Corrections in Language Learning…One More Time
I want to continue on the subject of correction because it seems to generate quite a bit of interest from people commenting on my YouTube channel. People say why are you so sensitive about people who correct you and how will people ever improve if they aren’t corrected, these kinds of things.
Now, I apologize that on these rants of mine I don’t have my thoughts necessarily always well organized. It’s all I can do to find the time to sit down here and talk in front of a video, so I’m going to ramble a bit here. The common questions is, number one, why is it that you’re so sensitive. Why don’t you like to be corrected? Well, when I think about it, I like doing things in language learning that are meaningful. I like to listen to things that interest me and when I speak to people I want it to be a meaningful conversation. I don’t like pretending that I’m at the bank, at the train station, in a restaurant, role playing, none of that stuff appeals to me.
When I start speaking to people, as I’m doing now in Romanian, we’re talking about how was your day, how was work, but then we’re talking about Romanian food, we’re talking about Romanian history, Romanian geography, present day Romanian politics, things that interest me so I’m totally into those conversations. To me, the important thing about speaking and output is that you are doing it. It’s the act of immersing yourself in the language, using the language that is the most important. While I’m doing this and searching for words, if I’m corrected I find it quite off-putting. So I don’t like it for that reason and I think most people, if they were honest, don’t like it, unless they’re in a classroom where they feel they’ve paid the instructor to correct them and they’re not getting their money’s worth if the instructor doesn’t correct them.
But if I meet someone here in my daily life in Vancouver who is let’s say an immigrant and we’re having a conversation, let’s say a salesman comes in – this happens – and doesn’t speak perfect English or somebody that I deal with at the store or somewhere doesn’t speak perfect English, it would never cross my mind to correct them. They’re operating in the language. It’s like if I’m at a Korean restaurant, any restaurant, and the waitress speaks to me in English and I’ll correct them no, that’s not how you say it. I mean you just don’t do that because it’s off-putting when people are genuinely trying to communicate. So that’s why I don’t like it.
To me, the big thing about the conversation is that it’s an opportunity for more input. I’m listening to the native speaker and I’m listening for the words that the native speaker uses. At times when I search for words, the native speaker will volunteer the words so I’m learning the words. As content a conversation is tremendously powerful. It’s what I call high resonance because you’re in that discussion and you’re searching for words and maybe the native speaker provides the words and you’re listing to the words they’re using. So it’s very high resonance, very effective input and it’s an opportunity to practice output, but as much as that or more so, it’s a tremendously rich input opportunity. So the more I speak, the more a native speaker speaks, the more natural and flowing our conversation, the more I benefit, the more I am immersed. Language learning is more about immersion than correction or perfection.
So that was the first one, why do I not like being corrected. The second comment I get is how are people going to improve if you don’t correct them? Well, my take on that is how do you know that correcting them improves them? That’s the whole point, we have no proof. The assumption is that correcting people improves them. I think that that’s not true at all because in any language there is so much to learn. It’s not just the tremendous variety of structures and forms that we can use; it’s even the words themselves, the phrases themselves. Phrasal verbs, how many phrasal verbs are there in English? A word that you looked up in the dictionary may not have, in fact, the same meaning or may not be used the same way in another language.
There’s an almost infinite variety of things. You cannot learn all of those things based on feedback and instruction from a native speaker. Those are all things that you have to acquire yourself naturally through a lot of exposure. When you first start out if you read Teach Yourself or whatever, they introduce some concepts. Ninety percent of them are over your head. You can’t deal with these things at first. But as you start to become familiar with some elements, now you can go back again and look at some of the other elements that were introduced that are over your head. So, gradually, as you gain more and more confidence and as long as you remain motivated to improve then you will improve, essentially, on your own not because people correct you.
People cannot possibly correct you for all of the issues that you’re going to come across in the language. In fact, the number of things they can correct is very small and the things they will tend to correct very often are things that are very tenacious as errors. We’ve often mentioned this third-person singular present tense in English. People say ‘he go’ instead of ‘he goes’. I’ve often talked about how Chinese people continue to say ‘my husband she’ because in Chinese they don’t have in speaking a difference between he and she and correcting them is not going to change that. At some point, they have to start noticing it and it has to become part of the way they use the language.
I don’t think that correcting people, in fact, improves them. It may have a minor effect, but primarily, people have to do it on their own. So the question how will they ever improve if you don’t correct them, they do not improve because you correct them. They improve if they put the time and effort into correcting themselves. Those people who have been the most corrected in classrooms and so forth (ESL classes), they often speak the worst and people who have been out exposing themselves to the language, naturally, often speak better. But, still, you have to be motivated to try to improve.
There’s a Vietnamese gardener that comes around our house once every two weeks. He speaks a lot, but he’s never made a particularly concerted effort to work on his language. If I were to correct him when he speaks it would have no impact on him whatsoever, none, zero. If, on the other hand, he undertook to do a lot of reading and listening and focusing in on those structures that he had difficulty with he might improve.
Another part of this is language learning has to come from outside in. You don’t have the language in you and it comes, overwhelmingly, from input. When you’re talking about correction, you’re talking about output first and foremost. If I’m not outputting anything you can’t correct me. The major part of language learning takes place when we are ingesting, taking the language in, because we don’t have the language in ourselves. The language has to come from what native speakers have written or said and so the main thrust in language learning is input.
Contrary to what many people seem to believe, I do not believe that the ‘doing’ part, role playing, speaking, answering questions, drills, all of that, is where you learn the language. You can do those things or not do them, but you learn the language by hearing it, seeing it, noticing it and you don’t have to do a lot of speaking. An example is my Romanian. Overwhelming, I just listen and read and, yeah, when I get to Romania I will do a video in Sudu. I’m going to be in Sudu on the 8th and 9th of June and there’s an international theater festival there, so I’m going to try to shoot some video while I’m in Susu and I’m going to speak some Romanian, but I haven’t spoken very much because the language has to come from outside.
So when you do speak, the main thing is to immerse yourself in speaking, just communicating, listening to what the other person is saying. Don’t turn these opportunities for communication into classroom sessions, into sterile classroom sessions with a lot of correction. It doesn’t help. Research says it doesn’t help, my experience says it doesn’t help. I will say if that’s what you like, if you like to be corrected, by all means, ask people to correct you, but if people don’t ask to be corrected you shouldn’t correct them.
So one more rant on the issue of corrections. I look forward to your comments, bye for now.
This post has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube Channel