A General Overview of Difficulties Students Encounter When Learning English Introduction:The acquisition of a new


The acquisition of a new language can pose many learning difficulties to the student streaming from a number of sources. One of the major factors affecting all students attempting to acquire a foreign language is the correlation of the new language and their native tongue. The degree of variation between the student’s native tongue and the English language will cause all kinds of problems with grammar, spelling, and pronunciation5, not to mention such factors as whether or not the students native language uses the Roman alphabet system as does the English language, or the age of the student and how long it has been since they have undergone study. The following paragraphs will give a general summary of some of the key areas students have problems learning a new language and why.

Learning difficulties associated with age:

The age of a student can have a considerable effect on the ability of that student to acquire knowledge of the English language. Adult learners rarely acquire new language due to their extensive knowledge and skills developed over their lifetime1, where as younger learners, such as those still in school, will be accustomed to acquiring new language skill on a daily basis. For these younger learners, acquiring a new language is a more natural process than it is for older students who may have not had to study for many years1.

Difficulties with grammatical structure:

The different cultural backgrounds of students can have a considerable effect on student learning difficulties when it comes to sentence structure in the English language. This has to do with the difference in language structure of their native tongue and English as a second language1. Language learners will often produce errors of pronunciation as a result of the influence of their native language, such as mapping its grammatical patterns inappropriately onto the new language being learnt5. This can be clearly shown by the following example:

An Italian student wants to ask the following question in English: The baby eats well'

In Italian this would be pronounced: Mangia bene il bambino'

However, the direct translation of this to English is: Eats well the baby'

Therefore, the Italian speaker would be expected to ask the question using the direct translation: Eats well the baby' Instead of the correct form: The baby eats well'

This is known as negative transfer1. However, if a Spanish speaker is learning Italian, when asking a question, that speaker may produce the language in the correct form because in Spanish, the word order is the same. For example:

Come bien el nino' Translates directly to eats well the baby' And uses the same structure as Italian language. This is known as positive transfer1.

Bearing in mind both positive and negative transfers of the students native tongue into English, we can come to certain conclusions that students from particular cultural backgrounds will have problems with grammatical structure due to negative transfer, while others will have few problems due to a positive transfer of their native tongue to English. An example of students likely to have a more positive transfer is German speakers as there are more positive transfers between the two languages1. Furthermore, it could also be suggested that students with native tongues of similar grammatical structure, such as Italian and Spanish speakers, will encounter similar learning difficulties with English.

English tenses:

Teachers of English as a foreign language generally agree that the English tense system is often an area that causes students the greatest amount of difficulty. As the English language has one of the largest numbers of tenses (usually broken down into twelve categories by EFL teachers) compared to other languages that may only have a few tenses such as many Asian languages6. These students will encounter difficulties incorporating the rules of English tenses into there new language.

Vocabulary difficulties:

Learning difficulties are not limited to incorrect grammatical structure only, they can also occur with pronunciation and confusion of particular items of vocabulary known as false friends, along with phrasal verbs that have several meanings and different syntactic patterns. Consider the following short sentences as an example of confusion students may have with the English language3.

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The farm was used to produce produce.

Please polish the Polish furniture.

The soldier chose to desert his dessert in the desert.

Since there is no time like the present, it is time to present the present.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

These are just a few examples of confusing English words that can even provide some confusion to the native English speaker. In the above examples, not only some of the English words have different meanings, they also have different pronunciation depending on the context in which they are used. These even cause confusion for automatic spelling and grammar checking devices on modern computer publishing systems.

The more we look into the English language, the more we tend to feel that it is somewhat of a crazy language. Consider the following examples:

There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple or pine in pineapple.

English muffins were not invented in England nor French fries in France.

Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

These are only a few examples of the many confusing items of vocabulary in the English language. For the learner of English as a second language, the only way the student will completely understand these is through experience.


Many learning difficulties arise for students learning English when it comes to pronunciation. There are particular sounds that are more common in English, such as those written with th – as in the, that, and this, that are relatively rare in other languages. A common example of this occurs with many Chinese and Japanese speakers learning English. They often have great difficulty distinguishing between r and l. And many Spanish speakers have difficulty pronouncing b and v5.

The characteristic features of English sounds at the junction of words can create difficulties for Turkish and Russian learners of English; therefore it is important that students are given the opportunity to learn the sound system of the English language as well as intonation, stress and syllables2.


There are many difficulties that students encounter when learning the English language, and not all of them are covered in this article. However, the important factor that EFL teachers need to consider is the affect the cultural background of the student has on their ability to learn the English language. It is important that the teacher has some understanding of differences between the student’s native language and the new language being taught. Through this they may be able to predict and counter difficulties the student may have. It is also important to consider the characteristics of the individual student as well. Are they young, old, educated'

Once these factors are taken into consideration the teacher can apply the following concepts to maximise student learning and minimise potential learning difficulties.

10 Commandments for Good Language Learning: by Patty Rice Ph.D4.

1.lower student inhibitions

2.encourage risk taking

3.build self confidence

4.develop intrinsic motivation

5.engage in cooperative learning

6.use right brain processes

7.promote ambiguity tolerance

8.practice intuition

9.process error feedback – make mistakes work for the student

10.set personal goals


1. Second Language Acquisition: An introduction course; by Susan M Gass. 1994

2. A Multicultural Look at Difficulties for English Language Pronunciation; by Naray Alagozlu & Minira Garayeva.

3. Difficulties of English Language; http://ipadventures.com

4. Difficulties with English Language; by Patty Rice Ph.D. www.misd.net

5. Difficulties for learners; Wikipedia Encyclopaedia. http://en.wikipedia.org

6. English Grammar – The Tense System; International TEFL Teacher Training.