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Source Of Errors In Language Learning Research English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5490 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Errors are integral part of language acquisition. The phenomenon of error has long interested SLA researchers. In a traditional second language teaching situation, they are regarded as the linguistic phenomena deviant from the language rules and standard usages, reflecting learner’s deficiency in language competence and acquisition device. Many teachers simply correct individual errors as they occur, with little attempt to see patterns of errors or to seek causes in anything other than learner ignorance. Presently, however, with the development of linguistics, applied linguists, psychology and other relevant subjects, people’s attitude toward errors changed greatly. Instead of being problem to be overcome or evils to be eradicated, errors are believed to be evidence of the learners’ stages in their target language (TL) development. It is through analyzing learner errors that errors are elevated from the statue of “undesirability to that of a guide to the inner working of the language learning process” (Ellis, 1985,p 53) In the field of SLA, there have been three influential approaches to errors with a general movement from approaches emphasizing the product, the error itself, to approaches focusing on the underlying process under which the errors are made.

The analysis of error sources has been regarded as a central aspect in the study of learner errors. Researchers believe that the clearer the understanding of the sources of learners’ errors, the better second language teachers will be able to detect the process of L2 learning.


Making errors is the most natural thing in the world and it is evidently attached to the human beings. But, how do we define error? There are different definitions of the word as Ellis explains “learners make errors in both comprehension and production, the first being rather scantly investigated. All learners make errors which have a different name according to the group committing the error. Children’s errors have been seen as “transitional forms”, the native speakers’ ones are called “slips of the tongue” and the second language errors are considered “unwanted forms” (George 1972).

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We use the term “error” to refer to a systematic deviation from a selected norm or set of norms. According to Lennon (1991) an error is “a linguistic form or combination of forms which in the same context and under similar conditions of production would, in all likelihood, not be produced by the speakers ‘native speaker’s counterparts”. On one hand, it was considered to be a sign of inadequacy of the teaching techniques, something negative which must be avoided, and on the other hand it was seen as a natural result of the fact that since by nature we can’t avoid making errors, we should accept the reality and try to deal with them.

The error-as-progress conception is based on the Chomsky’s idea that a child generates language through innate universal structures. So, using this symbolic code, one can have access to different pieces of knowledge not as something mechanically learned but as mentally constructed through try and error. The idea is now that the second language learners form hypotheses about the rules to be formed in the target language and then test them out against input data and modify them accordingly.

There is an approach which concerns error as being the result of social-cognitive interaction. This means that the error implicitly carries a social norm as well as cognitive process. The error also carries a social and cultural component which makes it different in different societies.

Cultural differences in the error

Previous research has shown that cultural differences exist in the susceptibility of making fundamental attribution error: people from individualistic cultures are prone to the error while people from collectivistic cultures commit less of it (Miller, 1984). It has been found that there is a differential attention to social factors between independent peoples and interdependent peoples in both social and nonsocial contexts: Masuda and his colleagues (2004) in their cartoon figure presentation experiment showed that Japanese’s judgments on the target character’s facial expression are more influenced by surrounding faces than those of the Americans; whereas Masuda and Nisbett (2001) concluded from their underwater scenes animated cartoon experiment that Americans are also more likely than Japanese participants to mark references to focal objects (i.e. fish) instead of contexts (i.e. rocks and plants). These discrepancies in the salience of different factors to people from different cultures suggest that Asians tend to attribute behavior to situation while Westerners attribute the same behavior to the actor. Consistently, Morris & Peng (1994) found from their fish behavior attribution experiment that more American than Chinese participants perceive the behavior (e.g. an individual fish swimming in front of a group of fish) as internally rather than externally caused. One explanation for this difference in attribution lies in the way people of different cultural orientation perceive themselves in the environment. Particularly, Markus and Kitayama (1991) mentioned how (individualistic) Westerners tend to see themselves as independent agents and therefore prone themselves to individual objects rather than contextual details.

in the second language teaching/ learning process the error has always been regarded as one of the most generally known approaches concerning the error throughout human history is to consider it a negative effect or result, even worth to be punished. According to Corder (1967):

A learner’s errors then, provide evidence of the system of the language that he is using. They are significant in three different ways: first to the teacher, in that they tell him is he undertakes a systematic analysis, how far towards the goal the learner has progressed. Second, they provide the researchers with evidence of how language is learned or acquired. Third they are indispensible to the learner himself because he can regard the making of errors as a device used in order to learn. The sources of error might be psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, epistemic or residing in the discourse structures. Richards(1971),when trying to identify the causes of competence errors he came up with three types of errors: interference errors, which reflect the use of elements from one language to the other, intralingual errors, subdivided into errors due to overgeneralization, or to ignorance of rules restriction, which is incomplete application of the rules, or finally due to the false concept hypothesis, which demonstrate the general characteristics of rule learning and third developmental errors when the learner builds hypothesis about the target language based on limited experience.

Assuming a term “hierarchy of errors”, Burt and Kiparasky (1974) suggest that there is a difference between global and local errors. They say:

Global mistakes are those that violate rules involving the overall structure of a sentence, the relations among constituent clauses, or, in a simple sentence, the relations among major constituents. Local mistakes cause trouble in a particular constituent, or in clause of a complex sentence.

They claim that global errors are more serious and rank higher in the error hierarchy than local ones, and they should be corrected prior to all others in language classrooms. Accordingly, errors in tense and aspect are regarded as local errors. They may be minor errors, for they may not cause grave breakdowns in communication. However, they are extremely common mistakes among second language learners of English and very much worth investigating since tense and aspect represent one of the most essential parts of English grammar.

Corder (1967) goes a step further to propose different terminologies for these two kinds of errors and stresses that we must make a clear distinction between mistakes and errors; the former refers to non-systematic performance errors of chance circumstances, whereas the latter can be defined as “the systematic errors of the learner from which we are able to reconstruct his knowledge of the language to date”. In the following discussion, the analysis focuses on competence errors:

There are two major approaches to analyzing errors committed by a target language learner.

Contrastive Analysis (CA), Error Analysis (EA). “Theoretical base of CA lies in Behaviorist Learning Theory; while the EA is closely related with the emergence of Interlanguage Theory” (Ellis, 2005)

Behaviorist learning theory accounts of errors:

The behaviorist learning theory illustrates the TL learning is a mechanical process of habit formation. Habits entail ‘over-learning’, which ensures that learning of new habits as a result of proactive inhibition. Thus, the challenge facing the L2 learner is to overcome the interference of L1 habits. Basing on the habit formation, contrastive analysis sought to identify the features of the L2 that differed from those of the L1 so that learners could be helped to form the new habits of the L2 by practicing them intensively. Most errors made by L2 learners were the result of differences between L1 and L2 structure. (Martin 1996)

Interference, the CA insists, is the result of unfamiliarity with the rules of a TL and psychological causes, such as inadequate learning (Swan, 2001). ‘Transfer’ can be positive or negative: linguistic features of the L1 that are similar to those of the TL will facilitate learning (positive transfer); those aspects of the L1 that are different to the TL grammatical and phonological system will hinder SLA and cause the learner to make numerous production errors(negative transfer). Thus difference between the L1 and L2 create learning difficulty which results in errors, while the similarities between them facilitate rapid and easy learning (Ellis, 1985 cited Corder). According to behaviorist learning theory, both types of transfer are the outcome of automatic and subconscious use of old habits in new learning situations (Dulay, Burt &Krashen)

Rod Ellis (1985) assesses, ‘errors, according to the theory, were the result of non-learning, rather than wrong learning’. By comparing the L1 with TL, differences could be identified and used to predict areas of potential errors. The idea of the error as an effect to be avoided has been especially supported by behaviorism, being considered an obstacle to language learning. To them error has been a symptom of ineffective teaching or as evidence of failure and they believed that when they occur they are to be remedied by provision of correct forms; that is to say, use of intensive drilling and over-teaching. It was also believed that interference takes place whenever there is a difference between native mother tongue and the target language. A hypothesis based on Lado’s suggestion in linguistic across cultures where he states “in comparison between native and foreign language lies the key to ease all difficulties in foreign language learning” (Lado, 1957)

2. Interlanguage (IL) theory accounts of errors

(i) Selinker (1972) coined the term ‘interlanguage’ to refer to the systematic knowledge of an L2 which is independent of both these learner’s L1 and the target language. The term has come to be used with different but related meanings:

To refer to the series of interlocking systems which characterize acquisition

To refer to the system that is observed at a single stage of development

To refer to particular L1, L2 combinations. Other terms that refer to the same basic idea are ‘approximate system’ and ‘transitional competence’.

(ii) Interlanguage is the type of language produced by second and foreign language learners who are in the process of learning a language, whose errors are caused by several different processes. These include:

Borrowing patterns from the mother tongue.

Extending patterns from the target language

Expressing meanings using the words and grammar which are already known from Richards, Jack et al (1992).

(iii)Interlanguage refers to the separateness of a second language learners system, a system that has a structurally intermediate status between the native and target language. Interlanguage is neither the system of target language nor the system of the native language, but instead falls between the two; it is a system based upon the best attempt of learners to provide order and structure to the linguistic stimuli surrounding them. By gradual process of trial and error and hypothesis testing, learners slowly and tediously succeed in establishing closer and closer approximations to the system used by native speakers of the language.

(iv)Rod Ellis (2005, 54) views Error Analysis as being based on emergence of IL theory, that is known to be used to explain effectively the errors committed in SLA processes. Slinker (1972) tried to ‘find a way to explain the errors that some students make, have nothing to do with their foreign language; for example a Spanish speaker, an Arabic speaker and a Japanese speaker might all make the same mistake in English which was not related to their respective languages’. According to Slinker, L2 learners go through a process of making and testing hypotheses about the target language. They begin with knowledge about language in general, gained from their native language, and move toward the target language. Bit by bit, they readjust their mental model of the new language, improving their communicative competency in that language. Successful hypotheses become mental constructions that correspond to the rules of the new language. Brown(1993) viewed ,”truly successful students make the journey to a high level of competency in the target language, while less successful students become fossilized somewhere along the IL continuum”. For around 35 years Selinker has viewed learner’s errors as evidence of positive efforts by the learner to learn a new language. This view of language learning allowed for the possibilities of learners making deliberate attempts to control their own learning and, along with theories of cognitive processes in language learning. Errors are indispensable to learners since the making of errors can be regarded as “a device the learner uses in order to learn”. A modern definition of language transfer is provided by Slinker (1992): “language transfer is best thought of as a cover term for a whole class of behaviors, processes and constraints, each of which has to do with CLI (Cross Linguistic Influence), the influence and use of prior linguistic knowledge, usually but exclusively native language knowledge. Selinker (1992) pointed two highly significant contributions that Corder made: “that the errors of a learner, whether adult or child, are not random, but are in fact systematic and are not negative or interfering in any way with learning a TL but are, on the contrary, a necessary positive factor, indicative of testing hypothesis”. In 1994 Gass and Slinker defined errors as “red flags” that provide evidence of the learner’s knowledge of the second language. The learner’s developing knowledge of second language may have characteristics of the learner’s native language, characteristics of the second language, and some characteristics which seem to be very general and tend to occur in all or most interlanguage systems. Interlanguages are systematic, but they are also dynamic, continually evolving as learners receive more input and revise their hypotheses about the second language.L2 learner’s process through an interlanguage, which is an independent knowledge of L1 and L2 system. Interlanguage Is systematic, because the learner selects the rules systematically, learners bases plans on the rule system, in the same way as the native speaker bases on the internalized knowledge of L1 system.

(iv)One of the crucial contributions of IL was its underlying assumption that the learner’s knowledge is integrated and systematically reorganized with previous knowledge of the native language. By a gradual process of trial-and-error or hypothesis testing, learners slowly and tediously succeed in establishing closer approximations to the system used by the native speaker of the language.

The characteristics of IL are described by many researchers as follows:

Permeable, in the sense that rules that constitute the learners’ knowledge at any one stage are not fixed, but are open to amendment(Ellis1985:50)

Dynamic, in the sense that L2 learner slowly revises their variable interim systems to accommodate new hypothesis about the TL system.

Systematic, in that L2 learner’s IL is rule-governed, that is, the learner bases his performance plans on his existing rule system much the same way as the native speaker bases his plans on his internalized knowledge of the L1 system.

The variable shape of interlanguage

The concept of interlanguage has had a major impact on the field of second language acquisition, studies on interlanguage focus on the linguistic and psychological aspects of second language acquisition research. I will first outline how the interlanguage assumption developed .since the interlanguage concept is not only important for the development of the student’s grammar system; I will then explore how it applies to other components of language. I will also focus on the consequences of the concept for the teacher and his work in the classroom. Before the 1960s language was not considered to be a mental phenomenon. Like other forms of human behavior language is learnt by processes of habit formation. A child learns his mother tongue by imitating the sounds and patterns he hears around him. By approval or disapproval, adults reinforce the child’s attempts and lead the efforts to the correct forms. Under the influence of cognitive linguists this explanation of first language acquisition was criticized. Language can’t be verbal behavior only since children are able to produce an infinite number of utterances that have never heard before. This creativity is only possible because a child develops a system of rules. A large number of studies have shown that children actually do construct their own rule system, which develops gradually until it corresponds to the system of the adults. There is also evidence that they pass through similar stages acquiring grammatical rules. Through the influence of cognitive linguists and first language acquisition research the notion developed that second language learners, too, could be viewed as actively constructing rules from the data they encounter and that they gradually adapt these rules in the direction of the target language. However wrong and inappropriate learner’s own language system, they are grammatical in their own terms, since they are a product of the learner’s own language system. This system gradually develops toward the rule-system of the target language. The various shapes of the learner’s language competence are called interlanguage. This draws to the fact that the learner’s language system is neither that of his mother tongue nor that of the second language, but contains elements of both. Therefore, errors need not be seen as signs of failure only, but as evidence of the learner’s developing system. While the behaviorist approach led to teaching methods which use drills and consider errors as signs of failure, the concept of interlanguage liberated language teaching and paved the way for communicative teaching methods. Since errors are considered a reflection of the students’ temporary language system and therefore a natural part of the learning process, teachers could now use teaching activities which did not call for constant supervision of the student’s language. Group work and pair work became suitable means for language learning.

A brief review of approaches to analyses of errors

Contrastive Analysis (CA) Contrastive analysis is an approach generated from behaviorist learning theory. Through CA applied linguists sought to use the formal distinctions between the learners’ first and second languages to predict errors. The basic concept behind CA was that a structural picture of any language could be constructed which might then be used in direct comparison with the structural picture of another language. Through a process of ‘mapping’ one system onto another, similarities and differences could be identified. Identifying the differences would lead to a better understanding of the problems that a learner of the particular L2 would face. (Corder , 1983). CA stresses the influence of mother tongue in learning a second language in phonological, morphological, lexical and syntactic levels. It holds that L2 would be affected by L1. Here, language is taken as a set of habits and learning as the establishment of new habits, a view sprung from behaviorism, under which language is essentially a system of habits. In the course of language learning, L1 learning habits will be transferred into L2 learning habits. Therefore, in the case of L1 transfer into L2, if structures in the MT have their corresponding structures in the TL and L1 habits can be successfully used in the L2, learners would transfer similar properties successfully used in the L2, learners would transfer similar properties successfully and that would result in positive transfer. Contrastively, in the case of negative transfer or interference, certain elements of the MT have no corresponding counterparts in the TL, L1 habits would cause errors in the L2 and learners would transfer inappropriate properties of L1. CA places the environment as the predominant factor in SLA, while learners are believed to play only a passive role in accepting the impositions of the environment. We must not forget that there are numbers of errors made by language learners seem to be unrelated to the learner’s native language. According to SLA researchers non-interference errors were more pervasive in learner performance than CA were ready to recognize. Dulay and Burt (1973) studied the errors made by Spanish-speaking children learning English as an L2 and claimed that all of the learner’s errors had collected, 85% were “developmental” (non-interference), 12% were unique and only 3% were results of L1 interference.

Primary tenets of CA are:

Prime cause of difficulty and error in foreign language learning is interference coming from the learner’s native language.

Difficulties are chiefly due to differences between the two languages

The greater the difference s, the more acute the learning difficulties will be

The results of a comparison between the two languages are needed to predict th e difficulties and errors which will occur in learning the target language

What needs to be taught is discovered by comparing the languages and subtracting what is common to them. (Corder, 1981)

3. Error analysis (EA)

It is defined as the study of linguistics ignorance, the investigation of what people do not know and how they attempt to cope with their ignorance, by James (2001).Error analysis was first introduced by Fries (1945) and Lado (1957) who have claimed that foreign or second language learners’ errors could be predicted on the basis of the differences between the learners native and second languages. They have also suggested that where the aspects of the target language are similar to those of the learner’s native language, learning will be easy; otherwise, it will be difficult and second language learners are expected to make errors .The field of error analysis in SLA was established in the 1970s by S. P. Corder and colleagues. A widely-available survey can be found in chapter 8 of Brown (2000). Error analysis was an alternative to contrastive analysis, an approach influenced by behaviorism through which applied linguists sought to use the formal distinctions between the learners’ first and second languages to predict errors. Error analysis showed that contrastive analysis was unable to predict a great majority of errors, although it’s more valuable aspects have been incorporated into the study of language transfer. A key finding of error analysis has been that many learner errors are produced by learners making faulty inferences about the rules of the new language. This is the examination of those errors committed by students in both the spoken and written medium. Corder, who has contributed enormously to EA, writes this:

“The study of error is part of the investigation of the process of language learning. In this respect it resembles methodologically the study of the acquisition of the mother tongue. It provides us with a picture of the linguistic development of a learner and may give us indications as the learning process.”

Error analysts distinguish between errors, which are systematic, and mistakes, which are not. Corder(1967) made use of Chomsky’s the “competence versus performance” distinction by associating errors with failures in competence and mistakes with failures in performance. In his view, a mistake occurs as the results of processing limitations rather than lack of competence. It signifies L2 learners’ failure of utilizing their knowledge of a TL rule. They often seek to develop a typology of errors. Error can be classified according to basic type: omissive, additive, substitutive or related to word order. They can be classified by how apparent they are: overt errors such as “I angry” are obvious even out of context, whereas covert errors are evident only in context. Closely related to this is the classification according to domain, the breadth of context which the analyst must examine, and extent, the breadth of the utterance which must be changed in order to fix the error. Errors may also be classified according to the level of language: phonological errors, vocabulary or lexical errors, syntactic errors, and so on. They may be assessed according to the degree to which they interfere with communication: global errors make an utterance difficult to understand, while local errors do not. In the above example, “I angry” would be a local error, since the meaning is apparent.

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From the beginning, error analysis was beset with methodological problems. In particular, the above typologies are problematic: from linguistic data alone, it is often impossible to reliably determine what kind of error a learner is making. Also, error analysis can deal effectively only with learner production (speaking and writing) and not with learner reception (listening and reading). Furthermore, it cannot account for learner use of communicative strategies such as avoidance, in which learners simply do not use a form with which they are uncomfortable. For these reasons, although error analysis is still used to investigate specific questions in SLA, the quest for an overarching theory of learner errors has largely been abandoned. In the mid-1970s, Corder and others moved on to a more wide-ranging approach to learner language, known as interlanguage.

Error analysis is closely related to the study of error treatment in language teaching. Today, the study of errors is particularly relevant for focus on form teaching methodology.

EA emphasizes on the significance of errors in learners’ IL system, Brown (1994) may be, carried out directly for pedagogic purposes.

Carl James (1998) viewed,” EA developed out of the belief that errors indicate the learner’s stage of language learning and acquisition.th learner is seen as an active participant in the development of hypotheses regarding the rules of the target language just as a young child learning the first language. Errors are considered to be evidence of the learner’s strategy as he or she builds competence in the target language. These errors are defined as global which inhibit understanding and local which do not interfere with communication”.

Error analysis has been criticized as being an inefficient tool for studying the way second language learners develop their target language. It is argued that error analysis deals with the learner’s productive competence rather than the receptive one, and it is also an imperfect instrument for categorizing errors and explaining them.

In the book ‘ Error and Interlanguage’ written by Pit Corder, he stated that various classifications of these error systems have been developed by error analysis researchers, three of which can be helpful for the teacher and are as follows.

Pre-systematic; errors occur before the language learner has realized any system for classifying items being learned; the learner can neither correct nor explain this type of error.

Systematic; errors occur after the learner has noticed a system and error consistently occurs; learner can explain but not correct the error. This classification relies on three major groups: (1) interference errors; (2) intralingual errors; (3)development errors.

Interference errors are caused by the influence of the native language, in presumably those areas where the languages differ markedly. Intralingual errors originate with the structure to TL itself. The complexity of language encourages over-generalization, incomplete application of rules, and the failure to learn conditions for rule application. Development errors reflect the student’s attempt to make hypotheses about the language from the native language.

Post-systematic; errors occur when learner is consistent in his or her recognition of systems; can explain and correct the error.

The following steps are distinguished in conducting an EA: “collection of a sample of learner language; identification of errors; explanation of errors; error evaluation” (Ellis cited in 2005)

Richards (1971) focused on the intralingual and developmental errors observed in the acquisition of English as a second language and further classified them into four categories:

(i) Overgeneralization; covering instances where the learners create a deviant structure on the basis of his experience of other structure of the TL.

(ii)Ignorance of the rule restriction, occurring as a result of failure to observe the restrictions or existing structures

(iii) Incomplete application of rules, arising when the learners fail to fully develop a certain structure required to produce acceptable sentences

(iv) False concepts hypothesized, deriving from faulty comprehension of distinctions in the TL.

from the analyses of errors to the practice of error correction

We know that in traditional classroom instruction is laid on accuracy, errors frequently corrected because the teacher thinks the error as a thorn in his/her flesh. Yet with the understanding of IL theory, the role of error correction has changed. Errors are considered natural products in language learning and in fact reflect the modes of learners’ developing system.

What are the sources and causes of Errors?

The following factors are identified as the source and causes of Errors

Mother tongue interference

Wilkins (1972) observes:

“When learning a foreign language an individual already knows his mother tongue, and it is this which he attempts to transfer. The transfer may prove to be justified because the structure of the two languages is similar-in that case we get ‘positive transfer’ or ‘facilitation’- or may prove unjustified because the structure of the two languages are different- in that case we get ‘negative transfer’- or ‘interference’.

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