Aspects of English which ELT students find particularly difficult

Relocating to live in a different culture can challenge people to varying degrees depending on the level of support provided. Those arriving in the UK with groups of others from their own country have the advantage of gradual immersion, which offers them the opportunity to retreat back into the comfort of their own culture and language when the eccentricities, euphemisms and irregularities of the English language appear at times perpetually unfathomable. However, depending on the part of the country in which those wishing to improve their English choose to reside, there is always the risk of not taking full advantage of spending time among native speakers when it is so easy to find others who share their own culture, especially in big international cities like London.

After all, who wouldn’t go rushing back to the familiar and unequivocal comfort of their own language and cultural safety net after making a huge effort to assimilate and then being berated for answering ‘what?’ instead of ‘pardon?’, or by preceding requests with ‘I Want’ rather than ‘I’d Like’? Often non-native speakers can be perceived as direct or impolite in their communication when making a direct translation of terms from their own language, without being fully aware of the subtle intricacies that constitute the English language. These are skills which come with time, and are often overlooked in the classroom because students are focussing on more tangible goals, such as passing exams or enhancing their fluency.

Let’s consider some other aspects of the English language which can present even the most confident non native speakers with challenges. English is largely regarded as a language full of euphemisms, and on many occasions I have listened to students despair as to why we don’t just say what we mean in this country. ‘Not bad’ means ‘good’, ‘there’s a slight problem’ can mean ‘we’re facing imminent disaster’, and ‘that’s an interesting idea’ generally means ‘I don’t agree with you’. Endeavouring to understand these unwritten rules, along with the irregularities of English pronunciation, can often leave learners ‘in a bit of a pickle’, to use one of the aforementioned euphemisms. Moving on to pronunciation, how can so many words contain such utterly useless and misleading letters? Consider the following words through the eyes of a non-native speaker: thought, tough, through, taught, thorough. They all look pretty much the same, but sound completely different and have multiple meanings.

On a final note, is anyone actually clear of the correct response to these kinds of questions? ‘He won’t mind if I arrive late, will he?’, ‘You couldn’t help me a moment, could you?’ or ‘He isn’t French, is he?’. In each of the cases we agree by saying ‘no’ and disagree by saying ‘yes’. Navigating the minefield of complexities and ambiguities within the English language is clearly an on going struggle for learners of all levels, but this is arguably the case for native speakers too. It is important to remind students that language is not a science, and can be manipulated in such a way as to have various meanings. This deeper understanding comes with time, and can be obtained through patience and tenacity.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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