English Language Learners and PhD Writing

Southern Asia-Pacific April 20, 2023

Completing a PhD is not an easy pursuit. My friends used to say it can cause PHD, “permanent head damage.” The most difficult part for many people is the dissertation writing stage. Imagine doing that in a language that you are still learning. That is the experience of most English language learners doing a PhD in international institutions. As an institutional editor, I edit the dissertations of students in our institution. Here, I want to share some English language learner observations from my work in our highly diverse campus that may be helpful for guiding the focus of English language learners and their English language teachers.

The way people use grammar to construct sentences is influenced by the way they construct sentences in their first language. This is native-language effect, also called transfer theory. For instance, Indonesians do not have verb tenses, which may explain why they can find it difficult to use the correct verb tenses in English. Language learners subconsciously transfer the grammar rules in their native language to their learned language. 

Many English language learners struggle with the use of prepositions, partly because of this effect and also because English prepositions are one of the most difficult parts of speech to master, if not the most difficult. For instance, in languages that have a limited number of prepositions, such as most Filipino languages, English language learners may use the same kinds of prepositions for different purposes. 

Another common mistake is in the use of articles. Sometimes, students will use a instead of the and vice versa. This is interesting considering that adults tend to memorize and analyze rules rather than write based on instinct or a feel for words, so they should know the rules of articles already. One reason for this difficulty could be the complexity of English grammar. It has many exceptions to the rules which do not have explanations. 

Among the more complicated mistakes are dangling modifiers, run-on sentences, and sentence fragments. They do not involve mistakes on a single word but an entire sentence or even multiple sentences. These are common mistakes generally, but observed especially among African and Latino students. Because of the complexity of these mistakes, they are more difficult for students to detect and for editors to fix. 

This list, although not exhaustive, shows the most common mistakes and also how the challenges of English language learners can differ between language groups. These observations may guide English language teachers on where to focus their instruction to prepare their students for the writing stage. It may also help English language learner graduate students be more aware of the common grammatical mistakes in their language group and thus better prepare for writing.


Sheri Joy Namanya

Sheri is from the Philippines and serves as the editor of the Theological Seminary of Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies where she finished her MAEd in TESOL. She also taught English in three different countries and in different levels. She is passionate about SLA, TCK, cultural awareness, and research, among others. She hopes to contribute to the cause of Christ by supporting her pastor husband, Dan; training her children, Danielle Witness and Mishael Victor; and writing.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *