Who Should Correct Our Language Errors?

Who Should Correct Our Language Errors?

When we speak in a foreign language, there is a very high probability that we will make mistakes. We make more mistakes when we first start using the language, and gradually the frequency of these mistakes diminishes. Everyone who learns a foreign language would like to speak as accurately as possible, with the least possible number of mistakes, but how do we get there?


Krashen on Error Correction

Error correction, along with grammar instruction and grammar drills have long been the mainstay of language instruction. In this model, the teacher is the language expert and teaches rules to the students. The teacher then corrects the students as they try to use the language, whether in writing or speaking.

Who Should Correct Our Language Errors? Is it only a teacher's responsibility? Is this really how we learn languages? Stephen Krashen doesn’t think so. An excellent place to read about his theories of language acquisition is his grade book Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition, which available for free download.


In this book, Krashen points out that “Error correction is not of use for acquisition. Acquisition occurs, according to the input hypothesis, when acquirers understand input for its meaning, not when they produce output and focus on form”


Leave It up to the Parents?

It is often said that, when learning our first language, our parent or other adults correct us when we make mistakes and this enables us to eventually speak correctly. But is this really so? Do children learn their language from their parents? If that is the case, then how do the young children of immigrants learn to speak the language of their new country so quickly? The answer is that children do not learn their language from their parents, they learn from their peers, or from people that they interact with. They learn the language from input, from the environment that surrounds them and from trial and error.

Who Should Correct Our Language Errors? So parent correct children's errors?The number of errors that a child can make in the language is simply far too great for the parents to be able to correct them all. The parent may correct a few mistakes, but usually those errors would have self corrected in any case. The vast majority of errors are corrected naturally through interaction with others with whom they have meaningful communication, and receive comprehensible and meaningful input.


This has been my experience as a language learner. I enjoy speaking with language tutors online once I have acquired a sufficient vocabulary to be able to express something. Typically I receive a conversation report from my tutor which I import into LingQ as input, saving key words and phrases. The likelihood is that I will make the same mistakes again and again, but over time I become more and more attentive to my gaps and mistakes and improve. Whether or not the tutor corrects me, it is the process of trying to use the language, of exposing my passive knowledge to the demands of using it, which enables me to discover my gaps. That and continued listening and reading is what improves my accuracy.


There is a condition, however. The  learner needs to be motivated to improve. The learner has to want to pay attention to different aspects of the language that cause him or her difficulty. If this attitude of the learner is present, then self-correction and self-improvement are sure to continue as long as the learner is exposed to the language and has the opportunity to use it. If, on the other hand, the learner is not motivated to do these things, error correction by a teacher will likely not have much effect either. I am sure that all the non-native speakers of English who continue to say “he go”, instead of “he goes” have been corrected tens if not hundreds of times, without any noticeable effect.


Who Should Correct Our Language Errors?


The Dark Side of Error Correction

It is even possible that error correction can have negative consequences. The expectation on the part of the learner that error correction is essential to acquiring the language may discourage the learner from putting enough effort into input activities (listening and reading). The learner may feel that without a teacher he or she cannot learn.


Being constantly corrected may also discourage the learner from participating in natural and compelling conversations in the language. Just as compelling, authentic, comprehensible and interesting input is essential to language acquisition, the same is true for output. If I am talking to someone, I like to feel that my counterpart is interested in what I am saying. If I am corrected every time I make a mistake, it makes me feel that the conversation is artificial, just some kind of learning exercise, not a meaningful exchange of views.


So, in summary, just let people talk, and encourage them to listen and read a lot. The errors will take care of themselves, as long as the learner wants to improve. Who should correct our mistakes? With enough exposure and the will to improve, the errors will gradually fall away by themselves. You don’t believe me? Why not give it a try?


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4 comments on “Who Should Correct Our Language Errors?


Okay, but what do you do after your mistakes ossify? For instance, I spent two years in France, and fluency-wise, my French improved dramatically during that time. I can express anything I want to express, and people understand me. I can also understand pretty much everything I hear, as long as people use slang-free French. (My reading knowledge of French was very high even before I went to France, so that part didn’t change much.) The problem? Nobody ever corrected my mistakes, and so certain mistakes ossified… In fact, I have a feeling that my grammar actually deteriorated while I was in France! (Which makes sense: I needed to communicate, and that’s what I focused on, grammar be darned.) For instance, I largely gave up on the use subjunctive (not 100%, but I use it a lot less than I should), my use of articles is a nightmare, etc. People still understand me beautifully, but what I say is often grammatically incorrect. Assuming I’m motivated to do something about this (which I am), what do I do now?


    I learn Japanese and haven’t learned French but for me MCD format anki cards work well for me and help me to notice things

    example of MCD card for Japanese
    front: 右ひじ左ひじ交互_________見て
    back: に

    I would think this would be helpful for noticing and fixing your French.


      I blank out the word or part of the word (it doesn’t have to be the whole word) that has the grammar thing I don’t have confidence in producing myself.

“The errors will take care of themselves, as long as the learner wants to improve.” The dependent clause of that sentence contains the essential wisdom. It’s worth noting that native English speakers make errors all the time, and yet we go on speaking and don’t let the errors daunt us — in part because we don’t recognize them as errors. Consider the frequent use of the following expressions among otherwise educated people: “I was laying there;” “Between you and I;” “We seen it happen.” There are two questions here: (1) Do these people recognize their errors? and (2) Why do they make these errors in the first place? The answer to the first question is a strong “maybe.” If someone were to ask them to pause and consider their grammar, I think there’s a good chance these people would realize, on reflection, that these forms are incorrect. The answer to the second question is that their teachers and parents “let it slide,” perhaps because they make the same errors. The moral of my sermon here is that I also undoubtedly make English grammar errors from time to time, but the difference is that I have decided to make an investment in my native tongue, such that I try to maintain a consciousness about correct usage, for my sake as well as that of my students, who do indeed look to me for guidance. And if I am vigilant about my English usage, why wouldn’t I strive for the same level of correctness in the foreign languages I study? A big problem is that the longer one repeats errors, the more habituated they become, until the errors sound correct and the correct forms seem alien. Why aspire to such a low bar? To make this more concrete: if a student of Spanish writes “sombrara” instead of “sombrero,” it’s not being harsh or unjust to ask the student to write “sombrero” ten times in the context of simple sentences. The end result is that the student not only remembers the correct spelling, but has hard-wired a new vocabulary word as well. It’s a wholesale return for such a small investment of effort.

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