ESL Learners’ Spoken and Written Language

There are many challenges in teaching and learning a second language. Mastering English as a foreign language presents a number of difficulties, especially for adult learners. Both teachers and students meet the necessity of being “language-aware” (Andrews 2007, p. 1). Some of the most complicated issues in the acquisition of English are presented while learning its grammar and phonetics. A lot of scholarly papers and studies have been dedicated to analyzing the most typical errors that are observed in ESL learners’ spoken and written language. The current paper is aimed at scrutinizing a sample of ESL learner’s speech and discussing an issue in pedagogical grammar that is associated with it.

Analysis of a Sample of ESL Learner’s Speech

For the current study, we analyzed the IELTS speaking section example practice interview (AcademicEnglishHelp 2012). The interviewed student comes from Venezuela. Overall, his speaking is rather good. However, there are some cases of repetitive phonetic and grammatical mistakes. Researchers remark that some of the most common causes of phonetic mistakes are insufficient possibilities to speak English during the lessons and a limited authentic environment at ESL classes (Gan 2012). Mistakes in grammar are also associated with these reasons, but this type of errors brings even more harm for the ESL students as grammar has a greater impact on the development of writing skills. Therefore, scholars note the significance of adding linguistics into the ESL curriculum (Mulder 2010), which will enhance the opportunities to master English.

Phonetic Mistakes

The importance of learning English phonetics and phonology is constantly emphasized by the professionals (Blake 2008; Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2014; Lin 2014; Wong 2013). The significance of these aspects is highly discussed nowadays. However, teaching ESL pronunciation has a relatively short history of about a century and a half (Murphy & Baker 2015). The ability to discern between the sounds and pronounce them correctly impacts students’ spelling (Bulushi & Seyabi 2016), as well as performance and communicative competence (Gilakjani 2012).

In their study of ESL textbooks, Derwing, Diepenbroek, and Foote (2012) note that the representation of pronunciation activities is quite different in various books. ESL students admit that they do not have the necessary amount of pronunciation practice (Henderson et al. 2012). All of these factors indicate the necessity to pay more attention to the teaching approaches of ESL.

The analysis of ESL learner’s speech gave the following results. The student has a very good intonation and uses the appropriate elements to make speech connected. No mistakes in accentuation have been noticed: both word and sentence stress usage are rather well-developed. However, the learner makes some typical mistakes in regards to several individual phonemes. The difficulties in pronouncing consonant sound are the following:

  1. the most frequent error is the disappearance of a consonant sound [t] in a phrase ‘it’s’: the speaker pronounces it as [is] six times;
  2. another frequent mistake is the use of a voiceless consonant [s] instead of a voiced [z] in the following words: design, visit, easy, easier, example, music;
  3. the student misses consonant sounds when they should be used in front of a vowel [u]: the word Youtube is pronounced as [‘ju:t(j)u:b] (sonorant sound [j] is missed); the word situation is pronounced as [ιsıt(ᶘ)u’eıᶘƏn] two times(voiceless sound [ᶘ] is missed);
  4. instead of a sound [t], the speaker uses [k] on one occasion: et [ek] cetera.

The first error may be explained by the difficulty in the pronunciation of two neighboring consonant sounds. The learner finds it hard to move from one sound to another smoothly, and, as a result, misses one sound altogether.

The second mistake is most probably caused by the native language of the speaker. Venezuelans do not pronounce the letter ‘s’ as [z], and the student copies the native way of sounding the letter in his English pronunciation.

The third error may also be explained by the difficulty in pronouncing a combination of several consonants ([t] and [j] in Youtube, [ᶘ] and [j] in situation).

The fourth mistake may occur due to the unknown word-combination: the learner is studying English as a second language, and the word et cetera is borrowed into English from Latin.

The errors in the pronunciation of vowel sounds are the following:

  1. the student replaces the sound [ɜ:] with [o] in the word work;
  2. the learner uses [o] instead of [ᴧ] in such words as some, tough (two times), another, and trustworthy;
  3. the student replaces the sound [æ] with [a] in the words have (two times) and travel;
  4. a short sound [ı] is used instead of a long one in the word beach.

The first mistake is extremely frequent among ESL learners from different countries since sound [ɜ:] does not occur in their native languages. Thus, many students replace it by the sounds that are easier for them to pronounce. Sound [o] belongs to the most popular substitutes because there is a letter ‘o’ in the word.

The second error may be explained by the fact that the learner tends to mistake the letter ‘o’ for the sound [o].

The same explanation may be employed to the third mistake: the letter ‘a’ in the words have and travel are mistaken for sound [a], so the student neglects the correct sound [æ].

The fourth mistake is rather frequent not only among ESL learners but also among the native speakers. It is rather habitual for people to replace long vowels with their short correspondents. Thus, this mistake is the least serious in ESL learner’s pronunciation habits.

There is also one mistake that cannot be referred to any particular group of sounds: the word through is pronounced [tu] several times. This mistake may be called the problem of distinctness in pronouncing complicated sound combinations. It is difficult for ESL learners to pronounce the interdental sound [θ], and in this word, it is followed by another consonant, which is difficult to master without a lot of practice.

Grammatical Mistakes

The significance of teaching grammar as a separate subject in ESL program is emphasized by many scholars (Ellis 2006; Larsen-Freeman 2001; Allaf-Akbary 2015). The issues of English grammar present difficulties not only for foreigners but even for the native speakers. Most typically, ESL students make errors in the use of prepositions (Tahaineh 2010), tenses, pronouns, and singular/plural forms of nouns.

In the analyzed sample of ESL learner’s speech, there are numerous grammatical errors that, however, do not take away from the general clarity of speech. Spoken language presupposes more situational approach than written language. The mistakes made while speaking may be numerous and frequent. Therefore, I shall present only the ones that occur with regularity:

  • the student makes errors in the use of articles:
    • I use the internet (omission of a definite article in a set phrase);
    • at THE school (addition of a definite article in a set phrase where zero article should be used);
  • the learner makes many mistakes in the use of prepositions:
    • he approached TO me (the use of preposition while none is needed here);
    • answer FOR me (for instead of to);
    • such a good qualities to find ON people; to make a good idea ON my head; what things you find ON somebody else (on instead of in);
    • that friend you can rely on in a really difficult situation (omission of the preposition in);
  • the student makes some errors in the use of tenses:
    • and we GET (got) the highest score; I actually found good friends while I’M (was) surfing (the use of present simple instead of past simple when talking about a past action);
  • there are mistakes associated with the singularity or plurality of a verb form:
    • if somebody in your family HAVE (has) a problem (the use of a plural verb form have with a singular subject somebody);
  • the student mistakes nouns for verbs:
    • you can CHOICE (choose) (the use of a noun instead of a verb).

The first mistake belongs to the most frequent errors occurring in ESL learners’ speech and writing. Many languages do not have such part of speech as article or have articles different from the English ones. Thus, mastering English articles and the peculiarities of their use is a rather tough issue for the foreigners.

The second error is also quite frequent. Due to a large number of prepositions in English and many rules of their use, ESL students often mistake in this issue. Moreover, there may be difficulties due to the associations with the native language. If some set expression is used with a certain preposition in the mother tongue, the speakers tend to use the correspondent preposition if a foreign language.

The third mistake is also noticed quite frequently in ESL learners’ speech and writing. English has many tenses, and foreigners find it difficult to master them.

The last two mistakes are mentioned for statistics, but there were not frequent in the learner’s speech.

Discussion of an Issue in Pedagogical Grammar

English is used all over the world, and analyzing English in a global context has been the object of investigation of many scholars (Derewianka 2001). Pedagogical grammar deals with the most complicated problem in teaching English: it aims at the explanation not only of grammar systems but also of the use of grammar in “real-world contexts” (Keck & Kim 2014, p. 1). Grammar is used by people to convey meaning and organize interaction (Birch 2014). One of the most crucial aspects of pedagogical grammar is error correction. In connection with the analyzed sample of ESL learner’s speech, I would like to discuss the issue of correcting errors in spoken English.

Towards the end of the 20th century, communicative approach to language teaching began to prevail, which seemed to cause the decreased interest in grammar (Ur 2009). However, in spite of such expectations, grammar still evokes a lot of concern both in research works and practice. Scholars are interested in students’ peculiarities both in written and spoken language (Hinkel 2013). Since my analysis is focused on correcting errors in spoken English, I would like to concentrate on the studies dedicated to spoken English, grammar, and approaches to investigating and eliminating the errors in the process of ESL learners’ speaking in English.

Some professionals suggest performing the analysis of language on the basis of metalanguage. Berry (2005) argues that metalanguage is related to language awareness, and it should be regarded in connection with metalinguistics. Metalanguage may be used as a tool to “illuminate” different linguistic concepts (Berry 2005, p. 3). Thus, metalanguage can also be used to analyze the grammatical concepts as well as students’ errors associated with the misunderstanding of these concepts. In their analysis of errors made in the use of present simple tense, Muftah and Rafik-Galea (2013) emphasize that the mistakes made by ESL learners are different from those that prevail in native speakers’ language use. Investigating mistakes is considered one of the crucial aspects of language development (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013)

Grammar instruction is considered an essential part of teaching a language (Celce-Murcia 1991). Celce-Murcia (1991) emphasizes that in order to eliminate the number of errors that students make while learning English grammar, it is necessary to realize the versatile character of grammar. According to the author, grammar is in close cooperation with social function, meaning, and discourse (Celce-Murcia 1991).

Therefore, teachers should not explain grammar as a separate system but rather teach it in context. This opinion is shared by other scholars who propose to use corpora for the improvement of ESL learners’ grammar acquisition (O’Donnell 2013). Corpus linguistics is believed to contribute greatly to the explanation of various notions that are difficult to comprehend for the foreigners. Corpora provide an exceptional opportunity to use authentic texts for learning a language (O’Donnell 2013). By employing corpus linguistics, it is possible to eliminate the number of mistakes made by ESL learners.

Apart from a variety of reasons why ESL students fail to comprehend grammar easily, there is a problem in the core of grammar. This problem is represented with the numerous rules that English has and, more importantly, with a huge number of exceptions from these rules (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman 1999). Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999, p. 3) suggest that the teachers should have a perfect understanding of the rules and the “fuzzy boundaries” in English so that they could explain the various complicated issues to their students. Another important determinant of the lesson’s success is learner uptake.

Uptake is defined as the student’s reaction to the teacher’s feedback about his or her performance (Ellis, Basturkmen & Loewen 2001). When teaching grammar, particular attention should be paid to obtaining high learner uptake, which would indicate that the students can analyze their mistakes and avoid them in the future. To reach a high uptake, teachers need to focus on form, and they also should allow student-initiated focus (Ellis, Basturkmen & Loewen 2001).

Rozovskaya and Roth (2013, p. 791) note that the modern systems of correcting grammatical errors take into consideration only “independently-trained” models for particular mistakes. According to the researchers, such models neglect linguistic relations at the sentence level, which leads to insufficient analysis of grammatical errors occurring due to dependencies within some words or phrases (Rozovskaya & Roth 2013). Scholars agree that to change the learning outcomes of ESL learners’ grammar acquisition and eliminate the number of mistakes, it is necessary to integrate grammar instruction into the curriculum instead of teaching it as a separate discipline.

In spite of all the difficulties in acquiring the various aspects of English, ESL learners report high interest in mastering this language (Alkaff 2013). They consider English rather significant for communication and business, and many ESL students spend time to improve their knowledge in their free time.


The analysis of a sample of ESL learner’s speech allowed me to discern and analyze the most typical phonetic and grammatical errors made by the learner. The acquisition of English presents a lot of difficulties to learners, both native and foreign. Students who learn English as a second language are challenged by the numerous rules and grammatical forms present in English as well as by similarities and differences existing in their mother tongue. Error analysis and suggestions for eliminating the ESL learners’ mistakes while studying English have been the objects of investigation of many scholars and educators.

Among the most successful ways of dealing with mistakes are the use of corpus linguistics, the increase of time dedicated to instruction and self-development, and joint methods of linguistic interactions. While there are many challenges in acquiring English, students from all over the world agree that the mastery of this language opens a lot of opportunities in personal and business communication levels. Therefore, both learners and educators spend a lot of time on analyzing the ESL students’ errors and coming up with the ways of eliminating them.

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