Things students say that break my heart

This is a post that I wrote for the ELT Knowledge website a  month ago.

Click here for part two of this post.



Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!


What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.


What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.


What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

22 thoughts on “Things students say that break my heart”

  1. Great post Chia.

    I do agree with the grammar one. People in France are obsessed with it and even the expats. I put that down to them learning French and living here. I still find it weird though that many English teachers go on and on about grammar when they know their students need more communicative stuff. Maybe they’re just giving them what they want.

    I tend to teach businessy types on short courses nowadays or very high level students. All of who have learned grammar and can pass grammar tests with flying colours yet….can’t speak. Doing grammar work in class is pointless unless it’s activation-focussed. Functional community-focussed discourse is where it’s at for them. They need to know what people say in their industries not know how to construct something in various ways. A lot of this involves me investigating how English is used in their jobs i.e. official emails, notices, forms etc and then building on it.

    Related to the memorised conversation point, I’ve seen this in action in China. People always have the same conversations with foreigners it seems so you get very good at knowing what to say so much so that you can pre-empt questions. I’ve also seen this in oral tests which have consistent questions. Yet, isn’t this normal life? Don’t we also ask “how was your weekend?”, “how are you?” etc. Day in and out we encounter the same situations which is why we don’t use that many words and when you write a lot you realise how little range you have. It’s not that you don’t know words but that your daily range is set. Unless you’re posh and have some fancy job I guess.

    One more related to pausing…

    Yesterday, I had a new student who just wouldn’t play along and just gave single word answers to everything and wouldn’t contribute to the lesson. Then when I asked what she wanted to work on she said fluency. Hmmmmm.

    1. Hi Phil,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences here. It really does confirm that these are common things that students often do say.

      As you know, I do think that teaching grammar is important, and I do include a bit of grammar focus in my lessons every now and again.
      What I would of course never do is decontextualise the grammar and focus solely on grammar for grammar’s sake.
      Any language focus in the classroom should always be done with promoting effective communication in mind and if the student needs to organise their sentences better and learn how syntax works so that others do not have to strain too much when listening to them,then I would certainly offer some grammar focus. in the lesson.

      But yes, I agree that there are lots of teachers around these days who plan their lessons and their curriculum around a grammar syllabus.

      Having said that, I think this is even more prevalent when you look at the teaching of modern languages like French, Italian, German, Japanese etc.
      Many more modern language teachers seem to think that grammar is everything and that grammar is the root of learning the language.
      It’s no wonder that students who speak these language as their L1s learn from the attitudes that are seen in their own classes when growing up and come to have the same expectations.

      On the surface, the industry has moved away from grammar syllabuses…but have we, really?


  2. This really resonated with me, Chia. As a teacher of adults, I encounter many students who as children have been traumatised by their school-teachers into thinking they are hopeless at English. Worse still, even as mature adults they come to class expecting to be humiliated or chastised if they make a mistake. As a result some of these people sit mute and fearful in class and it’s an uphill battle to develop confidence. Others over-compensate by trying to show teacher (and their colleagues) how brilliant they are at English, which means that they try to dominate the class and pick arguments. Sadly the ones who do this are rarely the most equipped to do it …

    I once had an extremely able C1 student burst into floods of tears in class because she “couldn’t do” an activity with the perfect ease that she had accomplished nearly everything else. It was a group of very accomplished students and I’d warned them – in the nicest possible way – that they might find the activity tricky, and that I’d deliberately chosen it because it was “real” English spoken – very fast – by a native. The shock of finding a student sobbing at her own perceived “stupidity” (her word) was very unpleasant and unsettling – something I don’t ever want to repeat.

    “if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?” Absolutely. And the confidence to make mistakes. And the confidence to screw it up. And the confidence to ask for help. And the confidence to embark on a sentence – however short – and get to the end, pauses and all. The thing I love most about teaching is watching the fear fall away.


    1. Thanks, Anthony!
      It’s great seeing you comment here! Just very proud to hear you talking about teaching with such experience and knowledge behind you! : )

      Yes, mental blocks are difficult ones to deal with and the teacher sometimes finds him/herself in the position of playing psychologist and trying to figure out what the best way might be to lift that fear…

      There is a common belief that telling students that an activity is easy or difficult, whether it be before or after, albeit done with good intentions, might not achieve the results that the teacher hopes to achieve. Here’s why.

      If you warn them it’s difficult, this lead students to expect the task (in this case, a listening text) to be difficult (naturally).
      Such expectations can cause a mental block to form in certain students (especially the more insecure ones).

      Instead of using top-down processes like guessing meanings from contexts and making use of their background knowledge of the genre or the topic to help their understanding, they start to selectively listen for words that are indeed difficult. And when they do see/hear such words, they obsess about them, instead of focusing on the words they do understand and those that can help them with the text. It becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      On the other hand, if you tell students a task is easy, and it turns out to be difficult, they feel like they should be able to do it better and end up feeling stupid. Their confidence is thus affected.

      So, when doing a listening or reading text, instead of telling my students that I think it’s going to be difficult or easy for them, I ensure that they know that they are not expected to read or understand every word, that they only have to understand enough to do the task and answer the questions given to them.

      In a listening, if they didn’t get an answer the first (or even second) time, I re-assure them that it’s normal and offer to play the bit where the answer lies, again and again, until they can hear the individual words of that particular sentence that features the answer to the task. This sensitises their hearing and moves the listening activity from simply being a listening TEST, to a true listening PRACTICE.

      I’ve found doing this repeatedly does indeed help students practise their listening and get a lot better especially at understanding some native speaker accents.


  3. Great post. There can be another thing going on with intensive course students, which is that the amount of new language in their heads is actually interfering with their fluency. For this reason I found that my fluency in Spanish increased a lot after one month in the UK not using the language at all.

    1. Really?
      That’s interesting… I’ve never quite experienced that or read of any SLA research stating that. Could you share some references with me? I’d be interested to read it.
      When I was learning languages, I always found myself improving more when forced to interact and immersed in daily conversations in the target language. Then when I get back to my country and stop having to use the language, I find myself deteriorating (much to my annoyance!)
      I’d love to hear about your experience, seeing that they are so different from mine!


      1. Don’t know any research on this, it comes from my own experiences and what students said to me when I was teaching nine-month intensive “academic year” courses in the UK.

        It might well depend on what classroom approach you take, but if students have a whole bunch of things they are trying to learn and use it is bound to affect their fluency, and sometimes even their comprehension if they now know loads more words that what they just heard could be. I recommend my students here in Japan to alternate intensive (and language intensive) courses with periods of less intensive study combined with as much reading, listening and (if they have the opportunity) speaking for pleasure as they can. I’ve also come to the conclusion that extensive courses with students who don’t use language outside the classroom, extensive courses with students who do, short intensive courses and long intensive courses should be taught in totally different ways – just haven’t worked out what they ways are yet!

        1. Thanks for getting back, Alex.
          I suppose it all depends on the teacher’s beliefs about language acquisition and how they think their students could learn best.
          I spend a lot of my classroom time just letting students talk using tasks and conversation-driven lessons, and they get to use the language they have learnt. So instead of it being just an constant input of information, there is quite a bit of down time where students can process and try to construct sentences and negotiate meaning.
          The only issue is that some students are not used to such types of lessons and find the ease of it disconcerting.
          That is why I make sure I explain to my students on the first day of meeting them what my method of teaching is and why I do it…backed up with lots of scientific research on SLA, for example…


        2. Although it can help to gain student trust (and students who trust the teacher more learn more –, but I think when it comes to what we should do in response to differences between different classes we really are beyond what SLA can usefully tell us at this point. For example, it’s clear that a student who uses English at work everyday and is taking one week to study English intensively doesn’t need practice, they need corrections and input that they won’t be able to fully digest at that point but will slowly make sense of over the next three months or so of using and hearing the same language once they are back at work.

  4. Excellent points to discuss with the students. Especially the one about the beauty of not answering right away.
    Isn’t part of the problem the simple fact that in our L1 we are can communicate at the level at which we think and as language learners we cannot (yet) do so? It is a wierd regressive feeling…

    1. Thanks for commenting, Naomi!
      It is indeed a regressive feeling!
      After all, the ability to communicate and express our thoughts and feelings is so basic to being human that being stripped of that just makes us feel so vulnerable and frustrated.
      I think teachers have to be extra patient and find opportunities to boost our learners’ confidence.


  5. Gotta be agreed how non native speakers feel rather insecure when speaking English in front of native speakers..I’ve experienced it before(not in a real world conversation though) when the girl moans about my English by saying my English isn’t very the end,I chose to deactive my twitter account!

    1. Oh no! Who said that to you? That’s awful!
      Is your Twitter account still deactivated?
      If it is, re-activate it again and send me a tweet, so I can follow you!

      Looking at the English you’ve just written, I just don’t know what that girl is going on about.
      You clearly are an expert user of the language!


  6. I think that the problem may be psychological or functional amd sometimes they mix up together in each learner. To create a good frame of mind can resolve both situations they can find in.

  7. Hi Chia, I agree our students often don’t need “more grammar” – perhaps more focus on precision – saying things more precisely so they can say exactly what they mean: e.g. “I go there every week” when they really mean “I went there every week”. This simple error could cause some confusion, especially if written down.

    Sometimes it could be something small that makes them sound more elegant in their use of English – such as “Even you phone them up, they still won’t help you” when “Even if…” would sound a lot better. Here the issue is not “grammar” but lexis.

    I’ve seen a lot of teachers steer clear of “grammar” because they themselves don’t feel very comfortable helping their learners use English with more precision due to their own lack of language awareness. They’ll correct but can’t help the learner understand the reason for the correction.

    The student doesn’t necessarily need “more grammar” but the teacher often does.

    1. Well said, Chris.
      I think as teachers of English, we should indeed be experts in our area, i.e. teaching English. So whether it be our knowledge of SLA, or being well-versed with different methodologies so that we can mix and match them to suit our students and the learning situation, or understanding as much as possible about language (this would include discourse, lexis, pronunciation, grammar) and the language skills one needs, we should strive to know what we can and to keep learning.

      Yes, indeed, to help students’ with the language they produce, we need to know what needs improving and why, and be able to best help students make that improvement, which includes being able to explain and help students’ become more aware of how language works.

      I often say that teachers should embrace the areas of language and of teaching that they don’t know as opportunities to be curious and learn more, instead of finding strategies to avoid dealing with them because ultimately, what you have been avoiding would catch up with you.

      ; )


  8. Although I haven’t confronted all of these student statements yet, the most common one I get is “Je suis nul(le) en anglais”–French for “I stink at English and I’m letting you know that so that you’re not shocked at how pathetic my English level is.” It’s almost a French catch phrase!

    This feeling most likely relates to your comment about “needing more grammar” and what Phil has also explained about the French and their grammar fantasies. I’ve found that with complex grammar issues like the perfect aspect, they can ALWAYS give me the rule (and in pretty good English), which proves that knowing the form, meaning, and use aren’t the problem, it’s actually using them that are the problem. I wonder if this comes from past classrooms where teachers often took the PPP approach and since our brains just don’t learn in such a linear fashion, the stuff never stuck. Also, as Thornbury states “in being left to last, conversation is often neglected. Also, it is less ‘testable’ than knowledge of grammar and vocabulary and it is often the case that what is not tested will not be taught” (Teaching Unplugged: 8).

    And oddly enough, over the past 2 weeks I’ve started off 7 new university groups. Each time I’ve asked them to reflect on their past English classes (often 10 years’ worth!) and tell me what they liked or didn’t like. Systematically they said they didn’t like not getting to talk enough nor learning by studying texts and answering written comprehension questions.

    It’s like they want to talk, but the fact that they’ve done 10 years of English and have difficulties sometimes even with the simple tenses leads them to make the comments that you’ve mentioned in the post. This creates a viscious cycle and the students become “blocked.” A bit like the speaking skills have been stunted while the grammar knowledge has grown normally. Now it’s our job to unblock them and allow the conversation skills to catch up with all the rest–activating all that passive knowledge!

    And one thing that a student said to me today that really broke my heart. I saw that she was having real problems, even though the whole class is of a lower level and we were going very slowly. After class I asked her if we could find a solution to help her and she said “No, don’t worry. I’m dyslexic, have problems reading and just can’t memorize vocabulary. Teachers have been trying to help me for three years, but you don’t have to. I can’t learn English, that’s all.” I want to help her see that she CAN learn English, but am confronted with a shortcoming of my own–I don’t know how to deal with students with dyslexia trying to learn L2.

    But I suppose just as I ask my students to do, I’ll turn this lack of knowledge into a learning opportunity and do a bit of research on what advice to give this poor student and how I can help her!

    1. Thanks for adding to this series of things that students say that break our hearts, Christina.
      Indeed, ‘I can’t learn English’ is a heartbreaking thing to hear.
      I’ve also heard, ‘My teacher is I am too stupid to learn languages’ and ‘My mother said I’m not the studying type, so why bother’.
      Absolute heartbreakers… :_(

      I’m glad that I was slowly able to help these students in question to get over these psychological blocks and realise that they can indeed learn to become effective communicators in English. I often say that half our job is to help students gain confidence in their own ability.

      The other half, I guess, is being curious about not just language but also the students and everything that teaches us a little more everyday about how to become better educators and teachers. As you so aptly said, we can all turn our lack of knowledge in learning opportunities!


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