What English words and rules of grammar are most confusing for people learning ESL?

As mentioned in a couple of other threads I have a Mexican cleaning lady who is trying to learn English. She’s plenty bright but just cannot get a grasp on the language. A few things I’ve noticed:

I’d always assumed the lack of formal/informal and the lack of gender in English would be a welcome simplification to those learning it, but apparently it’s confusing. Maria uses the southernism y’all as an informal roughly the way a Spanish speaker might use tu instead of usted or a German might use Du instead of Sie, and she’ll sometimes say things like that table where the is appropriate and I’ve wondered if it may be similar to gender differentiation. (Unfortunately I can’t communicate well enough to ask her.)

Some Filipino students where I work who speak better English than most of the homegrown students will sometimes have a surprising mispronunciation. They’ll say southern in such a way that it rhymes with mouth-ern, or strewn in such a way as to rhyme with prune which is not incorrect but is a regionalism (down here, and IIRC in most parts of the country, it’s pronounced to rhyme with thrown). Apparently address numbers coming before instead of after the street (1234 Elm St. instead of Elm St. 1234) is a hard habit to break as well. Placement of verbs and adjectives are also hard to get used to among the non native-English speakers I’ve known.
Then of course there are all kinds of words whose spelling doesn’t even make sense to English speakers due to the number of silent letters: through,thorough, Wednesday, receipt, and catsup come to mind.

Anyone know of any of the hardest rules to grasp for people learning English as a second (or greater) language? What are some of the most peculiar features of English to those coming from another primary language?

I’ve read thousands of writing samples by ESL kids (it’s a big component of my job) and one weird error I’ve seen over and over and over is the inability to understand that history and story mean two different things. You might read a paper that will get the highest mark in grammar, but it still says “in a history I have read, Lenny and George…”

Another error that takes a long time to correct is how to state your age in English. Many coherent writers will slip up only when they tell you “I have fifteen years old.”

I think it depends on what their mother tongue is. For Japanese, most people have a lot of trouble with the English “the/a” and pluralization of nouns which then require verb agreement.

e.g. A camera has a button vs. The cameras have buttons.

IMHE, no matter how many years Japanese translators have been working they still mess that up all the time.

“If I was/If I were”, I still don’t know which one to use.

I think I get “who/whom” but I still stay away from “whom” and always use “who”.
To pile on to Isamu’s point: If I saw several camera with 1 button each, I’d say that the cameras have buttons but it could be that the cameras have a button.
Elfkin, are you teaching French speakers? Story= histoire. History= histoire.

iirc Geschichte is both history and story in German.

The hardest one, I’ve heard, is the “phrasal verb”. I never even heard of this until I started hanging around with people whose native language was not English, but it’s verboid phrases like “give up”, “give out”, “give in”, etc, all built around a base word like “give”, but with different idiomatic meanings.

Say what? I’ve never heard anyone rhyme ‘strewn’ with ‘thrown’. Rhymes with ‘prune’ for me always. Of course, it’s not a word I hear or use often, but still…

That’s a very European thing: “Bergstraße 42, bitte” to the German cab driver, for example. What’s weird is when you get a European website that tries to format a Canadian address that way on a mailing label (Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, I’m looking at you!)

“Ketchup”. :slight_smile: I’ve read that “catsup” and “ketchup” actually came from the same Malay root via two completely-separate derivations.

Then there’s the legendary poem, Dearest Creature in Creation. I defy anyone, native speaker of English or not, to read that out loud and pronounce all the words right.

An elementary school riddle I remember is “What animal do the letters GHOTIO spell?” The answer is “fish”-

GH- as in laugh
O- as in women
TIO- as in fiction

One thing Maria did impart is that in Spanish 99 times out of 100 what you see is what you get. The few exceptions to pronunciation usually involve a non-Spanish word that’s in common use in the language.

I am tired as heck of hearing that GHOTIO thing

there are rules about when those letters can make those sounds, and it can not say fish like that

maybe it is supposed to be a joke but it still angers me and is only used to mock the fine English language

For Chinese speakers, I’d also say the ‘a vs the vs nothing’ thing. English tenses can also be troublesome sometimes.

Probably Spanish speakers, since “historia” means both story and history (though cuento also means what we mean by a story).

Dude, you are “tired as heck” of everything.

Seriously, this is hilarious if you have a minute or two to read it. He’s tired as heck of everything from “day and month people” to people picking on his shows. I love him. He’s hilarious.

My Bulgarian students had a LOT of trouble with “a” and “an”. It didn’t help that my counterpart (the Bulgarian teacher I worked with) also couldn’t figure out how to use it. She would say something like “this is desk, this is window” while I sat by and cringed and waited my turn to give examples with “a” and “an”, thereby probably confusing the hell out of them.

They would also transpose Bulgarian genders onto inanimate objects no matter how many times I reminded them that everything in English is neuter gender. (Bulgarian has feminine/masculine/neuter.) Then my counterpart would say that English has NO gender, which is true, but I thought saying that everything was neuter would make more sense to them. Sometimes we were not awesome at coordinating our lessons.

“Many”, “much”, and “very” are all the same word (mnogo) in Bulgarian, and this caused [del]many problems[/del] mnogo problemi.

On the pronunciation/memorization front “expect” and “except” are very difficult for Japanese to use, often to amusing results:

Them: You can have anything, expect the diamonds.
me: Yay!?

I agree with Isamu that this varies a lot depending on the person’s native language. Past childhood it’s difficult to learn, or even remember, a grammar rule that has no equivalent in your native language, and difficult to learn, or even correctly distinguish, sounds that aren’t present in your native language.

For the Japanese some common problems are plural forms, “the” vs. “a/an”, “many” vs. “much”, and “X-ed” vs. “X-ing” (e.g. “I am excited” vs. “I am exciting”).

Anything that’s an exception to the common rules of English, like strong verbs and irregular plural forms, is also going to be a challenge for anyone learning the language. This is true for both young children who are learning English as their first language and anyone learning English as their second language.

A common mistake that I’m not sure how to categorize is that Japanese speakers of English will often use “country” and “city” as adjectives, when a native speaker would usually say “rural” and “urban”. I don’t speak Japanese well enough to say whether this is because the same words are used for country/rural and city/urban in Japanese or whether the confusion is due to the fact that several common English adjectives end in “y”.

All in all, it is remarkable how often Arabic-speakers, even those who have excellent English screws up the Third-Person Marker.

I work.
He works.

Articles, plurals, verb tenses, and prepositions.

Plus saying things like “I was boring” when they mean “I was bored.” Even my higher level students often make that mistake.

True for my Spanish-speaking students:

Pronunciation: “th” in words like “the”, schwa, “short” i, the sound of “ou” in words like “would”, “th” on words like "thirty.

Grammar: The use of do/does/did for questions and negatives, the double negative(required in Spanish), verb “to be” not using auxiliaries.

My gaming partner is Polish. His second language is Latin. He’s managed to bad influence me with his tenses and adverbs.

I could probably bring him here to defend his honor. If I were to send him an email tonight, I’d get one from him tomorrow night and he would come here to say hello and that he’d post more in a morning.

I’m a beta reader for a Mexican woman writing in English. She has issues with what pronoun to use, when to use ‘in’ or ‘on’, the difference between ‘not’ and ‘no’ and the difference between noun and verb forms of a word (for example, she often gets confused by ‘complain’ and ‘complaint’). In Spanish, ‘make’ and ‘do’ are the same word, and she has trouble knowing where to use each one. She asked if there was a rule she could use to help remember, but I couldn’t help her with that one. Idiomatic expressions are difficult for her - it took me ages to realise “He sent me to check the ground” meant “He sent me to test the waters” - but I’m actually quite impressed that she knows so many of them, and can use them in the right context, even if the phrasing isn’t perfect.

I can especially see that being difficult with words beginning with ‘h’.

“Did you stay in a hotel?”
“It was an honor.”