Published 13th February 2018
When you are teaching English as a foreign language, you may spend a year teaching English to high school learners in China, six months teaching English and Music to kindergarteners in Brazil, or two years teaching Business English to mixed nationality adults in England. When you start on your TEFL career you have no way of knowing where you’ll end up! Each class you teach you will need to approach differently, by considering the needs and competences of your students. As a result, all of your lessons will differ in some way – even if you are teaching the same lesson to the same age learners who speak the same language. That is the beauty of teaching English as a Foreign Language: no two days are the same and you never know what to expect.
Having said that, though, there is something we can generalise about when it comes to our learners. We all know it’s usually not a good idea to generalise but this case is an exception! Did you know, we are able to predict what difficulties our learners will have learning English and what errors they will make speaking English based on their first language?
Yip, it’s true, and it’s a great tool for our teaching toolkit. So, what can we predict?
The most obvious prediction we can make is regarding our students’ pronunciation. We say this is the most obvious because the first thing you will pick up when teaching your students is what pronunciation mistakes they make when speaking English. There are a number of difficulties a learner may face when it comes to English pronunciation as a result of their first language.
Firstly, many times a certain English sound doesn’t exist in a learner’s first language. For example, Japanese speakers will have trouble differentiating between the /l/ and the /r/ sounds because there is no /r/ sound in Japanese, with the result that they have problems pronouncing the /r/ sound and differentiating between the two. In fact, if a sound doesn’t exist in a learner’s language they may not even be able to identify the sound when they hear it. Instead, they will hear the similar sound that exists in their own language.
This becomes problematic when learners actually don’t know how to pronounce the sound. Besides using minimal pairs to train their ears to differentiate between the two sounds, you will need to demonstrate visually what movements the learner needs to make with their lips, tongue and teeth to make the sound themselves. Bear in mind, though, that sometimes problems like these do not interfere noticeably with comprehension, in which case you shouldn’t waste too much time on it.
There are certain words in certain languages which look or sound (or look and sound!) similar to words in English. If they are related they are known as cognates and that’s usually not a problem for our learners. But if they do not mean the same thing, these words are known as false friends and can cause serious misunderstandings. For example, embarrassed looks and sounds very similar to the Spanish word embarazada, which means pregnant!
Then there is the issue of natural language, such as collocations and idiomatic language. There are words and phrases which we use in English for no other reason than we have always used them. Using these same words and phrases makes a learner sound more natural in their productions. However, learning these words and phrases is time-consuming and challenging because there are no hard and fast rules our learners can apply.
Word order problems
Different languages have different word orders. English sentences are subject-verb-object, in that order, but other languages, like Korean, are subject-object-verb. Still others, like Arabic, have a verb-subject-object construction.
These different construction types will result in sentences like:
She read the book. – English
She the book read. – Korean
Read she the book. – Arabic
Learners who speak languages with a word order different to English may have problems constructing sentences correctly in English. They might omit the subject of a sentence, for example, or they may put the noun before the adjective (book blue) rather than putting the adjective before the noun (blue book). This is quite noticeable when listening to an English language learner so it is important to deal with it and correct it.
Reading and writing problems
It stands to reason that if a learner speaks a language which uses a different alphabet to English, they will have problems with the English alphabet. For starters they will need to learn how to write the alphabet and later on they can have problems with spelling. Essentially, they will have more difficulties than other learners when it comes to reading and writing in English.
This is something to be aware of especially when you are teaching adult learners. Learning to write when you are an adult can be quite challenging, and these learners may initially take longer to write in English so they may need to be given more time than other students for written tasks, such as writing down the answers to an exercise, for example.
Possibly one of the biggest difficulties for English language learners is when their first languages have different grammatical rules to English. For example, in Arabic there is no indefinite article so Arabic speakers may leave it out when speaking English; in French it is acceptable – and common – to use a double negative, which is considered to be slang in English.
Understandably, there are many difficulties our learners can experience as a result of their first language – these are just a few examples. This phenomenon is known as language transfer and while it can be positive when the languages are similar, it accounts for many of the errors our learners make. Of course this is not the only reason your students are making mistakes. However, by researching the differences between your learners’ first languages and English you will better understand what problems they may have. This means that when you plan your lessons you can prepare to deal with the problems you can predict.