• Jocelyn Hellested

Why Knowledge Of A Student's Native Language Will Make You An Effective English Teacher.

Have you ever tried to learn a new language? If you have I am sure you can relate to how difficult it can be. Languages are extremely complex. They are a collection of sounds that when strung in a particular order convey meaning. Although some languages have similar words, structure, and letter sounds each one has elements that make it unique.


Learning a new language is an experience I share with my students and it has given me a lot of insight into the frustrations and joys one feels on the path towards fluency. I have spent a large amount of time trying to increase my Spanish speaking abilities. When learning Spanish I was baffled to learn that there were elements of the Spanish language that did not exist in English. My natural inclination as a beginner student was to directly translate words and phrases and analyze what I learned during Spanish class through my English speaking brain. This led to the discovery that there were Spanish words that had no direct English translation and there were Spanish grammar components that had no equivalent in English. The idea that not all languages were structured like English was hard to wrap my head around. For example, In English, you say "I am 25 years old." to express age but in Spanish you say "Yo tengo 25 años" which translates directly to, "I have 25 years.". I had to come to the reality that just memorizing verbs and new vocabulary would not get me very far. I had to study the language's grammatical structure and the relationship of the language within its culture to gain a deeper understanding of typical expressions and phrases that when translated to English make zero sense. It was an eye-opening experience that made me realize that my future English students would probably experience this same confusion. As their teacher, it would be my job to recognize these difficulties and design tools to help them easily overcome the hurdles.


Many of my online students live in China. Although I do not speak Chinese I have spent time speaking with those who have studied the language to understand what grammatical concepts may cause confusion. For example, the Chinese language does not distinguish between the personal pronouns "he", 'she", and "it". Equipped with this knowledge I can anticipate that my Chinese students will confuse these personal pronouns. I can build in extra time to address this topic and create visuals (similar to the one on the left) to aid their understanding. Charts and flashcards are an easy way to help visually make the distinction between each personal pronoun.







Another major difference between these two languages is verb conjugation. Unlike in English, the verb does not change as a result of the subject. Therefore, it is common for Chinese students to take the verb in its infinitive form and use it with each subject. For example they may say "He run" or "She eat" instead of "He runs" and "She eats". The notion that one must alter the verb in the third person singular is a foreign concept. Grammar charts, similar to the one shown to the left, are an easy and effective way to visually highlight these differences.








After a lesson with one of my Turkish students, I learned that he had difficulty distinguishing between the past perfect, present perfect, present perfect continuous and past perfect continuous tenses. The reason why he struggled with these tenses is that they do not exist in his own language.


For example, he had difficulty deciding when to use the sentence "He has lived in Colombia.", "He had lived in Colombia." or "He had been living in Colombia...." because he did not understand the nuances between the three and how each sentence conveys a slightly different timeline of events. He had nothing to compare it to since there is no Turkish equivalent. Each sentence is correct but carries a slightly different meaning influenced by the timeline of events.


Equipped with the knowledge that these tenses are not a part of the Turkish language I knew that he'd need additional time to practice these tenses and look at examples. I also recognized the benefit of creating timelines to help my student organize the sequence of events and visually see each event's relationship to the present and past. The timeline above was an easy resource I used to illustrate these distinctions.



Above are just a few examples to demonstrate how knowledge of your students mother language will make you better prepared to meet and anticipate their individual needs. And by no means do you need to fluently speak their native language. Doing a little research on the similarities and differences between the two will allow you to understand and foresee which topics your student may have difficulty learning. A quick google search will often suffice and give you the answers you are looking for! Try to step into your student's shoes and see the English language through their eyes.


I would love to hear what tools you have created to help your students learn difficult grammar concepts! Comment below :)




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