6 Common Language Problems for ESL Learners (And How To Fix Them) Part 1

 6 Common ESL Language Problems for ESL Learners

(And How To Fix Them) Part 1

As a language, English is a mess. Even native speakers notice this. Most other languages have “Rules,” English has “suggestions.” For native speakers, it’s a joke. For learners, it’s a nightmare. Consider the countless jokes, memes, and puzzles found online. We make jokes about how different spellings sound the same. We laugh at how “Throw” and “Though” rhyme, but “Though” and “Tough” do not. Every ESL student has potential, and ESL language problems have answers. As native speakers of English, we know how the language works on an instinctive level. As ESL teachers, it’s our job to make learning the language as easy as possible.

Here are a handful of problems that you will run into (If you haven’t already) and how to fix them as quickly as possible.

This Diss, Thin Sin: The TH Sound: Voiced and Unvoiced Dental Fricatives

ESL Language problems

It may help to think about ESL language problems, especially pronunciation, as an exercise. You build muscle memory at the gym, and your tongue is a muscle. You’re just training the muscle to learn a new movement, and training your mouth to make a new sound.The tongue is a muscle, and has as much memory as any other muscle. ESL is a new exercise for your tongue, and tongue twisters are a new regimen.

Who does it effect:

According to Ian Maddison, in 2011,  less than eight percent of known languages have the TH voiced or unvoiced sound. So the majority of your students will have to deal with this issue at some point. This ESL Language problem will effect the majority of your students.

Why is this so?

Every language carries its own history. There are several interesting theories as to why only

a handful of languages evolved a TH sound. Such as Greek, Spanish, and Huastec(The language of the Mayans). The commonality between these theories is that languages change and evolve. Grimm’s Law states that Proto Indo-European voiceless stops become fricatives. Voiced stops become voiceless, and Aspirated stops become voiced stops.
In plain English:
X- y



So how do we fix it?

The TH Voiced and Unvoiced is possibly one of the most difficult sounds for students to learn. It’s not because they can’t do it, it’s because they’re not used to it. Teachers will teach their students to over compensate by sticking their tongue too far between the teeth. This is a problem because the tongue is needed for other sounds. If you stick your tongue way out, you won’t have time to make more sounds (and you look goofy). The most efficient way to fix this is to train the tongue to go to the right place in the mouth.

If you’ve got a few students who need help pronouncing their TH sounds, here are a few TH tongue twisters for your.

TH Tongue Twisters 1
TH Tongue Twisters 2 Vioceless TH (Think, Thought) vs S


Idioms: We don’t mean what we say

ESL Language Problems

When it comes to idoms, it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. If your students want to learn well they are going to need to hit the books. If they want to hit the nail on the head, then the ball is in your court… Idioms are one of the biggest ESL language problems.

Idioms are unique to every language, and sometimes every region. The good news is they probably have sister idioms in the student’s native language. The bad news is that trying to find that sister saying is sometimes very difficult.

The best way to help your students learn idioms in American English is to have knowledge of the idiom’s background. For example, American English has the phrase “rule of thumb”. If you’re a native speaker, you know it means “a rule, or idea, that is easily applied.” To a foreign speaker, it sounds strange, having a regulation about a body part. But it is so much more than that. Every Idiom has a history, and “Rule of Thumb” is no exception.

The worst thumbs up in history…

(Note: I was raised never to hit women. No exceptions. That being said, history didn’t have my parents. )

The story goes that in the earliest days of the US colonies, it was socially acceptable to hit your wife with a stick. However, in order to prevent serious injury, the stick could not be any thicker than the width of the man’s thumb.

it was a rule, about thumbs… the “Rule of the Thumb”.
Ever idiom has a story.

How to fix this:

This is probably my favorite example of when history and language intersect. Idioms are unique to the culture, and if you’re teaching ESL, this is part of the flavor. Learn the history of your favorite sayings, and don’t be afraid to share them, because that’s how your students will remember. Even in the internet age, consider the term “NooB”.

Someone who has is new at a task is a newbie

In the age of the internet, Newbie became “New B”
and over a decade or two, “New B” became “newB”
and “NewB” became the oft repeated “NooB”

Whatever your favorite sayings are, share them with your students. Tell stories, let them hear the history. At least for some teachers, this is where the fun in teaching comes from.

These are just two ESL language problems I’ve run into. Come back next week for 2 more of the most troublesome parts of English, and ideas on how to help your students get through. Have some ideas of your own? Feel free to comment and let me know how you handled them.


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