English is reputed to be among the most difficult second languages to acquire, and although my position is a biased one, I’m sure it’s true. It’s not so much because of the grammar, which is actually pretty simple — though it does have quite a profusion of irregular forms. I think the main obstacle is the spelling and pronunciation, which is far from regular. Just consider the inconsistencies in “the tough coughs as he ploughs the dough” (courtesy of Dr. Seuss), in which the same cluster of letters is pronounced in four different ways!
The main reason for these inconsistencies is that English is an amalgam of so many other linguistic influences, ranging across the whole Indo-European spectrum, with a staggering number of foreign borrowings from virtually every language family on Earth. If America is the so-called melting pot, then the English language is its fondue fork, dipping into the pot and drawing out whatever words it finds useful, sometimes modifying their spelling, sometimes their pronunciation, sometimes neither, and sometimes both! No wonder ESL students have difficulty.
English is particularly famous for its silent letters. Many languages have some of these. French is also notorious for them, but in French, they tend to be much more regular; in English, they are anything but! As a fun exercise, I’ve tried to think up words in which each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet is silent. There are only one or two letters for which I couldn’t find an example (or possibly as many as five, depending on how strict you are). That’s pretty good, eh? (Or pretty bad, if you are learning the language.) In any case, more than twenty of the letters in the English alphabet can be silent, which is pretty incredible whther you deem it good or bad.
Wherever I could, I’ve also tried to show the same letter silent in more than one position in a word (i.e., initially, medially, and/or terminally). Some of these are words of foreign borrowing, though I’ve tried to limit them. Such borrowings are inevitable with English, but feel free to disqualify them if you prefer a stricter game. Also, comments on the silent letters in other languages are welcome!
A: Cocoa, Bread, Practically [and innumerable adverbs of the same sort]
B: Debt, subtle, doubt, climb, plumb, thumb, lamb, subpoena
C: Indict, muscle, chthonic, victual, czar, science, yacht, scissors
D: Handkerchief, bundt, Wednesday, djinn
E: Every, evening, vegetable, walked, talked [I don’t count the terminal e in words like fate, because it governs the pronunciation of the earlier vowel.]
G: Phlegm, gnu, gnome, eight, align, foreign, diaphragm
H: Honest, hour, eight, exhibit
I: Business, parliament
K: Knee, knife, knot
L: Half, salmon, calf, yolk, talk, would
N: Autumn, damn, hymn, column
O: Subpoena, Leopard, Country
P: Corps, coup, cupboard, pneumonia, ptomaine, pterodactyl, pseudo, psychic, psalm, receipt
Q: Lacquer, racquet [not the best examples; anyone have anything better?]
R: February [by some], forecastle [I don’t count non-rhotic accents, in which r is routinely silent, since this is not my own accent. Can anyone think of any others?]
S: Island, corps, aisle, debris, hors d’oeuvre, viscount, demesne
T: Ballet, tsunami [by some], thistle, rapport, ricochet, listen, castle, soften, whistle
U: buoy [by some], biscuit, victual [I disqualify u when following g and q; in those cases, it governs the pronunciation of the consonant.]
V: — [anyone?]
W: Write, wrist, answer, sword, two, whole, who
X: Faux, Sioux
Y: Key [maybe; what do you think?]
Z: Rendezvous, laissez-faire, chez [exclusively French; can anyone think of something else?]
And for even more fun, there are some words which, through the continued erosion of their pronunciation, now boast multiple silent letters in English. Examples: corps, boatswain, blancmange, forecastle — or is it actually forecastle?! Can anyone think of a word with three or more silent letters in it?