Guest Post: Does Etymology Help Adult ESL Students Retain Information?

The following guest post is courtesy of a Scalabrini Centre Volunteer English Teacher, via her blog at  

As an English teacher who gives lessons to adult ESL students, I find myself constantly looking for new ways to make the same lesson interesting and memorable. Due to the fact that I mostly teach private online lessons, ensuring that the student is engaged and can participate becomes crucial.

One thing that I’ve found useful, is incorporating etymology and the ways languages develop and evolve, as a tool to encourage students to remain active during lessons that can be relatively banal.

Take ‘The Days of the Week’ for example: It was the Babylonians who first organised the week into 7 days according to lunar months – Ancient Greek, Roman and Germanic tribes followed suit. The Greeks named the days week after the sun, the moon and the five known planets, which were in turn named after the gods Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite, and Cronus. The Romans substituted their equivalent gods for the Greek gods, Mars, Mercury, Jove (Jupiter), Venus, and Saturn. The Germanic peoples generally substituted their own roughly similar gods for the Roman gods.

In English we have Sunday (Latin dies solis ‘‘Day of the Sun’’), Monday (Latin dies lunae ‘‘Day of the Moon’’), Tuesday (Germanic God of War ‘‘Tiu’s Day’’), Wednesday (Anglo-Saxon/Tuetonic god ‘‘Woden’s Day’’), Thursday (Norse god of Thunder ‘‘Thor’s Day’’), Friday (Norse god ‘‘Freya’s Day’’), and Saturday ( Latin dies Saturni ‘‘Day of Saturn).

Thus, one can see that although the English language has some roots in Latin, it is also heavily dominated by Germanic influences due to England’s varied history of both Roman and Anglo-Saxon/Norse occupation. Modern day Latin-based languages such as Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish did not have the same Germanic integration, and have therefore retained their Latin roots resulting in languages that are more similar to each other, than they are to English.

However, is this useful information for an adult ESL student? Does it encourage them to think about how the days of the week are named in their mother-tongue in order to form comparisons/similarities?

I would argue that it is and does. Irrespective of whether a student needs English for business; travel; or to pass a TEFL/TOEIC/IELTS exam there is no such thing as useless information. Learning a second language is also about the history of that country, and what better way than to examine how historical influences shaped language development?

Being able to communicate confidently is the key objective to learning any language, and understanding where the language comes from, and how it relates to ones native language, helps to maximise the use of that key.

Besides, this makes for interesting trivia when needing to make small talk – another topic that many ESL students battle with!

– Isabel Munshi


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