I often hear English learners and English native speakers alike complain that certain English words are “difficult” (in fact, I’ve heard the same thing said by native and non-native speakers of Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, too).

My basic contention is that there are no “difficult” words in English or any human language; there are just those words that are familiar, or as of yet, unfamiliar.

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 “difficult,” or rather, “unfamiliar.”

Consider now the words vapid and insipid.

If you are well-read or have just studied for TOEFL, you are probably familiar with these 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.
  • Both have few letters and have intuitive spelling.

So I argue that these words aren’t difficult; they are just uncommon and therefore perceived as difficult to the uninitiated.

I will concede, however, that there are some words that are difficult to pronounce.

One prime example came up once when I was discussing different types of cars with my Taiwanese girlfriend at the time (she had just moved to Seattle and was 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 Rs, Ls and Ws 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 that require bending the tip of the tongue back towards the top of your mouth. For example:

  •  zh (like in zhōng 中)
  • ch (like in chī 吃)
  • sh (like in shì 是)

But with practice, the pronunciation of new sounds gets easier and easier. What once took great effort, now rolls off the tongue with ease.

And the same is true for unfamiliar words. The more you hear, say, read, or write a given word, the more familiar (and seemingly “easy” and “obvious” it becomes). With time and repetition, linguistic strangers become linguistic friends.

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