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Athabasca University

If English is Not Your First Language

As young children we all have an innate language learning ability. We learn our first language easily and quickly; we automatically integrate the rules for grammar and learn to pronounce the sounds of "our" language. As we grow older, however, we lose this natural ability to learn a language. Each language has its own rules, vocabulary and pronunciation; learning another language is much more than learning the vocabulary of that language; the requisite vocabulary cannot just be plugged into the new language as each language has different ways of doing things.

When you learn another language, it is necessary to learn the rules of that language, the grammar, and how the words can be put together to make meaningful sentences. If English is your first language you learn about parts of speech and clauses in school. This grammar helps you to understand how to use the language to write well and use punctuation correctly. Non-native speakers, however, must contend with learning verb tenses and verb forms; when to use an infinitive construction as opposed to a gerund; where to place an adjective, and the order of adjectives when using more than one; and word order which is very important in English, etc. etc. These aspects of language are ones that native speakers do automatically; they never have to think about them.

From sentences we construct paragraphs and essays, but even these structures or patterns vary from culture to culture. In English, when we want to write something, we start at the beginning, write an introduction, give explanations, examples, reasons, and finish at the end with a conclusion. Students learn to order their thoughts in this way from an early age and it seems the logical way to go about it. Other languages may do things differently, however, and students need to learn this new pattern.

While native speakers of English learn very few "rules" about the language, usually only spelling rules such as "i before e except after c," non-native speakers need rules to help them make sense of the language. Rules, grammar, help students to impose some order on the information; the rules are generalizations so that not each piece of new information (language) needs to be learned and memorized as a separate piece of information. There is a rule that the third person singular of a verb in the simple present tense ends in "s", e.g. he walks. This rule means that even if we come across a new verb we have never seen before, we know that if it is third person singular, it will end is "s". Grammar rules are short cuts in language learning.

Also, vocabulary is very culture specific so that in some cases there are no direct translations of words from one language to another, only approximations. In the Inuit language there are many different words for the one English word "snow," emphasizing the importance of snow, and the different types of snow to the Inuit, and its relative unimportance in English, particularly in England where the vocabulary originated. In English speaking countries where snow is an important feature, then English uses adjectives to describe the different types of snow, not different words.

Another problem for non-native speakers of English is the very large vocabulary needed. English has the world's largest vocabulary, a result of English being an inclusive language that has borrowed words from many other languages and also because it has its origin in two different language sources, Anglo-Saxon and French. For this reason there are often comparable words in English from each language e.g. smell and odour, dead and deceased.

English has become the language of international communication and is becoming even more dominant as technology increases and spreads. While English is not the world's most widely spoken language—Chinese is—it is the most widely spoken second language and has the distinction of having approximately the same number of native speakers as non-native speakers. These non-native speakers have learned English as their second language or even their third language; they may be communicating with native English speakers or with other non-native speakers.

Communication is a two-way street. One person is speaking or writing, and someone else is listening or reading. It is important that the information is both transmitted and received correctly. Errors in communication can occur anywhere in the process. Miscommunication happens frequently, even among native speakers of a language; someone speaks indistinctly, a listener is not paying full attention, word confusion is possible, or a grammar error leads to someone being perceived negatively. All of these problems are compounded for non-native speakers of English.

ESL Support Materials

It is important for you to communicate as clearly as possible. The materials provided here enable you to check on specific grammar items or other related information.

Concise ESL Support provides information conveniently. An important word here is "concise"—it means brief, or condensed. As such, Concise ESL Support cannot provide the answers to all of your grammar questions, just many of them.

There are easy guidelines and quick references for some of the major problem areas of English. It is not intended to be comprehensive or to replace a good English Grammar reference book or text; suggestions for reference books, texts, and online materials, are in the section Supplemental Resources. What you will find is grammar that is presented in an easy to understand format with an emphasis on the rules. Charts and tables are used where possible to provide information quickly and in a readily accessible format. For further understanding of the rules, however, or for more unusual aspects of grammar, it is important to have other reference materials available.


A large section of Concise ESL Support relates to verbs and verb usage. Verbs are the driving force of the language. It is no accident that most grammar books begin with verbs! When you can use verbs well, much of the other grammar you use, seems to happen more easily.

Check these grammar units and become familiar with the grammar help available to you.

  • Active Verbs
  • Irregular Verbs
  • Modals and Related Constructions
  • Passive Tenses
  • Indirect Speech
  • Conditionals and Hypothetical Constructions
  • Infinitives and Gerunds

Other Grammar

Two of the most challenging aspects of English grammar for students are determiners and prepositions. These are often the smallest words in the language but they present problems out of proportion to their size! A determiner table and accompanying chart will help with the first problem—unfortunately there are no easy answers for preposition problems. A look at the situation, however, explains the reasons for preposition problems and suggests ways to tackle them. Also presented here, in an easy to understand chart, are personal pronouns.

Check these grammar units and explore these resources to improve your understanding and usage.

  • Determiners
  • Personal pronouns
  • Prepositions

Other Concise Support

ESL is more than just grammar. Vocabulary is a particularly important item for students because of the large vocabulary of English. There are some ways to reduce this vocabulary overload.

  • Word Forms

    Learning about word forms and word families is one way. It recognizes that word 'stems' are used in related words and that the differences, whether a noun, verb, adjective or adverb, can be determined by the suffixes used after that stem. Also, these suffixes have specific meaning apart from denoting the particular part of speech being used. Similarly, prefixes that come before a stem can provide additional meaning. Understanding word families and learning prefixes and suffixes provides a short cut to vocabulary development and understanding.

  • Idiomatic Usage

    There are no short cuts, however, for learning idiomatic usage of the language. This unit provides information about why idioms are difficult, and a humorous look at what to do, or not do, about using them.

  • Pronunciation

    In recognition of the fact that spoken English is an extremely important aspect of communications, some pronunciation rules are provided for your benefit.

  • Supplementary Resource

    Finally, because these units are not designed to answer all of your questions or to be a comprehensive guide to using English, a short list of possible supplementary resources is suggested.

© Veronica Baig
Academic Coordinator, ENGL 155

Updated September 10 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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