which do not follow the rules.

For instance, a word does not require a vowel if it is an acronym or abbreviation or a sound like ‘brrr’.

English Pronunciation Can Be Difficult

English, like any other language, is easier to master if one has been exposed to it from a tender age.

Sounds, grammar, vocabulary, context and pronunciation are taught and learnt daily and over an extended period of time.

A learner, foreign to the language, has the difficulty of learning the language against the background of his own native tongue and its conventions. With daily practise and guidance, the student should be able to triumph over what some regard as one of the most difficult languages to learn on the planet.

This is, of course, relative as some students plough ahead with great difficulty, others breeze through and come out at the other end smiling. Nothing, however, detracts from the fact that there will be difficult or downright complex aspects encountered when studying the English language.

Pronunciation can often be problematic when non-native speakers want to make themselves understood by locals, because it can differ from town to town and, therefore, also from country to country. There are some parts of the UK where you will not even be able to recognise the language spoken as being English.

Nevertheless, it would do a would-be speaker of the language well to focus on the language as used in one particular country, e.g. South Africa, Australia, Canada, the US or the UK.

graffiti on brown brick wall
English words can sometimes be baffling! (Source; Unsplash)

Words are very often not pronounced phonetically and display amazing examples of originality that can pop up at any time.

As a newcomer to the language, it crucial to note that it is not necessary for you to attempt complex phrases and sentences. Surely, out of the 600 000 words, you should be able to find some to make yourself understood. Exercises which will help you include syllable practise, English grammar quizzes, memorisation exercises and, more than anything else, the practising of punctuation.

Defining a Complex English Sentence

A sentence is essentially a group of words which contains a verb and makes sense. The length of words and the rhythm of the sentence can create some difficulty for ESOL learners and even make it difficult to teach.

English may present the non-native speaker with several problems as the construction of sentences and pronunciation of words is totally foreign to the speaker’s native tongue. The student, thus, has to remain very focused when learning the language and may have to learning certain phrases and ways of saying things by committing them to them to memory.

Even the most dedicated student will encounter aspects of the language which come across as complicated, be they words, vocabulary, phrases, terms or sentences. These complexities, in terms of pronunciation, speaking and writing, may cause even a bilingual speaker to break a sweat.

Some English Words That Commonly Cause Non-Native Speakers Problems

  • Although: This word is pronounced All-Tho and is definitely not pronounced as it is read. For example, Although it was windy, we enjoyed a lovely walk along the beachfront. The best way to learn a word is by ear and not by attempting to pronounce it phonetically. You can repeat it after your English teacher until you pronounce it correctly. Key to note is that the ‘GH’ and ‘TH’ letter combinations appear and are read in a similar way in a number of other words.
  • Throughout: As with although, the GH and TH are also found in this word. Loosely translated to mean “during”, it is not easy to pronounce for a number of reasons. With repetition of the word and the sounds that the letters make you will start to feel more comfortable saying it.
  • Colonel: Again, this is not said the way it appears. It is pronounced Ker-Nil and is reminiscent of how certain military ranks have somewhat different pronunciations, as with sergeant (Sar-Jint) and lieutenant (Loo-Ten-Nint), even captain being pronounced Cap-Tin not Cap-Tain.
sticky note and open book with handwritten sentences
What is a sentence? (Photo Source: Unsplash)

These words underscore the point that there are funny sounds in some English words and this makes it quite challenging for anyone who has not heard them before.

You have to hear them spoken before you can learn to pronounce them correctly. No matter what you background as an ESOL learner is, you will fall victim to them if you are not acquainted with them.

When that occurs, commit the word to memory and carry on.

It will happen, because even native speakers experience the same difficulties with certain English words. The same rule applies to all English speakers: you have to hear certain words spoken before you can pronounce them properly.

Even Locals Battle to Pronounce These Sentences

hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkey statues
Be careful with tongue-twisters, but do enjoy them! (Photo Source: Unsplash)

Tongue twisters were crafted to tweak and challenge your pronunciation. They are very tricky to say, but fun and can positively impact on improving your spoken English. They are pronunciation exercises designed to improve the way you speak and do not generally appear in day-to-day conversation. A small selection follows:

  • Practising the letter T:
    A tree toad loved a she-toad,
    Who lived up in a tree.
    He was a three-toed tree toad,
    But a two-toed toad was she.
    The three-toed tree toad tried to win,
    The two-toed she-toad's heart,
    For the three-toed tree toad loved the ground,
    That the two-toed tree toad trod.
    But the three-toed tree toad tried in vain.
    He couldn't please her whim.
    From her tree toad bower,
    With her two-toed power,
    The she-toad vetoed him.


  • Practising the letter S:
    Mr See owned a saw.                                                                                                                                        And Mr Soar owned a seesaw.
    Now, See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw
    Before Soar saw See,
    Which made Soar sore.
    Had Soar seen See's saw
    Before See sawed Soar's seesaw,
    See's saw would not have sawed
    Soar's seesaw.
    So See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw.
    But it was sad to see Soar so sore
    Just because See's saw sawed
    Soar's seesaw.

There are many issues, too numerous to mention, that you will confront when learning the English language. The examples mentioned above highlight only some of them.

Many of these you will encounter when you travel to or via an English-speaking country, some of whom use English terminology differently to others (think USA vs Australia, for example).

ESOL students should content themselves in the knowledge that they are not alone in this struggle. Even native speakers of the language sometimes encounter sticky spots too. Know that when you hit a brick wall, there will be many around you who will empathise with you and will be prepared to lend you a helping hand.

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Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.