When I asked my tutee Eliana which areas of English grammar she finds to be most challenging, she answered without hesitation, "some prepositions (especially in, at and on), modal verbs and where to put it." Indeed, as demonstrated by her writing sample below, Eliana has excellent insight into her own strengths and weaknesses--her writing sample displays numerous prepositional errors, includes an omission of the impersonal subject it and fails to incorporate a single modal verb. When I asked her why she thought she has problems with these particular grammar points, she gave me an answer only another language instructor could provide (recall that Eliana is an experienced and accomplished Portuguese teacher): "Because all L2 learners have problems with prepositions, Portuguese doesn't have any modal verbs and we don't have a word for it [referring to the semantically empty impersonal subject it] in my language." Oh, if only all students had such diagnostic powers! Eliana went on to identify verb conjugation (because English has so little compared to the complex verbal morphology of Portuguese, she pointed out) and the lack of grammatical gender in English as the least difficult aspects of English grammar.
Turning to the writing exercise, my tutee produced a generally cohesive, coherent and entertaining text in a fairly short period of time (under twenty minutes), recounting a personal story of how she once had an amusing experience at a drive-through grocery store due to another non-native English speaker's pronunciation difficulties. She gave me permission to reproduce the text in this blog post. Other than typing it (she wrote the original text by hand), I not have edited the text in any way.
How Much an Accent Can Interfere in a Conversation
It was Sunday night and suddenly I got the desire to drink milk with coffee, with a piece of cheese in a baguette. I decided to go to a drive throught to save my time. I took my dogs with me. I drove to the store. The salesman came to ask me what I wanted to order. The guy is from Asia and has a strong accent. He looked to my dogs and said:
- Nice dogs. Nice dogs, he said.
- Thank you. I smiled and ordered the milk and the baguette. The guy put the bread in the oven and come back to chat a little with me.
- Nice dogs. Nice dogs. Do you sale poop?
- I beg your pardon!?
- Do you sale poop? He asked me again. Took me a minute to realize that he was asking if I sell puppies.
I told him that I don't breed my dogs, but he was welcome to go to my back yard and grab the poops for free!!
I identified the following errors in my tutee's text (for present purposes, I am ignoring stylistic errors and only focusing on grammatical and lexical ones)
1. Incorrect preposition: in for with in the title How Much an Accent Can Interfere in a Conversation
2. Omission of the indefinite article a in the phrase Sunday night (the student's version is not technically ungrammatical but implies that the Sunday night in question was recent, which she did not intend).
3. Questionable use of the preposition in in the phrase cheese in a baguette (the conjunction and would have been more appropriate in this context.)
4. Misspelling or word confusion in *throught for through
5. Incorrect addition of my in save my time (the collocation save time does not permit a determiner before time in this and most other contexts).
6. Inappropriate word choice in salesman for clerk (salesman is not normally used to refer to grocery store employees).
7. Incorrect verb tense: is for was and has for had in the sentence The guy is from Asia and has a strong accent (the historical present would have been acceptable if it had been used consistently throughout the story.)
8. Incorrect preposition: to instead of at in He looked to my dogs...
9. Incorrect verb tense: come for came in the sentence The guy put the bread in the oven and come back to chat a little with me.
10. Noun/verb confusion: noun sale for verb sell in Do you sale poop?
11. Omission of subject it in Took me a minute to realize that he was asking if I sell puppies.
12. Incorrect verb tense: sell for sold in the same sentence (the prescriptivist rule regarding sequence of tenses requires the simple past here.)
Note that poops for puppies in the last sentence was intentional, as the student was quoting the store clerk for humorous effect.
Most of the recurring errors (viz., incorrect usage of articles, determiners and prepositions) plague English language learners at all proficiency levels (including advanced students like Eliana) and native languages. My student's persistent difficulty using the impersonal subject it also made an appearance in her story, which is not surprising given that this fossilized error is a ubiquitous feature of her speech. Analysis of the text and its errors reveals that the student has a generally strong command of English grammar, including advanced knowledge of collocations (e.g., take a minute, save time, beg your pardon) and stylistic conventions, but that transfer from her native language is still often present, as evidenced by the omission of the impersonal subject it and insertion of my into phrasal positions where a determiner may appear in Portuguese but not in English. In addition, the lack of expected discourse markers and cohesive devices, especially between sentences, occasionally obscured the connection of ideas and contributed to the text's choppiness. Based on the errors my student made in this writing sample, I will be sure to address preposition and determiner usage as well as discourse markers and cohesive devices in upcoming lessons.
Instructor Comment: The use of humor by your tutee is impressive :) Excellent post.