Is English difficult to learn?

Is English difficult to learn?

The school-based workshop I ran in Macao this afternoon was also attended by the Portuguese teachers at the school. At one point in the workshop, I was reporting on a lesson on comparative and superlative adjectives that I had taught some time ago. Then, I suddenly felt the urge to ask the Portuguese teachers whether in their language, they had such a complicated system for forming comparative and superlative adjectives (adjectives of 1 to 2 syllables; … 3 syllables or more; exceptional cases).

The Portuguese teachers gleefully gave me a quick lesson on how comparative and superlative adjectives are formed in their mother tongue — and it is such a complicated system. They rounded off by adding that in comparison, English is very easy to learn. (English is their second language.)

Well, this was not the first time I heard the comment that English is actually easy to learn, but it was the first time I heard the remark coming from the mouths of a group of non-English Europeans!

No wonder why English has become the global language. And for those students in Hong Kong who complain that English is difficult to learn, ……


The falling status and standard of English in Hong Kong

Today, Michael Chugani writes about the falling status and standard of English in Hong Kong, in Hong Kong Headline News.

Below is my response to his article:

Dear Mr Chugani

Thank you for sharing your observations about the declining standard of English in Hong Kong. This is also my impression although to my knowledge, there has not been any large-scale, reliable, longitudinal, research tracking the English proficiency level of Hong Kong people over the years.

As an English language educator who had witnessed the increasingly widespread use of English in Hong Kong before the handover, which in turn had served her economy and education well and boosted her status as an international city, I find the current dwindling status of English lamentable. This situation is difficult to understand as on paper, good English is still a passport to university studies and a respectable job in the government or the business sector. Yet, the motivation for people to actually use English in everyday life, as you have pointed out, is shrinking. Again, this is difficult to comprehend because neither are we seeing an increasing use of Putonghua by Hong Kong people in daily life for nationalistic reasons.

This situation is lamentable also because while it is easy to lose it (in this case, the English language) if you don’t use it, it is a colossal task for any city or country to promote a foreign language to the point where the majority of the population can use it in daily life proficiently. To me, it is regrettable that the popular use of English that Hong Kong people had achieved out of great effort in the two to three decades before the handover is gradually waning due to reduced use.

Some people (especially academics) may attribute this emotional baggage to linguistic imperialism – that we have been brainwashed to believe that English is superior to other languages. I don’t believe that there is any one language which is more superior to others; indeed, I love my mother-tongue, Chinese, more than I love English. I just think what a waste it is when the linguistic infrastructure for learning English as a second language has always been there but instead of capitalising on the opportunity, we simply shy away from it.

Keep writing. Without your own knowing, you may be helping many Hong Kong people to keep up their interest in English!

All the best.

Paul Sze

When more grammar drilling is the only solution to improving students’ grammar

I was doing some web surfing and bumped into a website which offers an online grammar practice programme:



I don’t have a personal grudge against the company offering this online learning resource, but how I dislike further mechanical, form-focussed, grammar drilling, when students do extra work online to improve their English.

Students in HK fully understand the importance of grammar; yet this morning when I interviewed our JUPAS candidates, many of them targetted grammar learning as the most boring part of their English learning experience in school. What we need is not more grammar drilling, but grammar teaching and learning which is interesting and cognitively challenging, and which enables students to apply the grammar they have learnt in meaningful communications.

Six years of grammar drilling in primary school; then another six years of grammar drilling in secondary school … If more grammar drilling was the solution, then all our secondary school leavers would have acquired native-speaker proficiency.

Some time ago, I was asked by a professional colleague whether the (alleged) poor English proficiency of Hong Kong students was due to a lack of attention to grammar in English language teaching  (because of communicative language teaching and Education Bureau’s promotion of task-based learning).

To me, the attention to grammar by teachers has never fallen. In fact, for many teachers, it is the most ‘teachable’ part of their teaching syllabus, because unlike listening, speaking, reading and writing, grammar consists of rules which they can impart to students. Unlike dealing with the skills areas, they can easily obtain the satisfaction that they are teaching ‘something’ to the students.

And personally, I am not against grammar teaching. But  if we relegate grammar teaching to something like ‘OK what is the answer to a(b+c); what is (a + b)(b + c) .. now practise these rules in these exercises’, and if we do that day in and day out, what fun is there for students in learning English?

Sometimes when I flip through the grammar section of English coursebooks for secondary schools, I feel great sympathy with the students. Very often, the grammar sections cover the same grammar concepts already covered in primary school. This is not necessarily a problem. But when I look at the teaching approach, the concepts, the examples, and the exercises, I feel totally disheartened, because they simply replicate what students have had in primary school. The underlying rationale seems to be that since students have not mastered these in primary school, let us repeat them.

But the students are not primary kids any more. They are adolescents and early teens; they need learning experiences which are cognitively challenging, and relevant to their thoughts and emotions.

A few years ago, I teamed up with a professional colleague and we wrote a grammar coursebook for upper secondary students in which we would adopt a more discovery-oriented approach to grammar learning. We would use simulated-authentic materials and guide students to find out how grammar was used in real-life communications. This turned out to be a long-term battle between us and the publisher, as while we believed that this approach would rekindle students’ interest in grammar and broaden their conceptions of the grammar of English, the publisher kept saying that our approach was too avant-garde, and urging us to provide more form-focussed drilling materials in the book. Their argument was: ‘This is what teachers want.”

Is that really what teachers want? And if it so happens that teachers are not wanting the right things, shouldn’t we expose them to other alternatives?

In the end, we aborted this materials development project after 5 units of battling with the publisher.

Stephanie shares an excerpt from her language learning in F.6

In my blogpost of August 29, I recalled 5 excepts from my own language learning at school. One of the scenarios pointed to the lack of input from my English teachers in my secondary school, which was run by the Government.

A few days later, I was happy to receive a detailed response from Stephanie, who also went to a Government secondary school, but who had a much more positive and memorable experience afforded by her English teachers. Stephanie reminisced:

My F.6 class teacher and English teacher was a NET from England. At the start of the term, she told us that she and the other NET from Australia were going to organize a two-week study trip to England for F.6 students before the summer holiday.

But the trip was expensive. Not many F.6 students in my school could afford it. In order to cut the cost, the two NETs organized a series of fund-raising activities and asked the F.6 students to help them. What we did that year included: selling handicrafts, second-hand goods and Vitasoy drinks at lunchtime, selling donated goods and doing ‘hair make-up’ for kids at a fair in an international school, writing thank-you letters to business people who donated money to us, and so on.

It was the first time I had used English for real communication, not for homework or exams. I became much more interested in learning English. Meanwhile I realized my weaknesses (e.g. in terms of listening to native English speakers, not enough vocabulary, etc.) and improving my English became my number-one goal during my F.6 and F.7 years.

I thank Stephanie for allowing me to share her experience with other readers in this blogpost. In fact, I hope that there will be more sharing (and hopefully more positive stories!) from other people in Hong Kong about their experience in learning a foreign language so as to enrich our understanding of effective second language teaching and learning.

Stephanie’s experience in F.6 illustrates two points which are always true in (language) teaching:

    Interesting and meaningful teaching will always motivate students: using English for real communication – fundraising, selling handicrafts, doing hair make-up, etc., etc.,

    good teaching will always make a difference: energising students to put in more effort; and instilling in students a love for the subject

My previous few posts might have given some readers the impression that I don’t value grammar teaching. This is certainly not the case. But there is also this deep-rooted belief among some teachers that since grammar is the foundation of language, if students focus on acquiring a solid grasp of grammar, their communication skills will take care of themselves. With this belief in mind, they subject their students to dosage after dosage of repetitive grammar exercises that concern themselves with manipulation of language form only. Yes, occasionally we read of successful stories of students (especially newly-arrived students from China) who make up the achievement gap through massive amounts of grammar practice, but these rare students started off with an untypically high level of motivation already. Whether we like it or not, the majority of students brought up in today’s society and today’s schooling need to experience learning as an interesting and meaningful activity.

Stephanie found her F.6 learning experience interesting and meaningful because she was using the language for purposeful communication. She was not ‘practising’ English merely for the sake of ‘practising’ English. But if we are to subscribe to this view, and at the same time to the need for grammar learning, what shall we do? I do admit that this poses a challenge to the second language teacher. How do we strike an appropriate balance between focus on grammar and attention to communication skills? How do we link grammar teaching to developing students’ communication ability? When should we focus on using the language to get things done, and when should we get back to grammar practice? This requires a lot of alertness and a high level of professional competence on the teacher’s part. To cite Miss Janet Law:

“Teachers are professionals because we know how to adjust our teaching strategies according to the students’ needs and interest.”

And because of that, I appeal to all stakeholders in education who believe in the importance of good teaching, to do everything they can, in terms of duty and resource allocation, to enable teachers to do the best teaching they can. Effective language teaching requires a lot of time for lesson and resource preparation.

Finally, for me, Stephanie’s response is not just about how good teachers can make a difference in their students’ language learning. It is also about how good teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students. I copy the ending of Stephanie’s sharing below, and I don’t need to elaborate any further:

“Come to think of it, my class teacher from England even invited us for dinner at her house in Sai Kung. I couldn’t remember what we talked or ate, but the warmth I felt has always stayed with me.”

Five Excerpts from My Own English Learning at School: What’s in it for language teachers?

In the course of writing the last three posts, further thoughts came to my mind, some of which were triggered by the responses on FB to the three posts. For example:

Carol: My English became fluent after I had worked in Singapore for some time. Then I came back to Hong Kong, and the reverse situation happened–my spoken and written English are getting worse…sigh….strange though… my Singaporean ex-colleagues speak fluent English…however…their written English is very bad…

Sammi: I have taught some students from a primary school which seldom teaches grammar, instead, they focus on writing and speaking skills. They don’t have dictations either. Yes, some of them are confident in speaking English, but none of them can write a proper composition themselves because they are so weak in spelling and grammar.

Anna: Talking about interesting teaching ideas – I’ve been pretty dried up in recent years. I need to borrow ideas from my colleagues and seminars (the most recent one being Story Alive by SCOLAR). I am studying EDB’s old publication on “Promoting Quality Interaction in the Primary English Classroom”

Janet: I learned a lot from the BBL workshop I took in the summer. I’ll try out the strategies I’ve learnt this year and see what happens. It’s unbelievable that I feel pretty exhausted way before the first day of school. Meetings and adm work kill teachers. I’m hoping my kids can energize me!!! 

Jill (pseudonym): I have done quite well in English exams, but I’m not really good at using the language.

A number of issues are now circling in my mind:

  • Why do we have the tendency to judge people’s language proficiency mainly by their grammatical competence?
  • Why do teachers have the tendency to focus on grammar in their teaching?
  • On the other hand, what can happen if we are mainly interested in developing students’ communicative competence?
  • How should we strive for the right balance between fluency and accuracy in language teaching?
  • How much attention should be paid to preparing students for language exams?
  • What is the best method for teaching a second language?
  • To what extent can we expect teachers to teach creatively when they are so busy?
  • We are giving a lot of thought to how to teach better, but are we giving enough attention to teaching students how to learn better?

Just now when I scanned the above list again, I thought: OH my God, I will have to write at least another 8 blogposts on language teaching and learning. I might have a few loyal fans, but how many of them will have the time and patience to follow them through?

Hence, although I had had some initial answers to those questions, I changed my mind one minute ago. Instead of addressing these issues one after the other from this post, I will keep the list for the next few months, and pick one topic to write about when a suitable occasion arises (like, when I am observing a TP lesson, and something unusual pops up and it relates to one of those issues; like when I am having a class session with a group of inservice teachers and one of them shares an experience that indirectly answers one of the questions).

So, instead of me discussing those questions, I would like to stimulate your thinking by presenting five excerpts from my own learning of English at school. These experiences are hardly exemplars of ‘successful’ language learning strategies. But I hope they will stimulate you to mull over some of the fundamental issues in language teaching and learning.

Primary One

When I started primary school, like all the other subjects, English relied on a lot of rote-learning. There were no teaching methods. The teachers would teach in Chinese. The purpose of learning English was simply to get high marks in English in tests and exams. Everything was learnt by memorisation. For example I can still recite Lesson 1 in my Primary One coursebook:

A man. A pan.
A man and a pan.
This is a man.
This is a pan
Is this a man?
Yes, this is a man.
Is this a pan?
Yes, this is a pan.

At that time, I did not particularly like English, but I played my part in learning it as I would learn any other subject on the timetable.

Primary Four

One day, my English teacher asked me to go see the headmaster at his office. In those days, headmasters never talked with kids, so if a kid was to see the headmaster, he had to be in deep trouble. When I arrived at the headmaster’s office, recalling any terrible crime that I might have committed, there was another girl waiting at the door. The English teacher took both of us into the headmaster’s room. Poker-faced as usual, the headmaster asked us to take turns to read aloud a short passage in English to him. When both of us were done, we were told to wait outside the headmaster’s office.

Two minutes later, my English teacher came out, and told me that the headmaster had chosen me to perform a task. A brass band from a visiting American navy fleet would visit the school and give a performance. The headmaster was looking for a student to deliver the vote of thanks at the end of the show, and he had chosen me.

This turned out to be a turning point in my lifelong learning of English. In those days, it was not the practice of teachers to praise students for good work. The assumption was that praising would spoil a child, as it would make him prematurely proud of his work. So, from P.1 to P.4, I had never been praised by my English teachers, so I had no idea how good my English was. (We already knew exam and test results did not reflect genuine proficiency.) Now the fact that I was chosen, and not one of my classmates, indicated to me that my English wouldn’t be very bad. This drastically boosted my self-confidence in learning English. I doubled, and trebled, my effort in learning English. My marks shot up. This gave me further incentive to improve my English. So here was the virtuous cycle:

Secondary One

It was in the sixties. I was studying in a Government secondary school. The teachers were all civil servants. I didn’t know about the situation in other Government schools, but in mine, the English teachers, who were all English-major graduates from HKU (CUHK hadn’t produced its first batch of English-major graduates yet) felt that they could have been AOs or Eos so teaching was their last career option. With the exception of one or two teachers, they did not put any effort into teaching. In those days, a typical lesson would look like this:

T: Open your book at page 121. Peter, read paragraph 1.
Peter: (reads paragraph 1)
T: Paul, read paragraph 2.
Paul: (reads paragraph 2)
T: Mary, read paragraph 3.
Mary: (reads paragraph 3).
(When the whole passage had been read …)
T: Now, turn to the comprehension questions. Look at question 1. John, you read the question.
John: What did Mrs Brown …
T: Jill: answer the question.
Jill: Mrs Brown …
T: Peggy, read question 2.
Peggy: Who saw Mr Green ..
T: Patrick, answer question 2
(and so on)

Believe me, teaching English in those days was the easiest job in Hong Kong. Anyway, I was not expecting to learn anything from my English teachers. I continued to learn English on my own, through deciphering the coursebook materials, and reading storybooks borrowed from the library.

Secondary Two

A blockbuster movie came out, and it had a profound impact on my academic interest later. It was called My Fair Lady, and was about how Professor Higgins, a scholar in phonetics, taught Eliza Doolittle, a working-class flower-selling girl, how to speak English with a standard accent. For some strange reasons, I completely bought into the notion of Standard Accent, and found it refined, elegant, and beautiful. I wanted to speak like Professor Higgins. I began to find the English Language superbly pleasant to the ear. Without knowing it, I was falling in love with the English Language! From then on, I paid a lot of attention to the pronunciation of speakers of Standard British English. Professor Higgins was played by the actor Rex Harrison, who became my idol. Soon my
idols included other stage-trained British actors like Peter O’ Toole, and Richard Burton 

It was also the golden age of ‘hit songs’, led by the Beatles and dozens of pop singers both in the UK, and the USA. This was supplemented by the folk song movement, with singers like July Collins, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, who were all careful with articulation. At that time, every secondary student was singing English pop songs all the time. So was I. I was able to memorise the lyrics quickly. And since I was singing all the time, I was actually perfecting my English, in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. (Think about the amount of English you can learn and practise from a simple song like “Where have all the flowers gone?”)

This interest in pronunciation doubled, and then quadrupled itself. In Secondary Three, I was decoding the transcriptions in IPA of words in dictionaries. I was practically teaching myself the International Phonetic Alphabet. This interest in phonetics and phonology continued on to university studies and beyond, culminating in my teaching Phonetics and Phonology for ESL teachers at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Secondary Four

In 15 months time, I would be taking the oral component of the HKCE English paper. Although now I had a more conscientious English teacher, she had no teaching methods. She did not know how to teach Oral English. I was confident about the written papers. I was sure I would do OK in the reading aloud in the Oral exam. (In those days, the Oral paper consisted of reading aloud a passage, and having a short conversation with the assessor.) But, as you can imagine, I had never had any conversation practice throughout my entire secondary school so far. So I began to worry about the Conversation component. I looked around; none of my classmates seemed to want to do anything about it. Rather than continuing to wait for the teacher to do something, I made up my mind to take the matter into my own hands: If I could talk with no one, let me talk to myself. 

At that time, my school was a 30-minute walk away from my home. Every day, I would pick a current topic and, while walking to school, spoke aloud in English whatever idea related to the topic came to my mind. The passers-by must find me strange, as I was murmuring to myself, but I was not bothered. I kept on with this practice for 15 months, and survived the Conversation in the HKCE Oral finally.


I could start discussing the issues embedded in these excerpts now. But I am certain you have already started to chew over some of these vignettes. So I will leave you alone here, hoping that I have provided you with some good food for TESOL thought.


One simple thing to do to make language learning intrinsically motivating for students

Grammar is not unimportant. But if in the long process of learning a foreign language,
all we do is to make sure that everything we say or write is 100% grammatically
correct, then we are equating language learning with learning algebra and
calculus. But there is one fundamental difference between English, a language,
and algebra and calculus.

Our knowledge of the world, our experiences, and our need for social
communications, are mostly embedded in language. Through language, we can trace
the thoughts of Confucius, record our exhilaration on seeing the first smile of
our baby girl, and cheer each other up on Facebook. Language is part of our
human psyche. We derive infinite intellectual and psychological satisfaction
through using language.

But if when we learn a language, all we focus on is grammar, we turn language learning
into a very dry business. If people will only judge my grammar when I speak or
write, instead of trying to understand what I want to say, I will not have the
needed self-confidence to try to express myself. I will remain silent.

I want to argue that it IS possible to make language learning an intrinsically
satisfying activity, because I believe that human beings have the basic
psychological needs of finding out about the world, expressing themselves, and
connecting with each other. Now, the key to that should be obvious: in our
teaching, let us pay more attention to the aspect of meaning in whatever we are
teaching: grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

To illustrate, I cite the experience of Miss Eunice Tang who, at the time, was having
her first stint as a substitute teacher. Eunice had not received any training
in TESOL when she took on the substitute teaching. She was faced with a class
of 40 Secondary Two students with zero motivation. Eunice had only one
objective: to make English learning more interesting and meaningful for her
students. She recalls:


Imagine you’re a year 2 university student, with no teaching experience, knowing
nothing about the school where you are going to do substitute teaching, and the
students that you’re going to teach. You’re now facing a class of 40 students,
some lying on the desk, some talking to each other, some looking out to the
window… and you’ve to stay there for one month. How
would you feel? What would you be doing?

I was kind of frightened. I knew nothing about teaching, and the students knew
virtually nothing about English. There were already too many WHYs on my mind,
so I thought I had better not ask WHY they were not interested in English, but
WHAT I could do to motivate them.

 For example, in the first lesson I asked them to tell me what they enjoyed doing
outside class, as I was thinking about how to link their interests to my
lesson design, and how to make my teaching “useful” to them. Then, as they liked online games, when I taught vocabulary about shapes, I asked them to describe some of the weapons in the online games using the words that they had learnt. Towards the end of the unit, they even played the role of sales assistants and did a group presentation in English to sell the weapons to me! There were of course a number of errors in the talk, but I emphasized that mistakes were not to be feared and they should feel good for what they had
achieved. Also,
I would wrap up an activity with suggestions for improvement and asked them to re-try it. Just like football players who spend hours practising before they could
they also had “rehearsals” before giving their best presentation. And they liked
this metaphor.


Eunice’s vignettes have all the 3 elements I mentioned above: the students were using
language to learn more about the world (virtual weapons), to express themselves
(talking about their online weapons), and to connect with others (selling
weapons to each other).

This is not to say that grammar is not important. Grammar allows us to express our
ideas more accurately. (The other day, I had a long discussion with Eunice on ‘I
love it’ vs ‘I’m loving it’.) But an exclusive focus on grammar, especially on
language form (eg., ‘complete rubbish’ or ‘completely rubbish’), will only be
of interest to the serious linguist. We don’t need to abandon grammar teaching;
in fact, we mustn’t. But we can easily make language learning a much more
intrinsically motivating activity for our students if we will pay more
attention to the meaning dimension of what we are doing with students.

Now, let us look at another example which I have made up, for teaching the Present
Perfect to a class of P.4 students.


Teaching Vignette A


The teacher writes two headings on the board: Present Perfect, and Past Simple. She then
says to the students:

“Class, you have learnt the Past Simple. Can you give me some sentences in the Past
Simple. (Lukewarm response. She writes a few sentences on the board under the
heading ‘Past Simple’. OK, look at these sentences. Are they in Simple Past?
(Yes.) Now, look at the first sentence, what is the verb in the sentence? …….
What do we use the Simple Past tense for? ……. OK, now let’s look at another
tense. It’s called Present Perfect tense. (Teacher writes 3 sentences on the
board, and underline the main verb in each sentence.) Look, this is called the
Present Perfect tense. It begins with ‘has’ or ‘have’, and is followed by a
past participle. ……What is a past participle? …… When do we use the Present
Perfect tense? …… “


Teaching Vignette B

The teacher has two pictures ready. Picture 1 shows a messy sitting room and a
frowning mother. Picture 2 shows a tidied-up sitting room with the same mother,
but smiling.

Teacher shows Picture 1 to the class, and says:

“This woman is Mrs Wong. She has three children. Mrs Wong goes to work in the
morning, and is back at home at seven o’clock in the evening. When she goes
home, this is what she usually sees. Now look at the picture. Will Mrs Wong be
very happy? (Invites answers from SS.) Why isn’t she happy? (Invite answers
from SS; encourage SS to speak in English, but let less able SS answer in
Chinese if they want to offer suggestions, then say it in English for them to repeat.)

But today is Mrs Wong’s birthday. And the children want to make her happy. So they
tidy up the sitting room. When Mrs Wong is back home at 7 o’clock, this is what
she sees. (T shows Picture 2.) Now, look at the two pictures carefully. …. Will
Mrs Wong be happy? (T invites answers from SS.) Yes, I also think Mrs Wong will
be happy. Why? Now, let’s look more carefully: Oscar has swept the floor. Now
the floor is clean. Adrian has tidied the book shelves. Now the book shelves
are tidy. Suki has …

OK, why is Mrs Wong so happy? Say after me: Oscar has swept the floor. Adrian has
tidied the book shelves. Suki has …

Right, why is Mrs Wong so happy? You tell me again .

Now, let’s look at these sentences carefully. (T writes the sentences on the board, and
guides SS to deduce the structure of the Present Perfect tense.)



The major difference between Vignette A and Vignette B is that the latter is also taking
care of the meaning dimension of the Present Perfect tense, whereas the former
treats grammar as manipulation of language form only.

There is in fact nothing magical about Vignette B. In fact, most trained ESL teachers in
Hong Kong will be familiar with the approach. But we can also see that Vignette
B requires more preparation, in terms of coming up with a teaching idea, and
preparing the needed resources. And the meaning dimension does not only involve
grammar teaching. It also exists in the teaching of vocabulary, listening,
speaking, reading and writing. Good language teaching, therefore, requires a
lot of preparation. When teachers are hard pressed to deal with one thousand
and one duties at hand, all they can do is to resort to chalk and talk.

Luckily, in Hong Kong, we still have many energetic teachers who, under the circumstances, will make every effort to make their teaching interesting and meaningful for their students. (For example, see the teaching blog of Miss Janet Law at
But note that Janet hasn’t updated the blog for a while as she has been very
busy with teaching and admin work.)

In sum, teachers can make language learning a more intrinsically satisfying experience for
students by paying more attention to the meaning dimension of whatever they are
doing with their students. But they need to be given more time for preparation,
and allowed to concentrate on the part of their work which will give them the
biggest job satisfaction: language teaching.