Is That Word Difficult or Just Unfamiliar?
by John Fotheringham of Foreign Language Mastery
I often hear English learners and English native speakers alike complain that English words are “difﬁcult” (in fact, Iʼve heard the same thing said by native and non-native speakers of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, too).
Consider the words “shoe” and “happy”. Are these English words difﬁcult? To you and I, these terms are probably as easy and basic as they get. But what about for a 6-month old American child? Or what about for a hunter-gatherer living deep in the Amazonian rain forest who has never heard a word of English spoken or seen any English writing? For both, all English words are more or less “difﬁcult”, or rather, “unfamiliar”.
And that right there gets to my basic contention. There are no “difﬁcult” words in English or any human language; there are just those words that are familiar, or as of now, unfamiliar to you.
Now consider the words “vapid” and “insipid”. If you are well-read or have just studied for TOEFL, you are probably familiar with the words and would not consider them “difﬁcult”. But if you were to poll the average American high school student, they would probably not know the meaning of either word despite the fact that neither represent advanced cognitive concepts (and in fact have the same basic meaning of “bland, ﬂat, dull or tedious”), have few letters, and are easy to spell. These words arenʼt difﬁcult; they are just uncommon and therefore perceived as difﬁcult to the uninitiated.
I do concede, however, that there are some words that are difﬁcult to pronounce in certain languages. One prime example came up yesterday as I was discussing different types of cars with my girlfriend (she has just moved to Seattle and is quickly realizing how lame our public transportation system is compared with Taipei…hence the need for a car). I was explaining the pros and cons of front wheel drive cars and rear wheel drive cars, when I suddenly realized what a mouthful “rear wheel drive” is when said many times fast in quick succession. The combination of rʼs, lʼs and wʼs requires quite a bit of tongue and lips movement and can quickly wear out the mouth muscles. Similar challenges are experienced by Mandarin Chinese learners when trying to wrap their mouths around “retroﬂex” sounds like [tʂ] (zh), [tʂʰ] (ch), and [ʂ] (sh), that require bending the tip of the tongue back towards the top of your mouth.
But meaning, not pronunciation, is usually what people refer to when they call a word “difﬁcult” (and as I make the case for above). In reality, however, it is not actually the meaning that is the problem, but rather learning the myriad arbitrary connections between meanings and sound combinations in any given language. And the only way to make these connections stick is through lots and lots of listening, supported by lots and lots of reading.