Why Some English Words are Difficult for Foreign Students at GCI

English Language

Why Some English Words are Difficult for Students

Posted 16 May

Although English is widely recognized as the primary language of global communication in the 21st century, it still challenges learners but it is difficult to list a selection of words that are universally problematic to learn as different native tongues provide an understanding of any second language learning, which for the learner, can pose as many challenges as it does explanations. What is clear is that vocabulary is fundamental to learning English. McCarthy (1997: 140) informs us that without words to express a wider range of meanings, communication in a second language cannot happen in a meaningful way.

One of the key issues connected to learning English for foreign learners is difficulties in learning vocabulary, which cannot be solved by simple translation or dictionary referral alone, although they are useful starting points. So, what challenges do students need to face in order to realistically improve their understanding of difficult words in English? Here are five areas that need to be considered when approaching better understanding and use of English vocabulary.

Challenge 1: Pronunciation/recognition issues related to new sounds that do not exist in your native language.

These sounds in new vocabulary and grammar are often avoided by learners when speaking or, misunderstood and confused for other words when listening. Gairns and Redman in Moras (1986) state that pronunciation is based on the ability to recognise and reproduce items in speech. Thornbury (2002: 27) adds that research has shown that words that are difficult to pronounce are more difficult to learn.

Examples of some mispronounced words in English:

Would :  /wud/ - w  sound often difficult and omitted by Portuguese speakers, and replaced as v  by German speakers.

Very :  /’ver.i/   v  sound often difficult for Spanish and replaced with b, and r  sound confused as l  by Asians.

Variety :  /vəˈrʌɪəti/ v sound often difficult for German speakers and pronounced as w, replaced as b  by Spanish and r  sound confused with l  by Asians.

Hedge-hog :  /ˈhɛdʒ(h)ɒɡ/  the h sound is particularly difficult for French speakers and often omitted.

Zombie :  /ˈzɒm.bi:/ the ɒ sound is often pronounced as u by Arabic speakers

Suggested solution

Download the phonemic chart app for IOS or Android, using the interactive chart to reproduce individual sounds while recording your voice for direct comparison. This approach will help you to identify and address problem phonemes (Individual sounds). Next, work on imitating the sounds, focusing on the mouth shape required. This is where a trained teacher is invaluable as they focus on relevant examples of the sound in vocabulary items, and encourage practice in real time with fellow learners and native speakers in context. 

Here at Galway Cultural Institute, we believe immersion in native English speaking environments together with class participation to be highly advantageous. A range of courses are available for all levels to improve your English.

Challenge 2: Pronunciation related to spelling interpretation from reading

The spelling of a considerable number of English words often cause problems for English language learners whose first language contains a regular spelling system, a good example would be Spanish. According to Gower, Philips and Walter (1995: 143) particular spelling patterns can then lead to confusion and incorrect use in relation to students’ pronunciation in English. And of course, when an English language learner hears these words being spoken they may also cause issues due to their confusion with how the spelling looks.

Typical examples of words that are hard to pronounce based on spelling are:

Bought: /bɔːt/  the o usounds change to ɔː and g h sounds are not pronounced.

Height: /haɪt/  ei sound changes to ai and g h is not pronounced.

Rough: /rʌf/ o u sounds change to ʌ and the gh is pronounced as f.

Honour: /ˈɒnə(r)/  the h sound is not pronounced, the o usounds are pronounced ə and r sound is often greatly reduced in British English.

Through: /θruː/ the o u sounds change to uː and the g h sounds are not pronounced.

Suggested solution

A teacher, native speaker or, a classmate who has previous experience of a particular vocabulary item can facilitate improved pronunciation through correction and drilling. It is then important that the word is used in the appropriate context to provide meaning, association and relates to a real life situation. To continue practicing difficult words based on spelling, get an online dictionary app. Listen to/record/compare the dictionary pronunciation versus your own, and continue practicing until you are confident of your accuracy. If you can say it, you can probably hear it and vice-versa.

GCI English class

GCI English class

Challenge 3: Difficulties relating to conjugation of grammar, irregular verbs and word transformation

The Grammar of vocabulary is referred to in the work of Gairns and Redman (1986) in Moras as learning the rules associated with different forms of a word, or even how words transform from that stem word. Ur (1996: 60) adds that a word may have an unpredictable change of form. This means that unexpected changes often occur to the sound of a transformed word as well, making it more difficult to hear, read, spell, and ultimately, pronounce and use accurately. Here are some thoughts on grammar quirks from students and teachers at GCI.

Examples of when word transformation can cause problems for learners:

Photograph:  (cn) stress on the first syllable changes to stress on second syllable in photography (uc) (Taking of photographs), photographers (cn) (The takers).

Read:  /ri:d/ (v) which retains the same spelling in past simple and past participle but the pronunciation changes to /red/

Show: (v) changes to showed in (p. simple) shownin (p. participle)

Record: (cn) stress on first syllable but changes to second syllable in verb form record

Syllabus (CN) changes to syllabi in plural form.

Suggested solution 

Those who want to learn English or improve their English grammar skills should listen to your teacher!  At Galway Cultural Institute professional teachers are invaluable as they alert you to irregular verb spelling patterns, changes in pronunciation and stress during word transformation and of course, whether nouns are countable or uncountable. Then practice using them to improve your recognition and production skills, and continue doing it during your adventure in Galway.

Challenge 4: Failing to identify appropriate use of grammar/word meaning/register

It is important language you don’t forget there are noticeable styles of informal or formal words/phrases. There is usually a marked difference between the vocabularies produced when speaking /writing compared to those recognised when reading/listening. Hiebert and Kamil (2005: 3) define these as productive and receptive vocabulary, the latter are not always words produced frequently but recognised in use, even if inaccurately. Formal language is less frequently spoken and tends to be encountered more in reading and written production. Varieties of style, register and dialect are often identifiable by different levels of formality, context and topic, as well as geographical origin or location.

Examples of informal and formal words/phrases which have the same meaning



Happen (v)

Occur (v)

Change (v), (c n)

Transform (v), transformation (c n)

Looks like sb.(multi-word v.))

Resembles (v)

Yummy (very informal adj.)

Delicious (v)

Cheap (adj.)

Inexpensive (adj.)

Luckily (adv)

Fortunately (adv.)

Suggested solutions

When an English language learner encounters a new word or phrase, he or she should ask the question, ‘Where would I expect to meet this word?’ As a learner, try to identify the appropriate words to use in different situations, for example, an interview is more formal and contains less slang or local dialect. Obviously, foreign students who learn English through General English or Exam preparation classes at GCI classes will more often than not possess a higher range of formal words and phrases in English compared to those who acquire the language outside of a class based environment.

Enquire about the availability of classes, enroll in one suited to your level, and academic or professional requirements.

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Challenge 5: Identifying Idiomatic usage of grammar

One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of Learning English abroad, particularly in a true native English speaking country, is trying to understand and use idiomatic language. You may well ask, what is idiomatic language? Well, it is a set of well-established non-literal phrases particular to a given language that are often difficult to understood from the meaning of the individual words, and grammatical rules cannot be systematically applied. Idiomatic language is well rooted in English speaking culture and often preferred to the literal variety, but when first heard can be quite challenging for foreign students.

Examples of idiomatic expressions and literal meanings


Literal meaning

to take in the news

To understand

close, but no cigar

unsuccessful attempt

pardon my French

I apologize for swearing

under the weather

Feeling ill or tired

a piece of cake

Something is easy to do

 Put up with sb./sth.

To tolerate sb./sth.

Suggested solution

Context is usually the key to understanding non-literal expressions, try to guess what you think a phrase means, then check the meaning with a teacher or native speaker. and it will help you to build up a bank of recognizable and usable phrases. Those who study at GCI’s English school for International students will have heard idiomatic English being spoken around Galway city, and noticed this is something they cannot avoid in informal English if they want to integrate more naturally. Native English speakers generally consider idiomatic language every bit as important and far more interesting than formal expression.


Gairns, Ruth and Redman, Stuart. 1986. Working with WordsCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gower, Roger et al.1995. Teaching Practice Handbook.Oxford. Heinemann

Heibert, Elfreida H and Kamil, Michael L. 2005 Teaching and Learning Vocabulary.

Schmitt, Norbert and McCarthy. 1997. Vocabulary, Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Thornbury, Scott. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary  London: England

Ur, Penny. 1996. A course in Language Teaching, Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.