09 October 2013

A wrod on errors

Since I started learning languages, I've had lots of discussions, both online and face-to-face, about the nature of errors. What always surprised me was how blasé many people were about errors -- including teachers.

There are two particular philosophies that I find quite worrying.


"Errors take care of themselves."

The belief expressed by many is that there's no need for any systematic correction of errors, as the learner will work them out given enough time and contact with the language.

In the extreme case, this means no correction whatsoever, leaving the student to pick it up from input.
In the more moderate case, the teacher is expected only to give minimal correction, relating to the very specific error.

But isn't it self-evident that this is not the case? Hasn't everyone met at least one immigrant who still speaks with errors that are systematic and predictable? It's easy to dismiss this as an immigrant "language bubble", with the immigrant living and socialising within his minority community, but that only works in a major urban area, where there is enough of a concentrated population for clique community to form. But when you get to a rural community, and there's only one or two minority families in the area, why is it that a pensioner who has lived in the country for half his life still sounds decidedly foreign? And not just in accent, but in language patterns too?

Errors do not take care of themselves.

So on to the second:

"Errors don't matter - native speakers make mistakes too"

This one I've heard in many situations, but the most potentially damaging of these is in the learning of minority languages, because in those instances, it is argued that a learner who has failed to learn correctly is somehow equal to a native speaker.

This is a pretty insidious leap of logic, and confuses two issues.

First up, you have the distinction between two classes of errors: systemic errors where the speaker doesn't know the correct structure or word; and performance errors, or "slips", where the speaker stumbles during speech, despite being perfectly comfortable with the correct form.

Then we've got that hoary old chestnut of "bad grammar". Apparently, when we split our infinitives, or end a sentence with a preposition, or use "who" for a grammatical object, we're natives making errors. Well, no. People "break" these rules all the time, so they are in fact not errors. At worst, they are variant forms and therefore a correct form; at best they are the most common forms, hence the correct form.

In truth, the only type of error a native can make is a slip, a performance error, because a native has a full internal model of their language (in a particular dialect), assuming we are talking about someone without a mental or learning disability.

As many linguists say: there is no such thing as a common native error.

Non-native errors are real, and informative

But common non-native errors do exist, and we do a disservice to ourselves and/or our students by ignoring them, as errors provide a very useful insight into what's wrong with a learner's internal model of the language.

The main inspiration for this post was an error I noticed recently in my own French.

It was something along the lines of *ça ne me rien dit, which should've been ça ne me dit rien. I noticed the mistake immediately, and what I said was the corrected version, but my brain had initially formed the sentence incorrectly.

Why? What was the underlying cause of the error?

For those of you who aren't familiar with French, basic negatives traditionally consist of two parts: the particle ne before the verb and any clitic pronouns, and a second particle (pas=not, rien=nothing, jamais=never etc) after the verb. Or rather, I should say "after the first verb", which is more correct, even if some teachers don't bother to go that far.

You see, in French, there is very often only one verb -- where we add "do" in the negative (I do not know), the French don't (je ne sais pas -- compare with the archaic English I know not).

As high school had drummed this into me in simple (one word) tenses, I initially had great difficulty in correctly forming compound verb structures -- I would erroneously place the "pas" after the final verb:
*je ne peux voir pas instead of je ne peux pas voir
*je n'ai vu pas instead of je n'ai pas vu

That was a diagnosable error, and having diagnosed it, I consciously worked to eliminate it, and now I have no problems with ne... pas.

And yet I made this mistake with the placing of jamais, even though it's the exact same structure... and when I made this mistake, I recognised that it was something I struggle with frequently. Furthermore, I make that mistake with every negative word except "pas".

So I have a diagnosis for this error: my internal model has incorrectly built two structures where it should have created one, because a native speaker has only one. It is clearly, therefore, a non-native error.

(Actually, there's a longer story about a series of errors and corrections, but let's keep it short, shall we?)

Taking action...

What can we do as teachers?

Well, it's not easy, but we have to monitor our students constantly to identify consistent errors. Moreover, we have to look out for apparently inconsistent errors -- I say "apparently" inconsistent, because there really is no such thing as an inconsistent error. If it appears inconsistent, it means that the learner has done what I did with French negatives: used two rules where one should be used. It is then the teachers job not to correct the broken rule, but to guide the student to use the correct rule.

The more you spot these errors, the more you'll see them recurring in different students, and you'll find that they're actually pretty common errors. The fixes you implement for your students will feed into your initial teaching as a way to avoid the errors in the first place, and everyone wins in the long-term.

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