How not to make these 5 common mistakes when speaking in English

Learning English can be challenging. The good news? We’re all in it together. Even native speakers continue to learn new things about the language throughout their whole lifetimes. Still, many language learners make some common mistakes when speaking English.

But there is some good news: you can recognize and avoid these errors. Whether your mother tongue is Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, German, or Brazilian Portuguese, it’s possible to avoid mistakes and improve your spoken English. 

Keep reading for 5 mistakes non-native speakers make when speaking English, from confusing verbs to pronunciation mistakes. We’ll also share exercises you can use to improve your English speaking skills.

False cognates

False cognates are examples where a word in English appears like a word in your own language, but it means something different (“false friends”). Sometimes the meaning can be very different; other times, the meaning is related, but not exactly the same.

Examples:

For example, the word embarazada means “pregnant” in Spanish; you wouldn’t want to confuse it with “embarrassed” in English. Even if the difference is not as risky, like how German bekommen actually means to “receive” in English, it’s still important to be aware of how you’re using a word so you can choose correctly the next time around.

How to avoid this mistake:

Research the most common false cognates in your language and write down sentences you might use in real life that highlight the differences. For example, “I’m so embarrassed that I asked if you were pregnant” or “I became much happier when I received your letter.”

Confusing verb pairs

Some verbs spell trouble (= are challenging) for many non-native English speakers. English learners often struggle with the difference, for example, between teach and learn, do and make, and lend and borrow. 

We may confuse a verb pair in English when it is covered by the same or similar verb in our native language. We might also not know what verb to choose when we don’t use a verb pair in the same way, or if a particular verb does not exist in our language. Let’s give an example of each. 

Examples:

Two verbs are covered by the same or similar word in our native language.

Although teachers and students do opposite actions – teachers teach and students learn – not all languages have such clear differences. In Polish, the difference between “teach” (uczyć) and “learn” (uczyć się) is a reflexive verb form. In Turkish, the words for “teach” (öğretmek) and “learn” (öğrenmek) are also very similar. 

The verb isn’t used in exactly the same way.

As with superpower words hacer in Spanish and faire in French, there is overlap with the English direct translation “do,” but it’s not perfect. Although the direct translation often works, it won’t work all of the time. In English, we use “do” for some expressions (like “do the dishes/your homework”) and make for others (like “make dinner”).

The verb doesn’t exist, and we talk around it.

Every language has its own structure for how we express an idea. This is why translating word for word often doesn’t work. For example, Spanish prestar means “lend”, but unlike English, Spanish does not have a unique verb for “borrow” (pedir prestado).

How to avoid this mistake:

Make a list of the most common verbs that you confuse. Pay special attention to how you and others use them during situational conversations, like a parent-teacher conference for teach/learn or a dinner party or game night for do/make. 

Since these verbs are often related to our most common actions and conversational phrases, you can create opportunities to practice in real life. For example, plan a conversation with your neighbor about borrowing their lawn mower, or your classmate about borrowing their highlighter.

Confusing word order is a common mistake when speaking in English.

Word order

Word order varies between languages. One of the most common mistakes that English learners make when speaking is with the word order of questions versus statements. 

Example:

If you need directions, you might say, “Do you know where is the train station?” In English, the words are ordered in the form of a sentence. For this reason, your conversation partner might be confused about what you are asking, or if you are asking at all – and you risk missing your train. The correct question form means shifting the verb to the end of the question: “Do you know where the train station IS?”

How to avoid this mistake:

Practice writing down questions for situations you will or hope to experience. If you’re traveling soon, what might you ask a desk agent at the airport? If you’re going for coffee with a new friend, what will you ask them about themselves? If you were interviewing your favorite celebrity, what would you ask them about their lives? 

Prepositions

The use of prepositions (to, in, on…) are specific to each language. The prepositions you use in your own language are not (unfortunately!) a great guide to the corresponding prepositions in English. That’s why misusing prepositions is a common mistake when speaking in English.

Learning how prepositions are used in English takes memorization and practice, and all English language learners are bound to (= will) make mistakes sometimes. 

Examples:

For English speakers, the idea that someone is riding “on the bus” (on top of the bus) or that someone is “in the toilet” (inside of the toilet) can result in giggles. 

How to avoid this mistake:

Wrong preposition use can give you good feedback: If one of your mistakes has made people laugh, use that feedback to correct the mistake next time. Consistent reading and listening practice is also a great way to get exposure to English preposition use. The children’s book Green Eggs and Ham shows how many prepositions can be used in different situations.

“Not on a train! Not in a tree!

Not in a car! Sam! Let me be!

I would not, could not, in a box.

I could not, would not, with a fox.

I will not eat them with a mouse

I will not eat them in a house.

I will not eat them here or there.

I will not eat them anywhere.”

Pronunciation can be challenging when speaking in English.

Challenging pronunciation

If you struggle to pronounce certain English-language sounds, you’re not alone! Some languages don’t have certain sounds, the way that most English learners struggle with words like “think” and “this.” Even languages with the same alphabet, like Romance languages Spanish and Italian or the many dialects of Chinese, have pronunciation differences. Some are small, like Polish “rz” and Czech “ř.” And some are big, like the way a Mandarin and Cantonese speaker can read a headline very differently

Examples:

All English learners make pronunciation mistakes based on the sounds present in their mother tongue. For example, Portuguese speakers have trouble pronouncing “h” while Chinese and Japanese speakers struggle with “r” and “l,” and speakers of Slavic and Nordic languages often pronounce “w” as “v” (and vice versa). 

Sometimes, these differences are harmless, like how Portuguese speakers may say “ahah” (which may sound like they are hurt) when they mean “haha” (which means they find something funny). Sometimes, they can cause embarrassing or uncomfortable situations, the way that confusing short and long “i” sounds can make it seem like you said a curse word when you meant “beach” or “sheet.”

How to avoid this mistake:

As you practice English, you will quickly become aware of the pronunciation mistakes you’re most likely to make; for example, when people have difficulty understanding a certain word you need to say often, or you realize you cannot pronounce a word like a speaker you’ve heard. It helps to know which sound you want to say versus the one you tend to say. 

Improving your pronunciation requires lots of practice. If you have access to a teacher, tutor, or native speaker, you can ask them to help you practice minimal pairs (like “l” and “r”) or tongue twisters (“I rarely like rolling down the hill”). You can also record yourself reading a text and compare your pronunciation to a native speaker’s, then record and practice again for just 15 minutes a day. With Plain English Plus+, you get this opportunity in every biweekly lesson.

Take the next step towards improving your English speaking

If you enjoyed this blog, you’ll also enjoy our blogs about how to improve your English speaking skills from home and how to speak English without hesitation.
P.S. Ready to level up with real-life conversation and discussion? Plain English Plus+ members can take part in conference calls to practice their English speaking. These are supportive group calls three times a month. Sign up today and join our next call!

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