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  1. 1. FOCUS PageFOCUS Page 85Error Analysisand InterlanguageAbstract:This paper is concerned with a briefdiscussion on both Error Analysis Theoryand Interlanguage Theory. According to theauthor, Error Analysis Theory based on theanalysis of the learners’ errors made in theirlearning process, and Interlanguage Theorybased on the analysis of the features oflearner language, are of crucial significanceand implications to both English learningand teaching. Yet there still exist someproblems with the description of thelearners errors. On the basis of thediscussion concerning learner language, theauthor considers what attitude we shouldtake towards the learners’ errors and putsforward some possible suggestions forremedial teaching.Key Words:error analysis; interlanguage; learnerlanguageThe significance of learners’ errors andjustifications of error analysisLearners’ errors were of no significance atall in the pre-scientific era when languageteachers concentrated their efforts on thelearning of the correct forms of the targetBy Meng Zhang - Associate Professor of English Education and Head of theForeign Language Department at Zhengzhou Teachers College inZhengzhou City, Henan Province, China.
  2. 2. Page FOCUSPage 86 FOCUSlanguage by the learners. It came of no availto make much fuss about errors as the beliefgenerally held at that time among teachersand linguists was that it was teachingmethodology that should be improved iflearners made errors. It was considered thatBad teaching probably gave rise to errors bylearners, and if the teaching methodologyimproved to perfection, errors would beavoided and the learners would be enabledto learn that pure and accurate form of thetarget language. Another attitude towardslearners’ errors was that errors were simplyinevitable in the learning process and whatcounted most was to design some means todeal with such errors. Accordingly, therewould be no need to identify the sources oferrors or the possibility of giving learners’errors their own right as a system. At thetime when contrastive analysis prevailed inthe field of applied linguistics and learners’errors were identified as the interference ofthe mother tongue of the learner with thetarget language they were learning.According to the Contrastive AnalysisHypothesis, errors probably arise wherethere are great differences between thelearner’s mother tongue or any previouslyacquired language and the language he orshe is trying to acquire. The errorsthemselves are interference or intrusion ofthe mother tongue and they have to beovercome in the learner’s progressivelearning until they are completelyeradicated. Such negative attitudes towardslearners’ errors are not inconsistent with thebehavioristic perception. The behavioristicnotion of language learning is that offormation of correct habits from thereinforcement of the certain plausibleresponse to stimulus, in the light of which“errors were predicted to be the result of thepersistence of existing mother tonguehabits in the new language” (Corder,1981,10). Such persisting habits harm thevery learning process, namely, the habitformation process, and should beeliminated immediately to prevent theirformation in the new language. Thetendency for immediate error correction isstrong in the teaching practice ofaudiolingualism. It was not until the latesixties that people began to gain a newinsight into learners’ errors. Strong evidencefrom researches in psycholinguistics hasshown that the learners’ errors are regular intheir patterns and rule-governed. Studyingof learners’ errors could throw some light onhow learners process language input as theerrors themselves could be to some extentrepresentative of the learners’ intake,namely, how much the learners have learntand how much they have yet to learn.Therefore, the justification of error analysiscould be made for two orientations: first,pedagogical justification, it providesopportunity for a systematic means oferadication; second, theoretical justification,it is part of the systematic study of thelearners’ language (Corder; 1981).According to Corder, learners’ errors aresignificant in three different ways. First, forteachers, the learners’ errors could tell themhow far towards the goal the learner hasprogressed and, consequently, whatremains for him to learn. Secondly, forresearchers the errors provide evidence ofhow language is learnt or acquired and whatstrategies or procedures the learner isemploying in his discovery of language.Thirdly for, learners, committing errors is a
  3. 3. FOCUS PageFOCUS Page 87way the learner has of testing hishypotheses about the nature of language heis learning (Corder; 1981). In modernlanguage teaching and learning, there hasbeen a shift of focus from the preoccupationwith teaching (particularly explicit grammarteaching) to identification of the learners’communicative needs in language learning.The concept of learner-centeredness hasgained its momentum in the overalllanguage teaching and learning. In light ofthe new tendency, an adequateunderstanding of what processes, in whichthe learners engage themselves for the taskof learning a second or foreign language, areattributable to the very fulfillment of thatlearning tasks by the learners are of crucialsignificance to decision making concerningdevelopment of teaching materials as inputand providing conditions that are facilitativeof the learning. In the Chomskyan notion oflanguage acquisition, the second languagelearners experience the same process offormulating hypotheses about the targetlanguage they are learning. Errors by thelearners in the language production are thatthe learner reveals his underlying knowledgeof the newly acquired language. However,while what is going on in the learner’spsyche when he or she tries to producesentences basing on his or her owngrammar is hard to observe, his or herlanguage production (or performance) couldprovide observable data for illuminating thatinnate competence in the learner. If weacknowledge that learners’ errors aresystematic and that the learner’s language isindependent of either the mother tongue orthe target language, then it would bejustifiable to say that the study of errors bylearners as well as the learner’s language isof great value to the understanding oflanguage learning and even of languageitself.Defining errors: variety of fociWhen applied linguists come to tackleerrors, practical problems arise as definingerrors is not in any sense easier thandefining learning. Selinker (1972) simplydiscarded the concept of “errors” byviewing the language used by the learnersas a whole language system, for which hecoined the term ‘interlanguage’, implyingthat such language is a continuum on theone end of which there is the mother tongueor any previously acquired language and onthe other there is the target language. Theinterlanguage shares the characteristics oftwo social dialects of the languages.For the sources of this language systemSelinker identified four possible areas oftransfer that might shape the structure ofinterlanguage: transfer of one’s nativelanguage or other languages the learner hasalready acquired, transfer of training,transfer of communication, and transfer ofstrategy. Nemser coined the term‘approximative system’ for the language thelearner is using, implying that the learner isengaged in a progressive process in thedirection of the target language. CorderLanguage AInterlanguageTargetLanguage
  4. 4. Page FOCUSPage 88 FOCUSwould regard the learner’s language as adialect (or idiosyncratic dialect) which isbased on the ‘transitive competence’ of thelearner. He used the term due to twoconsiderations: firstly, “any spontaneousspeech intended by the speaker tocommunicate is meaningful, in the sensethat it is systematic, regular, describable interms of a set of rules”. Secondly,“sentences of that language areinsomorphous with some of the sentencesof his target language, and have the sameinterpretation” (Corder; 1981). According toCorder, “two languages which share somerules of grammar are dialects”; thedifferences between an idiolect andidiosyncratic dialect would be that anidiolect “possesses rules drawn fromoverlapping social dialects but does notpossess any rules which are not rules of anyone of these dialects”.Set of rules Set of rules ofof language B language AFor idiosyncratic dialect, “some of the rulesrequired to account for the dialect are notnumbers of the set of rules of any socialdialect; they are peculiar to the language ofthat speaker” (Corder; 1981). A learner’slanguage is not the only type of idiosyncraticdialect; according to Corder there are alsodeliberately deviant, such as poetic texts,for which the author is supposed to knowthe rules of the language but chooses not toobey them; pathologically deviant, such asthe language of aphasics who are supposedto know the rules of the language beforesymptoms of their diseases take effect ; andinfant learning his mother tongue. For errorsthemselves, Corder believed distinctionmust be made between the deviancy fromthe learner’s language, which Corder calledperformance errors or mistakes and areaccessible to automatic self-correction andshould not count as errors, and those which“reveal his underlying knowledge of thelanguage to date” and are not likely to beself-corrected by the learner himself sincethey are systematic and regular. However, ifwe think that the learner’s language issystematic and has its own grammar andrules, we have to admit that whatever thelearner utters when he or she tries tocommunicate in his or her language is legaland genuine in terms of his or herinterlanguage. Every utterance he or sheproduces is grammatical and perfect exceptfor some performance mistakes or slips oftongue or pen. Moreover, even if we try toidentify errors in the utterances by thelearner, the criterion applicable would still bevery vague, by the fact that thedetermination of an error should be basedon the situational context of the specificutterance. A well-formed sentence may stillbe erroneous or inappropriate in thecontext. Corder (1981) argued that whateverthe surface form or apparentappropriateness of a learner’s utterances,none are utterances in the target language.In other words, he is not speaking the targetlanguage at any time, but a language of hisown, a unique idiolect, which no doubtshares many features of the target language.The only solution proposed by Corder is that“every utterancy of the learner must beregarded as an acceptable utterance in histransitional dialect. That is to say, every
  5. 5. FOCUS PageFOCUS Page 89sentence has to be analyzed in erroranalysis process. Then the major task of thelinguist is to recognize the structures orconstructs that are not in accordance withthe rules of the target language andreconstruct them to provide someexplanations.The process of error analysisAccording to Corder, error analysis can beroughly divided into three stages:recognition of idiosyncracy, accounting for alearner’s idiosyncratic dialect, andexplanation. Corder has also pointed outthat in the process of error analysis,concentration only on superficially ill-formedsentences (overtly idiosyncratic) is notenough. Those that are well-formed butinappropriate relating to the context mustalso be dealt with. Such sentences Cordercalled “covertly idiosyncratic” cannot beinterpreted ‘normally’ in context. Bothovertly idiosyncratic and covertlyidiosyncratic sentences have to beanalyzed. The three processes in describingthe learner’s language are regularization,standardization, and de-contextualization.The process of regularization is an attemptto restructure “an utterance in order toeliminate the sorts of results of theadventitious failures of performance alreadyreferred to under the heading of slips of thetongues”. And standardization would be to“restructure the speaker’s utterances toremove the systematic variation betweenutterances from different individuals due topersonal and sociocultural factors.” De-contextualization is the process of“interpreting the speaker’s message orintentions” (Corder:33).The most importantstage here is explanation. It ispsycholinguistic, as it tries to explain howand why the learner’s language is what it is.Corder justified the third stage that “wecannot make any principles used by hisidiosyncratic sentences to improve teachingunless we understand how and why theyoccur”.(Corder: 24)One explanation is that the idiosyncraticdialect is the result of interference themother tongue. And such interferenceposes hindrance to learner’s acquiring thehabits of the second language. In thisperception, the idiosyncratic sentences arebut “evidence that the correct automatichabits of the target language and not yetbeen acquired” (Corder:25).Then it is only amatter of methodological improvement forthe final eradication of all the errors (thehabits in the second language). The otherexplanation, according to Corder, is that“language learning is some sort of data-processing and hypothesis-forming activityof a cognitive sort”. And the learners makefalse hypotheses about the rules of thetarget language in their languageproduction. Then the efforts should be madetowards enabling the learner to “reformulatea hypothesis more in accordance with thefacts of the target language (Hockett 1948,quoted by Corder:25). According to thisview, learner’s errors are not negativehindering forces, rather, they are inevitableand necessary parts of the second languagelearning. Therefore, if we can have anadequate description of the idiosyncraticdialect and provide plausible explanations,we would be able to provide facilitativeconditions for the learners to formulatehypotheses about the rules of the targetlanguage.
  6. 6. Page FOCUSPage 90 FOCUSVarieties of errors: acceptability andappropriatenessIn the learner’s idiosyncratic dialect, onesentence could be well formed, in terms ofthe target language-based criterion, butdenies appropriate interpretation in thecontext. Here the problems ofappropriateness arise when we try to decidewhich sentence or phrase is idiosyncraticand which one is not. Generally, there aretwo kinds of appropriateness. First, thelearner’s utterance must be of the truthvalue concerning its referential relationship,indicating that the referring expression usedin the utterance must have its real referent inhis or her real life. This is what Corder calledreferential appropriateness. For examplewhen a second year college student says “Ifound a part-time job in the corporation thissummer vocation”, the utterance is well-formed and syntactically perfect. But thereferring expression ‘the corporation’ mightbe inappropriately used to refer to a smallshop on the campus. It is referentiallyinappropriate. Second, the learner has to beable to select the appropriate style orregister of language for the social situation,hence social appropriateness. When alearner approaches a foreigner on the streetgreeting “can you speak English”, heproduces an utterance that is sociallyinappropriate. Accordingly, a sentence canbe acceptable but inappropriate orunacceptable but appropriate. Listed beloware the possible varieties of the idiosyncraticsentences for interpretation:A1 B1Acceptable AppropriateA2 B2Unacceptable Inappropriate1) A1 and B1: free from errors(non-idiosyncratic)2) A2 and B2: erroneous3) A2 and B1: erroneous4) A2 and B2: erroneousFor any sentence of the idiosyncraticdialect, plausible interpretation in terms ofthe target language has to be applied.According to Corder, there are fourpossibilities for an interpretation: 1) well-formed sentence and plausibleinterpretation; 2) well-formed sentence butincorrect interpretation; 3) acceptableutterance but ambiguous, that is ,accessible to two possible interpretations;and 4) well-formed but uninterpretablesentences. In the restructuring process,correct interpretation is possible to be madein accordance with the learner’s intention inthe first case. For the second case, someincorrect interpretation can be made of theerroneous sentence by the learner.Sometimes the first interpretation based onone’s intuition could be irrelevant to thecontext in which the sentence is placed. Tosolve this problem, Corder proposed that alonger context or larger range of context hasto be taken into account in making out thelearner’s intended meaning. In the thirdcase, the overtly erroneous sentence isaccessible to two possible interpretations.The decision on the genuine one has to bebased on the reference to the mother
  7. 7. FOCUS PageFOCUS Page 91tongue of the learner. The implication for thediscussion above would be that “the well-formedness or otherwise of a learner’sutterance is not the only criterion forestablishing the presence of errors”, and“what is crucial is whether the normal targetlanguage interpretation of his utterance isappropriate or not in the context” (Corder:44). For the interpretation of the learner’sidiosyncratic dialect, a teacher is in a goodposition to perform the task when he or shehas the following advantages: 1) he or shehas a good understanding of the learningsituation of the students and can easilyrelate the learners’ utterances or sentencesto the actual context 2) he or she is thenative speaker of the learner’s mothertongue and is therefore capable ofinterpreting the learners’ intended meaningin terms of the mother tongue 3) he or shewas once, and may still be the speaker ofthe idiosyncratic dialect, namely, he has thesimilar experiences of formulatinghypotheses about the rules of the targetlanguage. So a teacher who is non-nativespeaker of the target language but sharesthe mother tongue of the learners is in abetter position than the native speaker ofthe target language when tracing the errorsin the learner’s interlanguage.Problems with EAThere still exist a lot of problems with thedescription of the learner’s errors. Theelusive nature of the learner’s language, thevariations of errors, and the mother tongueinfluence all complicate the description.Following are the major problems:a. Interlanguage is changingAs the learning process is the process offormulating hypotheses about the rules ofthe target language, the learner wouldconstantly test his or her hypotheses and tryto revise them to be more in accordancewith the target language. So in the strictsense, it is quite impossible to have asectional or horizontal study of the learner’slanguage. While a longitudinal study is morefeasible, arbitrary decisions have to bemade sometimes as to when some featuresdisappear and new features arise on thecontinuum. Even for well-formed andappropriate sentences by the learners westill have a right to doubt that they genuinelyrepresent the underlying knowledge of thelearners, as such utterances or sentencesmight be simply an imitation of the ready-made set expression or formula. Cordergave the example of the learner’s use of thegreeting “how do you do”, of which the well-formedness and appropriateness does notguarantee that the learner has reallymastered the use of the verb ‘do’. However,the changeable nature of interlanguagedoes not affect interlanguage as asystematic and independent language in itsown right. As Corder argued, “that hislanguage is changing all the time, that hisrules are constantly undergoing revision is ofcourse, true and rarely complicates theproblem of description but does notinvalidate the concept of “ a learner’slanguage” (Corder: 56).b. Only textual data is not enoughCorder has identified two basic constraints,external constraint and internal constraint,
  8. 8. Page FOCUSPage 92 FOCUSfor the textual data to be inadequatelyrepresentative sample of the learner’slanguage. By external constraints Corderindicated the fact that textual data is notspontaneous language produced by thelearner under the pressure of naturalcommunicative needs. Moreover, there aresuch artificial constraints as topicrestriction, time constraint, and threats offailure. By internal constraint, Corder meantthat “the learner himself will place limitationsupon the data we work with, by selectingthose aspects of knowledge which he hasmost confidence in” (Corder: 60). That is tosay, the learner would not reveal sufficientdata about his underlying knowledge of hislanguage. From the textual data, we seem toget only what the learner believes he knowsrather than what he really knows. However,in a foreign language learning context,elicitation of data of spontaneous languageproduction is very difficult to achieve, simplybecause the learners are seldom engaged ina real communication in the target language.We can hardly get a whole corpus of thelearners’ spontaneous speech productionwhen they only have fragmentary andoccasional performance.c. Language transfer versus universality ofinterlanguageOn the one hand, we have identified thatmost of the learners’ errors can be traced tothe influence of their mother tongue andacknowledged that language transfer playscrucial role in interlanguage. On the other,strong evidence has shown that there are alot of similarities in the interlanguage oflearners with various cultural and linguisticbackgrounds. Such similarities seem toprove the hypothesis that all sorts of secondlanguage learners follow the samesequence of learning and their priorknowledge of their mother tongue comes noavail to the acquisition of the new language.However, modern cognitive learningtheories have formulated that the verysuccess of learning is determined by howmuch the learner has already known aboutthe subjects. And the learning process is theprocess of incorporating the new items intothe already existent cognitive structure(Ausubel 1963). When a learner has alreadyhad sophisticated knowledge about onelanguage system, it is hard to imagine forhim not to exploit the advantage of priorknowledge in the second language learning.Corder has the justification that “it appearsthen that the nature of the interlanguagegrammar a learner creates for himself is to aconsiderable extent determined by theknowledge of language the learner alreadypossesses and how elaborate andsophisticated that knowledge is ”( Corder:74). But it is true at the same time that suchfactors as age, settings, and motivationwould play significant roles in secondlanguage learning. The younger thelearners, the more communicating oriented,and the more informal the setting, the moresimilar the structural properties of theirinterlanguage systems will be. As Corderhas pointed out, “the maximum degree ofsimilarity between approximative systems oflearners will be found in the case of younglearners of any language, whatever theirmother tongue in the earliest stages oflearning a particular language in an informalsetting, and per contra that the maximumdifferences in the approximative system oflearners will be found among adult learners
  9. 9. FOCUS PageFOCUS Page 93of different mother tongues learningdifferent target languages in formal settings”(Corder: 77). In the Chinese learningsituation, we would probably place ourlearners on the other end of the scale: theyare adult, learning English for academicpurposes, and have highly formalinstructional settings. So much can beexpected of the features that are unique tothe Chinese learners of English. And we canbase most of our interpretations of theirsentences on the mother tongue translation,as it is the case in actuality.ConclusionAs the learner’s language is systematic anddescribable, error analysis provides accessto the observable data from whichinferences can be made about the learner’sunderlying knowledge about his or herlanguage. As a methodology error analysishas implications both for practical purposesand psycholinguistic orientation. It serves tohelp the teacher to gain insight into thelearner’s learning process and provide morefacilitative conditions that can promote theprocess. Mere error correction, particularlythe immediate correction in class, maydistort the learner’s hypothesis formulationand delay the learning process. More solidevidence could be obtained when the datais elicited from a large corpus of the textualmaterials, in which irrelevant performancemistakes can be more easily deleted on thebasis of probability method and regularitycan be more easily captured. Moreover, thecorpus can be enhanced by integratingmaterials from the learner’s oral productionfor evidence of spontaneous speech. Eventhough caution has to be made about ourinterpretations in locating the possiblesources of the learners’ errors, steadyprogress could be made when themethodology is improved and variables areheld in control.References:Ausubel, David A. (1963). Cognitivestructure and the facilitation of meaningfulverbal learning. Journal of TeacherEducation 14:217-21Corder, S. Pit. (1981). Error Analysis andInterlanguage. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.Selinker,1972. "Interlanguage". InternationalReview of Applied Lingustics 10 Corder,S. Pit.(1973). Introducing AppliedLinguistics, Penguin: Educational
  10. 10. Page FOCUSPage 94 FOCUSAbout the authorProfessor Meng Zhang was born in 1955 and graduated in 1982from the Foreign Language Faculty English Department at theHenan Normal University in China. She is currently an AssociateProfessor of English Education and Head of the Foreign LanguageDepartment at Zhengzhou Teachers College in Zhengzhou City,Henan Province, China.E-mail:dream55630@hotmail.com