I have always known it: it is our frogcountry mother tongue that is the biggest obstacle while speaking and writing English. My Dutch does not only bother me sometimes as an English teacher, it bothers students at mbo, hbo and even university too. The good thing about this is, however, that we keep smiling after we recognize our mistakes and try to improve what needs to be improved.
As I have noticed for years in classrooms is that students and learners of English often make the same mistakes over and over again. They fall right into the pit, and as a guest lecturer at the VU I decided to ask ‘my’ VU-students focus in this year’s research on the most common errors and mistakes made in English by mbo, hbo and university students.
How? They interviewed 18 English teachers asking them questions such as “Which errors and mistakes do students make in English” and “What do you think causes these mistakes”. This research was done within the program Global English that studies many different Englishes around the world, either as first or second language.
Almost all interviewees pinpointed to our native language after the VU-students asked what the main cause is of our mistakes in English. Literal translations from Dutch to English keep seeping through in writing and speaking. One of the weirdest sentences I read in the findings of the VU-teams was provided by an mbo-teacher; one of his students wrote: “I was orphan swimming” (ik was wezen zwemmen). The cause of this error is obviously a blend of Dutch and English, the so-called Dunglish or Denglish, though the teacher blames the mistake also to the way of learning. Students simply choose the first translation for ‘wezen’ in their online dictionary…
Dunglish is funny and charming to some extent, but can be quite embarrassing in professional situations. If you don’t know the word for ‘cursus’, never make up an English-sounding word and hope for the best. Once a student wrote me about his ‘curse Internationaal zakendoen’. The student could have avoided this mistake if he had proofread his e-mail before sending it to his teacher. But I wonder if students do check their e-mail drafts at all before sending? Taking some more time for writing and correcting text could be a smart solution.
Anyway, for those who like to see more Dunglish one of the VU-teams recommended a Facebook page in their report with extreme Dunglish examples: ‘Make that the Cat wise‘. Another website is Dunglish.nl which explains a bit more why we make these silly mistakes. The highly popular books I always get my sin and We always get our sin too, written by Maarten H. Rijkens provide translations from Dunglish to correct English. And for those who are interested in really good background information on why British and Americans say it the way they say it just read the columns of Ronald van de Krol, collected in the book Voertaal: Engels.
Now, back to the serious findings. In all of them I saw a few very typical and recognizable mistakes and errors and I saw some I had never seen before. Especially those made by mbo-students are familiar to me. Here are the most common pits mbo-learners fall into:
- ‘false friends’ : you’re/your, to/too, their/there/they’re
- omitting capital letters: i, wednesday
- difficulty with double and single consonants: usefull, beautifull, addres, verry
- contractions: its/it’s/whose/who’s
- double past tense: I did found out / Did you saw that?
- applying past tenses, especially the irregular verbs: I writed that down.
- Place then time: You give Saturday a birthday party, don’t you?
- Verb order: You have 20 boys and girls invited?
- literal translation/choosing the first word in the dictionary
What about hbo students? Do they also have difficulty with spelling like the mbo-students? The answer is not as much, but spelling errors are still present in writing. One of the hbo-teachers uttered, almost in despair: “I sometimes have the impression that half of my students is dyslectic.” Complex words are not always accurately written. Think of words like ‘definitely [definately] or through [trough/throught]. Beside grammatical errors such as an overuse of present perfect [The man has lived in London last year, but moved to Swansea] hbo-students have difficulty with pronunciation in particular.
Here are some common pronunciation errors:
- Mispronunciation because of the ‘ch’ in chocolate: character
- Stress on the wrong syllable: analysis
- Th-sound: with -> wit
Dutch learners tend to forget to pronounce the consonants with aspiration, that is the ph-sound:
- paper [phepu] /power [phowur] /people [phiepul] /Peter [Phietur]
Academic learners struggle less with spelling, it seems. However, they are not always good at creating long and complex sentences, using appropriate linking words. Beside complex sentences they also have difficulty with grammar and pronunciation. And this latter part is interesting, I thought. No aspiration, hardly any th-sound, stress on the wrong syllables, these were frequently heard errors in speaking. Again the Dutch language is the instigator of this all. Finally, one lecturer said that pronunciation errors are made but not notices since they can be concealed by the pace of talking.
Initial and final devoicing (voicing ) consonants:
- this -> dis
- that -> det
- bad – bat – bed
- dogs -> docks
- Use of ‘is’ in passive tense: “The president is asked .. “
- Singular vs plural conjugation: “The idea were -> was”
- Would in if-clause: “If you would do …”
- Overuse of present perfect: “I have seen him yesterday.”
By looking at the word picture and using a photographic memory learners remember spelling and even grammatical structures and common sayings or expressions. So, one simple solution to fight spelling and grammar errors is telling my students to read a thousand books. But you know what? That doesn’t help anymore. The percentage of readers has gone down dramatically, especially among young adults at mbo. Many students may still read a lot, that is what they think, though the reading is done on the Internet, in bits and pieces. The majority does not read novels, non-fiction or quality newspapers. Their part of reading comes down to scanning texts and words on social media. The good thing about this is that they are exposed to a lot of text, so the word picture can become clearer. Often I hear students say ‘that word doesn’t look right to me.’ What they do is using their instinct; somewhere they have seen the word before and rely on their memory. So a larger exposure to English through Internet may seem to have a positive influence. Nothing is probably less true though; if learners see incorrect examples for example in blogs, forums or chats they will copy these mistakes without realizing the words are misspelled.
One of the findings I find very true is the answer of an mbo-teacher to the following question: “What do you think as a teacher influences the students to make these errors? He answered: “Not being corrected properly: even native speakers have the tendency to not be rude and nod and smile… trying hard to understand the Dunglish.”
This answer proves to me that teachers need to be trained to become excellent English teachers who should be role models to their learners. The teacher should be skilled in speaking and writing and capable of explaining notorious pitfalls due to our first language. If this scenario will not take place we might create a pseudo-English language with a mixture of rules resulting in a potpourri of Englishes. One of the interviewees at a university gave this phenomenon of cultural different wording ‘Englishfying words’. He clarified this by giving an example: “If it is someone’s birthday Dutch speakers of English sometimes say ‘congratulations’, but I would rather say ‘happy birthday’.“
During my lecture at the VU last week we discussed the role of English as a compulsory subject in vocational professions in which people hardly encounter English-speaking people. Think of painters, dental technicians in a lab and hearing aid specialists. One of my students has just mailed me today to evaluate the English lessons in the first semester. He wrote the following:
“During my work as hearing aid professional, I’ve never met a customer who speaks English. I am self-employed in the province of South-East Friesland and North-Overijssel. My customers only speak Dutch and Fries. My English is not so good, and an English conversation is not so easely for me. So far I had only English lesson on the lower technical school.”
After reading the e-mail I feel proud that this self-made man has attained such a good level of writing and at the same time I know he is an exception to the rule. I see many worrisome examples that lack any knowledge of basic grammatical rules due to being out of education for more than twenty years.
Government and English exams
Since this school year the Dutch government requires that all mbo level 4 students, no matter what profession, pass a minimal level of English proficiency in three out of five tests: writing-A2, reading-B1, listening-B1, giving instruction/presentation-A2 and conversation-A2. I understand that these levels are necessary for those who have direct contact with foreign clients and colleagues. But governmental policy doesn’t take into account that many professions only care about being excellent in their profession, not so much at the English language. In my opinion, these students should only be examined in the passive skills such as reading and listening. The active situations in which they encounter English are scarce. Thus, the English mandatory exams only cause a lot of stress among these vocational students.
Do you like to know more about common errors and mistakes students make? Have a look at my Prezi presentation about Error and mistakes made by vocational learners, which I showed during my lecture at the VU last week.
One of the students asked an hbo-teacher: “What is the most beautiful thing about the English language?” His answer was a surprising and poetic one: “The difference between spelling and pronunciation: sometimes absolutely incomprehensible.”
Finally, for all who would like to continue the discussion about how perfect our English proficiency should be:
Should we allow influences from other languages into the standard Cambridge English?