LEARNER ERRORSDescribing Learner LanguageAn important area in the study of second language (L2)acquisition is the language that learners produce at differentstages of their development. Learner language can provide theresearcher with insights into the process of acquisition.For many researchers, although not all, it constitutes the mostimportant source of information about how learners learn an L2.Ellis (1997), provides a number of different approaches to thedescription of learner language which can be identified as:• the study of learners’ errors;• the study of developmental patterns;• the study of variability; and• the study of pragmatic features.
Describing Learner Language Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis:Learners were strongly influenced by their L1. Where the L1matched the L2, learning was facilitated; where itdiffered, learning was impeded. In the view of some(Lado, 1957), errors were mainly, if not entirely, the result oftransfer of L1 ‘habits’.This theory of learning was challenged both by Chomsky’s(1958), attack on behaviourism and also by research on L1acquisition, which showed that children did not seem to learntheir mother tongue as a set of ‘habits’ but rather seemed toconstruct mental ‘rules’, which often bore no resemblance tothose evident in their caretakers’ speech.
LEARNER ERRORS TASKIn groups discuss the following questions :Are learners‟ errors the result of L1 transfer?Do L2 learners, like L1 learners, construct unique mental „rules‟?
LEARNER ERRORSOne of the first ways in which researchers tried to investigate L2acquisition was through the analysis of learner errors.Much of the early work on learner errors focused on determiningthe extent to which L2 acquisition was the result of L1 transfer orof creative construction (the construction of unique rules similarto those which children form in the course of acquiring theirmother tongue).The presence of errors that mirrored L1 structures was taken asevidence of transfer, while the presence of errors similar to thoseobserved in L1 acquisition was indicative of creative construction.
LEARNER ERRORSThe results of error analyses were used to refute behaviouristviews of L2 learning, which were dominant at the time. Accordingto them, L2 learning took place in the same way as any other kindof learning, it involved procedures such as imitation, repetition, andreinforcement, which enabled learners to develop „habits‟ of the L2.The study of learner errors showed that although many errorswere caused by transferring L1 „habits‟, many more were not;learners often contributed creatively to the process of learning.They also indicated that learners appeared to go through stages ofacquisition, as the nature of the errors they made varied accordingto their level of development.
LEARNER ERRORSCorder (1974) suggests the following steps in Error Analysis (EA)research:
LEARNERERRORS(a) Collection of a Sample of Learner LanguageThe starting point in EA is deciding what samples of learnerlanguage to use for the analysis and how to collect these samples.A massive sample involves collecting several samples oflanguage use from a large number of learners in order to compile acomprehensive list of errors, representative of the entirepopulation.A specific sample consists of one sample of language usecollected from a limited number of learners.Incidental sample involves only one sample of language useproduced by a single learner.
LEARNER ERRORS(b) Identification of ErrorsFirstly a corpus of learner language is collected; the errors in thecorpus are identified. It is necessary to decide, therefore, whatconstitutes an „error‟ and to establish a procedure for recognising one.An error can be defined as a deviation from the norms of the targetlanguage, however this definition raises a number of questions.Firstly, the question of which variety of the target language shouldserve as the norm or standard.A second question concerns the distinction between errors andmistake.An error (in this technical sense) takes place when the deviationarises as a result of lack of knowledge. It represents a lack ofcompetence. A mistake occurs when learners fail to perform theircompetence.
LEARNER ERRORS(b) Identification of ErrorsA third question concerns whether the error is overt or covert .An overt error is easy to identify because there is a cleardeviation in form, as when a learner says:“I runned all the way.”A covert error occurs in utterances that are superficially well-formed but which do not mean what the learner intended them tomean. For example, the utterance from (Corder, 1971 a):“It was stopped.”is apparently grammatical until it becomes clear that “it” refers to“the wind”.
LEARNER ERRORS(b) Identification of ErrorsA fourth question concerns whether the analysis shouldexamine only deviations in correctness or also deviationsin appropriateness.The former involves rules of usage and is illustrated inthe two examples mentioned.The latter involves rules of language use. Forexample, a learner who invites a relative stranger bysaying “ I want you to come to the cinema with me” hassucceeded in using the code correctly but has failed to useit appropriately.
LEARNER ERRORS(c) Description of ErrorsThe description of learner errors involves a comparisonof the learner’s idiosyncratic utterances with areconstruction of those utterances in the targetlanguage.It requires, therefore, attention to the surfaceproperties of the learners’ utterances (i.e. it does notattempt, at this stage, to identify the sources of theerrors).
LEARNER ERRORS(c) Description of ErrorsCorder distinguishes three types of errors according totheir systematicity:(i) Pre-systematic errors occur when the learner isunaware of the existence of a particular rule in the targetlanguage. These are random.(ii) Systematic errors occur when the learner hasdiscovered a rule but it is the wrong one.(ii) Post-systematic errors occur when the learner knowsthe correct target language rule but uses it inconsistently(i.e. makes a mistake).
LEARNER ERRORS(d) Explanation of ErrorsExplanation is concerned with establishing the source of the error, i.e.accounting for why it was made. This stage is the most important for SLAresearch as it involves an attempt to establish the processes responsiblefor L2 acquisition.Taylor (1986), points out that, the error source may bepsycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, epistemic, or may reside in thediscourse structure.Psycholinguistic sources concern the nature of the L2 knowledgesystem and the difficulties learners have in using it in production.Sociolinguistic sources involve such matters as the learners‟ ability toadjust their language in accordance with the social context. Epistemicsources concern the learners‟ lack of world knowledge, while discoursesources involve problems in the organisation of information into acoherent „text‟.
LEARNER ERRORS(e) Evaluating ErrorsThe design of error evaluation studies involves decisions on whothe addressees (i.e. the judges) will be, what errors they will beasked to judge, and how they will be asked to judge them.The judges can vary according to whether they are nativespeakers (NS) or non-native speakers (NNS), and also according towhether they are „expert‟ (i.e. language teachers) or „non-expert‟.Error evaluation studies have addressed three main researchquestions:(i) Are some errors judged to be more problematic than others?(ii) Are there differences in the evaluations made by NS and NNS?(iii) What criteria do judges use in evaluating learners‟ errors?
LEARNER ERRORSError analysis, however, as practised in the sixties andseventies, was an imperfect research tool. It could not show whenlearners resorted to avoidance and, as it ignored what learnerscould do correctly, it only looked at part of learner language. Also, the methodology of error analysis was vague in a numberof respects. For example, it was not entirely clear what constitutedan „error‟ and it proved difficult to prepare rigorous descriptions oferrors. As a result, many studies were unreliable and difficult toreplicate.It is not surprising, perhaps, that error analysis has fallen out offavour with many researchers.However, the study of learner errors can still serve as a usefultool and is still undertaken, often as a means of investigating aspecific research question.