I hate learning English!
This is a very common complaint from English and ESL students around the world. Through no fault of their own, English became the main global language of the world. And now they have to learn it.
With 350 million native English speakers and 430 million people speaking English as a second language, it is not even number one. Surely that goes to China with well over 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers there, plus the other regions in Asia that have many other Chinese speakers.
Then there is Spanish with well over 400 million native speakers. And 527 million Spanish speakers in total.
Arabic has more than 400 million speakers, Hindustani has over 500 million speakers.
But most students of the world must learn English.
All over the world, at any time of the day, there are students stuck in a class, listening to a teacher droning on and on about some English grammar point or poring over a dull and unimaginative article in an ESL textbook.
They have to spend many hours of their week doing this. Giving up their weekends and evenings in the pursuit of improving their English.
Who would not hate doing that?
Let’s examine what students really despise about learning English. And hopefully, we can avoid these pitfalls and make it more engaging for them.
Why Students Hate Learning English
First, it might be a good idea to look at why students hate learning English. What their fears and gripes are.
Students Hate Speaking English Out Loud
No matter in front of their peers, in the class, in front of their teacher — but possibly worst of all — in front of a native English speaker.
There are very few English students that enjoy doing this.
It all comes down to fear and lack of confidence. The fear of using the wrong word, getting the grammar wrong or mispronunciation. Or just have no confidence in their ability to speak English.
There are also cultural reasons for this too — in many Asian and Middle-Eastern countries, the idea of losing face in front of others can be too much to bear.
Students Hate Studying English Grammar
They really hate this…
And if we compare English grammar to other languages grammar rules, it is easy to see why.
Yes, there are rules. But there are exceptions to all of these rules. Most native English speakers could not explain the correct use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’.
Then there are more simple grammar exceptions like the dreaded Third Person Singular.
So we have I work, you work, we work, they work.
But he works, she works, it works.
Because that is the way it is.
Students learn this infuriating exception to the rule, understand the difference, but when they are speaking many forget to use it.
It would drive anyone mad.
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Students Hate Boring Tests
And they have so many of them…
Every week their teachers present them with another round of tests. Usually in the form of multiple-choice or fill in the gaps. How can this possibly help them in a real-life situation?
They are not related to how we use English in real life. When we are speaking to someone and they ask us a question, we don’t get a drop-down menu of four possible replies.
Each situation is unique in itself.
Rote learning tests like these are mostly a waste of time. And the students hate them. But many schools use these tests assuming it is helping the student to memorise entire parts of the English language and how to use it.
The truth is, it can’t. All it does it help them remember these things in a test situation.
Students’ Lessons are of Little Practical Use
This is one of the biggest complaints that English students have about learning English.
They spend hours in a classroom, but they learn things that are of little to no practical use to them.
So they might have entire classes on English grammar and learn about past progressive and past simple and how to use these tenses. Or they might have a lesson on the use of articles — a, the, an — and be tested on it at the end.
But these things are of no use to the students in the real world.
Many students spend years learning grammar and having spelling tests. But when it comes to a simple conversation, they simply do not know what to say.
They might have learned all the vocabulary to a dozen different jobs — what the jobs are, where the people work, how they do their jobs and so on. Then they meet a native English speaker who asks where the nearest post office and they are completely stumped.
Students hate this.
What Students Really Hate About Their English Classes
Once we dig deeper, and sift through all the excuses and non-reasons why the student doesn’t want to learn English, we can find out the real reasons they hate to study the language.
It often comes down to the way their English classes are held. The courses that are forced upon them and the style that teachers use in these classes.
Let’s take a look at some of the common complaints students have about their English classes.
“We have to listen to the teacher for too long”
So this means that Teacher Talking Time and Student Talking Time needs to be addressed.
In any English class, the teacher should talk much less than the students. This is a skill that needs to be practised by every ESL teacher and put in place in the class.
Make sure the students are talking as much as they can and they will be much happier. They will learn more too — and that is why they are there after all.
“We have to listen to other students speaking very poor English”
If the student voices this complaint, then there could be an issue with English levels in the class. Many schools will just lump a bunch of students together in one room and leave the teacher to figure it out.
This is grossly unfair to all the students in the class — and the poor teacher trying to make the lesson work.
The lower level students lose confidence.
But for the higher-level students, they might start voicing the above complaint. They get bored and frustrated.
Classes of students all stuffed into one class with varying levels help no one.
“We don’t get the chance to practice our English”
Another very common complaint — and this means there are too many students in one class.
Many schools will have a two-hour English class with 20 students.
Effectively that means that each student has about SIX minutes speaking time. And if the student is in a group or pair-work exercise, that time is halved or quartered again.
No wonder students feel like giving up.
English classes are not only expensive but not good value for the money spent.
Other complaints about English classes include the same tired old gripes about using boring ESL textbooks, dull homework that is more like doing a test and too much emphasis on English grammar.
Barriers that Get in the Way of Learning English
After students spend a dozen classes learning irrelevant English grammar rules and lists and lists of vocabulary, they get disheartened and look for reasons why they should not learn English.
These are quite often excuses. The student is looking for any reason to not study English.
So we might hear one of the following:
“I am no good at learning languages”
This is very common.
Students usually say this after they try to get to grips with some grammar point or find that there are a dozen ways to express describing the weather.
Schools should keep things simple to a degree and make practical lessons for ESL students.
No wonder they come up with the excuse that language is not their forte.
Learning English — or any language come to that — is within everyone’s grasp. But the learning has to be done at a gradual, incremental rate.
Give students practical lessons most of the time. And especially for beginners.
“I am too embarrassed to speak English”
Another very common excuse.
This is mostly cultural in places like China, Korea or Japan, but it is still only an excuse.
If the student is too embarrassed to speak out loud, then there is a problem with how they are being taught. The teacher has to instil a sense of confidence in the student at all times.
That may mean that they are in the wrong level of class. Or they are learning things that are too theoretical. Too much emphasis on linguistics and not the practical use of the language itself.
“I am too old to learn English”
This has been disproven in many scientific studies. In fact, some schools of thought say that adults are better at learning a language than children.
This really is just an excuse to not continue learning English. But again, if the student is spending too much time on the theory of English grammar, they could be learning the wrong things.
“I am too stupid to learn English”
Well, in reality, this could be true. But if the student is actually saying this, probably not.
With excuses like this it all comes down to how the student is learning, what level of class they are in, and the material they are using.
“I speak English with the wrong accent”
What is the right accent to speak English? Is there one?
English is no longer the language that belongs to England. If that were the case, the world may have a different global language. English is made up of many other languages. It is constantly evolving and changing.
In terms of accents for native English speakers, we have English, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Irish and South African.
Then there are all the other accents where English is widely spoken. So we have Indian and Chinese accent, all the varying accents from South America, Russian, Japanese and Arabic accents.
None of these is right or wrong.
Accents add colour to the English language and make it more interesting.
If the student says they have the wrong accent, it is just an excuse.
“I don’t live in an English-speaking country”
Now, this sounds like a valid reason why a student does not wish to learn English. Sure, if you live in the country where the language is spoken you are more likely to learn it at a much more rapid rate.
But does that mean that the student should just hold their hands in the air and give up?
We live in an internet age. It is easy to connect with anyone in the world today.
There are hundreds of videos on YouTube to help us learn English. The same with podcasts and thousands of websites that provide resources for students.
If the student makes use of these, then they can improve.
“I can’t afford English classes”
This is also more of a valid reason.
Yes, English classes can be costly. Private English teachers can cost even more.
So what can the student do? They can use all the resources I outlined above. Many of these are free.
“I don’t have enough time”
This is a very poor excuse.
If the student is organised and has the right study plan and methods, then they have plenty of time to learn English.
Get off social media and time-wasting activities online, make a plan and time is of no consequence.
How to Make Learning English a Better Experience
There has to be a way to make things better for the student when learning English. What needs to take place? What actions to make?
Get Rid of the Textbooks
I have written about this before.
So many ESL students complain about the terrible quality of English textbooks, I have to wonder why schools use them at all.
I have used some great textbooks in classes in the past — New Headway is one of my personal favourites — but then I have also used books that just seem to be thrown together in some kind of slapdash style.
It’s like the book publishers look a bit of blank space in the design of the book and tell one of their staff writers to fill it with something. So we have useless grammar points or some reference to much-needed vocabulary.
English textbooks can be used in the class, but I think it is poor teaching style to rely on them. Use them as a basis and bring in your own exercises and activities.
These days there really is no excuse. There are thousands of great lesson plan ideas to find online.
Make the Classes Fun and Engaging
I am not suggesting that teachers need to start doing a clown show in front of the class. But at least make it engaging for the students.
Learning should be a fun and interesting experience. If the students are just sitting down in every class and doing vocab exercises from the textbook, what do they need the teacher for?
And with ESL, practically every single class should have activities to raise energy levels. Lots of exercises to find online to help the teacher short on ideas.
I also wrote something about this here.
Work on ALL the English Skills
All English skills are connected. Reading informs writing, listening informs speaking, vocabulary informs reading and writing, and so on.
By only working on one skill or spending too much time on one skill, the student is not practising efficiently.
Make Short-Term Goals
Instead of saying — I will master how to speak English.
Set smaller goals, such as:
I will learn enough English so that I can introduce where I live.
I will learn enough English for me to describe the weather.
I will learn enough English so I can introduce six of my company’s services.
Set these smaller targets and achieve those.
There is no point in doing something you hate. But many students go through this ordeal every day when learning English.
As the man said: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
If students hate learning English, the schools and teachers are doing it wrong. They have to change how they study.