5 Common Mistakes by Asian Learners

Having taught young learners in Singapore for the past year and a half, I’ve noticed the regular hurdles that trip up my students while learning English.

1. Androgynous – he or she?
This is a common mistake for my Chinese students, who usually default to the gendered pronoun he in any situation. Before I recognised this, it made me self-conscious as students would regularly refer to me as he. The main reason for this is that the gendered pronouns simply do not exist in Mandarin, and the pronouns he and she must be learnt and practiced along with the possessive pronouns his and hers. Once this has sunk in, the next step is to differentiate his and he’s (he is)

2. Three or tree?
The /th/ sound is a tricky one to master. Teaching phonics and reading, as well as coaching students for oral exams at the Primary level, I encounter this every day. Most students will produce the /f/ sound instead, so I encourage them to hold down their bottom lip so that their teeth stay away. I model sticking the tongue between the teeth and blowing. If I hear a student say tree instead of three, I hold up my arms like branches until they correct themselves. Of course, it is difficult for those students who have recently lost both front teeth, and for teachers, there is an occupational hazard of being covered in spit as the children practice. The pronunciation is particularly evident when the child says, “Today it is the turd (third) of June.”

3. How many? Singular and plural nouns
The ‘s’ is often neglected at the end of countable plural nouns. Even in reading class, it is as though it is simply invisible. The main cause is that, in Chinese languages at least, plural nouns are distinguished through the determiner rather than the noun ending. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “Five student” and not add an ‘s’ at the end in Mandarin. I spend a lot of time teaching happily hissing to get across the importance of that final ‘s’, or feign surprise and say, “Only one?

4. Prepositions – tiny assassins
I often refer to prepositions in this way, because they are small yet have the power to completely kill meaning in a sentence. In other languages, there are either less to worry about or they can be used interchangeably without causing too many problems. In English we are very precise, especially when it comes to time. We say, in a minute, at four o’clock, on Tuesday, in a month. When it comes to travelling, it is equally confusing. We say, getting on the bus, driving in the car, riding on the train or by foot. My older students get frustrated as most prepositions are just two letters, but getting them right can be difficult.

5. The past, present and future walked into the classroom. It was tense
Tenses can be minefields for young learners, who may only have a few to learn in their mother tongue. English has thirteen tenses with very specific uses, so the students must know which one to apply in each scenario. My students often use the past continuous tense incorrectly in their narratives. For example, “He was wearing a bandana and he was stealing the money.” We use past continuous when two events happen simultaneously, or where the first action is interrupted. So, instead it should be: “He was wearing a bandana as he was stealing the money,” or simply just, “He wore a bandana and stole the money.” I often hear my Chinese students say, “I got done already.” The word already is a sneaky way for learners to avoid learning the past tense verb conjugations and should be discouraged. A student may prefer to incorrectly say, “I eat already” rather than “I ate.”

I hope this post was useful for those who are either learning English or teaching it. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe for weekly updates. Cheers!


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