25 June 2011

Not Learning From Mistakes

I've been talking a fair bit recently.  First I pointed out that the emotional power of correction of mistakes is often overstated on the basis of a few exceptional cases, and then I pointed out that in the classroom it's underemployed for fear of embarrassment.

Not being corrected

But here's another perspective on the whole thing: some mistakes just don't get corrected.  There's several reasons for this:
  1. The other person doesn't want to be rude, so continues to nod politely rather than cause potential embarrassment by commenting.
  2. The other person doesn't understand you and says so, but can't correct you because he doesn't know what you're trying to say.
  3. The other person understands you, so doesn't see the need to mention the error.
  4. The mistake is noticed and mentioned but not corrected, because the other person suffers what is known as "language blindness".
Each of these is troublesome in different ways.

The first couple you can do nothing about, but it's really frustrating if your conversation grinds to a halt after five minutes when you discover that neither of you has a clue what the other is talking about.

From the third, it is tempting to conclude that if an error doesn't stop the other person understanding, it's an acceptable error (a widely held belief among communicative approach teachers).  But in general this isn't true, because it ignores the fact that what is unambiguous in one context may be very ambiguous in another.  For example, many learners of English have problems pronouncing the past suffix -ed (except in -ted, -ded) and drop it.  In the sentence I walked there but it was closed, losing the "ed" doesn't make the tense ambiguous (I walk there but it was close), because "was" clearly marks the tense, but if you only say I walked there and it comes out as I walk there, suddenly it's very ambiguous indeed.  The problem gets worse as phrases, clauses and sentences get more and more complicated as you proceed through the language, and as error builds on top of error, language gets less and less accurate.  One of the main ideas in the communicative approach is that you can "get by" with flawed language and that accuracy will take care of itself later on, but by saving up mistakes for later, they militate against improvement, which is a shame for the students....

And finally, language blindness.  This is when you know what is being said or what you want to say, but you can't find the words or the structure.  In translation it happens when the structure you're translating from blocks you from seeing the appropriate target structure, and it's something that you can't think your way out of, because the material you're working from seems only to get stronger when you think about it.  In the situation of conversational corrections, you've understood what the other people are trying to say, but when you try to correct it all you can hear is what they said, and in the end you cannot give them any hints as to what they said wrong.
Incorrect "correction"

And even if you do get corrected, how do you know the correction is correct?
Take a sentence like *I am going walking yesterday.  There are two likely intended sentences: I was going walking yesterday and I am going walking tomorrow.  Now with this sentence, most correctors would offer both options.  However, in general, listening is a subconscious act, so when listening to someone speak we hear only one thing.  If the corrector misunderstands the error, he will obviously give an incorrect form in response.

Also, you have to remember that very few people genuinely know how they speak - most of us only know how we were told we should speak, and I have heard native speakers "correcting" foreigners for using a (descriptively, statistically) correct grammatical form by providing an outdated (prescriptive) school-book form that they themselves don't use.  Or when pressed for a translation, they give something that is almost correct, but it subtley inappropriate.

All in all, correction during conversation is more than a little hit-and-miss.

While I feel that the idea of fossilised errors is a gross exaggeration, it's still better to get started on the right form as soon as possible to build up good habits.

If you rely on conversational corrections to teach you correct grammar, conversations will become a drag.  Maybe not for you (if enjoy the process of puzzling through), but most people don't have the patience to put up with it for long and you'll find yourself going through conversational partners very quickly indeed.  This is fine if you live in an area with lots of speakers of your target language, because you can always just hang about in a bar until another speaker comes along, but if you're trying to maintain a friendship (or even a romantic relationship), the language will soon start to be a barrier to communication.

Overall, it's just much quicker and more efficient to learn in a structured way where one thing leads to (and supports) another, rather than having a scattergun approach of learning whatever comes up even if it is in no way linked to what you already know.

And it is best to get your teaching from an informed speaker of the language - that is to say someone who not only speaks the language, but has studied it and is consciously aware of the subtleties of grammar and usage, of connotations and register differences.  (And yes, that means that sometimes a non-native speaker can be a better teacher than a native.)

1 comment:

Thrissel said...

'Language blindness' is a new and interesting one on me. Does it also apply to single words? For example, trying to translate this very short article into my L1 I stumbled across dispute, deal, imminent, disregard and happen, each taking quite a few seconds before its equivalent surfaced, and I even had to look up measures in a dictionary, although of course I now quite well what it means and opatření is a perfectly common word.