Expectation VS Reality {ESL Edition}

In the five years that I have been teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to Korean and Japanese students, never a month passes when I am not spared the question:

“I have been studying English for (insert number of months), but my English is still very bad. Why don’t I speak English perfect?”

And always, always, I feel sort of annoyed at their farfetched expectation in learning a second language, at the same time I feel sorry that I have to, have to tell them the reality of it.

Allow me to share you my understanding of my students regarding this matter.

I’m not gonna preach because learning language could be different for everybody: some people have the gift of gab, picking up language a breeze; some are relatively unfortunate to need the use of the language at a later age in time, making the process of information…well, not so instant.


In my years teaching ESL, I have handled them all: kids with zero English, adults with zero English, students with more advanced vocabulary than I handle in daily life, and some with the practical skills but needs more for a certain goal.

The last of the bunch are the ones who usually pose the question above because as an Intermediate student, you get frustrated the most. This English level is the median between the beginner stage (wherein you can dismiss the expectation of excelling instantly and mostly rely on being spoon-fed with direct translation from native language to English), and the advance stage (wherein you already have confidence to express yourself in the language and with minimal and never-mind errors). As an Intermediate student, you have enough skills and knowledge of the language but struggle with the use of it, it’s like the puberty stage of learning. It’s in this level that most students, if they begin taking ESL classes as a beginner, start getting tired and impatient of progress. As a teacher, I can only assure them they are learning though not in the pace they expect.

Most of the time, I encounter this kind of confrontation/conversation/inquiry from students:

Student: Why is my English not good yet? I have study for 3 months. English is so difficult. I take lesson everyday, but I still do not speak good. Why is that?

You have to understand that for ESL teachers, this is not a good sign for the school/business. We have to assure students that they are in good hands, that they are getting their money’s worth. Though I’d be scolded–probably–for being too direct to my Korean/Japanese students, I tell them what’s wrong. As a “teacher” / “tutor” I feel compelled to encourage them studying the right way I know.

Me: Okay, after our (10/25 min) class, do you continue studying at home or on your free time?

Student: (laughing awkwardly) …no. Sometimes I am too tired from school/work, I have no time to study. Only this.

Me: (inwardly sighs) Well, there you go.


I’ve read an article that stated it takes about an average of 7 years for an ESL student to be fluent, this is of course in terms of conversational and academic. So wanting this be good in speaking a different language and not belonging to an intensive course for 3 months is BS. If it’s possible, then that’s a very small demographic.

Me: Do you speak in English when you get the chance in your country?

Student: No. I’m shy.

Me: Oh, but you have to try! Are there any foreigners in your office? Or other students who study English?

Student: Yes, but I am afraid. They speak very fast and I speak bad English. It’s very embarrassing.

You see?

My advice in anything (whenever somebody asks for my service) is sharing them what I have experienced. It’s no different in learning English.

I always share that aside from being naturally interested in English as a subject in school (and this is no bias because I loved Filipino too), my parents loved Hollywood films and TV series, so I grew up having no choice but to absorb the language. My mother has always listened to a certain local radio station wherein they spoke English 90% of the time, so I’d have that with breakfast as well. My loves reading magazines and books, but they were mostly English ones. I somehow found myself reading any labels in product containers, too. Of course, there’s the upper hand that I live in a country wherein English is much of a native language as Filipino, but that’s just my point you see. I’m a product of my own circumstance, however, I sure as hell I put a lot of effort to get to my level.

Choosing to learn, to be fluent in another language requires interest, devotion, love for it, be in a relationship with it. You have to be ready to face it, leave it when needed, and come back to it, again and again.

If honesty isn’t such a difficult liberty, I’m sure most of my  students would probably scoff at me and say, “Easy for you to say, you’re very good in English already.” or even “You’re lucky, you’re Filipino” (most of them hold back their honest opinions, it’s a socio-cultural thing) whenever I tell them that in learning English, or any kind of language for that, we have to ask ourselves what we want from it and accept the circumstances and consequences that comes with the learning of it.

I realized that some of my students don’t even know what they want or need from the language. I mean, some just want to travel and communicate comfortably, but they go the distance of learning business English and even take TOEFL practices/exams. I’d say, take a conversation class at least three times a week, study basic grammar an hour everyday, watch plenty of English movies (use subtitles in the beginning and practice without it once), join international chatrooms, get a penpal, etc. because these are suitable for the goal of a traveler: to communicate in comfort with foreigners.

I myself am struggling with Nihonggo (Japanese language). I am a beginner student who has completed 4 months of studying. To evaluate myself, I think I’m an Upper-Beginner now. I easily picked up the formal lessons in grammar and vocabulary due to years of exposure to Japanese media and readings. Some people ask me why I am studying Japanese if I don’t intend to work in Japan anyway, well, the answer is simple I just want to be able to watch my favorite Japanese shows without subtitle in the future. If my core skills increase and time and opportunity allows me to use this skill in more practical areas like work in translation, then that’s a lovely perk! So despite my initial reluctance to learn Business Nihonggo, I think it is useful. In a country like Japan wherein the use of language is as reflective as the way you dress, then this is for survival.

I learned that every language has its own characteristic and functions according to its society and culture. This is something which I hope my students would also try to understand regarding English, though complicated as the two languages have so much difference in both form and character.

Anyway, my journey into learning Nihonggo allowed me to have a better perspective of my students because like them, I struggle, I get frustrated then lazy when it gets difficult, and I lack the time to self-study when other life concerns get in the way.

Nonetheless, overall, our relationship with language is a lifetime because as it evolves, we have to catch-up with it, be patient with it, be positive with our devotion for it. Indeed, learning a new language can be extremely vexing, but what is one emotion compared to the whole world beyond what language can allow us to reach, right?

It’s a very enlightening experience so far, this whole deal with language and people. How fascinating.

How very very fascinating indeed.


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