Language Learners

Approaches and Significance

Mohammad Reza Asghari

December 2008



Our students graduate from Pre-university centers with six years of English studies behind them, yet many of them have difficulty in constructing basic English sentences. They graduate with errors in many areas of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Our daily experiences in our classes reveal that students very often produce so many predictable errors of different kinds. If errors are predictable, then specific causes can be discovered and formulated.

This article reviews a brief literature of studies done regarding learners’ errors, sources of error, and error correction in language teaching. Then the article mostly focuses on the importance of Iranian students errors with some information regarding the different probable types of learner errors.



You learn to swim by first jumping into water and flailing arms and legs until you discover that there is a combination of  movements a structured pattern- that succeeds in keeping you afloat and propelling you through the water. The first mistakes of learning to swim are giant ones, gradually diminishing as you learn from making those mistakes. Learning to swim, to play tennis, or to read all involve a process in which success comes by profiting from mistakes, by using mistakes to get feedback from the environment, and with that feedback to make new attempts that successfully approximate desired goals.

Mistakes, misjudgments, miscalculations and erroneous assumptions form important aspect of learning virtually any skill or acquiring information. Human learning is fundamentally a process that involves the making of mistakes. Language learning, in this sense, is like any other human learning. Learners make mistakes in the process of acquisition, and that process will be impeded if they do not commit errors and then benefit from various forms of feedback on those errors. Researchers and teachers of foreign languages come to realize that the mistakes a person made in this process of constructing a new system of learning needed to be analyzed carefully.


Mistakes and Errors

Mistakes and errors are technically two different phenomena. A mistake refers to a performance error that is either a random guess or a slip, so it a failure to utilize a known system correctly. However an error is a noticeable deviation from the adult grammar of a native speaker reflects the competence

of the learner. An error cannot be self-corrected, according to James (1998:83), while mistakes can be self-corrected if the deviation is pointed out to the speaker.

The fact that learners do make errors, and that these errors can be observed, analyzed, and classified to reveal something of the system operating within the learner, led to a surge of study of learners errors, called error analysis.


Sources of Errors

Interlingual transfer: The beginning stages of learning a second language are especially vulnerable to interlangual transfer from the native language, or interference. In these early stages, before the system of the second language is familiar, the native language is the only previous linguistic system upon which the learner can draw.

Intralingula transfer: Once learners have begun to acquire parts of the new system, more and more interalingual transfer- generalization within the target language- is manifested. As learners progress in the target language, their previous experience and their existing subsumers begin to include structures within the target language itself. In such utterances as Does John can sign?” or He goed. overgeneralizations or negative transfer can be seen.


Students Error in Different Teaching Methods

In the grammar translation method, having the students get the correct answer is considered very important. If students make errors or dont know an answer, the teacher supplies them with the correct answer.

In the direct method, the teacher, employing various techniques, tries to get students to self-correct whenever possible.

In the audio-lingual method student errors are to be avoided if at all possible through the teachers awareness of where the students will have difficulty and restriction of what they are taught to say.

In the silent way, student errors are seen as a natural, indispensable part of the learning process. The teacher uses students errors as a basis for deciding where further work is necessary and works with the students in getting them self-correct. If the student cannot self-correct, the peers try to correct him and if they cannot, the teacher himself provide them with the correct language.

In desuggestopedia, at beginning levels errors are not corrected immediately if meaning is conveyed. When errors of form occur, the teacher uses the form correctly later on during class.

In community language learning, the teacher repeats correctly what the learner has said incorrectly, without calling further attention to the error.


In total physical response, the teacher should be tolerant of the errors and only correct major errors.

In communicative approach, errors of form are tolerated and are seen as a natural outcome of the development of communication skills.


Error analysis

In the middle of twentieth century, one of the most popular pursuits for applied linguistics was the study of two languages in contrast. contrastive analysis as Fisiak (1981) puts it, may be roughly defined as a subdiscipline of linguistics concerned with the comparison of two or more languages in order to determine both the differences and similarities between them. Error analysis,

as a subcategory of contrastive analysis, is defined as the study and analysis of

the errors made by second language learners. Error analysis may be carried out in order to:

a  identify strategies which learners use in language learning b  try to identify the causes of learner errors

c  obtain information on common difficulties in language learning, as an aid to teaching or in the preparation of teaching materials.

Error analysis developed as a branch of applied linguistics in the 1960s, and set out to demonstrate that many learner errors were not due to the learners mother tongue but reflected universal learning strategies. Error analysis was therefore offered as an alternative to contrastive analysis. Attempts were made to develop classifications for different types of errors on the basis of different processes that were assumed to account for them. A basic distinction was drawn between intralingual and interlingual errors. Intralingual errors were classified as overgeneralizations (errors caused by extension of target language rules inappropriate contexts), simplifications(errors resulting from learner producing simpler linguistic rules that those found in the target language), developmental errors (those reflecting natural stages of development), communication-based errors (errors resulting from strategies of communication), induced errors (those resulting from transfer of training), errors of avoidance (resulting from failure to use certain language structures because they are thought to be too difficult), or errors of overproduction (structures being used too frequently). Attempts to apply such categories have been problematic however, due to the difficulty of determining the cause of errors. By the late 1970s, error analysis had largely been superseded by studies of interlanguage and second language acquisition.


Stages of Learner Language Development

1. The first is a stage of random errors in which the learner is only vaguely aware that there is some systematic order to particular class of items. Inconsistencies like John cans sing, John can to sing, and John can singing, all said by the same learner within a short period of time, might indicate a stage of experimentation and inaccurate guessing.

2. The second, or emergent, stage of learner language finds the learner growing in consistency in linguistic production. The learner has began to discern a system and to internalize certain rules. These rules are not correct by target language standards, but they are nevertheless legitimate in the mind of the learner. The learner is still unable to correct errors when they are pointed out by someone else.

Learner: I go New York.

Native Speaker: Youre going to New York? Learner: [doesnt understand] What?

3. a third stage is truly systematic stage in which the learner is now able to manifest more consistency in producing the second language. While those rules that are stored in the learners brain are still not all well-formed, they are more internally self-consistent and, of course, they more closely approximate the target language system.

Learner: Many fish are serving in the restaurants. Native Speaker: [laughing] The fish are serving?

Learner: [laughing] Oh, no, they are served in the restaurants!

4. Stabilization is the final stage in the development of learner language. Here the learner has relatively few errors and has mastered the system to the point that fluency and intended meanings are not problematic. The learner can self-correct. At this stage learners can stabilize too fast, allowing errors to slip by undetected, and thus manifest fossilization of their language which is defined as the relatively permanent incorporation of incorrect linguistic forms


Error Treatment

One of the major issues involved in teaching is the manner in which teachers deal with student error. Should errors be treated? How should they be treated? When? In order to answer these questions lets have a look at the

feedback model offered by Vigil and Oller (1976).



Red                                              (-)    Abort


Yellow    (0)                                               Continue

Green                                                                                        (+)








Affective and cognitive feed back

The green light of affective feedback mode allows the sender to continue

attempting to get a message across; a red light causes the sender to abort such attempts. The traffic signal of cognitive feedback is the point at which error correction enters. A green light here symbolizes noncorrective feedback that says I understand your message. a red light symbolizes corrective feedback that causes the learner to make some kind of alternation in production.

Fossilization may be the result of too many green lights when there should have been some yellow or red lights.

The most useful implication of Vigil and Ollers model for a theory of error treatment is that cognitive feedback must be optional in order to be effective. Too much negative feedback often leads the learner to shut off their attempts to communication. Too much positive cognitive feedback serves to reinforce the errors of the learner.

The task of the teacher is to discern the optional tension between positive and negative cognitive feedback: providing enough green lights to encourage continued communication, but not so many that crucial errors go unnoticed, and providing enough red lights to call attention to those crucial errors, but not so many that the learner is discouraged from attempting to speak at all. What

we must avoid at all costs is the administration of punitive reinforcement, or correction that is viewed by learners as an affective red light- devaluating, dehumanizing, or insulting them.


Hierarchy of Difficulty

By hierarchy of difficulty a teacher can make a prediction of the relative difficulty of a given aspect of the target language. Clifford Partor (1967) captured the essence of grammatical hierarchy in six categories of difficulty. Partor’s hierarchy was applicable to both grammatical and phonological features of language. The six categories, in ascending order of difficulty, are listed below:

Level 0- Transfer: No difference or contrast is present between two languages. The learner can simply transfer (positively) a sound, structure, or lexical item from native language to the target language.

Level 1- Coalescence: Two items in the native language become coalesced into essentially one item in the target language.

Level 2- Underdifferenciation: An item in the native language is absent in the target language.

Level 3- Reinterpretation: An item that exists in the native language is given a new shape.

Level 4- Overdifferentiation:  A new item entirely must be learned.

Level 5- Split: One item in the native language becomes two or more in the target language. Here are some examples in Persian and English:


Difficulty                                                                                                                                                                                                          Native anguage                                                             Target Language

Level                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             (L1)                                                                                                                                           (L2)

0 Transfer                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 [ب]                                                                                                                                                  [b]

1 Coalescence                                                                                                                                                                                                       اد ،                           uncle

2 Underdifferenciation                                                                                                                                                                           [ق]                                                                                                                                                   [  ]

3 Reinterpretation                                                                                                                                                                                                      [ل]                                                                                                                  [l]clear , [l]dark

4 Overdifferenciation                                            [   ]                                    [0] 

5 Split                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 وا                                  he , she


Common Basic Errors Made By High School and Pre-university Students


A. Errors in grammatical structures

1. use of singular forms of nouns instead of plural ones

*many book 1

*seven apple


2. use of a instead of  an

*a apple

*a expensive car


3. use of incorrect form of some nouns

*a few mans


4. Problem with the use of different tenses (The student cannot match the meaning with the appropriate form)

*I am go to school at 7 every morning

* Is she speaks English?=

 * Did they found the book

* Does Farshid plays football



5. Problem with the use of there is instead of there are

*There is some books on the desk.



1- (*) shows ungrammatical form


6. Problem with the use of it as a dummy subject

*Weather good is.

*To Tehran is 15 kilometers.


7. Problems with stating ownership

*brother of Ramin= .*olJ Jدl -


8. Problems in understanding sentences in which direct object comes before indirect object.

I sent him a letter.

I bought her a dictionary.


9. Problems in understanding and talking about measurement

The pool has 4 meters . 4 (Student cannot complete the sentence.) The table has2 meters .

4 (Student cannot complete the sentence.)


10. Problems with the use of appropriate preposition

*He is interested to Physics.

*They enjoyed from the trip.

*Reza hates from her.


11. Problems with the relative clauses

*Do you know who is he?

*I dont know where is he going.



12. Problems with the use of verbs

*I want go.

*Mary enjoys to play tennis.


B. Errors in vocabulary

1. Assigning a measure quality to a noun

*  The deep of the pool is very

*Her tallness is about 170 centimeters


2. Questions about the measure quality of the objects

*What is the long of the table?

*How much has the pool deep


3. Simple degree comparison

*The tallness of Mina and Shirin is one.

*The tallness of Mina is like the tallness of Shirin.

*Peter is taller from David.


4. Problems with idioms

*Dont be tired. = . *23/"  +     B

5. Problems in understanding collocations and two word verbs


C. Errors in Pronunciation

Some of the deviant pronunciation goes back to the lack of the exact or near sound in Persian and some goes to the learners inadequate skill in finding the relationship between letters and their sound corresponding representatives in English. Although the pronunciation of the words can be located in the dictionaries, it also needs enough expertise on the side of the learner to deal with them. In case of pronunciation, if we accept students fluency rather than accuracy, and accept that producing American English sounds are easier than


British ones e.g. instead of saying  [f?u] or [hi?] or [fPt] it is easier for them to say [fou] or [hir] or [f@:t].


1. Problems with the consonants

Students have problems in producing consonants like

 [0] as in thick, healthy, and underneath

 [ô] as in they,  weather, and breathe

 [M]  as in working, going, beginning


2. Problems with the vowels

Students have problems in producing vowels like

 [u] as in  put, full and book

 [A] as in come,  front,  up

 [3:] as in work, further, occur


3. Problems with long and short vowels

Students have problem identifying the difference between long and short vowels like

 [i:] as in seat and [i] as in happy and [i] as in sit

 [u:] as in boot and [u] as in actual and [u] as in put


4. Problems with stress

Students didnt understand the stress pattern in English and as a result they cannot follow it in their utterances. The most difficult part is when two different parts of speech of a word have different stress patterns.


academy [?!kzd-?-mi] noun                                                                                                                                                          academic [$zk-?!dem-ik] adjective

increase [in!kri:s] verb                                                                                                                                                                  increase [!in-kri:s] noun


5. Problems with intonation

It seems that the students language production doesnt follow any intonation patterns and their utterances have a kind of random and haphazard form of intonation. In some cases, their intonation patterns exactly follow those of their mother tongue.


*You are not in our class, are you?

*Is he a teacher?



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