Although English is supposedly one of the easiest languages to learn, it still presents challenges for students who are accustomed to a different sentence structure and alphabet. Difficulties can also originate at ability level: some students don’t learn as quickly as others, are not as adept at communication, or may be shy in expressing what they have learned.
Below are some of the more common obstacles to English proficiency.
Meaning, Grammar, and Structure: Concepts vs. Reality
A big challenge for certain ESOL students is their own misconceptions about the English language. They believe that English words have very definite and specific meanings, not realising until much later that these words mean different things based on the context of use. For example: a ‘boot’ is both a piece of footwear and part of a car. These words are polysemous, or possess multiple meanings. Jokes are frequently based on the polysemous meaning of the words they use, which is why they are usually difficult for ESOL students to ‘get’.
When learning a new language, students tend to forget that their own native tongue has similar peculiarities. Learning all the nuances and contextual meanings is an ongoing process, and will come with time and practice.
Grammar poses a similar dilemma. English language classes adhere strictly to proper grammar, when the reality is that perfect sentences appear stilted and unnatural to native speakers outside of a classroom setting. After they have the proper foundations in the language, students should be encouraged to express themselves more naturally.
Finally, English sentence structure doesn’t dovetail neatly with that of other languages. German, for example, tends to conclude sentences with a verb, leading to the old maxim that in German, you often don’t find out what’s going on until the end of a sentence. Students used to a different sentence format may not catch on as quickly as their classmates.
Too Much Emphasis on Spoken English
Some students have outgoing personalities and / or a talent for quickly grasping the spoken part of a new language. Grammar, spelling, and other aspects of written English are neither their forte nor their interest. They prefer to learn the way children do: through speaking and repetition. As the teacher corrects their mistakes they eventually grasp proper sentence structure and grammar. But they’re not interested in written exercises about verb tenses and present perfect usage. This impatience with formalities is problematic if they hope to enter a UK university or enter a career where correct written English is a core requirement.
So what’s the solution?
The best way for these students to acquire and improve skills in written English is to avoid stifling them with long exercises. Teachers need to take advantage of their natural inclination for speaking and listening. Give them audible learning tools, such as lessons in MP3 format. Encourage them to listen to the exercises until they know them by heart. This way, correct grammar forms will be stuck in their memory and make it easier for them to express those forms in writing.
Too Much Emphasis on Written English
Students who are less outgoing or more detail-oriented want to learn correct grammar and spelling before they’re comfortable enough to hold a simple conversation. Cultural background can also be a factor in this preference for details and accuracy. How can teachers coax them into putting down their pens or closing their laptops and joining in on the conversation?
Since these students appear to be more concerned with getting the basics perfect before they delve into spoken English, teachers should offer frequent feedback and encouragement. One-to-one lessons can accelerate the learning process and give them the confidence to speak. If shyness underscores their preference for written English, a more personalised learning environment may encourage them to speak freely.
No matter what challenges an ESOL student faces, the most important thing is to have them deal with the English language on a daily basis.
Every little step in the process matters. Learning a new language is a life-long mission, so accomplishing small daily successes will result in the achievement of long-term goals.
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