English Grammar Mistakes Common to Arabic ESL Students
Arabic is the most widely spoken of the Semitic languages. Grammar mistakes arise for Arabic-speaking people studying English because of the vast differences between English and any of the Semitic languages. Such differences create the potential for ESL students to have difficulty with English pronunciation, spelling AND grammar. Arabic is a case/gender language that uses roots of consonants to form words—the insertion of vowels, additions of prefixes, suffixes, and sometimes consonants to the root changes the word’s meaning, function, case, tense, even gender! The grammar mistakes made by Arabic ESL students can usually be traced back to native language interference. English grammar rules are very different, and internalizing them can be especially challenging for Arabic students.
The Top 3 Grammar Mistakes Made by Arabic ESL Students
The top 3 English grammar mistakes Arabic students make are 1. verb/tense + “to be”, 2. articles, and 3. relative clauses
- Verb/Tense + “To Be”
Arabic has just 1 present tense, though prefixes, suffixes, vowel insertions, and consonant additions to the root will convey a variety of detail information including tense alterations. Arabic ESL students have trouble with a few of the English present tenses that don’t directly translate—they are the English present simple, present perfect, and present progressive tenses.
The English present simple tense is used when an action (your verb) is happening right now, happens regularly, or happens on a constant basis. It’s formed with the base form of the verb making certain to add an “s” to the end when you have a 3rd person singular noun.
I work from home.
He walks to school.
Arabic ESL students may mistakenly use the present progressive when they should use the present simple.
I working from home.
This error occurs because the Arabic present tense functions to indicate both the present simple and the present progressive tenses.
An Arabic ESL student will often omit the “s” from the 3rd person singular.
He walk to school.
This happens for a variety of reasons—find amazing detail on the topic here, researchgate.net.
The English present perfect tense expresses a past action or event (that happened at an unspecified time) that relates to the present. It is formed with have/has + the past participle of the verb—usually an “ed” ended verb.
He has lived in the US since 2014.
Arabic ESL students mistakenly use the past simple tense when they should use the present perfect.
He lived in the US since 2014.
The 2 sentences may seem to be saying the same thing but in the simple past expression it seems as though he is no longer alive! The present perfect expression is talking presently about the fact that he’s lived in the US for a length of time, it’s almost as though a friend of his is describing him to another person.
The English present progressive tense talks about actions that are happening now, and/or will happen in the future. It’s formed with a form of “to be” + an “ing” ended verb.
Go away, I’m sleeping.
I am going to a concert next week.
Arab ESL students will mistakenly use the present simple tense when they should use the present progressive.
Go away, I sleep.
I go to the concert next week.
This happens because Arabic sentences can occur without the use of a verb. “Lisa teacher.” is an appropriate way to express “Lisa is a teacher.” in Arabic. There is no Arabic equivalent to the English “to be”, so the present progressive tense is especially difficult for Arabic speaking ESL students.
There are no indefinite articles in Arabic, therefore Arabic ESL students will often omit using the English “a”, and “an” in sentences out of habit.
May I borrow a pen. becomes May I borrow pen.
An elephant is a large animal. becomes Elephant is large animal.
The definite article, “the”, does exist in Arabic but it’s usage doesn’t mirror that of the English language. Arabic students will mistakenly use “the” for days of the week, and place names.
I go to the market on Wednesday. becomes I go to the market on the Wednesday.
Many students like Europe. becomes Many students like the Europe.
3. Relative Clauses
Relative clauses add information to a sentence by describing or modifying the noun or pronoun. They use a relative pronoun—who, whoever, whose, whom, which, whichever, where, when, that…
My sister is the student, who protested outside the dean’s office.
This is the book, that was assigned last week.
Arabic requires that the pronoun be included in the relative clause. An Arabic ESL student will mistakenly say…
This is the book, that was it assigned last week.
There is no person/nonperson distinction in Arabic, ie, “that” can be “who”. An Arabic ESL student will mistakenly say…
My sister is the student, that protested outside the dean’s office.
Students may also use personal pronouns instead of the appropriate relative pronouns in the clause.
I have a sister, who speaks Russian. Becomes I have a sister, she speaks Russian.
Arabic ESL students certainly aren’t alone when it comes to making grammar mistakes with their English, but there are some special challenges for Arabic students. The grammar rules of English differ greatly from those of Arabic. Students need to find ways to study English grammar that work for them—that light the bulb. Understanding why they make certain grammar mistakes, and why English sentences are constructed the way they are will give students the confidence to build more complex English language sentences.