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Problems for Indian Learners in ESL

Problems for Indian Learners in ESL | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Unlike many other countries, India does not have a national language. There are over 30 official languages spoken in India. English has been adopted by the government for judicial and administrative proceedings, and most Indians have a functional understanding of English. However, many Indians struggle to learn and use English effectively.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Tejaswini K. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.


Native languages influence pronunciations of English syllables/words, e.g. people who speak north Indian languages usually pronounce the word ‘here’ as ‘hare/hair’, people from the east often interchange the /s/ and /sh/ sounds while speaking English. The speakers from southern states roll their /l/ sounds quite harshly. Most Indians stress on the last syllable while speaking English.

indian girl

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Exposure to English

Indian learners who are exposed to English from kindergarten and at home, learn and use the language better than those who start learning English from primary school and above. Since English is widely spoken across the globe most young urban parents make it a point to expose their children to English early on. Education in native languages remains quite popular in non-urban locales; therefore, we’ve observed that much of the rural populace have a marked influence of their first language while using English.

Differences in Language Structure

Some differences between English and Indian languages that affect learning - the word order of sentences in Indian languages as well as the rules of grammar are quite different from English. Indian languages have a phonetic base, unlike English. This affects how they understand spelling and English phonetics.

Consonant sounds in Indian languages are quite harsh, compared to the softer English counterparts. There are intonational differences from speakers from different regions. Therefore, understanding tonality and applying it while speaking in English can also be tricky, e.g. detecting sarcasm is challenging for most Indians.

a group of multicultural students

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Translation Approach

The most common error made by Indian learners is a direct translation of sentences/phrases from their first language to English. The reason behind this is the way the language has been taught to the learner. In the initial phase of learning, basic words are taught through pictorial representations or translation. While this is necessary to a certain degree, English teachers continue to use translation in higher classes as well. This prevents students from understanding the nuances of the language. This, in turn, affects their thought groups and sentence construction. Ultimately this affects the fluency of speech, as they’re unable to use English to express themselves efficiently.

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Vocabulary Challenge

Synonyms and antonyms are understood quite well as concepts; however, the use of synonymous words in degrees can be difficult. Indians often use double superlatives, or repeat words, to emphasize a point, e.g. ‘biggest’, ‘it’s in different-different rooms’; this is a cultural influence rather than a linguistic one.

While teaching English to Indian learners, it’s important to explain cultural contexts including idioms and slang (American, British, Australian), so that they understand how the language is used. It is also advised to cover politically correct terms in English, as most non-urban Indian learners are not exposed to them.

Due to the popularity of American television series, most Indians can understand the American accent quite well. However, they may often struggle to understand British or Australian accents.

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Despite all the challenges listed above, it should be noted that English is the second most widely spoken language in India.

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