16th January 2018

Top 10 grammar mistakes in Hong Kong (part 1)

By Tom Garside

Users of English from different language backgrounds have specific issues with language for a variety of reasons. Sometimes patterns of grammar or pronunciation get carried over from their first language (L1 transfer issues), and sometimes a feature exists in English that is not present in their first language. This article focuses on the most common errors found in English as used by Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong. We will think about the errors in terms of where they come from, the effects they have on wider communication, and what we can do as English language teachers to address the problem in class.

1) My husband is a doctor. She really loves her…his…her job.

What’s the problem? Confusion between masculine and feminine pronouns, often used interchangeably even within a single sentence.

Why? Cantonese uses the same spoken form for male and female pronouns, so the concept of different words for "he" and "she" is often glossed over for the sake of fluent communication (the message is more important than hanging around to think about which pronoun to use). In addition, a unit of language as small as a pronoun, whose meaning can be guessed from the context of the rest of a sentence (as in the sentence example above – a husband is clearly a man, so the confusion is reduced), this error often goes uncorrected and therefore becomes fossilised, meaning it is more difficult to correct in the long run.

What can we do about it? With only two genders to choose from, one would think that learners would make mistakes only around 50% of the time, but in my experience, usage of pronouns is so confused, and so randomly applied, that even at higher levels of study, many learners have problems most of the time.

One solution is to teach pronouns alongside gender-related vocabulary at early stages of study. For example, when making sentences about jobs, use clear images of men and women doing those jobs, and teach full sentences (he is a policeman / she is a policewoman) rather than just drilling individual words.

To further fix gender and pronouns, quickfire word association games work well to speed up accurate production and focus on these small forms as important for a wider purpose. Showing flashcards of people, or words (jobs, famous names, family members) and having students buzz in to say ‘he’ or ‘she’, or a related sentence, can speed up retrieval of the right word at the right time.

At later levels, when the problem is more developed / fossilised, accuracy-focused games where a forfeit or penalty is designed for inaccurate use of pronouns can help to raise awareness and get learners thinking about how they use he and she. Set speaking questions based around gender-relevant topics (tell your partner about your mother / father / aunt, etc.). Have one learner speak for one or two minutes about their relative, and have the partner listen out specifically for pronouns, marking when an incorrect pronoun is spoken (perhaps by giving the speaker a token or tallying on a piece of paper). Make this into a game by seeing who has the lowest number of tokens at the end of the activity.

2) Dog is much friendlier than cat.

What’s the problem? Singular and plural nouns not used consistently, which affects agreement with verbs (dog is); typically singular forms are used instead of plurals rather than the other way around.

Why? In Cantonese, nouns do not generally take plural endings in the same way as in English, and nouns do not have endings to show plurality. This means that singular and plural meanings are commonly expressed using the basic, singular form of the noun, as in Cantonese.

What can we do about it? Again, teaching singular and plural nouns by themselves is often not enough to enable students to apply plurality in sentences or speaking / writing. Plurality affects the form of verbs as well as the simple ‘add –s ‘ pattern of the noun itself, so practice tasks, both on paper and orally, and sentence-building tasks can help students to apply plurality more widely.

A fun way of sentence-building is to split the class into groups of four, and ask a question. The answer must be given by each group in turn, though each student must only say one word at a time (the next word in the sentence). For example, in answer to ‘which are bigger, dogs or cats?’, student 1 would say ‘dogs’ student 2: ‘are’, student 3: ‘bigger’, etc. to construct the whole sentence. If a student says the wrong word, the turn passes to the next group, who must start the sentence again. This game encourages students to listen to each other and self-correct based on each others’ errors.

3) We have to learn a lot of vocabularies / give me a paper to write on.

What’s the problem? Countable and uncountable nouns are confused, especially where one noun has countable and uncountable versions. This affects singular and plural grammar, use of articles and can communicate incorrect concepts, as countable meanings are quite different from uncountable versions of the same basic word (paper / a paper).

Why? As with the plurals issue above, Cantonese does not differentiate between countable and uncountable nouns, so the difference in meaning between these forms can be difficult for Cantonese speakers to grasp. In addition, articles (see below) and plurals (see above) are sticky areas for Chinese language speakers generally, so this area is a minefield.

What can we do about it? Uncountable nouns can be grouped lexically, by certain criteria of meaning. By presenting uncountable nouns together in groups of liquids, powders, abstracts, etc, the concept behind the grammar is more likely to be retained by learners. Don’t present too many different groups at once, or it can get overwhelming, but give practice activities for each group and ensure that your students can demonstrate that they understand the concept before moving on. Leave nouns which can be both countable and uncountable until later, when the concepts can be differentiated. Using measure words and quantifiers that collocate with uncountables (a piece of / a slice of / a chunk of…) versus numbers to quantify separate objects can also be a good way to highlight the concept.

4) I don’t know how to help students in my class.

What’s the problem? Chinese language speakers often get confused over whether to use a, an, the or no article before singular or plural nouns, leading to a lack of precision, and even total ambiguity, about the qualities of the nouns being described.

Why? Articles (a, an, the) can be a nightmare for non-European language speakers. They are highly conceptual and many uses are based on convention rather than concrete rules (why, for example, do we use an article in ‘in the morning/afternoon/evening’, but not in ‘at night’?). These tiny pieces of language add several important concepts to nouns; they specify which one or ones we are talking about, they tell us how many of the thing there are, and which ones we are talking about, and they give clues to countability and plurality (see above). Again, a lack of specific instruction and error correction leads to errors in this area being left unchecked and becoming fossilised.

What can we do about it? Being such small units, connected uniquely to nouns and noun phrases, articles are presentable alongside any new words in vocabulary lessons or pre-teaching stages for skills lessons. At lower levels of study, rather than teaching ‘tram’, teach ‘a tram’. Rather than teaching ‘sun’, teach ‘the sun’. Then, when an uncountable word comes up, it can be highlighted for the lack of an article. Systematic presentation of larger chunks of language rather than individual words, goes a long way to ingrain patterns of this sort into learner language.

At higher levels of study, a good remedial task is to take examples of student writing, and ask the class to underline all the nouns and noun phrases in their texts. Review some common rules for use of articles (to refer, to specify, to talk about a single, unique thing, etc.) and ask students to apply those criteria to the nouns in their writing. This kind of remedial repair is a good, restricted way of highlighting specific problem areas for learners in a way that is relevant to their own language work.

5) You like spicy food? / What you like doing? / How to get there?

What’s the problem? Questions from Cantonese speakers are often not formed as questions, with missing auxiliaries and subjects. This can cause confusion when dealing with indirect questions and reported forms at later stages of study, and can cause a lack of clarity about what exactly is being asked, or if the sentence is a question at all.

Why? Again, L1 interference from Cantonese grammar plays a part, with questions being formed quite differently from those in English. In Cantonese, question particles are added onto sentences to transform them into questions, or question intonation is applied to sentences to produce questions. In English, however, auxiliaries are used around verbs (in the middle of sentences, which is more challenging to place than adding words on to the ends of sentences) and word order (where the positions of subjects and auxiliaries are reversed). So questions in English rely more on syntax (word order and placement), where questions in Cantonese are based on the addition of chunks onto existing sentences, or the tone of existing pieces of language.

What can we do about it? The best way that I have found to get students asking questions accurately is to return to different types of question for continuous practice as other language is being taught. When teaching a tense, for example, don’t just teach sentence forms, but look at how questions are made in that grammar. When looking at sentence structure (SVO, for example), look at questions in the same way. If you are teaching modals, look at their roles as auxiliaries in questions and do a quick Q and A practice with them, to keep the patterns fresh in students’ minds. This, accompanied by lots of error correction in accuracy-focused tasks, will help your learners to retain and automatise these tricky forms.

A good way to fix accurate question forms early in a course of study is to do a whole lesson on classroom questions. These are the pieces of language that students really need to clarify and ask for help, and to interact with each other and the teacher. Teaching the grammar of ‘how do you say this word’, ‘how do you spell…’ or ‘can I use my dictionary?’ gives a good reference point for questions grammar in the future, as these are the most common questions learners need to ask. Make posters of these questions to stick around the classroom, and correct forms will become more a part of the learners’ classroom experience.

This was part 1 of the top 10 Grammar issues for Hong Kong students – check out Part 2 here…

Do you need to brush up on your grammar knowledge? The introductory module of the CertTESOL course is now available as a standalone fully online course – the TESOL Starter course. Unit 2 of this course is dedicated to grammar.

Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.