A look at the English language from the POV of how hard it is for a speaker of another language trying to learn English as a second language.
People often say that English is easy to learn, but that is deceptive. For one thing, English has anywhere from 500,000-1 million words (said to be twice as much as any other language – but there are claims that Dutch and Arabic each have 4 million words), and the number increases by the day. Furthermore, most people don’t understand more than 50,000, and a majority might only understand 30,000 words. Yet your average person only uses 5,000 at most.
Actually, the average American or Brit uses a mere 2,500 words. As we might expect, our cultivated Continentals in Europe, such as Spaniards and French, probably have twice the regular vocabulary of English speakers and far more colloquial expressions.
In addition, verbal phrases or phrasal verbs are a nightmare. Phrasal verbs are probably left over from “separable verbs” in German. In most of the rest of IE, these become affixes as in Latin Latin cum-, ad-, pro-, in-, ex-, etc.. In many cases, phrasal verbs can have more than 10 different antagonistic meanings.
Here is a list of 123 phrasal verbs using the preposition up after a verb:
Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better.
Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. I’ve been up for three hours. Also to be ready to do something challenging. Are you up for it?
Beat up – to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.
Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids.
Blow up – to explode an explosive or for a social situation to become violent and volatile.
Bone up – to study hard.
Book up – all of the booking seats have been filled for some entertainment or excursion.
Bottle up – to contain feelings until they are at the point of exploding.
Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state.
Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.
Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill.
Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state.
Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry.
Bust up – to burst out in laughter.
Buy up – to buy all or most all of something.
Call up – to telephone someone. Or to be ordered to appear in the military. The army called up all males aged 18-21 and ordered them to show up at the nearest recruiting office.
Catch up – to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.
Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation.
Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one.
Chop up – to cut into many, often small, pieces.
Clam up – to become very quiet suddenly and not say a thing.
Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy or to win completely and thoroughly.
Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.
Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business.
Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow.
Cook up – to prepare a meal or to configure a plan, often of a sly, ingenious or devious nature. They cooked up a scheme to swindle the boss.
Crack up – to laugh, often heartily.
Crank up – elevate the volume.
Crawl up – to crawl inside something.
Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being.
Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety.
Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately.
Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one.
Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire.
Drive up – to drive towards something, and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively.
Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons.
Dry up – to dessicate.
Eat up – implies eating something ravenously or finishing the entire meal without leaving anything left.
End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time.
Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on.
Feel up – to grope someone sexually.
Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position.
Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.
Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative.
Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call.
Hike up – to pull your clothes up when they are drifting down on your body.
Hit up – to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money.
Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative. Also a robbery, usually with a gun and a masked robber.
Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.
Hurry up – imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place.
Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind.
Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight.
Knock up – to impregnate.
Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time.
Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.
Lick up – to consume all of a liquid.
Light up – to set s.t. on fire or to smile suddenly and broadly.
Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting.
Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply.
Live up – to enjoy life.
Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function.
Look up – to search for an item of information in some sort of a database, such as a phone book or dictionary. Also to admire someone.
Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story.
Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion.
Mark up – to raise the price of s.t.
Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition.
Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort.
Mess up – to fail or to confuse and disarrange s.t. so much that it is bad need or reparation.
Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.
Mop up – mop a floor or finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation.
Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world.
Open up – when a person has been silent about something for a long time, as if holding a secret, finally reveals the secret and begins talking.
Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly.
Pass up – to miss an opportunity, often a good one.
Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.
Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore.
Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.
Play up – to dramatize.
Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere.
Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image.
Read up – to read intensively as in studying.
Rev up – to turn the RPM’s higher on a stationary engine.
Ring up – to telephone someone or to charge someone on a cash register.
Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors.
Roll up – to roll s.t. into a ball, to drive up to someone in a vehicle or to arrest all the members of an illegal group. The police rolled up that Mafia cell quickly.
Run up – to tally a big bill, often foolishly or approach s.t. quickly.
Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally.
Shape up – usually imperative command ordering someone who is disorganized or slovenly to live life in a more orderly and proper fashion.
Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun.
Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly.
Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words.
Sit up – to sit upright.
Slip up – to fail.
Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say.
Spit up – to vomit, usually describing a child vomiting up its food.
Stand up – to go from a sitting position to a standing one quickly.
Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence.
Stay up – to not go to bed.
Stick up – to rob someone, usually a street robbery with a weapon, generally a gun.
Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm.
Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s).
Straighten up – to go from living a dissolute or criminal life to a clean, law abiding one.
Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion.
Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics.
Sweep up – to arrest all the members of an illegal group, often a criminal gang.
Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Or to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated.
Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.
Tear up – to shred.
Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one.
Throw up – to vomit.
Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.
Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing.
Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere.
Vacuum up – to vacuum.
Use up – to finish s.t. completely so there is no more left.
Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry.
Wake up – to awaken.
Walk up – to approach someone or something.
Wash up – to wash.
Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly.
Work up – to exercise heavily, until you sweat to work up a sweat. Or to generate s.t. a report or s.t. of that nature done rather hurriedly in a seat of the pants and unplanned fashion. We quickly worked up a formula for dealing with the matter.
Wrap up – To finish something up, often something that is taking too long. Come on, let us wrap this up and getting it over with. Also, to bring to a conclusion that ties the ends together. The story wraps up with a scene where they all get together and sing a song.
Write up – often to write a report of reprimand or a violation. The officer wrote him for having no tail lights.
Here are phrasal verbs using the preposition down:
Be down – to be ready to ready to do something daring, often s.t. bad, illegal or dangerous, such as a fight or a crime. Are you down?
Burn down – reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure.
Get down – to have fun and party, or to lie prone and remain there. Get down on the floor.
Drink down to consume all of s.t.
Kick down – Drug slang meaning to contribute your drugs to a group drug stash so others can consume them with you, to share your drugs with others. Often used in a challenging sense.
Party down – to have fun and party
Pat down – to frisk.
Take down – to tackle.
Cook down – to reduce the liquid content in a cooked item.
Run down – to run over something, to review a list or to attack someone verbally for a long time.
Play down – to de-emphasize.
Write down – to write on a sheet of paper
There are figures of speech and idioms everywhere (some estimate that up to 20% of casual English speech is idiomatic), and it seems impossible to learn them all. In fact, few second language learners get all the idioms down pat.
The spelling is insane and hardly follows any rules at all. The English spelling system in some ways is frozen at about the year 1500 or so. The pronunciation has changed but the spelling has not. Careful studies have shown that English-speaking children take longer to read than children speaking other languages (Finnish, Greek and various Romance and other Germanic languages) due to the difficulty of the spelling system. Romance languages were easier to read than Germanic ones.
This may be why English speakers are more likely to be diagnosed dyslexic than speakers of other languages. The dyslexia still exists if you speak a language with good sound-symbol correspondence, but it’s covered up so much by the ease of the orthography that it seems invisible, and the person can often function well. But for a dyslexic, trying to read English is like walking into a minefield.
Letters can make many different sounds, a consequence of the insane spelling system. A single sound can be spelled in many different ways: e can be spelled e, ea, ee, ei, eo, ey, ae, i, ie, and y. The k sound can spelled as c, cc, ch, ck, k, x, and q.
The rules governing the use of the indefinite, definite and zero article are opaque and possibly don’t even exist. There are synonyms for almost every word in a sentence, and the various shades of meaning can be difficult to discern. In addition, quite a few words have many different meanings. There are strange situations like read and read, which are pronounced differently and mean two different things.
English word derivation is difficult to get your mind around because of the dual origins of the English language in both Latin/French and German.
See and hear and perceptible and audible mean the same thing, but the first pair is derived from German, and the second pair is derived from Latin.
English word derivation is irregular due for the same reason:
assume – assumption (Latin)
child – childish (German)
build – building (German)
In English we have at least 12 roots with the idea of two in them:
However, English regular verbs generally have only a few forms in their normal paradigm. In this arrangement, there are only five forms of the verb in general use for the overwhelming majority of verbs:
present except 3rd singular steal
3rd person singular steals
Even a language like Spanish has many more basic forms than that. However, coming from an inflected language, the marking of only the 3rd singular and not marking anything else may seem odd.
The complicated part of English verbs is not their inflection – minimal as it is – but instead lies in the large number of irregular verbs.
There is also the oddity of the 2nd person being the same in both the singular and the plural – you. Some dialects such as US Southern English do mark the plural – you all or y’all.
There are quite a few dialects – over 100 have been recorded in London alone. English prepositions are notoriously hard, and few second language learners get them down right because they seem to obey no discernible rules.
While English seems simple at first – past tense is easy, there is little or no case, no grammatical gender, little mood, etc., but that can be quite deceptive. In European countries like Croatia, it’s hard to find a person who speaks English with even close to native speaker competence.
The problem with English is that it’s a mess! There are languages with very easy grammatical rules like Indonesian and languages with very hard grammatical rules like Arabic. English is one of those languages that is simply chaotic. There are rules, but there are exceptions everywhere and exceptions to the exceptions. Grammatically, it’s disaster area. It’s hard to know where to start.
However, it is often said that English has no grammatical rules. Even native speakers make this comment because that is how English seems due to its highly irregular nature. Most English native speakers, even highly educated ones, can’t name one English grammatical rule. Just to show you that English does have rules though, I will list some of them.
*Indicates an ungrammatical form.
Adjectives appear before the noun in noun phrases:
Small dogs barked.
*Dogs small barked.
Adjectives are numerically invariant:
the small dog
the small dogs
The dog is small.
The dogs are small.
Intensifiers appear before both attributive and predicative adjectives:
The very small dog barked.
*The small very dog barked.
The dog was very small.
*The dog was small very.
Attributive adjectives can have complements:
The dog was scared.
The dog was scared of cats.
But predicative adjectives cannot:
The scared dog barked.
*The scared of cats dog barked.
Articles, quantifiers, etc. appear before the adjective (and any intensifier) in a noun phrase:
The very small dog barked.
*Very the small dog barked.
*Very small the dog barked.
Every very small dog barked.
*Very every small dog barked.
*Very small every dog barked.
Relative clauses appear after the noun in a noun phrase:
The dog that barked.
*The that barked dog.
The progressive verb form is the bare form with the suffix -ing, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:
The infinitive verb form is to followed by the bare form, even for the most irregular verbs in the language:
The imperative verb form is the bare form, even for the most irregular verb in the language:
All 1st person present, 2nd person present, and plural present verb forms are equivalent to the bare form, except for to be.
All past tense verb forms of a given verb are the same regardless of person and number, except for to be.
Question inversion is optional:
You are leaving?
Are you leaving?
But when inversion does occur in a wh-question, a wh-phrase is required to be fronted:
You’re seeing what?
What are you seeing?
*Are you seeing what?
Wh-fronting is required to affect an entire noun phrase, not just the wh-word:
You are going to which Italian restaurant?
Which Italian restaurant are you going to?
*Which are you going to Italian restaurant?
*Which Italian are you going to restaurant?
*Which restaurant are you going to Italian?
Wh-fronting only happens once, never more:
What are you buying from which store
Which store are you buying what from?
*What which store are you buying from?
*Which store what are you buying from?
The choice of auxiliary verb in compound past sentences does not depend on the choice of main verb:
I have eaten.
I have arrived.
*I am eaten.
*I am arrived.
Je suis arrivé.
English can be seen as an inverted pyramid in terms of ease of learning. The basics are easy, but it gets a lot more difficult as you progress in your learning.
While it is relatively easy to speak it well enough to be more or less understandable most of the time, speaking it correctly is often not possible for a foreigner even after 20 years of regular use.
English gets a 3 rating for average difficulty.