Blog: Typical mistakes when studying English

This is a tongue-in-cheek look at common errors Dutch people make as they aim to improve their English language skills. First, error correction exercises will be explained. Then, there will be a focus on 5 problem areas.

Error Correction

Teachers who work with English language learners should find this useful when identifying key issues that need to be improved. One tried and tested method that reaps rewards is the error correction exercise. The idea is based on the test-teach-test technique, which first involves testing the learner’s previous knowledge also known as top down processing: 

making effective suggestionsIt could be that during a course you have already covered some mistakes, which is a form of revision, or, in fact, that have yet to be taught, which would mean slowly introducing them. Clues can help and, depending on the level, i.e. for lower levels, you can give more explicit suggestions, i.e. underlining a mistake. Then, there are other inaccuracies that won’t be covered during the course, but you can nip in the bud as they come to the surface. You can recycle mistakes by one student, to be learned from at a later stage, or from different students, which can be used for all (depending on the levels).

1. Register
Formality is a formidable force to fathom; fearfully frightening when Dutch cultural norms dictate that communicating informally is perfectly acceptable. By way of example, in the Netherlands, where it is OK to call your boss by his/her first name or when writing to use the first name followed by comma (‘John,’) or even ‘Kind Regards  shortened to KR; there are differences. Across the North Sea, in the UK, Brits must refer to senior management by Mr/ Mrs X, they would write Dear John (neutral) and Hi John (informal). There would be no abbreviations for salutations and Kind Regards would suffice, respectively. For lower levels, pronouncing contracted forms like I’d and I’ll may be an issue due to unfamiliarity. Finally, the use of could, would and may as polite forms used as subtle softeners are firm favourites re tact & diplomacy in cultural awareness training, which takes some getting used to for the Dutch.
2. False Friends
The term refers to words that appear to be similar or identical while the meaning is different. These can be amusing, and it is always interesting to discover their origins. Using humour can help the learner not to make these slips, but also to be fascinated by the complexities of language learning. Take this old chestnut: presentator. The word in Dutch means a presenter. The word is similar and the L1 interference, which is the 1st language of the learner has interfered in the acquisition of the target language, which is English. One more for luck: get a child from kind krijgen. This humourous blunder is guaranteed to have people in stitches. In English, this seems to imply that it is possible to buy a child at a store, for instance, when, to have a child would do the trick.

3. Spelling
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to tell how a word is spelled from how it sounds, for example, or vice versa. ‘Mortgage’ and ‘debt’ are two examples where neither letters ‘t’ or ‘b’ are pronounced. Here is a fascinating article on the subject:

Sometimes similar words get muddled up like ‘then’ and ‘than’. Even lowerintermediate learners have been known to ask what the difference between them is. In Dutch, the word dan can be used to mean both words, hence the confusion. K can be accidentally written instead of C as Dutch used k instead of c, i.e, kok vs cook, which may raise a few eyebrows, or kabinet vs cabinet is another.

4. Expressions
This is usually relevant to upper intermediate learners and above. There are some expressions that are almost identical in both languages, which is reassuring for some, i.e. ben je in een kerk geboren? (were you born in a church) instead of: ‘were you born in a barn?’ – making fun of someone for leaving a door open. There are also fixed expressions in English with no equivalent in Dutch like ‘drink-driving’, (somebody who is under the influence of alcohol while driving). Also, there are Dutch expressions that are similar to English ones such as Nu komt de aap uit de mouw  (Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve), which is not too far off ‘ to let the cat out of the bag’. In English there are proverbs which have no direct equivalent like this one from the 15th century: Children should be seen and not heard, and, if deemed relevant, would have to be learned bottom down focusing on individual meaning. See here for more on this:

5. Pronunciation
Michael Swan’s Learner English (2001) is an excellent resource for identifying specific pronunciation errors Dutch learners make, and then you can make pronunciation drills and address those concerns together with the learners. English is notoriously tricky when it comes to words being pronounced differently from how they look. Take the following combination of letters: ough. There are seven different ways for them to be pronounced: Rough (ah), through (oo), though (O), thorough (urr), plough (ow), trough (oh) and thought (or).

Otherwise, some typical slip ups commonly heard are ID instead of idea (eye-dee-a) and words with these sounds: /ᴧ /vs /ʊ/ where ‘fun’ sounds like foon (but shorter), /θ/ vs /f/ bath vs barf (which is also a slang word for vomiting), /ð /vs /d/ making breathe sound like breed, which could cause concern, and  /ʤ/ vs /g/ where geniuses becomes gen-eeurses, which sounds like an unpleasant illness.
Unfamiliar words will undoubtedly cause learners to mispronounce words, so it’s good for the teacher to model the right sounds when necessary. Varying intonation/ emphasising key words can be worked on when preparing to give presentations, through lots of listening to good quality language and, naturally, plenty of practice.

Geschreven door trainer Engels Daniel Israel.
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