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Concourse 2

Understanding error


ooops oh dear

How do you feel about errors?

who cares unhappy

An elementary student you are teaching has made this error.
    *I catched the train to London last week with my friend and his brother.
The error is made in free speech and you have very recently covered the language point in question.
Which of these adjective(s) might, at different times, most typically describe your feelings:


What considerations (L1, level etc.) affect your attitude?


How we view error and how we view learning

If you feel disappointed, angry, frustrated, irritated etc., then it seems that you believe that error is somehow dysfunctional: a failure of the learning process.
If, on the other hand, you feel encouraged, interested or even happy, it could betoken that you feel that making error is just part of the learning process, and a positive one at that.

View 1
Error is to be avoided at all costs in the classroom because language learning is essentially about making good habits and automatising language output.  People learn by repetition of correct models, not by making mistakes or testing hypotheses.  There has been insufficient training in this case of model sentences such as I caught a bus, I caught a train, I caught a tram etc.

View 2
Errors of this sort, in which the student has correctly inserted the -ed ending for the simple past tense in English show that a rule is being acquired.  He or she has hypothesised that the correct past tense ending for the verb catch is the same as for a large number of other verbs in English.  The hypothesis was incorrect in this case but all that needs to be done now is to lead the learner to understand that the rule doesn't work for all verbs in English.  Learners need to understand the limitations and restrictions but acquiring the past tense ending is a positive step on the road to fluency and accuracy.

Which view do you hold?


Testing hypotheses

Look at this exchange between a parent and young child:

Mother: Did Billy have his egg cut up for him at breakfast?
Child: Yes, I showeds him.  (Hypothesis 1)
Mother: You what?
Child: I showed him.  (Hypothesis 2)
Mother: You showed him?
Child: I seed him.  (Hypothesis 3)
Mother: Ah, you saw him.
Child: Yes, I saw him.
Corder, S P (1981: 11)

The point of this is to show that children make hypotheses as they go along and test them to see the reaction.  In this example, the child is making three hypotheses (indicated above).  What are they?  Click when you have an answer.

It is something of a leap to assert that adult learners of a foreign language also consistently make hypotheses like these but it would explain the I catched example, above, wouldn't it?

According to Pit Corder, whose example this is, foreign language learners have to make similar hypotheses all the time.  In particular, humans ask questions like:

  • Are the systems in the language I'm learning the same as they are in the language(s) I know?
  • If they are different, how do they work?

The guide to the similarities and differences between first and second language acquisition has more on this.



This is a key concept and describes where the learners' current language mastery stands on a scale from knowing nothing of the target language to complete mastery.  Diagrammatically, it can be pictured like this:


It is, of course, crucial to know where a learner's interlanguage currently is.  There are four reasons (at least) for this.  Can you come up with them?  Click when you've made a note (or at least thought about it!).

In what follows, you'll need to download a worksheet.
As we go along, it will help you to think up examples of the sorts of errors your learners make in the various categories of error we are looking at.


Categorising error

How systematic?

error 1

Pre-systematic errors are those made with language the learner has not encountered.  For example, a student guessing that a word is similar in meaning to something which looks the same in her language or trying to form a complex sentence with relative clauses that she hasn't yet learned how to do.
Systematic errors are those made while learning or acquiring items in the language.  If, for example, you are teaching that the negative of must have is can't have / couldn't have then you can expect error with the forms because it's non-intuitive that the negative of must have is not mustn't have (as it is in many languages).
Post systematic errors are sometimes called 'slips' because they happen with language the learners have already mastered but are due to carelessness, tiredness or cognitive overload (they have too much else to think about).

Now complete part 1 of the worksheet.  

Productive or Receptive error

error 2 This is an easy category.
Either the error is produced in writing or speaking (it's productive) or in listening or reading (it's receptive).

Which is easiest to spot?

How do you identify if someone has made a receptive error?
Complete Part 2 of the worksheet.  

Is it just me?

error 4 If all or most people in a group are making the same error, how do you deal with it?

If one person is making the same kind of error only, how do you deal with that?
Complete part 3 of the worksheet.  

Is it obvious?

error 5 You can probably guess the distinction here.
Covert errors
occur when, for example, a student says
I have been to London – is that right?
You can't tell, of course, without finding out what the student actually wants to say.
If the learner produces
I have been to London yesterday
then the error is overt and you can decide whether and how to deal with it.
Try part 4 of the worksheet.  

What sort of error is it?

types of error Before we tackle this area, can you make sense of the descriptions of error types here?

Phonological error seems simple enough but what do the others mean?
Do part 5 of the worksheet now and then click here.  

Click here for tests of your understanding of error so far.


Sources of error

It isn't enough to know what sort of error we are dealing with.  We also need to be able to suggest why the error occurred in the first place.
There are three obvious sources.

the learner may simply have never learnt the form of the meaning and is just stabbing in the dark.  This is most common at lower levels because that's where learners' needs often outstrip their abilities to produce language.  For example, if a lower-level learner produces a syntactical error like:
    *If he didn't came to my party I was sad
or a lexical error such as:
    *I did not have informations from that
then the cause may often be an ignorance of how unreal events are expressed in English in the first example or a lack of lexical knowledge concerning countability and the meaning of prepositions in the second case.
Overgeneralising the rule
sometimes, when a 'rule' has been learned, learners will over-extend it.
For example, if you have learned the rule to add -ed to make a past tense, it seems logical to form catched.  Equally, over-extending a rule might lead to the production of wonderfuller.
This source of error is also known as ignorance of rule restriction (i.e., not knowing the limits of the rule's applicability) or analogy (i.e., assuming that a rule which works perfectly well in one utterance will be applicable to a similar one).
First language interference
all learners, especially adult ones, will draw on language(s) they know to try to figure out a new one.  This is most obvious in the area of pronunciation, of course, but occurs frequently in other areas:
Structure: the learner's first language may have a structure that looks similar but means different things.
For example, the German structure of ich habe gesehen [I have seen, literally] often is better translated into English as I saw rather than I have seen.  That's only one reason for finding out a bit about our learners' first languages.
Lexis: many languages, and not only European ones, have words which look the same but have different meanings.
For example, simpatico in Italian means nice or friendly, sensibel in German means sensitive and un smoking in French is a dinner jacket.
There are many hundreds of these so-called false friends.  There's a set of exercises on this site focused on false friends.
Appropriacy: in many languages, such as Greek, it is perfectly acceptable, for example, to go into a shop and state
    I want ...
    Give me ...
with no please to soften the instruction although the form of the verb in the second case will signal that it is marked for politeness.  That will not work well in most English-speaking cultures.
Languages differ in a huge variety of ways and some of the differences are not immediately obvious because interference can result in unnatural rather than patently wrong production.  For example, selecting:
    A bank is on the corner
instead of
    There's a bank on the corner
may not be obviously flawed but is unnatural in English which deploys the anticipatory there-construction much more widely than many languages do.
Teacher-induced error
regrettably, many errors are caused or allowed to persist because of the teacher's behaviour, and materials.  This includes giving learners ambiguous, incomplete or false information.  There is a separate guide to teacher-induced error on this site.

Here's a brief summary of this as a reminder.

sources of error

Related guides
teacher-induced error for the guide to this avoidable error source
first-language acquisition for a guide to some current theories and how they may be relevant to teaching languages
second-language acquisition for a guide to some current theories
feedback which covers dealing with error rather than just analysing it
types of languages for a guide which sets out the structural ways in which languages differ
markedness how items are distinguished across languages varies quite dramatically and is the source of much language which is unnatural when not plain wrong
cognate words for a guide to the area of lexical overlap and differences
false friends this is the link to the learner exercises

Corder, S P, 1981, Error analysis and interlanguage, Oxford: Oxford University Press