How to help refugees with basic English grammar

How to help refugees with basic English grammar

by | Sep 8, 2022 | Blog

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How do we help refugees with basic English grammar?

When teaching English to refugees and asylum seekers, it’s helpful to have a firm grammatical understanding of our own language. However, it’s also important to understand some of the issues our learners face. Mistakes in English are often caused because they are mentally translating from their own language into English.

Many of the refugees coming into the UK over the past few years have fallen into three language groups; Ukrainian, Farsi and Arabic. Let’s look at some of the issues you’ll face when teaching these learners. In this blog we’ll focus on how we can help refugees with basic English grammar, such as nouns, gender, adjectives and adverbs.


Ukrainian speakers

Some nouns can be neutral in Ukrainian, whereas others can be masculine or feminine. Therefore, expect your learners to make mistakes with personal pronouns. In answer to a question like:

“Where’s the book?”

you might hear:

She is on the table.”

Here, teach them that for objects we use “it” and this will help them to eliminate this mistake.

Quite often Ukrainian speakers will confuse adjectives and adverbs, as they will struggle to separate them. So adverbs such as bad or badly may be confused, along with good and well.

You you might hear this mistake:

“He speak English very good.”

instead of:

“He speaks English very well.”

from your Ukrainian learner (the lack of the third person “s” is also an issue).

Similarly, you might hear:

“She play piano bad

rather than:

“She plays the piano badly.”

Here, you need to help them understand the distinction between the adjective and the adverb. Perhaps encourage them to use a notebook to write down examples of each in a correct sentence and then add five more examples.


Farsi speakers

In Farsi, which most Iranian and Afghans speak as their mother tongue, there is no he/she gender distinction, and a single pronoun is used for both. So you might hear:

“My mother is a nurse. He works in Paris.”

In this case, teach your Farsi-speaking students that in English we have distinct genders, and learn when to use them. Gentle correction and practise are the key to helping them here.

Plurals in Farsi don’t usually cause problems, except when nouns are followed by numerical determiners. So you might hear:

“I saw two man.” (men)
“I saw ten lorry on the road.” (lorries)


Arabic speakers

In Arabic, which is what most Syrian and Iraqis speak, adjectives follow their nouns, and agree in gender and number. This may cause lower level learners to make mistakes and you may hear:

“She is woman tall.”

instead of:

“She is a tall woman.”

Here the key is to provide a model sentence, illustrating the subject – verb – adjective – object (noun) and then get them to think of examples of their own. This will help them to embed the right structure (note the issue of omitting the article (a) may also present.


How to help refugees with basic English grammar – practical support

We have outlined just a few of the areas where our refugees can struggle with basic English. However, if you can get these fixed early on, it allows them to have a good structure to build from.

These examples are all from the Enter English course, currently free to hosts welcoming Ukrainian refugees and teachers helping refugees in churches and community groups.

Our grammar module aims to give you an idea of what essential grammar refugees need. It also shows you how to teach it, with ideas for lessons. We think about how we construct correct sentences in English and then, as above, learn what mistakes refugees might make and why they make them.

For a limited time you can pick up for a free code from here >>

Then register on the course here >>


Need help with your own grammar? Check out this course from Global English TESOL on how to understand and teach English grammar >>



  1. Elsie

    This is really useful, thank you so much. Some new insights for me and definitely resonates with patterns I have also noticed in my classes. Another one that I’ve noticed is very common with Ukrainian speakers is that articles (definite and indefinite) are often missed out. This also stems from a direct translation. The verb ‘to be’ also doesn’t have the same present tense function as it does in English so a complete sentence in Ukrainian could be: ‘I teacher.’ ‘He Doctor.’ So this is something to help the students understand and work on. So fascinating to study the language of our students and understand their heart language and how logical the mistakes we hear actually are!

    • William Bradridge

      Hi Elsie,
      Thanks for this useful insight. When learners translate from their mother tongue into English all kinds of issues come up, and you have highlighted another important one. We dive deeper into different issues Ukrainian, Arabic and Farsi speakers have when coming to English.


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