In previous blogs we have discussed mistakes which are frequently made by Polish learners specifically but are there mistakes made by learners of English which are generally very universal? Before we look at the most generic kinds of mistakes learners make let us differentiate between the terms mistakes or ‘slips’ and errors. Linguists assert that ‘errors’ derive from rules that learners have not yet come into contact and are essentially gaps in linguistic knowledge whereas mistakes or slips are issues that have been covered and the learner is accidentally reverting back to the wrong form.
An example of a slip would be a high level student who in the heat of debate says “The problem with my dad is that she is too strict.” It is clearly not necessary to reteach the rule that the masculine pronoun to replace ‘dad’ would be ‘he’.
Let’s look at some common, universal mistakes made in English by learners from a broad range of mother language contexts.
Forming questions is a rather tricky process in English and I always tell my students that if you are really good at making questions then your general understanding of English grammar is probably really good as well.
Typical mistakes involve connecting the question to the subject of the sentence:
Why you do that? / Where he going? / When you come back?
I always remind my students of the most important composite parts of the question with the chart below:
|Question word||AUXILLIARY VERB||SUBJECT||VERB (form depends on tense)|
*Note – the only column that is not always necessary is the Question Column but removing it will mean that the question becomes a closed (yes/no) question – Are you a doctor? Do you like pizza?
Generally the present tense in English is very easy to conjugate. All verb forms are basically the same but we really must remember to add the -s to the 3rd person singular form. So…
I like pizza / You like pizza / We like pizza / They like pizza
He/She/ It likes pizza.
In many languages the verb form changes for every person and then the pronoun can effectively be left out. For example in Polish: Lubimy pizzę – means WE like pizza but I can omit ‘we’ (my) because it is redundant.
English accommodates this by making the pronoun in the sentence indispensable.
WE like pizza. NOT Like pizza.
The mistake ‘She like pizza’ is common among low to mid-level learners however it is understandable and noteworthy that it creates very little difficulty in understanding the sentence.
Articles in language are a subset of something referred to in metalanguage as quantifiers. Quantifiers answer the question which one? They specify the noun.
Imagine a person running into a classroom and shouting ‘CAR!’. The immediate questions anyone would have would be ‘Which car? Whose car?’ However, if someone ran frantically into a room shouting ‘My CAR!’ this changes the nature of the questions we would have. Now we want to ask “What happened to your car?’ The question of which car has been answered by the quantifier. Other quantifiers in language include words like some/any/ my / this/ that / these/ 1,2,3,4.. Unfortunately two quantifiers that happen NOT to be present and can cause a lot of confusion are the indefinite and definite articles a/an/the.
Slavic languages do not use articles and for that reason they become notoriously hard to use for learners and are often omitted or misused.
“I have car.”
“Yesterday I saw film”
“Waiter in restaurant last night was terrible.”
Incidentally, articles are among another example of very fine points in language that are important to fluent sounding English but rarely cause problems in understanding. To illustrate I could probably tell an entire joke in English without including any articles and still get a laugh from my students.
“Man walks into bar and asks for glass of whiskey. Bartender says to man, “We don’t have any…”
I will let you finish the joke but as you can see everything is plainly comprehensible.
The use of prepositions tends to be a tricky topic mostly because there seems to be a bit of randomness to how these conventions are chosen. For example, in English we say that we saw a program ON TV but this seems to be logically misleading.
Where is the remote control? It is sitting on the TV.
The program is on TV.
Many languages use prepositions which translate to ‘IN the TV’ which leads many students to directly translate this to English.
Imagine these incorrect English sentences;
Last night I was IN a party.
I love listening music. (missing preposition)
I went AT the airport.
Prepositions usage is most often based on historical/etymological reasons and they simply have to be learned by heart.
Learners can often make misleading mistakes with these adjectives because they are based on a root system and are derived from the participle forms of verbs.
‘I am boring’. (Jestem nudny) is a sentence that you would rarely hear in English unless it was an English teacher who felt that his lessons had become dry and uninteresting. ‘I am bored’ is much more frequent and probably what the learner had intended to say.
I always teach as a general rule that the emotion or the feeling is the -ed adjective. You are more likely to feel ___________ed.
The -ing adjective is a person or object which emits or exudes the feeling (i.e./ sends it out to the world)
The TV program was exciting/interesting. My teacher is boring/depressing.
So from an international learner perspective these are some of the trickiest problems with English. Would you agree with our list? Are there any other types of mistakes that you see recurring again and again? Let us know.