Do learners of English make particular mistakes in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary depending on their mother tongue? (While linguists distinguish between an error, made by a student who doesn’t yet know the correct rule, and a mistake, made by a student who knows the rule but momentarily forgets it, I’ll use mistake to cover both cases.)
It makes intuitive sense that some (particularly lower-level) mistakes are more likely to be made by speakers of certain languages. One well-known example is that speakers of Slavic languages, such as Polish, often miss out articles (*she bought new car) while speakers of Romance languages, such as Italian, occasionally drop in too many (I love the my sister!). These kinds of mistakes reflect the nature of the students’ mother tongues, and are arguably fairly minor, but other kinds – such as the greater tendency among speakers of certain Asian languages (like Khmer or Japanese) to mix up he and she – may lead to real communication difficulties.
Linguistic quirks (rather than mistakes) also vary between cultures. In my experience from teaching in several different countries, Italian learners of English tend to overuse the word nice (for anything and everything, including a nice horror film); Cambodians love to throw a small party; Polish speakers describe a lot of things as being a huge problem; and Japanese students frequently dream of beautiful views.
However, there are some mistakes that crop up across cultures and greet me wherever I go, like old friends. The English language have – sorry, has – plenty of idiosyncrasies, such as the third person subject verb agreement in the present tense. The latter is just one example of a mistake that, on closer inspection, is a perfectly rational one. Given that non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers by three to one, some even argue that ‘mistakes’ like these, which attempt to shoehorn English into a more logical framework, will eventually become the new standardized forms.
Until that happens, EFL teachers around the world will be devising ever more ingenious ways of helping students to iron out their imperfections. Here are some of the most common mistakes that I’ve heard from learners of English across the globe, from Arequipa to Zakopane. Perhaps in a few generations, many of these mistakes will no longer be mistakes at all.
1.) Subject-verb agreement: *My sister like One Direction.
English verbs are relatively easy, as long as you remember to change them slightly in the present tense for he, she, and I, usually by adding –s.
✓ My sister likes One Direction. [My sister=she]
✓ Giovanni really loves swimming. [Giovanni=he]
✓ That restaurant serves Khmer food. [That restaurant=it]
Believe it or not, this little quirk of English grammar is fast ‘disappearing’ among non-native speakers, so in a couple of decades, she makes a mistake may be a quaint British relic.
2.) Pronunciation of th: Yes, I sink so/Yes, I tink so/Yes, I fink so for Yes, I think so.
The th sound, which is so common in English, is one of the most difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce. They tend to adapt various strategies for getting round it, some of which are increasingly being used by native speakers too. In fact, some linguists believe the tricky th will vanish from British English altogether within a couple of generations.
3.) Please! in the wrong context (when giving or offering someone something)
This is typical of students who translate from their own language where the equivalent of please is often used on its own in these contexts. In English, we typically use please to soften a request or an acceptance:
✓ Would you pass me the water, please?
✓ Please come this way.
✓ More coffee? – Yes, please!
In other situations, we tend to use specific phrases. For example, when giving someone something, we’d say something like There you are!; when showing customers to their seats in a cafe, we’d probably say Please have a seat; and when presenting food to guests, we’d say Enjoy your meal!
4.) Problems with prepositions, particularly: *My sister loves listening music.
Prepositions almost always catch students out – even at the higher levels – as they usually differ from language to language. Dropping the to from listen to is one of the commonest mistakes made by English learners everywhere. In English we always listen to something or someone (while we would read a book without a preposition).
✓ My sister loves listening to music.
5.) Using -ing instead of -ed: I was very boring!
In some contexts this sentence would be perfectly correct, but the chances are that students usually mean:
✓ I was very bored!
Mixing up -ing and -ed participles is a huge source of confusion: those ending in -ed describe how people feel, and those ending in -ing describe the things (or people) that cause those feelings. One rule of thumb for trying to remember the difference is:
(people) Ed is bored [Eddie Redmayne is handy here]
(thing) Ironing is boring
6.) Missing out articles: *Woman goes to school.
Many languages don’t use articles at all, and since the intricacies of the definite and indefinite article in English are notoriously complex, even advanced students can struggle with getting these right. Did the student mean The woman goes to school, A woman goes to the school, or another subtly different sentence?
Fortunately, making mistakes with articles rarely affects meaning (this is a rare example of when it does), but it’s better to be precise.
7.) Mixing up the present perfect and past simple: *Last year we have been to Thailand.
The present perfect is used differently in English from the way it’s used in other languages, so getting it right is often a headache for many students. English speakers use the present perfect like quantum physicists, in order to talk about the past and the present at the same time.
However, if we mention a completed period of time, such as this morning, last year, or in the 1990s, we should generally then use the past simple:
✓ Last year we went to Thailand.
8.) Forming questions incorrectly, particularly: *How long you stay?
Asking questions can pose problems because, unlike some other languages, English usually requires the word order to be inverted (the statement You are Peruvian becomes Are you Peruvian?) or, for yes/no questions, an auxiliary verb is needed (You like chocolate becomes Do you like chocolate?)
On its own, How long you stay? could be ambiguous – does the student mean:
✓ How long are you staying (here for)? (i.e. looking into the future)
✓ How long have you been here? (i.e. looking into the past)?
9.) Not using the present perfect continuous: *She works here for three years.
This is a perfectly logical translation from many languages, but English requires the present perfect continuous to describe actions that began in the past and are still continuing (if this is what the student means):
✓ She has been working here for three years.
10.) Using since instead of for: *I’ve been living in Tokyo since two months.
Students always seem to opt for since by default. In practice, since is used when talking about specific points in time:
- 1 o’clock
- my birthday
and for is used when talking about periods of time:
t w o w e e k s
t h e w h o l e y e a r
In other words:
✓ I’ve been living in Tokyo for two months.