16 June 2011

Learning from mistakes...?

I've heard it said many times that the best way to learn a language is to make mistakes and be corrected, because this correction somehow "personalises" the learning.  But to me, this is a logical absurdity.

Here's an example from my personal experience.  In Spanish, there is a special word hay that is equivalent to the English there is.  You therefore do not translate there is verbatim (which would give you *allí está).  In Spanish, they also have a word "demás" which is used for other(s), meaning the rest of a group (not other as in different).

Now I often mistranslate the others (the rest of the guys) as *los otros, but I never mistranslate there is as *allí está.   This means I can say hay correctly despite never being corrected and I keep getting los demás wrong despite fairly frequent correction, and conceptually one is no more difficult than the other.

This is only one example, but in general when someone corrects my Spanish, it's for one of a closed set of mistakes that I make all the time.  Being corrected seems to have absolutely no direct effect on my errors.

The only effect is when I subsequently choose to work consciously to eradicate that mistake.  Or perhaps more accurately, when I consciously work to learn the correct form, because more often than not, an error isn't the result of learning something wrong, but actually an indication that you haven't learnt it at all.  I get hay right because I learned it early on, I get los demás wrong because I never really learned it, and even now I'm only "aware of existence" -- I still don't feel I've learned it.

This isn't to say that errors and correction are valueless, not at all.  Corrections have no special ability to make language stick, but they at least indicate a gap in your knowledge and they often give you a starting point for filling that gap, so you certainly should listen to and take note of any corrections you're given.  What you shouldn't do is ascribe magic powers to corrections and believe that they are a substitute for other ways of learning -- this will only slow down your progress while making conversations in your target language far less enjoyable for both parties.

Why is this idea so persistent?

There is a small set of mistakes that people only make once.  For example, when a Spanish learner tries to say she's tired (cansada) but instead says he's married (casada), it is an instantly memorable situation and unlikely to happen again.  Of course it's a situation that's quite embarrassing, which might be compounded if she now mistakenly says she's pregnant (embarazada).  And she'll never do that again.  Similarly a Spanish speaker suffering a cold is unlikely to forget that being constipated is not the same as having a bunged-up nose (constipado in Spanish).

So these mistakes certainly do lead to better recall of the correct form, but this is not because of how correction works as a generally applicable learning strategy, but rather a consequence of the vocabulary in question.  Saying translación (an archaic variation of translación - movement/transfer)instead of traducción (translation) doesn't have the same comedic value (and in fact isn't likely to obscure the meaning in context) so doesn't have the same potential to stick.

Most often it is these extreme cases, these outliers, that are used to convince us of the efficacy of the technique, but don't be fooled: learning the correct form from the word go is far more effective than making it up as you go along and picking up a catalogue of corrections.

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