Problems facing learners of different nationalities IntroductionConsidering the


Considering the difficulties that learners from different backgrounds are faced with is appropriate because I will soon embark on a teaching career which will bring me in contact with many people from different backgrounds and the challenges they face in mastering the English language.

Having learnt English myself at some point in life, has made me aware of some of the difficulties my students are faced with. My experience in having overcome these difficulties could be a great help to my students, if these are used in the proper way. The danger is that one might compare others to oneself. This is useless because it's extremely difficult to say that people with a certain background only face one set of problems. The difficulties are as many and as varied as the people we teach. The obstacles they face in learning a new language are closely linked to Language 1 interference (L1 interference with English, L2), their education, the complexity of the English language and for some there could be difficulties due to culture. It's important for teachers to be aware of these issues, since they will then be better able to assist their students in overcoming these.

L1 interference

Learner difficulties with L1 interference depend on the extent to which their native language differs from English. Many tend to carry over the same grammatical patterns from their L1 to L2. This would be problematic if L1 and L2 have different patterns. They also seem to confuse certain items of vocabulary known as false friends. Both of the afore mentioned contribute to language interference.


There are people with very little education who have learned English. We can all probably think of someone like this and can attribute their success to different aspects. Most of these people are highly motivated, goal oriented people. Their lack of education didn't prove to be a stumbling block. Many though, because of not having sufficient education, lack appropriate study skills that may prove very helpful in learning a new language. Students could be eager to learn, but their eagerness does not mean that they know how to study.

The complexity of the English language

The history of English has resulted in a large vocabulary. Some experts claim that it has one of the largest vocabularies of any known language.

Besides difficulties with the large vocabulary, learners tend to have many difficulties mastering English grammar. The tenses present a large number of subtle differences that a learner of English may have great difficulty detecting. Understanding the importance of auxiliary verbs and how they can be manipulated in order to form one of the many tenses of the English language is quite difficult at times.

Many times articles (the definite and indefinite article) are not used by students to form complete sentences. This we can understand, because in their L1 the use of articles may not be necessary or even nonexistent. Articles are at times even used in a completely different way in their L1.

Not to be ignored are the pronunciation issues. Some sounds, such as the th ( in the, that, though) are difficult to produce for some students and they thus replace those sounds by the [t] or [d] sound. This might feel more natural to them. Spanish students may have difficulties with the [b] and [v] sounds and speakers of Asian languages may have difficulties pronouncing [r] and [l] sounds.

The syllable clusters in English also present many problems. English words may have clusters of up to 3 consonants before and/or after a vowel (example: straw, desks). This presents pronunciation issues for some learners. The Japanese are used to words where the consonant alternates the vowel. The word desks might be pronounced as desukusu because of trying to force a vowel in between the consonants.


The influence of ones culture should not be ignored. This influence may create barriers that teacher s need to overcome by being patient and understanding. Many language teachers have observed passivity and shyness in their Asian students. This does not necessarily mean that they are not eager to learn. Teachers need to familiarize themselves with the culture of their students because this will help them to avoid embarrassing situations that could form roadblocks to learning.


We can go on discussing learner difficulties without ever coming to a reasonable conclusion. The point is that there will always be difficulties in learning English and as time goes on this list will get longer. As teachers we should be aware of them and be ready to help our students overcome these difficulties.


Yi Yang [email protected] Massachusetts department of Education

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