Published 25th April 2016

Learning English as a Foreign Language can be challenging regardless of your first language, but there are ways in which your mother tongue can influence your learning process. So while we cannot make generalisations about all language learners (even if they speak the same first language) because everyone is different, it is possible to identify certain issues speakers of one language can all have. In this way we can use this knowledge to assist these learners in our English lessons.

Here let us consider Spanish-speakers learning English.

Firstly, there is the issue of cognates. Cognates – also commonly known as false friends – are words in two different languages which look very similar but have different meanings. What usually happens with cognates is that learners think they know the English word because they associate it with the word in their language but then they use it incorrectly.

There are many such words in English and Spanish. One common confusion is between embarrassed and embarazada (pregnant), which can have amusing consequences.

Then, there is the issue of personal pronouns. In Spanish, the pronoun su refers to both male and female while in English we have separate pronouns: he and she, him and her, his and hers. It follows that Spanish learners may have difficulty remembering to use the different pronouns in different circumstances and though this is not a tragic error, it can lead to confusion.

Another word which can cause problems is hacer. In Spanish this word can be used to mean both make and do, with the result that Spanish-speakers can confuse the two and use them interchangeably. This can lead to sentences such as I didn’t make my homework.

The order of adjectives and nouns can also cause confusion. In Spanish, the noun is usually before the adjective while in English the reverse is true, so Spanish-speakers may end up saying something like I have a family big.

Finally, pronunciation can be extremely problematic for Spanish speakers. Spanish-speakers often have a thick accent when speaking English and though this is often not a problem there are times when it is. Spanish-speakers tend to put an extra e at the beginning of words that start with s eschool. They also have problems with the th sound, and may pronounce the v as b.

Identifying the first language of your EFL learners is a necessity in your classroom because it will help you anticipate problems which may come up. The more experienced you become the more you will become familiar with the different problems related to different languages.