The challenges of learning English as a foreign language
June 20, 2019 | 2:23 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

Do you know those words that are spelled the same way but have multiple meanings? Words like ‘school’, ‘may’, ‘even’ and ‘lead’ have multiple meanings. Many people don’t...

One of the cornerstones of English language is that there are thousands of such words and that they are the foundations of the language which makes them especially important. But what is equally important is that those who learn the language must be taught the significance of these words.

Those who have a good command of English often take this skill for granted, forgetting that they owe it to others to share with them the knowledge and understanding that they have.

More often than not, understanding of English language doesn’t just come from reading books and hours spent in the classroom, but from interactions with other cultures, particularly those that have been using English as a language of preference for generations.

To understand what it means to truly master the English language, we spoke to English teachers in Oman to understand the challenges people face when it comes to learning.

Educators in Oman didn’t just share their insights into what influenced people’s learning of English, but also gave examples of how people misunderstood references that others find normal, depending on how much exposure they have had to the cultural element of the language. However, the reverse may also be true: those English language speakers may have had cultural exposure that we may not have access to, which influences their learning in a different manner.

Al Mahanad Al Badi is an English language instructor at the Musannah College of Technology. As someone who is not just an English teacher, but also someone who had to learn the language himself as a non-native speaker, Al Mahanad was able to share what he’d learned both as a teacher and as a student.

While doing his masters on teaching English language, Al Mahanad also worked part time at a café, where he would interact with primarily native English speakers. His experiences while overseas taught him a lot, not just about speaking and understanding English, but the origins of the cultural and social references he had to understand.

“It depends on the learner’s level of education, because those who are highly educated will seek to use terms that others may be unfamiliar with. They try to sometimes integrate language unconsciously,” he explained. “Taking my own experiences into account, when I was doing my masters, I was working at a café, and met many customers who were local. Some of them used a lot of cultural references and songs from movies. It wasn’t about the terms per se, but more about the cultural references behind them.”

“They talked to me like I was one of them, as if I was one of the locals. It is different for those who have a good education and have been exposed to different people because they will make the effort to understand others,” he admitted. “All of us are language learners, and misunderstandings with English come from the cultural differences. For example, if I have studied the language, and I am speaking to someone else who has, then we can understand each other really well. But this is not true for all, because there might be others who don’t have the educational or cultural awareness.”

Cultural awareness plays a huge role in understanding English. To you and me, a ‘mate’ could be a close friend, but to someone else, it could be someone they consider their life partner. These little differences in understanding the context of languages when they are spoken is one of the issues Eliott Wright, director of pathway programmes at Muscat University, has experienced among non-native speakers, i.e. those who do not speak English as a first language.

Many of them have gone overseas to study, have improved their English through books and films, or have spoken to native English speakers, whose perspectives on the language will surely affect their own. To avoid misunderstandings, particularly when non-native English language speakers meet each other – a situation that is now increasingly common in Oman and the rest of the world, given the sheer number of people who speak English as a second language – Eliott has published a guide on how those who teach English at schools can help their students learn and avoid such confusion.

“When teachers come here from overseas, let’s say from the UK for example, they tend to use many examples of jargon and colloquial words that may sometimes confuse the students here, even if their level of speaking is quite high,” said Wright. “I have written a guide for academic teachers, called ‘Grading your language as you teach’, which I sent to all the academics here to use, because we need to be careful to not use idiomatic language and things like phrasal verbs.

He added: “It is to do with people being aware. It is not only English teachers who are aware of how they need to speak. I have Omani English teachers with whom I speak almost at the same level as I do to a native English speaker, but when I use idiomatic language, I sometimes have to explain what that means. It is hard to explain what all those things mean, and what all the colloquialisms mean, and even this is changing all the time.”

Eliott was only too happy to give examples of cultural misunderstandings that might take place between those who spoke English with each other. To add to the confusion, he said, the way one generation understood a slang term would differ from the way a person from another generation perceived it.

The same, he said, held true for jargon – highly technical terms that people in a profession use to describe things, which may not be understood by others outside that field. In a newspaper organisation, for example, a ‘splash’ is the front-page story that is given the most importance, because it is ‘splashed’ across the front of the paper. Someone else might be confused by that.

“I once told someone that ‘I had to pick someone up at the airport’, and to most people, this means that you are going to give a lift to someone who has arrived at the airport, but there will be some people who won’t understand that and actually believe that you are physically lifting someone up above your head when you go to the airport, because they don’t understand that significance,” Eliott explained.

“It is hard to think of just one example, but it is to do with more colloquial language,” he shared. “The language that I will use with my friends back in the UK will be different to what I use with my Omani colleagues, but I am very aware of the way in which I am speaking because I was trained as an English teacher.”

Eliott went on to share a story that involved one of his Omani colleagues, whose teenage son had returned home for the holidays from the UK. The son had picked up a few colloquial words from his British friends; words that his father had indeed heard of, but seldom in this context.

“One of my colleagues had a son visit him in Oman for the holidays, and his son shared with him a slang for ‘excellent’ that he didn’t know existed until that point,” he recalled. “He asked him how the food was on the flight back and his son told him that it was ‘meat’. My colleague was confused because he did not know whether his son had eaten meat, or whether he was served meat or whatever else it meant.”

“For everyone, language is constantly evolving. It is just being aware that most people won’t have that colloquial knowledge, and that of the verbs and the idioms.”

However, this challenge of learning a foreign language is not unique to those who learn English alone. The same holds good for those who are trying to learn any language that they are not familiar with. Once again, there is another layer of learning that comes into play here as well: English uses a Latin script, the same as French, Italian and Spanish, which means that those who speak these European languages have an easier time learning English, because the scripts are the same.

A Chinese speaker, for example, would have a different challenge, because the symbols used in Cantonese and Mandarin are never found in English. Such a learner would first need to familiarise himself with the script while also trying to understand the context and meaning of the words he is just beginning to identify.

Al Mahanad Al Badi said: “I notice that teachers actually are the best when it comes to language grading – because of their constant exposure to learners, they slowly learn to speak properly with everyone. It depends on the person, learning a language, not whether the person learning it is native or foreign. In fact, the same is true across other languages as well: learners have the same problem when they are learning Arabic as a foreign language because some people just want the basics, while others will go into the cultural standards.

“I had a Russian student who was learning Arabic a few years ago, and he was really smart,” he added. “He wanted to learn the local dialects of Arabic. He wanted to know the suffixes and prefixes that we used in the Omani dialect, instead of the standard Arabic. He mastered the Omani dialect because he knew and asked for the standards. “

Al Badi went on to say: “All foreign language learners have similar concerns. But these concerns depend on the levels of the learner, and some language have more positive effects. For example, it is easier for Spanish learners to pick up English if they have a high academic standard, because they are exposed to more content.”

“I have interacted with Spanish learners of English, and Arabic learners of English,” he explained. “The Europeans, such as the Spanish and the French – would develop higher academic standards quickly. It depends on the learner and their level of learning and how different or similar to their native language English is. For Chinese learners, for example, it is far more difficult to learn English, and the pronunciations are difficult for them to grasp as well.”

Before coming to work in the Sultanate of Oman, Eliott Wright spent time teaching English in China. To enable him to settle into life there, he began learning basic Chinese, and admitted that the challenges non-English speakers face while learning English are extremely similar to the ones he faced while learning Chinese.

He said: “I learned basic things in Chinese when I was there. I had the same kind of stumbling blocks that I had when I see people learning English, but my foreign language learning has only been very basic, so the teachers there would not go as far as teaching you the idiomatic references. I was learning directions, how to order food, deal with money, things like that, so my concerns are the same.”

The challenges people face while attempting to learn English have been so well documented that they have been the subject of many academic papers in the past. Students and researchers alike have published several papers on this subject.

One such paper was published by Amadou Kamara, a Liberian student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the United States. His paper, which was submitted during his masters’ degree, saw him interview six non-native English speakers on the challenges they faced in learning the language.

He interviewed six of his fellow students as part of his thesis, to discover the individual hurdles they faced. Two of his interviewees were Asian and came to America from India and Korea. A third was of Pakistani origin but emigrated from there to the States shortly after she turned 18. A further two were Ghanaian and Nigerian, with his last interviewee being Haitian.

“The study revealed the obstacles participants confront and the sources of support they sought,” explained Amadou. “Participants drew on a variety of resources in order to overcome the obstacles they faced. Within their educational environment, participants faced specific problems related to spoken English, accent, proficiency, non-existent or minimal support services, and the need to meet institutional standards in speaking and writing.

He added that help could be provided and skills “can be enhanced by utilising institution wide support mechanisms specific to both individual and group requirements, making personal endeavours aimed at improving speech and writing”.

“English is increasingly being learned or spoken as a third or fourth language, not just a second language,” he said. “To understand this requires the insider’s view. Language is a force that both shapes and is shaped by the relationships that people have with the world around them.”

Irrespective of the challenges non-native English speakers faced while attempting to learn the language, Eliott felt that the primary need for those who chose to learn it boiled down to one reason and one reason only – as a tool for effective communication. Yes, peer pressure and the need to conform to social behaviour did play its part, but in the end, Eliott Wright says that those who learn English first need to focus on learning the language alone. The rest will fall into place automatically.

“In the past, as an English language teacher, I wouldn’t even introduce colloquialisms and phrases until my students were at an advanced level, and at this point, you have to ask yourself, it is really worth it to speak like that?” Eliott admitted.

“The answer is obviously no, and a lot of the world’s communication is not with native speakers. It could be someone in Germany speaking English to someone in Oman speaking English, so in some ways I do not know if students are interested in learning all these colloquialisms. All they just want to do is converse.”

[email protected]

Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to know all the latest news