30th January 2018

Top 10 grammar mistakes in Hong Kong (part 2)

By Tom Garside

Continuing on from our part 1 article which highlighted five major English grammar problems faced by Cantonese speakers, here are another 5 common problems, with some explanations and teaching ideas to address them in class.

6) Can you cooking? / play tennis is fun

What's the problem? Cantonese speakers have problems using gerunds (-ing forms) correctly, either overusing them inappropriately, or reverting to basic infinitive forms incorrectly, as in the examples above.

Why? Cantonese is not an inflected language, meaning that its verbs do not take on endings because of different grammatical structures. This means that verbs generally appear separately from the other small words and particles which change their grammar. In English, the word endings attach directly to verbs and can change depending on the number and person of the subject (I go, you go, he goes). Gerunds (the –ing form which is the problem here) include an –ing ending which does not show time or change the meaning of the verb, but is necessary in certain grammar-based situations (such as when a verb is used as a subject in a sentence – eating an apple a day is healthy – or after certain verbs – I like / love / enjoy / hate cycling).

What can we do about it? The rules governing use of gerunds are quite systematic, though also quite conceptual, as they are used purely by grammatical convention rather than to communicate a meaningful change. A session looking at how verbs can ‘become’ nouns by adding –ing is useful at early stages. Paraphrasing and substitution exercises work well, where students take a sentence containing nouns as subjects and substitute the nouns for verbs and verb phrases using –ing, for example: ‘apples are good for you’  would transform to ‘eating apples is good for you’. Word and phrase cards with the subjects written on them adds a nice physical dimension to this, and highlights the way that these can be swapped out to keep a grammatical sentence.

7) Most of the student in my class has problems / all of the bag are nice

What’s the problem? Confusion about quantifiers, which modify nouns by saying how much or many of them there are, and whether the noun is a specific group (the students) or a general group (students).

Why? Related to the singular / plural, countability and articles issue raised in my last article, quantifiers are a bugbear for many learners of English. Quantifiers can talk about general plural nouns (some / most people take the bus to work), specific groups (some / most of the people in my office take the MTR), and can be used with uncountable nouns in the same way, though in this case the following grammar is singular (most fruit is sweet / most of the fruit in the bowl was rotten). As Cantonese does not have articles or plural forms of verbs, these distinctions can be hard to grasp, and even harder to apply in fluent speech.

What can we do about it? Quantifiers tend to be lumped together as a single language point, but this can be dangerous due to the complex choices involved to communicate the specific intended meaning (as in the forms above). Concrete, relatable examples are really important, so work with ways of describing members of the class, grouped in different ways (most of us like playing basketball, and most of the girls play every week). This can be achieved through survey tasks with questions designed to be asked to any student, or to specific groups (just the boys / just the students in the front row…). This will provide data that matches the concept difference between general and specific quantifier phrases. Splitting survey questions into two sections: ‘general’ and ‘specific’ can also highlight this conceptual difference and help students to select which forms to use.

8) Yesterday I visit my friends and we eat lunch together

What’s the problem? Past simple forms and –ed  endings are not used when talking about the past.

Why? There are a couple of reasons for this, specifically for Cantonese speakers: firstly, as mentioned before, Cantonese does not use verb endings for tenses, and Cantonese verbs do not change their form, but use other particles in a different way to English. In addition, there is a tendency for Cantonese speakers to underpronounce or omit sounds at the ends of words (such as the sounds produced in –ed endings), which means that even if the speaker knows they should be there, they may not be audible when they speak.

What can we do about it? Time phrases and adverbs of time such as ‘last week’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘earlier’ are good markers to highlight when past tenses (including –ed endings for the past simple) should be used, so do some work matching time adverbs and the tenses that students would expect in those sentences. When presenting past tense verbs, be careful with pronunciation; when we pronounce a word ending in –ed on its own, or followed by a word beginning with a consonant, the –ed sound naturally gets underpronounced (try saying ‘walked’ quickly, or ‘walked to the shop’, and you will hear a softened or incomplete-sounding –ed ending sound). By contrast, if an –ed ending is pronounced followed by a vowel, the sound is much clearer (as in ‘walked’ away or ‘rubbed it’). Present past simple verbs with their full ending sounds by putting them into phrases designed to highlight them, and students will pick them up more readily.

9) I very like chocolate / he writes very good.

What’s the problem? Adjectives are overused as a way of describing any other word, whether it’s a noun, verb, adjective… in positions where an adverb or adverbial is needed.

Why? Adjectives are not as complex to form as adverbs. They have no –ly ending, and are quite simple and regular (by contrast there are many irregular adverbs, like ‘well’ and ‘fast’ which do not follow the +ly rule). In Cantonese adjectives can be formed by simply adding a particle ‘geh’ or ‘goh’ after any other unit of language to give them a describing function. As the other words are not changed, they do not strictly speaking change their word class, and so remain in their original form. As a result, adjectives are used as a single, default way of describing nouns, verbs and other pieces of language in English.

What can we do about it? The first step to any fix relating to word class is to ensure that students know the difference between the relevant types of word that are involved, in this case nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Depending on the learners you teach, you can spend a lesson directly teaching these different forms and how they work in sentences using the terms verb, noun, adjective, etc., or by drawing connections between words which are linked in sentences, starting with adjectives and nouns (e.g. in the sentence ‘the cat is very lazy’, students can identify that ‘lazy’ talks about the cat whether you use the words ‘noun’ and ‘adjective’ or not), and moving on to verbs and adverbs. Give a range of different sentence structures, where adjectives and adverbs occur in different positions, and don’t necessarily follow the adjective + ly structure (as in ‘the cat can run very fast’, where ‘very’ and ‘fast’ are adverbs because they modify an adjective and a verb respectively). This awareness-raising work is fundamental to highlight the differences between similar word classes.

Word-building cards are useful to make this kind of grammar point more interactive and visual. Make a set of cards with a range of adjectives on them, and a few cards just containing ‘ly’ (perhaps in a different colour). Write sentences on the whiteboard with gaps for the adjectives and then transform the sentence so that it requires an adverb. Demonstrate that in the second sentence, the ‘ly’card needs to be added, and pass the rest of the cards over to the students to build into sentences appropriately – as a source for sentences, any gapfill task relating to adjectives and adverbs can be used as a starting point. To make this extra visual, colour-code the verbs and ‘ly’ cards in the same colour, and the nouns and adjectives another colour to reinforce the connection between those word classes.

10) Although we were tired, but we went for a run / Because he was late so he missed the bus

What’s the problem? Overuse of conjunctions where one is enough (typically with conjunctions expressing contrasts (although, however, but) and reasons (because, so, as a result).

Why? Many Cantonese linking devices (such as conjunctions) are expressed in two parts, one at the beginning of the sentence, and one between the two parts of the sentence being linked. This translates as a 2-part structure, where in English very few conjunctions come in two parts (e.g. not only…but also…). Only one conjunction is needed, though depending on which one, it can appear in different positions, namely 1) to link two ideas in a single sentence by appearing between them, 2) to link two ideas in a single sentence by appearing before them, or 3) to link two ideas across two sentences (after a full stop). As the Cantonese conjunction items appear in almost the same positions, Cantonese speakers will often double up English conjunctions unnecessarily.

What can we do about it? The basic function of conjunctions of this kind is to link two ideas in a certain way. The relationship between the two pieces of information is an important conceptual starting point for this, so first, present pairs of simple sentences and ask students to identify if they can see a contrast or opposite, a reason and a result, or two similar pieces of information. Once this functional link has been established, start thinking about different ways in which the ideas can be ‘glued’ together. This is what dictates the position of the conjunction (from the three examples given above). Conjunctions can be organised by function and/or position, depending on what the students’ difficulty is in this area.

The function of conjunctions can be taught inductively, by giving students easy sentences that they can readily understand, joined by a conjunction, and asking them to guess which function the conjunction is showing, e.g. in the sentence ‘mice are small but elephants are big’, the opposite meanings of big and small tell us that ‘but’ must be a contrast conjunction. If students have a list of conjunctions organised by function, they can start thinking about how to combine the ideas in the correct order.

For this, prepare a quickfire quiz where your students have to say whether different conjunctions appear before two ideas, between two ideas, or between two sentences. Use prompt cards or powerpoint flashcards with the conjunctions after commas, with the first letter capitalised, or all in lower case as a visual guide. For example, ‘however’ (in its most common placement) comes at the start of a new sentence and is followed by a comma, so presenting the flashcard as ‘However,…’ (including the comma) shows this position through capitalisation and punctuation. Other conjunctions could be presented as ‘Although…’, showing that it can start a sentence and be followed by two ideas, or ‘but’ with no capitals and no comma, showing that it can come in the middle of two ideas. If students can recognise and associate the punctuation of the conjunctions, they will be more likely to put them in the correct positions when they come to use them.

There are many more errors that are common in Cantonese speakers’ English, but I think this selection represents a good range of levels and grammatical areas to work with. Knowing the features of our students’ first language can inform us of why errors occur, and therefore how we might target instruction to fix them in specific ways. It is worth taking the time to break down problem areas to prevent them becoming too fossilised at later stages of study, so if you hear your students making these mistakes, take time out to plan a lesson to address them, or the errors simply won’t go away. Good luck with these and I hope you find them useful in your teaching.

If you're a teacher looking to improve the outcomes of your grammar lessons, join us on 8 February for a Teaching skills workshop on Grammar lessons.

Tom Garside, EfA’s 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.