Despite what you may have been told at school, errors and mistakes are an important part of learning. This is especially true in the language they are studying and applying the rules and skills which they are developing for themselves. In order to address issues with learner language, we should think about where these issues come from in order to know how to solve them sensitively and efficiently.
Errors and mistakes - what is the difference?
In a general way, there are two types of inaccuracy in learners’ language: errors and mistakes. This is an important distinction, and can help us to address them appropriately in context.
An error is an inaccurate form produced by a learner in an area of language which they are not familiar with - they form this language wrongly because they simply don’t know the right way of saying it. However, a mistake is more of a ‘slip’ - the learner gets something wrong despite having learnt it, or claiming to know the correct form.
As you can see, there is a big difference between these two types of inaccuracy, and they must be dealt with in different ways. A mistake may be easily corrected by prompting the student to think again about what they just said, but no amount of prompting will enable a student to correct a mistake that they don’t know about; they simply don’t have the resources to inform the correction, so the word, phrase or form will require some amount of teaching (or re-teaching) to correct.
L1 transfer and interlanguage errors
Errors and mistakes can be caused by different aspects of learners’ existing knowledge and language experience. Different languages form ideas very differently, some using similar structures to mean different things, and most using very different structures to mean the same thing.
Util an advanced level of study, most learners’ second language use is in some way informed by their first language. Either translation is used as a strategy for producing English, which leads to obvious problems, or features of the learner’s first language creep into their second language use (think typical pronunciation problems in students from specific language backgrounds, or persistent grammar problems that speakers of certain languages display).
These are known as L1 transfer errors, where something from the learner’s first language (a specific sound or word order) transfers into the second language being used. Knowing whether an error comes from a pattern of a learner’s first language can inform the way in which we address that problem. Ask the learner how they would say the phrase or structure in their language, and highlight that it is formed differently in English. This can help the student to pull back from their first-language patterns and rethink how they produce second-language features.
On the other hand, there are aspects of English which do not relate to a student’s first language at all, so must be studied from a zero starting point in a second language (think Arabic vs. English writing systems, or Chinese-root and Latin-root word formation). In these cases, it is insecurity with the new structures of English themselves which cause the inaccuracies as the learner develops their skills with new language. These interlanguage errors are easier to fix, as they are not based so strongly upon such longstanding assumptions about the nature of language and communication.
So, before we consider how to correct what we hear or read from our students, it is important to think about the origins of the errors and mistakes that learners make, and their relationship to the features of English versus their first language. This will inform the correction strategy that you choose to use.
The next article in this series focuses on the different strategies that we can implement to address the errors that we hear, and how to get students rethinking and correcting their language effectively.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.