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Student Gripes: Laments of the (English) Language Learner


“I don’t like your face!”

Well, that’s never good to hear on any day of the week, but when you are mid-lesson, sat in a cafe across from a private student, it has the potential to stop you in your tracks.

To put this into a context, the teacher had it coming. Talking about where to place a stress in a sentence, the student was wise to the fact that this, being English, was not going to have a simple ‘always do this’ rule.

They asked, “Is this the correct way for all sentences?” and the teacher, who had already pushed the student to their limits that lesson with numerous exceptions, said nothing, merely grimaced. On seeing this, the student understood. Exasperated, the only words he could form were: “I don’t like your face!”

Making up the rules as we go along

One of the biggest gripes students have with English is that there is an exception to every rule. For every “you should always say X this way” there is an “apart from when Y happens…”. You can see why learners are so frustrated.

So although teaching English isn’t without its difficulties either, English teachers do appreciate learning the language can be like trying to juggle custard.

From the horse’s mouth

Speaking to a number of private students from different backgrounds with varying levels of English and various reasons for learning English, there were some common aspects that made all of them howl at the moon.

So here are the particular pet peeves given off-record but with adamant, gesticulating vigour by a group of current language students:

Peeve #1: Prepositions

When it comes to prepositions, in theory they should be straightforward. The beer is in the glass, the pizza’s on the table. Simple. But then there are things like in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening but at night. Why the exception? “Because that’s just the way it is.” Quite.

Prepositions like over are particularly annoying. To directly quote a student: “Why is the clock be over the television and above the television? I cannot walk above a hill, I am not an angel, it is not the same.” We believe she took offence at some prepositions acting as synonyms for some occasions but not for others, but we’re not entirely sure. We just know that she hates prepositions.

And then “Why are you always fighting with Americans? Why do you have to be different?” This particular outburst came when a student had learnt the phrase “What do you do on the weekend?” from an American teacher and were now hearing “What do you do at the weekend?” from an English one.

You can understand their bewilderment.

Peeve #2: Phrasal verbs

Imagine learning a few verbs, getting a little confident with your language skills, then being told that by following the verb with a preposition they can mean another thing entirely? Welcome to the wonderful world of phrasal verbs. There are well over 3000 phrasal verbs in the English language, and telling students that could just result in them going into apoplectic shock. Even the reassurance of “You don’t need to learn them all, even I don’t know them all, just learn the ones that are useful to you” is no comfort whatsoever. “How can I remember any? They have no sense! I can’t keep them in my head!”

Even when learning relatively amusing ones like throw up and crack up, students are always suspicious about motives and expecting there to be some way of getting it wrong. And often they do. “Can I get my leg over?” a students asks in complete seriousness. Verb, student. Phrasal verbs start with a main verb not a noun. And no. No, you can’t. Back away…

Peeve #3: Adjective word order

The problem with English being a mostly ‘uncased’ language is that there is a relatively strict adjective word order to memorise. “I want tell my car it is red, old and messy, why do the words need a different order?”

For native speakers who don’t dabble in English teaching, it is a possibility that you are not even conscious of a word order; you just know when it sounds ‘wrong’. It is one aspect of English teaching that turns even the most patient, tolerant student into a petulant toddler in possession of a new word: “Why?” We don’t know. We’re sorry, truly, but it really is just the way Constantly asking us “But why?” on this point is going to give us both a headache.

Keep going!

So. We accept that English can be a very silly language at times. But please bear with it. Like any fitness regime or course of antibiotics, it will all be worth it in the end. We promise.

Want some help with your English learning? Or want to learn another language? Contact us and see what’s on offer in your area!