English as a second language has proven quite difficult for many students. This has been attributed to the direct influence of their first languages. It is important to point out that it is not only cultural differences that make the students find second languages difficult, but also complex linguistic aspects. This essay will analyse two groups of ESL students. The two groups are the Arab ESL and Romanian ESL students. Arabic and Romanian languages are very different; thus, it is expected that the two groups will experience different challenges. Additionally, it is expected that the two groups will have some similarities. The essay will provide the evidence of differences and difficulties that both groups face in learning English and give reasons for the difficulties.
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Main evidence, issues and points
Despite the first language differences, the Arab and Romanian students have some similarities when learning English. This section of the essay will be divided into two sections; the first will focus on the similarities between the two ESL groups and the second section will focus on the differences.
The similarities in the Arab and Romanian students can be summed up in one word; culture. It is important to note that culture will also provide differences between the two groups later on in the discussion. One similarity in the two groups is that English is not their first language. Therefore, they make mistakes based on their first languages. Despite these mistakes being different, the two groups have identical overall challenges. For example, they both have difficulties understanding the use of articles in English. Again, the problems with the use of articles might arise from different things. In the same breath, both groups rely heavily on their first languages to make the rules of the English language.
Moses, Busetti-Frevert, and Pritchard (2015) argue that this is a common problem among all students taking English as a second language. The issue of over-reliance on the first language mainly affects grammar and oral speech. Direct translation has been cited as one of the most common problems among ESL students, regardless of what first language they speak. This leads to sentence incoherence, poor sentence construction due to bad arrangement of words, and poor writing skills. Reddington and Waring (2015) explain that direct translation negatively affects written English compared to spoken English. The main reason is that many people take spoken English language as informal and written as formal. However, Kaur (2015) emphasizes that teachers should equally focus on spoken English because it also determines how the student will write. In addition, spoken English can help the teacher identify some of the problems the student is facing, and find ways of providing solutions to the problems.
The two groups have differences, specifically due to their first languages. This section will be divided into two main sections; written and spoken differences. The sections will then be further divided into subcategories for easier explanation.
Written English differences between Arab and Romanian ESL students
As mentioned, both Arabs and Romanians borrow a lot from their first languages. For the Arabs, the biggest mistake they make in grammar is the use and misuse of articles. There are three articles in the English language. These are a, an, and the. Whereas ‘a’ and ‘an’ are referred to as indefinite articles, ‘the’ is referred to as a definite article. There is only one article in the Arabic language; this is the definite article ‘the’ (Alsadoon & Heift 2015).
On the contrary, the Romanian language has both definite and indefinite articles. In fact, it has more than one definite article. While analysing the Arab ESL students, Al-Awidi and Ismail (2014) noted that they would use the definite article even when an indefinite article is most suitable. In addition to this, the Arabic ESL students also left out the definite article when it was necessary. For example, sentences like “Girl went to school” are very common among the Arabic ESL students.
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On the contrary, many Romanian students do not neglect the indefinite article in their writing. Their main problem is the placement of the article they are using. Gardner (2014) reveals that the Romanian grammar allows the student to put the article after the noun, but not before. For example, it is very common for the Romanian ESL students to write “Girl the went to town”; therefore, putting the definite article ‘the’ after the noun ‘girl’. The same is seen when using indefinite articles. One thing that should be noted is that both groups have borrowed from their first languages. Thus, the mistakes made are due to direct translation, but not necessarily due to the lack of understanding the rules of English grammar.
It is also crucial to point out that gender is another aspect of grammar that has considerable difficulties for both Arabic and Romanian students. For the Romanians, the main issue of gender arises due to their third gender. The language has three genders; masculine, feminine and neuter (Leah 2014). The third gender, neuter, refers to the masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural (Drobot 2014). Therefore, it means that the Romanian language does not have ‘it’. On the other hand, the Arabic language gives gender to everything, including inanimate objects. Thus, one will find that a chair will be referred to as a ‘she’ or ‘he’. In the same sense, both languages do not have ’it’. Looking at the languages more critically, one will realise that both groups of ESL students will rarely use ‘it’. For the Romanians, the problem goes further because they are tempted to use ‘it’ to refer to the singular of something masculine, and the plural of something feminine.
Another difference that can be cited under the sub-category ‘grammar’ is word order. This is a particular problem among the Arabic ESL students. Golonka et al. (2015) argue that Arabic ESL students often confuse the word order. This makes their writing weak. The scholar goes ahead and argues that this problem arises from the fact that the Arabic language word order is VSO. It means that the verb comes before the subject (verb-subject-object).
Therefore, when the students write, they interchange the English word over (SVO) and use that of the Arabic grammar. This problem is very rare, if any, in the Romanian ESL students’ writing. Seibert-Hanson and Carlson (2014) argue that the word order is not a very significant difference between Arabic and Romania ESL students because the word order in Arabic is flexible. Thus, even if the students directly translate from Arabic, there are times when they will still get the order right.
Tuninetti Warren and Tokowicz (2015) also add that the usage of pronouns shows the difference between the two groups. The Arabs have a very difficult time in combining gender and pronouns, whereas the Romanians do not. Khattab (2013) argues that this problem arises from the fact that the Arabic language contains twelve personal pronouns. However, while the 2nd and 3rd persons differentiate gender, the first person does not (Khattab 2013).
For example, “you” and “he” are the second and third person respectively. Therefore, Arabs tend to confuse gender when using such types of pronouns. It is common for an Arabic ESL student to write, “You went out”; where the “you” is a “she”, but it is grammatically correct. The same can be cited if the “you” is a “he”. However, the problem arises when they also use the “you” in plural form to describe a group of men or women, depending on the arrangement of the sentences. For instance, instead of saying “They went to church. They came back in the afternoon,” it is more common to find the Arab ESL students writing, “They went to church. She came back in the afternoon” to mean they all came back in the afternoon. However, “they” is replaced with “she” because they are all women. This problem is not very common among the Romanian ESL students.
The verb “to be” is one of the most significant and most irregular verbs in English. Thus, it is crucial to point out differences in ESL students in using this particular verb. The Arab language does not have the verb “to be”; therefore, many students leave it out in their writing. The Romanian ESL students, on the other hand, have the verb “to be”, known as “a fi”, in their vocabulary. Therefore, they hardly miss using it when necessary. However, Drobot (2014) argues that the Romanian ESL students, at times, confuse the right place to use the verb “to be” in a sentence due to the flexibility of the Romanian grammar word order.
Spoken English differences between Arab and Romanian ESL students
Gardner (2014) reveals that differences and difficulties in the pronunciation of many ESL students can be attributed to the number of vowels and letters in their first languages. Therefore, if the first language has fewer vowels, letters or both compared to English, then the student will have a hard time pronouncing these letters and vowels. In the same breath, if the first language has more vowels or letters, or both, then the student will not have many problems with pronunciation.
For Arabs, pronunciation is often challenging because the English language has three times more vowels that Arabic (Alotaibi & Meftah 2013). It is interesting to note that the Arabic language has more letters than the English language. Arab students have difficulty pronouncing some words due to the fewer vowels. The fewer vowels also make it difficult for Arab ESL students to differentiate between words that sound the same (homophone). For example, words such as ship and sheep, chip and cheap, sea and see, and to and two, are problematic for such students. In addition, Shafiro et al. (2013) observe that the lack of “th” sound in Arab language makes it very difficult for the students to pronounce words that have “th”. Romanians, on the other hand, do not have this problem because their language is full of combined sounds, such as “th”.
The Arabs also have a problem pronouncing words with ‘p’ and use ‘b’ instead because their language does not have the vowels ‘pa’ ‘pe’ pi’ ‘po’ ‘pu’. Marin and Pouplier (2014), however, explain further that the problem is noticeable when the “p” is at the beginning of the word. The scholar also adds that the students substitute “f” for “v” for the same reason. Khattab (2013) adds that many Arab speakers also have problems pronouncing words that contain consonant clusters. For example, it is very tempting for an Arabic ESL student to say “theree”, instead of “three”. On the contrary, Romanian ESL students do not have a lot of problems with pronunciation because Romanian uses the exact same vowels and letters as English (Drobot 2014).
Khattab (2013) argues that conversational English pronunciation is more difficult for Arabs. This has also been identified among the Romanian ESL students. The problem arises due to the swallowing of words in conversational English. Both ESL students’ groups’ first languages do not allow the swallowing of words as English does.
Redundancy is very common among the Arab ESL students (Khattab 2013). As mentioned, Arabic language has more letters than English. The Arabs create words that make the sentence lengthy because direct translation is a very big problem for the ESL students. In many instances, the added words do not even make sense. For example, it is common to find sentences such as “the cat chased the rat and then went and gone inside”. In Arabic, this would make sense because it would literally mean, “the cat chased the rat and then went back inside”. For Romanian ESL students, this is not a problem because they do not have extra letters in their alphabet.
Both languages also have problems with run-on sentences. Formal English language does not allow run-on sentences. In fact, as Khattab (2013) explains, simple sentences are always considered the best by academicians, and the inclusion of complex sentences only helps in terms of stylistics. For the Arab ESL students, the problem arises due to the acceptance of run-on sentences in formal Arabic. The Romanians ESL students, on the other hand, experience problems due to the lack of guidelines on sentence construction. Drobot (2014) asserts that sentence construction in the Romanian language is loosely defined. It is true that many students use the SVO word order, but this is not a mandatory rule; if one uses VSO, then it would still be grammatically correct.
In conclusion, both Arab and Romanian ESL students face several challenges in studying English. One similar challenge that the two groups face is the use of articles. However, the depth of confusion in the use of articles is different. It suffices to mention that the Arab ESL students appear to have more difficulties than the Romanian ESL student when studying the English language. This problem can be attributed to the fact that the Arab language has more letters than the English language. One difference that can be noted is the use of gender. The Arab ESL students give gender to everything, including inanimate objects.
Therefore, they do not use ‘it’ in their writing, unless corrected. The Romanian ESL students, on the other hand, also have a problem with the use of ‘it’. However, this problem arises from the fact that the Romanian language uses the neuter gender to refer to the single masculine and the plural feminine. Regarding pronunciation, Arabs have more difficulties due to their fewer vowels. They also have problems pronouncing words that start with “th” “p” and “f”, as these letters and sounds are not common in Arabic.
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