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Language Learners’ Errors: Approaches and Significance
نویسنده : غلامعلی عباسی - ساعت ۱٠:٥٦ ‎ب.ظ روز ۱۳٩۳/٦/۱٢
 

 

Vali Mohammadi

Abstract

Language learners’ errors were, at a time, thought highly inappropriate and supposed to be avoided by

any means. It is inevitable that learners make mistakes in the process of foreign language learning.

However, the question among teachers is why students go on making the same errors even when such

errors have been repeatedly pointed out to them. Yet not all mistakes are the same; sometimes they seem

to be deeply rooted, but at other times students correct themselves with ease. Thus, researchers and

teachers of foreign languages came to realize that the errors a learner made in the process of learning a

new language are needed to be analyzed carefully, for they possibly held in them some of the keys to the

understanding of second language acquisition.

In this paper, the author is going to: 1) give a historical overview and a theoretical account of the

approaches dealing with errors, 2) give different typologies of errors and provide a framework to study

the errors, and finally 3) offer some implications to teachers and syllabus designers.

Key words: Error, mistake, error analysis, error correction, interlingual transfer, intralingual transfer.

Introduction

For some decades, a vast majority of studies have focused on the nature and process of first language

acquisition and second language learning (Dulay and Burt, 1973, 1974; Hatch, 1978; Larsen-Freeman,

1975). Based on the findings drawn from these studies, the researchers have come to this conclusion that

both first language acquisition and second language learning work in a similar way. Children learning

their mother tongue make a lot of mistakes which is a natural part of language acquisition process. As

they receive different feedbacks from the people around including their parents, caretakers, and peers,

they learn how to produce grammatically and semantically acceptable sentences in their native language.

What a foreign language learner does in operating on the target language is not different from that of a

child acquiring his first language.


 

Vali Mohammadi

Abstract

Language learners’ errors were, at a time, thought highly inappropriate and supposed to be avoided by

any means. It is inevitable that learners make mistakes in the process of foreign language learning.

However, the question among teachers is why students go on making the same errors even when such

errors have been repeatedly pointed out to them. Yet not all mistakes are the same; sometimes they seem

to be deeply rooted, but at other times students correct themselves with ease. Thus, researchers and

teachers of foreign languages came to realize that the errors a learner made in the process of learning a

new language are needed to be analyzed carefully, for they possibly held in them some of the keys to the

understanding of second language acquisition.

In this paper, the author is going to: 1) give a historical overview and a theoretical account of the

approaches dealing with errors, 2) give different typologies of errors and provide a framework to study

the errors, and finally 3) offer some implications to teachers and syllabus designers.

Key words: Error, mistake, error analysis, error correction, interlingual transfer, intralingual transfer.

Introduction

For some decades, a vast majority of studies have focused on the nature and process of first language

acquisition and second language learning (Dulay and Burt, 1973, 1974; Hatch, 1978; Larsen-Freeman,

1975). Based on the findings drawn from these studies, the researchers have come to this conclusion that

both first language acquisition and second language learning work in a similar way. Children learning

their mother tongue make a lot of mistakes which is a natural part of language acquisition process. As

they receive different feedbacks from the people around including their parents, caretakers, and peers,

they learn how to produce grammatically and semantically acceptable sentences in their native language.

What a foreign language learner does in operating on the target language is not different from that of a

child acquiring his first language.

It is inevitable that all learners make mistakes and commit errors. However, that process can be

impeded through realizing the errors and operating on them according to the feedbacks given. The steps

that learners follow lead the researchers and language teachers to realize that if the mistakes and errors of

language learners in constructing the new language system are analyzed carefully, the process of

language acquisition shall be understood. The analysis of errors, thus, has become a field of linguistics in

that sense. The field of language teaching benefits from the findings of linguistics in many cases

including error analysis. As indicated above, what a linguist looks for in understanding the language

learning process contributes a lot to the questions of language teachers. Many teachers complain that

their students are unable to use the linguistic forms they are taught. Lengo (1995) states: “this situation is

due to the teacher’s false impression that output should be an authentic representation of input” (p.20).

This belief ignores the function of intake- that knowledge of language the students internalize. Intake

may be different from the teacher’s syllabus being subject to be internalized.

Error analysis enables teachers to find out the sources of errors and take pedagogical precautions

towards them. Thus, the analysis of learner language has become an essential need to overcome some

problems and propose solutions regarding different aspects of committing errors in the process of

learning.

This paper concerns learners’ errors and approaches to these errors and significance of them.

A Historical Background to Error Analysis

Until the late sixties, the prominent theory regarding the issue of second language learning was

behavioristic, which suggested that learning was largely a question of acquiring a set of new language

habits. Therefore, errors were considered to be the result of the persistence of existing mother tongue

∗ E-mail address: vm1362@gmail.com

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habits in the new language. Consequently, this idea made the researchers of applied linguistics devote

their studies largely to the comparison of the native and the target language in order to make predictions

and explanations about errors. However, errors that were not explained in this way were underestimated.

As a result, all errors whatever their origins, were dealt with by the same technique of further drilling and

exercise.

Error analysis, a branch of applied linguistics, emerged in the sixties to demonstrate that learner’s

errors were not only due to the learner’s native language but also they reflected some universal learning

strategies, this was in sharp contrast to contrastive analysis hypothesis, which considered language

transfer as the basic process of second language learning as suggested by behavioristic theory. Error

analysis, on the other hand, deals with the learners’ performance in terms of the cognitive processes they

make use of in recognizing or coding the input they receive from the target language.

It is to S.P. Corder that error analysis owes its place as a scientific method in linguistics. As Rod Ellis

cites (1994), “it was not until the 1970s that EA became a recognized part of applied linguistics, a

development that owed much to the work of Corder” (p. 48). Before Corder, linguists observed learners’

errors, divided them into categories, tried to see which ones were common and which were not, but not

much attention was paid to their role in second language acquisition. It was Corder who showed to whom

information about errors would be helpful (teachers, researchers, and students) and how.

There are many major concepts introduced by S. P. Corder in his article “The significance of learners’

errors” (1967), among which we encounter the following:

1. It is the learner who determines what the input is. The teacher can present a linguistic form, but this is

not necessarily the input, but simply what is available to be learned.

2. Keeping the above point in mind, learners’ needs should be considered when teachers/linguists plan

their syllabuses. Before Corder’s work, syllabuses were based on theories and not so much on learners’

needs.

3. Mager (1962) points out that the learners’ built-in syllabus is more efficient than the teacher’s

syllabus. Corder adds that if such a built-in syllabus exists, then learners’ errors would confirm its

existence and would be systematic.

4. Corder introduced the distinction between systematic and non-systematic errors. Unsystematic errors

occur in one’s native language; Corder calls these “mistakes” and states that they are not significant to

the process of language learning. He keeps the term “errors” for the systematic ones, which occur in a

second language.

5. Errors are significant in three ways:

To the teachers: They show a student’s progress.

To the researchers: They show how a language is acquired, what strategies the learner uses.

To the learners: They can learn from their errors.

6. When a learner has made an error, the most efficient way to teach him the correct form is not by

simply giving it to him, but by letting him discover it and test different hypotheses.

7. Many errors are due to the fact that the learner uses structures from his native language. Corder claims

that possession of one’s native language is facilitative. Errors, in this case, are not inhibitory, but rather

evidence of one’s learning strategies. Therefore, a primary focus of error analysis is on the evidence that

learners’ errors provide an understanding of the underlying process of second language acquisition.

In this regard, Keshavarz (1997) suggests that the field of error analysis can be divided into two

branches: (I) theoretical, and (II) applied. Theoretical error analysis, as mentioned before, is primarily

concerned with the processes and strategies of language learning and its similarities with first language

acquisition. In other words, it tries to investigate what is going on in the minds of language learners.

Secondly, it tries to decode the strategies of learners such as overgeneralization and simplification, and

thirdly, to go to a conclusion that regards the universals of language learning process whether there is an

internal syllabus for learning a second language or not. Applied error analysis, on the other hand,

concerns organizing remedial courses, and devising appropriate materials and teaching strategies based

on the findings of theoretical error analysis.

Doing Error Analysis

According to Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005) there are five steps in conducting any error analysis study:

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1. Collection of a sample of learner language

2. Identification of errors

3. Description of errors

4. Explanation of errors, and

5. Error evaluation.

Collecting a sample of learner language

Collecting a sample of learner language provides the required data for conducting an error analysis. The

researcher needs to be aware that the nature of the sample that is collected may influence the nature and

the distribution of the errors observed. In collecting this sample, there are some important factors waiting

to be accounted for by the researcher. Table 1.1 shows the factors affecting the learner language.

Factors Description

A Learner

1 Proficiency level Elementary, intermediate, or advanced

2 Other languages The learner’s L1, other L2s

3 Language learning background Instructed, naturalistic, mixed

B Language

1 Medium Oral or written

2 Genre e.g., conversation, narrative, essay

3 Content The topic of the discourse

C Production

1 Unplanned The discourse is produced spontaneously.

2 Planned The discourse is produced after planning or under

conditions that allow for careful online planning.

Table 1.1. Factors affecting learner errors in samples of learner language (adopted from Ellis and

Barkhuizen, 2005, p.58)

Identification of Errors

Identifying an error goes beyond explaining what an error is. However, as linguists pay attention to the

distinction between an error and a mistake, it is necessary to go over the definition of the two different

phenomena.

According to Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2002), a learner makes a

mistake when writing or speaking because of lack of attention, fatigue, carelessness, or some other

aspects of performance. Mistakes can be self-corrected when attention is called. Whereas, an error is the

use of linguistic item in a way that a fluent or native speaker of the language regards it as showing faulty

or incomplete learning. In other words, it occurs because the learner does not know what is correct, and

thus it cannot be self-corrected.

To distinguish between an error and mistake, Ellis (1994) suggests two ways. The first one is to check

the consistency of learner’s performance. If he sometimes uses the correct form and sometimes the

wrong one, it is a mistake. However, if he always uses it incorrectly, it is then an error. The second way

is to ask learner to try to correct his own deviant utterance. Where he is unable to, the deviations are

errors; where he is successful, they are mistakes.

Description of Errors

A number of different categories for describing errors have been identified. Firstly, Corder (1973)

classifies the errors in terms of the difference between the learners’ utterances and the reconstructed

version. In this way, errors fall into four categories: omission of some required elements; addition of

some unnecessary or incorrect elements; selection of an incorrect element; and misordering of the

elements. Nevertheless, Corder himself adds that this classification is not enough to describe errors. That

is why he includes the linguistics level of the errors under the sub-areas of morphology, syntax, and

lexicon (Corder, 1973).

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Ellis (1994) maintains that “classifying errors in these ways can help us to diagnose learners’ learning

problems at any stage of their development and to plot how changes in error patterns occur over time”

(p.19). This categorization can be exemplified as follows:

Omission:

Morphological omission *A strange thing happen to me yesterday.

Syntactical omission * Must say also the names?

Addition:

In morphology * The books is here.

In syntax * The London

In lexicon * I stayed there during five years ago.

Selection:

In morphology * My friend is oldest than me.

In syntax * I want that he comes here.

Ordering:

In pronunciation * fignisicant for ‘significant’; *prulal for ‘plural’

In morphology * get upping for ‘getting up’

In syntax * He is a dear to me friend.

In lexicon * key car for ‘car key’

An error may vary in magnitude. It can include a phoneme, a morpheme, a word, a sentence or even a

paragraph. Due to this fact, errors may also be viewed as being either global or local (Brown, 2007).

Global errors hinder communication. They prevent the message from being comprehended as in the

example below:

* I like bus but my mother said so not that we must be late for school.

On the other hand, local errors do not prevent the message from being understood because there is

usually a minor violation of one segment of a sentence that allows the hearer to guess the intended

meaning as follows:

* If! hear from her, I would let you know.

The final group is the two related dimensions of error, domain and extent. Domain is the rank of

linguistic unit from phoneme to discourse that must be taken as context in order for the error to be

understood, and extent is the rank of linguistic unit that would have to be deleted, replaced, supplied or

reordered in order to repair the sentence. This suggestion by Brown (2007) is parallel with Corder’s other

categorization of overtly and covertly committed errors (1973). Overt errors are unquestionably

ungrammatical at the sentence level and covert errors are grammatically well-formed at the sentence

level but are not interpretable within the context of communication. For example, “I’m fine, thanks.” is a

correct sentence but if it is given as an answer to the question of “How old are you?” it is a covertly

committed error.

Explanation of Errors:

Explaining errors involves determining their sources in order to account for why they were made. Ellis

and Barkhuizen (2005) believe that determining the sources of errors from the point of second language

acquisition (SLA) is the most important stage in an error analysis. As there are many descriptions for

different kinds of errors, it is inevitable to move further and ask for the sources of errors. It has been

indicated in the fist part of the present paper that in contrastive analysis errors were assumed as being the

only result of interference of the first language habits to the learning of second language. However, in the

field of error analysis, it has been understood that the nature of errors implicates the existence of other

reasons for them to occur. Then, the sources of errors can be categorized within two domains: (I)

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interlingual transfer, and (II) intralingual transfer. Interlingual transfer is a significant source for language

learners. Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2002) defines interlingual errors as

“being the result of language transfer, which is caused by the learner’s first language”. However, this

should not be confused with behavioristic approach to language transfer. Error analysis does not regard

them as the persistence of old habits, but rather as signs that the learner is internalizing and investigating

the system of the new language.

Interlingual errors may occur at different levels such as transfer of phonological, morphological,

grammatical and lexico-semantic elements of the native language into the target language. These

different levels can be explained with some possible errors of Persian students learning English as

foreign language.

At phonological level, the sounds that do not occur in Persian cause the students to mispronounce

some of them. They attempt to pronounce ‘th’ of ‘thank you’ as‘t’ of ‘tea’; or ‘th’ of ‘they’ as ‘d’ of

‘dean’. Or else, since Persian does not allow consonant clusters at the beginning of a word, learners tend

to place a vowel in front of them as in the example of *'estation’, instead of ‘station’.

At morphological level, Persian students tend to omit the plural suffix at the end of the word as

Persian does not put it in adjectival phrases indicating numbers as in the following examples:

* three book

* Three student is coming.

It is also possible that students transfer some lexical items to the target language. For instance, the

students tend to copy their L1 and literally say *"I am going to give my chemistry test.", instead of; "I am

going to take my chemistry test."

Interferences from the students’ own language is not the only reason for committing errors. As Ellis

(1994) states, some errors seem to be universal, reflecting learners’ attempts to make the task of learning

and using the target language simpler. Use of past tense suffix ‘-ed’ for all verbs is an example of

simplification and overgeneralization. These errors are common in the speech of second language

learners, irrespective of their mother tongue.

Intralingual errors result from faulty or partial learning of the target language rather than language

transfer. They may be caused by the influence of one target language item upon another. For example,

learners attempt to use two tense markers at the same time in one sentence since they have not mastered

the language yet. When they say: *‘He is comes here.’, it is because the singularity of the third person

requires ‘is’ in present continuous, and ‘-s’ at the end of a verb in simple present tense. In short,

intralingual errors occur as a result of learners’ attempt to build up concepts and hypotheses about the

target language from their limited experience with it. Learners may commit errors due to this reason in

many ways as in the following examples:

* He made me to smile.

* I want learning English. * The meat smells freshly.

* Doctors always give us good advices. * I don't know why did he go.

Error Evaluation

Error evaluation is not so much a stage in the analysis of leaner errors as a supplementary procedure for

applying the results of an error analysis (Ellis and Barkhuizen, 2005). It involves determining the gravity

of different errors with a view to deciding which one should receive instruction. According to these

authors, planning for an error evaluation study involves the following steps:

1. Select the errors to be evaluated (these could be all the errors identified in the error analysis or, more

likely, a subset of them). The errors are usually presented in either complete sentences or a continuous

text.

2. Decide the criteria on which the errors are to be judged. The most commonly chosen criterion is

gravity.

3. Prepare the error evaluation instrument. This will consist of a set of instructions, the erroneous

sentences or text, and a method for evaluating the errors. Common methods used are ranking or Likert

scale.

4. Choose the judges. It is best to have at least two. The more judges, the better, as this increases the

reliability and generalizability of the results.

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Pedagogical Implications of Error Analysis

Studies regarding errors are carried out in order to (I) identify strategies which learners use in language

teaching, (II) identify the causes of learner errors, and (III) obtain information on common difficulties in

language learning as an aid to teaching or in development of teaching materials (Richards and Schmidt,

2002). In fact, the first two are also useful for the third aim, which includes the teaching-learning process.

Thus, it can be inferred that language teaching cannot stand away from the findings of error analysis.

Students’ errors have always been of interest and significance to teachers, syllabus designers and test

developers. This may lead educators to devise appropriate materials and effective teaching techniques,

and construct tests suitable for different levels and needs of learners. Hence, the implications of error

analysis to language teaching can be viewed from the perspective of language teachers and syllabus

designers.

Implications for Foreign Language Teachers

Teachers can benefit from the findings of error analysis in many ways. Errors tell the teacher how far

towards the goal the learner has progressed and what remains for him to learn (Corder, 1981). Following

the student’s progress, the teacher is able to carry on his studies in accordance with what the learner

needs to know and what part of the teaching strategy to change or reconstruct. Errors are a means of

feedback for the teacher reflecting how effective he is in his teaching style and what changes he has to

make to get higher performance from his students. Furthermore, errors indicate to the teacher the points

that need further attention. Additionally, errors show to the teacher how they should be treated when their

sources are identified correctly.

Implications for Syllabus Designers

Syllabus design of an English teaching course is a very important component of teaching-learning

process. There are many factors to be considered to decide on what to teach to what level and age group.

In this respect, errors are significant data for syllabus designers as they show what items are important to

be included or which items need to be recycled in the syllabus. Keshavarz (1997) maintains that an errorbased

analysis can give reliable results upon which remedial materials can be constructed. In other words,

analysis of second language learners’ errors can help identify learners’ linguistic difficulties and needs at

a particular stage of language learning. Corder (1973) reminds of de Sassure’s words that language is a

‘self-contained system’, in which each part is systematically related to another part. Then learning of

some new items requires the learning of all items that are already studied. Eventually, this requires the

necessity for a cyclical syllabus in language learning.

Error Correction and Error Analysis

At the outset of this paper, the question “why do students make mistakes or commit errors?” was posed.

Now, some other questions arise: How should teachers correct students? What kind of feedback should

they give? Does each error need to be treated? Error analysis has an important role in finding the answers

to these questions.

In general, the teacher’s job is to point out when something has gone wrong and see whether the

student can correct himself, then, to find out what the student says or writes is just a mistake, or it is a

global or a local error. However, the technique of correction is not simply presenting the data repeatedly

and going through the same set of drills and exercises to produce the state of overlearning. On the

contrary, it requires that the teacher understand the source of the errors so that he can provide appropriate

remedy, which will resolve the learner’s problems and allow him to discover the relevant rules. Thus, the

source of the error is an important clue for the teacher to decide on the sort of treatment. Harmer (2007)

suggests three steps to be followed by the teacher when errors occur. The teacher first listens to the

students, then identifies the problem, and finally puts it right in the most efficient way. Corder (1973)

states that knowledge of being wrong is only a starting point. Skill in correction seems to lie in

determining the necessary data to present to the learner and what statements, descriptive or comparative,

to make about it.

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Since no teacher has time to deal with all the errors of the students, a hierarchy should be established

for the correction of errors according to the nature and significance of errors. In such a hierarchy, priority

should be given to errors which may affect communication and cause misunderstanding. If a teacher

knows about all these items, he can direct himself accordingly. For example, Brown (2007) suggests that

local errors as in the following example usually need not be corrected as the message is clear and

correction might interrupt a learner in the flow of productive communication:

* I gave she a present.

On the other hand, global errors need to be treated in some way since the message is not comprehended

clearly:

* Daddy my car happy tomorrow buy.

Errors in pluralization, use of articles, tenses, etc., are less important than errors regarding word order,

the choice of placement and appropriate connectors in terms of the comprehensibility of the sentence.

Therefore, it is implied that priority in error correction should be given to global errors in order to

develop the students’ communication skills. The knowledge of error analysis enables the teacher to

monitor the students’ errors in this frame and take precautions where needed.

Different kinds of tasks may require a different treatment. The reaction of the teacher towards errors

and the type of feedback to be given is usually determined by the position of the error in the objective of

the task. Oral works are crucial in terms of corrections and feedback time. For oral works, it is usually

recommended that students making mistakes during a fluent speech not be interrupted, but be reminded

of the mistakes and talk about the reasons at a later point in time. The type of the feedback- form or

content- should be decided on according to the goal of the teaching. If the goal is to make the students

practice a certain grammatical point, it may be necessary to give a form feedback. Or else, if a

pronunciation item is being practiced, the teacher should correct the related mistakes without interrupting

the speaker (Ur, 1996).

For correcting written works, it is accepted that the teacher should not correct the students’ mistakes

directly but instead, should put marks indicating there is something wrong with that sentence, word, or

punctuation. There are symbols to show the kind of mistake that teachers use. For example, it is better to

write ‘sp’ for spelling mistakes near the wrong word, to write ‘rw’ for the sentences need to be written

once again than writing the correct form. Thus, students are able to correct themselves looking for the

source of their errors.

Conclusion

This paper has been devoted to introduce what error analysis is and what sort of relationship it has with

language teaching, and what implications it provides for language teaching studies. The aims of the

studies regarding error analysis can be summarized as follows:

􀂾 Error analysis identifies the strategies that language learners use.

􀂾 It looks for the answer to the question ‘why do learners make errors?’

􀂾 It determines the common difficulties in learning and helps teachers to develop materials for

remedial teaching.

In short, error analysis has two-fold aims including theoretical and practical aspects. Theoretical

objectives contribute to the language studies and the most obvious practical use of the error analysis is to

the teacher. Errors provide feedback about the effectiveness of his teaching techniques and show him

what part of the syllabus he has been following needs further attention. They enable him to decide on

whether to move on to the next item or not.

Studying the learner language with respect to learners’ errors, is something that teachers have always

done for very practical reasons. Through the results of tests and examinations, the errors that learners

make are a major element in the feedback system of the teaching-learning process. For this reason, it is

important that the teacher should be able to not only detect and describe the errors from a linguistic point

of view, but also understand the psychological reasons for their occurrences. Therefore, the diagnoses

and treatment of errors is one of the fundamental skills of the teacher.

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Correction of errors is as important as identification and description of them. In fact, the last two are

preliminary for error treatment. The sources and the sorts of the errors are determiners for the sort of

feedback. In conclusion, the inevitable existence of errors has led researchers to investigate them and find

out the natural steps for language learning. Findings of error analysis function as a facilitator in language

teaching in many ways only if the teacher is aware of them and able to make use of them in the teaching

process appropriately.

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