Saturday, May 08, 2010

Answers to Questions from the English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) Community

Since I often field questions about writing and grammar from nonnative English speakers, and many nonnative English speakers read this blog, I decided to devote this post to two of those questions.

Akifa asks: “Which is correct: Do you know how to speak English? or Do you speak English?”

Answer: Both expressions are correct. A grammarian would diagram both sentences to prove their structural integrity. A linguist would argue that you will not find an answer to your question in a rule book but in idiomatically acceptable expressions, which we arrive at arbitrarily over time. A rhetorician would prefer the concise four-word version over the lengthier seven-word version. But this choice is purely a preference, not a commandment.


Maryann asks: I meet many people who use an extensive English vocabulary; however, their sentence structure is very flawed. Some of these people have made an earnest attempt to improve their grammar but have not received adequate guidance on basic structure. How successful is the attempt to make them learn correct usage—especially in spoken English.

Answer: My three decades of experience in the corporate and academic worlds tell me that the success of nonnative speakers' in English syntax depends on the three factors listed below, in order of importance:
  1. The person’s natural aptitude in language. I have seen some people enter the USA as adults without any English and learn good English syntax in short time, regardless of their age and national origin; on the other hand, I see others struggle for far longer with less result. These are not isolated anecdotes. I meet both types in every ESL class I teach.
  2. The person’s dedication to the task. Learning sound English sentence structure takes focused time in multiple modes and disciplines: speaking, listening, reading, and writing; face-to-face and phone contact; use of instructional, popular, and technical materials; study of not only English colloquialisms but of common syntactic errors made by native English speakers (e.g., run-ons, fragments, and pronoun usage) as well as nonnative speakers from their region (e.g., prepositions and non-syllabic past tense for Latinos, and articles and idioms for Chinese, Indians, Russians, and Poles, among others).
  3. The quality of instruction. The teacher's materials, experience, instructional methods, and assessment make a difference too.