Postsecondary Education

Woman learning ESL and struggling

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Joined: Nov 03, 2005
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Posted Jul 10, 2003 at 5:18:09 PM
Subject: Woman learning ESL and struggling

I am a high school teacher of LH Special Education in San Francisco.

Separately from my work, I've befriended a 29-year-old Chinese woman, two years in the country, from Hong Kong. She is a student at the local community college and is quite ambitious about making it through college and achieving an education and a career. She is learning English.

She is experiencing major struggles with grammar and pronunciation. Somehow, it seems to me, based on my knowledge from teaching, and my own intuitions, that she is experiencing more than the usual difficulty. She is exposed to a lot of vocabulary, doing all the required readings for classes, books and articles and so forth, and I can tell how intelligent she is. So with all of that, she should be at least an intermediate level student, and this woman is struggling with basic English language communication. Her grammar can best be described as convoluted, and often it is difficult to understand what her message is.

I wonder if it could be possibly a language based disability and if it might be something related to sequencing. I notice that at times she leaves off the last sound in a word: "tha' mean" instead of saying "that means" or "does that mean?" She said "dawn of the crack" instead of "crack of dawn" for example, which sounds comical but it really is not.

I wonder if it would be beneficial to her to get tested by the school office that helps folks with disabilities? ("Disabled Student Services" I believe it is)

It might provide her with accommodations, as in extra time on tests, and that sort of thing.



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Joined Jun 23, 2018
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Posted:Jul 10, 2003 6:08:20 PM

I'm not Chinese but I'm very familiar with this group of languages. I doubt that your friend has more than typical ESL students' problems.

First, her native language has a very limited repertoire of sounds:

-No "r"
-No "b" (only "p" sound)
-No "d" (only "t" sound which sounds like something in between "t/d")
-No "v" (only "f" sound)
-No"th" of course.
-One syllable words only (compound words are often used to create new meanings)
-No conjugation (all words are invariable at all time)


Chinese grammar always reverses modifiers as you have seen in "dawn of crack".

For people whose native language is in this group (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese; Vietnamese and Thai don't share these problems,) learning a western language requires intensive speech trainings. Unfortunately, 99% of students can't afford that kind of training, so it's up to each individual to train him/herself.

Adults always have problems recognizing new sounds, eventhough it's anatomically possible, they still don't know how to sound correctly. It's something like riding a bicycle. You can't teach a person how to keep his/her balance. They just have to try and fall and try again until they "get it".

Hongkong, Philippines and Singapore are areas where English is almost an official language. I'm curious why she still has so much problems with it!

So my two cent is that she might need much more self-discipline, or a good and patient speech coach. Watch TV with close-captions. Keep writing, and over time she will get used to English syntax.


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Joined Jun 23, 2018
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Posted:Jul 14, 2003 2:14:11 PM

How would they test her would be my first question? She can't take the test in English - her difficulty with the language alone would make it hard to interpret the test results and arrive at sound test results.

But... if the school would test her in English and she would be found to have an LD, extended time couldn't hurt her.

The 'dawn of the crack' stuff is typical for people learning English. That's she trying to use idioms suggests that she's processing the English language well and that's she quite bright. That she gets it backward isn't concerning and she'll get better with that.

If she can read the language fairly well and understand it when spoken, her own spoken use of it will get better and better. What can remain a problem for some, though, is their heavy accent and it sounds like she has one.

I don't know if speech therapists would be of any help here but lots of people are wondering right now how to improve the spoken language of ESL folks. Grad schools have teaching assistants from other countries and people are complaining all over the place that students can't understand the foreign grad students. I see ads posted in universities by students begging for help with their spoken English.

She's not alone in other words but I'm not sure if there's a clear answer to her problem yet. If you know a speech therapist, run it by them. Maybe speech therapy could possibly help the person struggling to speak comprehensible English.

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