English as a second language — learning from mistakes

Richel Langit-Dursin ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 03/15/2008 11:56 AM  |  Opinion

More and more Indonesian schools are using English as the language of instruction. The problem, however, is that English is neither our first nor second language.

As learners of English as a foreign language, we are likely to make grammatical mistakes. Young learners, as I have observed in my two daughters and other students, tend to over-generalize grammar rules. My five-year-old daughter, for example, used to say “mouses” instead of “mice”, “tooths” instead of “teeth”, and “catched” instead of “caught”.

In the teaching of a foreign language, error correction is one of the most controversial and misunderstood issues. Teachers have opposing views of when and how to go about error correction. One view says that teachers should rectify their students’ mistakes right away for them to speak English correctly and achieve English proficiency. This is based on the perspective that if students’ mistakes are not corrected, they will make the same mistakes over and over again.

The other side advocates that errors should not be corrected immediately as mistakes are normal and inevitable during the learning process. Mistakes, according to this view, are part of an active and creative process. No one is exempted from making mistakes, which include slips of the tongue.

Learning a foreign language such as English may be frustrating and difficult for some children and there is always the danger of over-correcting them. When adults such as parents correct every single mistake made by their kids, their children are likely to lose motivation and their flow of thinking will be disrupted.

Based on my observations, error correction is sometimes futile and damaging as it hampers language acquisition and learning. In one incident, a four-year-old girl kept on saying “must to”. Since it is grammatically incorrect, her teachers kept on telling her that she should only say “must”. However, no matter how many times they corrected her, she still said “must to”.

Once, a child was talking to her father and it so happened she mentioned that her “foots are getting bigger”. Hearing foots, the father immediately told his daughter that she should not say “foots”, but “feet”.

When her father corrected her, the daughter just stopped talking and didn’t continue with what she was about to say. In this case, error correction was not only ineffective but also inhibited fluency and hindered the development of communication skills.

Students’ mistakes constitute normal language development. The mistakes show that children are attempting to figure out the patterns or rules that govern the language. What actually looks like a basic mistake in the child’s language can actually be a sign of progress and learning.

When their mistakes are corrected all the time, children lose their confidence. In some instances, they harbor hatred toward the people who always find fault and correct the mistakes in what they are saying.

It is understandable if students sometimes hate teachers who always correct them. As every learner of a foreign language knows, being corrected all the time can be embarrassing, insulting and de-motivating. To other learners of English as a foreign language, a teacher who constantly butts in and interrupts students to correct them can be annoying and disruptive, especially when lack of accuracy does not hamper communication.

As young learners of English as a foreign language, my classmates and I made mistakes. However, there was not an instance where our English teacher explicitly and immediately pointed out our errors. Our teacher never interrupted us in our conversation to say that we were grammatically wrong. What our teacher did, however, was to expand and rephrase what we said in more correct speech.

When one of my classmates said, “we goed to the library yesterday”, our English teacher didn’t tell her bluntly that “goed” was wrong. Instead, he said, “did you say you went to the library yesterday?”

So when and how should teachers correct their students’ mistakes? To answer this question, teachers need to seriously look at their objective. Are they focusing on accuracy or fluency? Teachers should have a clear end in mind and make students aware of what is expected of them.

If fluency is the goal, then error correction can be set aside. Fluency is appropriate during class discussions. In a class discussion, what is important is that students are freely expressing their ideas and making use of their critical thinking skills. Teachers should bear in mind not to stage a learning experience as a fluency task and then assess the students on every single mistake that they make.

On the other hand, if the objective is accuracy, error correction is necessary. Accuracy can be the goal when students are asked to perform a role-play or make a presentation and have been given enough time to prepare. However, in assessing students’ performance, it would be of help to the children if they have an idea of what they are being assessed on.

If teachers have to correct, it would be more effective if they do it in a positive way and explain why it is wrong, thus providing meaningful comments. Likewise, if there are frequent mistakes, teachers can just make a mental note to provide feedback after a certain activity.

Correcting mistakes doesn’t have to be done by teachers alone. Students can rectify their own mistakes. When correcting, the first port of call can be the students themselves. Sometimes, students’ mistakes are merely slips of the tongue and students are aware of the correct version.

Teachers can also involve students in correcting their peers or classmates. They can be asked to make different assessment tools such as rubrics or checklists to correct mistakes. Peer correction or assessment helps to create a positive learning environment as students are made aware that they can learn from one another. Teachers don’t have to be the only source of knowledge.

The writer is the early years and elementary curriculum coordinator of Binus School Simprug, and a postgraduate student of applied English linguistics at Atma Jaya University. She can be reached at mdursin*binus.edu

One thought on “English as a second language — learning from mistakes

    English is a very big language. It’s a language that’s spoken all across the world, and is taught in most countries as a second language. Its influence is seen practically everywhere, as a worldwide lingua franca that helps the world to communicate. Not everyone speaks English of course, and many have rudimentary English skills but lack fluency. Vocabulary is part of language and learning vocabulary to learn language is essential. Learn Vocabulary at https://vocabmonk.com .

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