Native speakers may be the first to assert that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Especially when trying to teach and explain the language to those learning it, native speakers quickly realize the complexities ingrained in their primary language. I remember when I was a budding bookworm in junior high and my English teacher said to my class that at some point, we would be able to tell if a sentence was grammatically wrong or if a word was misspelled. Actually, she said that we would be able to “feel” if a sentence or word was off. That feeling is an innate understanding of the nuances and rules within English—it is an understanding in which one knows the machinations of English in a visceral way before knowing in a logical one.
There are a vast amount of rules in the English language that will make the heads of your ESL students spin. But once your students practice and become more familiar with these rules, then they too will begin to “feel” the correct way to write and speak in English. Here are a few of the most common yet difficult rules of English to learn.
Perfect tense describes how a finished action relates to an action or situation in the past, present, or future. It is accomplished by placing “has” or “have” before a verb with the appropriate particle. There are three types of perfect tenses, which are listed below.
- Present Perfect: I have sent him a gift.
- Past Perfect: I had sent him a gift.
- Future Perfect: I will have sent him a gift.
This tense can be the most difficult verb tense to grasp for new learners because of a few different reasons. When perfect tense is being used, it often means there will be a lot of information to infer in one sentence that is adherent to the context of time. In the present perfect example above, you can infer that the action of sending a gift to the recipient was completed at an earlier, unspecified time and mentioning the action now relates to the conversation presently. The other rather confusing aspect of this tense is its term, “perfect.” There really isn’t anything about the tense that can be described as subjectively perfect, but the term draws from the Latin word “perfectum” meaning “complete.” With this in mind, the perfect tense deals with completed actions.
A phrasal verb is a verb followed by a particle and/or a preposition. These verbs, in combination with particles and prepositions, can be considered as colloquial units or phrases. A few examples (out of a myriad) of these phrasal verbs include:
- Take off
- Put on
- Make up
- Think it over
- Get along with
These verbs are extremely evident in everyday vernacular for native speakers. But the meanings of phrasal verbs require a little interpretation, which makes them difficult to grasp for English language students as well as explain. How do you explain what it means “to make up the bed?” Or “to run into a friend?” And even worse is how some phrasal verbs have multiple meanings: “to make up the bed” is different from “to make up with a friend.” ESL students simply need to practice using phrasal verbs and remember not to take all of them too literally. The best way to teach phrasal verbs is to make a two column chart with phrasal verbs in one column and their respective meanings in the other column.
There is an order to the madness of adjectives in a sentence. When it comes to using adjectives to describe something, one must put the adjectives in an order that all English speakers abide by. The adjectives are divided up and organized by the characteristics they describe. The order is as follows: quantity, quality/opinion, size, shape, age, color, nationality, and then material. Here’s how it looks like when the adjective order is followed:
- She baked one delicious petite round new gold British sponge cake.
Rarely will anyone ever use that many adjectives in one sentence. But the adjective order is non negotiable. Even if all the desired adjectives are present to describe an object or subject, if the order isn’t followed, the sentence is grammatically incorrect. Native speakers will instantly be able to tell if an adjective order in a sentence is correct or not. This instinct is developed from experience and a lot of reading, but for ESL learners, they will need to memorize the formula to become familiar with the order.
These are just some of the difficult rules associated with the English language. Although learning all these rules can be daunting to your ESL students, it is not impossible! Make sure your students practice these rules so that speaking and writing English feels natural.