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Ten Common Mistakes Non-Native English Speakers Make

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

My students would be the first to tell you that speaking English isn't that easy. There are little differences between English and their native language that trip them up with speaking English correctly.

Ten Common Speaking Mistakes Non-Native English Speakers Make

In my travels, as well as years of experience teaching English, I've noticed quite a few patterns of speaking mistakes that almost all people who speak English as a second or third (or fourth!) language make. No matter what country they come from, almost all my students arrive at my first class with these same common issues.

1. Regular and irregular plural noun forms

Almost everyone knows the rule for irregular plural forms of nouns but forget to actually say the words correctly when speaking to someone. Most nouns in English follow the simple rule of adding an "-s" or "-es" to change them from singular to plural. However, when speaking, a lot of English learners forget to pronounce the -s ending! This confuses native English speakers because they're left wondering if the person is talking about one or two or more things.

Then you have nouns about people that are some of the exceptions to the rule. Most English learners get confused and say womans or womens when they mean women, the plural of woman. Or they say childrens or childs instead of children, the plural of child. The same goes for men (plural of man) and people (plural of person).

2. Non-countable vs. countable nouns

It isn't easy to remember all the nouns you can count and all the ones you can't. Most students know that food and drink, like bread, water, rice, and milk, are non-countable nouns. But did you know that abstract concepts like advice, research, and information are non-countable? There are certain words that English speakers don't use every day, so it's not so easy trying to remember whether you can count them or not.

For instance, in Cuba, my tour guide often used "soil" as a countable noun. But it's actually not. I started talking with him and found out that he's an English teacher for tourism students, so he was grateful to learn that "soils" is incorrect, but that "types of soil" is correct.

3. Forming questions

Forming questions in English can be challenging when the way you form a question in your native country is completely different grammatically. In English, we switch around the grammatical structure, putting the verb at the beginning of the sentence. For yes/no questions, English learners often make the mistake of saying something like "?". For other types of questions, I often hear them expressed as "Where you were?" instead of "Where were you?"

4. Describing how old someone is

This is a really common mistake with people whose native language is one of the Romance languages, like Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. These speakers often use the verb have to describe how old someone is. They say something like, "She has five years." However, the correct way to talk about someone's age is to use the verb "be." For instance, "She is five years old." In English, you must also add "old" after "years" in English to describe someone's age correctly.

5. Prepositions and phrasal verbs

This is a big category and big problem for English learners. Because there are 150 prepositions in English, it's almost impossible to remember the rules of how to use each one correctly. Even native English speakers mess up using prepositions the right way. And then there are phrasal verbs, about 500 of them! Phrasal verbs are typically composed of verb + preposition, but can include an adjective, direct object.

The other day I heard an American woman who has only ever spoken English make up her very own phrasal verb. If native English speakers have difficulty, you know English learners definitely do!

6. Distinction between third person pronouns

This is another common mistake that Romance language speakers make. They confuse genders by getting mixed up with third person pronouns, like he and she, him and her, and his and hers. It makes it really confusing for a native English speaker to follow along with the conversation.

For instance, if a person is talking about her friend Susana and then says something like, "He had a three brothers," we native English speakers would think the person is now talking about a man that they never told us about before during our conversation. Its hard to understand what's going on in the conversation when the pronouns of the gender are constantly being switched.

7. Subject-verb agreement

Many non-native English speakers forget to make the subject agree with the verb when speaking. For instance, they may say, "Phillip run five kilometers every morning" instead of "Phillips runs five kilometers every morning."

To be honest, this is one that drives me nuts as a teacher, because no matter how many speaking and written exercises students do, they often comes back to the next class still making the same mistakes.

To me, conjugating verbs in English is actually much easier than conjugating verbs in other languages. In English, it's usually just the third person singular form that needs an "s" ending, while the rest of the forms stay the same. Unfortunately, not all students break this habit. But people who really make an effort to be more aware of what they're saying definitely can.

8. Double modal verbs

In English, only one modal verbs is used before an action verb, so when students insert more than one modal verb into a sentence, a part of me wants to smile. I often hear phrases like, "I will can go to work today" or "He should will to see the doctor." So not is it only double modal verbs, non-native English speakers often add the infinitive form after modal verbs, too.

In the first statements, the correct structure are, "I will go to work today," or "I can go to work today." These are two distinct statements.

For the second statement, the correct forms are, "He should see the doctor" or "He will see the doctor."

Again, these statements have two distinct meanings, and in neither case is the infinitive form of the action verb needed.

9. Translating directly into English

This is a real issue for non-native English speakers. It seems like it'd be easy to just translate what it's a common phrase in their native language to English. Oftentimes, this is not a good idea because the speaker's intention gets lost in translation.

For instance, in Cuba, my tour guides said over and over again, "I explain you" instead of, "I'll explain to you" or "I'm going to explain to you." In Germany, a tour guide called freckles, "red spots from summer." In English, red spots from the sun are often signs of a rash, which is quite distinct from cute brown-spotted freckles.

There are actually many more common mistakes depending on what the speakers native language is and where they learned and who they learned it from. Almost all Spanish speakers make the same mistakes in speaking. French and Portuguese speakers make similar mistakes with some specific ones of their own. German speakers get confused with the progressive tense in English. Korean speakers

Tips on How to Improve Your English

When writing

When writing, I recommend installing Grammarly on your computer. A free app, Grammarly will automatically check the spelling and grammar of what you're writing. In fact, I'm using it right now to check this blog post! It has helped me with typos that I tend to make typing too quickly.

When speaking

The way to reduce mistakes when speaking is to practice with a native English speaker who has excellent speaking skills. You can ask the person to politely correct you when they notice anything off about your speaking. While most American English speakers will agree to help you, some people may decline or simply not correct you at all, not wanting to seem rude by interrupting you when you're trying to speak.

If you don't have someone to help you improve your English, private or group English lessons with a native speaker would provide an excellent way to get feedback about your speaking skills. Your teacher would be able to assess your speaking level and make suggestions for how to improve your speaking mistakes.

Looking for a native American English teacher? Contact me today for your free assessment.

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