8 More Common Mistakes by Asian Learners

After teaching in Singapore for almost two years, I wanted to highlight the common errors that my students make in order to help other teachers. This is a follow-up to my 5 Common Mistakes post which features different problems to tackle. I suspect some of these errors are reinforced outside our classroom since these are issues that almost all students seem to encounter.

1. Got milk?
Perhaps it is the fault of this advertisement, but the word got is overused here. Of course, the tagline for the ad should have been: “Do you have any milk?” but that is admittedly less catchy. I find the children (and adults) misusing this on a daily basis. For example, a student will say, “I got bring already.” They are referring to packing a book and bringing it to class. “I have brought it” is the correct way to say this phrase, but it does mean using the present perfect tense.

2. Anyhow…
To me, the word anyhow is a colloquial term used for someone who wants to switch gears in a conversation or change the subject. It is a clumsy cousin of the term anyway which seems more appropriate, yet still too informal to use in writing or discussions. I hear my students saying, “I anyhow said to her…”, or “Colour it anyhow.” As a blanket rule, I try to deter them from using it at all and rephrase what they are trying to say.

3. Phrasal verbs
These are the words that pair up for impact to describe common actions or metaphors. They usually end in prepositions such as off, up, in and out. To teach these, I always give short commands like, “Jump up! Turn around. Bend down. Stand up. Switch off (the lights). Doze off. Switch on (the lights). Wake up! Sit down.” We cover the more subtle meanings such as look over, hand in, point out, pick up, use up, etc. For my younger students, during story time or talk time, I turn off the main lights to leave the stage spotlights on for dramatic effect. The children will often say, “Off the lights!” and omit the first word altogether.

4. Last time
One of the quirks I have noticed in my students use of English is the use of the phrase last time to refer to almost everything in the past tense. Rather than giving a specific time or date, for example, “Last month, / Two years ago, / In 2015, I went…” students will say, “Last time, I went…” It seems to give them a shortcut to avoid using the phrases ago or since which are regularly confused. The use of last time is particularly befuddling when used to describe a skill they’ve learnt, such as riding a bike, which requires a specific time to make sense.

5. Colour
Another language mistake I hear on a weekly basis is the introduction of the redundant word colour diluting an existing adjective. For instance, a student will say, “My tshirt is red colour,” or “I want the blue colour pencil.” I encourage my classes to form simple sentences and we often count out the necessary words on our fingers. For example, “I have a brown horse.” Teaching the students the order of adjectives and nouns is simple enough, but preventing them adding in the superfluous word colour has proven more difficult.

6. Reached there
Some say that the journey is more important than the destination, but for my Primary students the following sentence seems to be obligatory in any composition: “When we reached there, we went to the hotel…” If the class is writing a personal recount, I make it clear that they are covering an extraordinary day or an experience that is interesting. We do not often tell a blow-by-blow account of unremarkable events. This phrase creeps in so often I feel like it must be taught at school, but it seems so clunky and unnecessary as the place has already been specified. It would be better to say, “When we reached the hotel, we checked in quickly so we could go explore and try the local food.”

7. So fast
At first, I took it as a compliment when the children complained about how quickly the lesson had flown by, “Wah lau, so fast, eh?” Now, I do try to keep Singlish to a minimum inside the classroom because it is important that the students are able to express themselves using English interjections, too. The adverb so is another word that is used so frequently that it is difficult to combat effectively (yes, I realise the irony of that sentence).  I try to get my students familiar with different adverbs of degree, including really, very, too and extremely. I suppose that with any language learner, once you learn a versatile word or phrase you’re going to stick with it!

8. Brought me
Unsurprisingly, tenses crop up again in this list as they are perhaps the most complex grammatical structure that non-native speakers of English must learn, especially when the mother tongue languages of Mandarin, Hokkien and Tamil do not follow the same structures. One phrase I see a lot is “My parents brought me to the swimming pool.” Although I am thrilled they have used the past tense verb form (and not bought!), it is not the correct word. The word took should have been used instead. The rule is that we take things to the place we are going to, but bring them to the place where we are now. Teaching students the subtle differences between these is important.

I hope you’ve found this list helpful, and please check out my other post to see more mistakes that my students overcome on a regular basis.

Can you think of any more examples, or do you teach students from another area who encounter different problems? Let me know in the comments below.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rosie says:

    I think phrasal verbs (and by extension, prepositions) is a common area of difficulty for language learners of all backgrounds (they certainly were for me when I was learning French!). When I was teaching in France, I noticed a lot of students would say/write “in the train/bus” where we’d say “on the train/bus”, simply because the literal translation from French to English leads them to believe that’s what it should be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re right! I think prepositions in English are one of the hardest things to crack. In/on/at can form a nice pyramid based on how specific the information is, but otherwise it is a case of memorising them. It is much easier in Spanish as they often just use ‘en’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rosie says:

        I think what makes prepositions and phrasal verbs difficult is that often there’s no rhyme or reason to them! As you say, it’s one of those things you just have to commit to memory over time. That’s handy for those learning Spanish!


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