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Error analysis good feedback for teachers
Scris de mihaiela lazar   
Miercuri, 08 Martie 2017 21:22


Profesor: Elisabeta Maxim

Școala Gimnazială Ștefan cel Mare Botoşani

In the past forty years, studies of second language learning have occupied a central place in the field of linguistics. Among the various aspects in such developmental studies, learner’s language has been the highlight in the field of second language acquisition. The term second language acquisition refers to the subconscious or conscious process by which a language other than the mother tongue is learnt in a natural or a tutored setting.

By trying to identify sources of error we can begin to arrive at an understanding of how the learner’s cognitive and affective self relates to the linguistic system and to formulate an integrated understanding of the process of second language acquisition. The beginning stages of learning a second language are characterized by a good deal of interlingual transfer from the native language, or interference.

According to Selinker, ‘interlanguage refers to the separateness of a second language learners’ system, a system that has a structurally intermediate status between the native and target languages’. Nemser referred to the same general phenomenon in second language learning, but stressed the successive approximation to the target language in his term approximate system. Corder used the term idiosyncratic dialect to connote the idea that the learner’s language is unique to a particular individual, that the rules of the learners’ language are peculiar to the language of that individual alone. While each of these designations emphasizes a particular idea, they share the notion that second language learners form their own language system.

Brown and Ellis gave a detailed account of and exemplified a model for error analysis offered by Corder. Ellis and Hubbard et al. on the other hand, gave practical advice and provided clear examples of how to identify and analyze learners’ errors. The initial step requires the selection of a corpus of language followed by the identification of errors by making a distinction between a mistake (i.e. caused by lack of attention, carelessness or some aspect of performance) and an error. The errors are, then classified as overt and covert errors. The next step after giving a grammatical analysis of each error, demands an explanation of different types of errors that correspond to different processes. Selinker reported five such processes central to second language learning: ‘language transfer, transfer of training, strategies of second language learning, strategies of second language communication, and overgeneralization TL [Target Language] linguistic material.’ In the literature, the studies relating to the process of language transfer, and overgeneralization have received considerable attention.
There are many ways to describe the progression of linguistic development that learners manifest as their attempts of production successively approximate the target language. According to H. D. Brown, there are four stages of IL development.

1. The first is a stage of random errors, called also presystematic, in which the learner doesn’t know that there are some systematic orders to a particular class of items.

2. The second stage or the emergent stage is when the learner becomes consistent in linguistic production. The learner has begun to discern a system and to internalize certain rules. This stage is characterized by some “backsliding”, in which the learner seems to have grasped a rule or principle and then regresses to some previous stage. Generally the learner is still unable to correct errors when they are pointed out by someone else.

3. The third stage is a systematic stage in which the learner is now able to show more consistency in producing the second language. While those rules are not “well-formed”, they are more internally self-consistent and they are more closely approximating the target language system. The difference between the second and the third stage is the ability of learners to correct their errors when they are pointed out to them.

4. The fourth stage is the stabilization stage. Here the learner has relatively few errors and has mastered the system to the point that fluency and intended meaning are not problematic. This fourth stage is characterized by the learners’ ability to self-correct.

It should be pointed out that the four stages outlined above do not describe a learner’s total second language system. We would find it hard to assert, for example, that a learner is an emerged stage, globally, for all of the linguistic subsystems of language. One might be in second stage with respect to the perfect-tense system, and in third or four stage when it comes to simple present and past tenses.

Closely related to the study of Interlanguage are two traditional approaches: Contrastive Analysis and Error Analysis (EA). Researchers from the 1940s to the 1960s conducted CA systematically comparing two languages. Charles Fries, one of the leading applied linguists, stated it in this way: ‘The most efficient materials are those that are based on a scientific description of the language to be learned, carefully compared with a parallel description of the native language of the learner.’ By the 1970s, however, their positions about the predictive power of CA and about the relationship between L1 and L2 learning faced serious challenges. Empirical research seemed to show that significant learning difficulties are not necessary due to the differences between L1 and L2.

Error analysis, offered as an alternative to Contrastive Analysis, has its value in the classroom research. Whereas contrastive analysis, which may be least predictive at the syntactic level and at early stages of language learning , allows for prediction of the difficulties involved in acquiring a second language , error analysis emphasizing ‘the significance of errors in learners’ interlanguage system’ may be carried out directly for pedagogic purposes.

Research Approach - Group description

A data based analysis of IL has been also made. The class is an intermediate level English class. There are twenty-three students (12 males and 11 females) who attend English classes for one hour, twice a week. By the use of quantitative analysis, IL errors from the perspective of language knowledge, intralingual errors, interlingual errors and error sources have been scrutinized. The purpose is to find the distribution and the frequency of IL errors in order to gain some insights into English language learning.

This study will investigate some problems in the acquisition of English language by intermediate level English learners. We can find out what their dominant errors are and which stage their English level stays at when quantitative analysis of the occurrence of errors from different aspects will be scrutinized.


Fluency and correctness of our language expression can be fully detected in a composition, which represents one’s ability to use a foreign language correctly. Therefore, in order to detect and describe students’ knowledge, this paper seeks to investigate their language output by analyzing the type and source of the errors the students made.

Error Identification

According to Carl James, ‘we recognize just three levels of language: the levels of substance, text and discourse.’ Because some errors require semantic and discourse competence for recognition, the research concentrates on errors that can be recognized syntactically from grammar aspects, which belongs to the text level, while other two kinds of error levels are ignored here. Researchers have found that the early stages of language learning are characterized by a predominance of interference, but once learners have begun to acquire parts of the new system, more and more intralingual transfer-generalization within the target language – is manifested. Since these two categories are so important, the study also categorizes errors into these two categories accordingly and spends more space on discussing sources of these two.

At the preliminary stage, the tests were corrected. The sentences were then examined to see whether they were overtly and/or covertly idiosyncratic, the former being identified by comparing the students’ sentences with those of the reconstructed target-language ones.

The types of errors were selected for analysis based on frequency of occurrence. The resulting data was then investigated in detail, resulting in a number of several different categories, as was predicted. The errors were then explained and thoroughly examined to find the sources of errors due to L1 and L2 transfer, paying particular attention to negative transfer.

Data Analysis

Error analysis research has limited itself to analysing production errors because reception errors may often go unnoticed as we often remain ignorant of pupils’ reception errors until these errors reach the production stage. Explaining errors is the most speculative part of error analysis. Possible causes may be taken into consideration once an error is identified, reconstructed and categorized. Broadly speaking, errors will be either interlingual (negative transfer from Romanian or another language the pupils speaks) or intralingual (negative transfer within English).

Learners commit errors because their ability to use the target language is not sufficiently developed. In order to fill the gap between inadequate proficiency and tough requirements of a task, language learners draw on different strategies, such as ignorance and avoidance, mother tongue transference, incomplete rule application, overgeneralization in their IL forms, which cause different types of errors. Next we offer an analysis of interlingual and intralingual errors.

Interlingual errors

When we count the percentage of thinking-in-Romanian-then-translating-into-English when students write in English, the answer is even as high as 100 percent for some individuals. From this statement, we can infer that interlingual errors are quite common in target language learners’ writing.

Word order

‘a decision very important’

‘a laughter colored’

‘the family Smith’

- because in Romanian the usual word order is noun + adjective, they follow the same pattern in English

Concord between subject and predicate

‘the Smiths is at home’

- collective nouns may be followed either by a singular verb or a plural one; but here the noun family is thought of as a group of individuals so it takes a plural verb.


‘it’s saturday night’

- calendar items are proper nouns in English and are spelt with a capital

Lack of the preposition

‘tourists come here summer’

‘… when I go to school morning’

‘they are home’

- nouns such as morning, summer or home are not preceded by a preposition in Romanian

Collocation or word choice

‘he takes breakfast’

‘one of the passengers is looking on the window’

‘we are travelling in London’

‘Mrs. Smith is listening a concert’

‘to go at school’

- the students have translated the phrases (to have breakfast, to look out of the window, to travel to, to listen to or to go to) not taking into consideration the fact that they require a certain word choice in English.

Use of adjectives instead of adverbs

‘he takes breakfast so silent’

- the use of adjectives instead of adverbs is due to the fact that the adverb have most of the time the same form in Romanian as the corresponding adverb

Wrong preposition

‘many tourists come here on summer’

‘we are in train’

‘Mrs. Peggoty and I were sitting next to the fire’

‘Mrs. Peggoty and I were sitting near the fire’

‘Mrs. Peggoty and I were sitting along the fire’

‘listen a concert to the radio’

‘a concert at the radio’

- the wrong choice is due to the fact that in Romanian we use another preposition

Wrong adjective

‘… I passed my last exam’

- the latest means the most recent, the last up to now, while the last means the final; the student has chosen the wrong form because in Romanian there is only one form for both of them

Misuse of the definite article

‘travel to the London’

- before names of towns zero article is used in English, but because in Romanian Londra seems articulated the student used the definite articlePresent Tense instead of Present Continuous

‘… we are in train now and we travel to London. One of the passengers looks on the window, another one reads a book and another two speak’

Present Continuous instead of Present Simple

‘Our guides are speaking three-four foreign languages, because o lot of tourists are coming here in the summer to spend…’

- in Romanian there is only one present tense so it is difficult for the students to distinguish between a general, repeated, habitual action and an action in progress at the moment of speaking, especially when there are no time indicators in the sentence.

Intralingual errors

Most linguists of second language acquisition have tended to accept many of the errors caused by incomprehensive understanding and incorrect application of the target language during the period of internalization. These errors are called intralingual and development errors, which will be discussed in terms of overgeneralization, ignorance of rule restriction, incomplete application of rules and hypothesized false concepts.

‘Intralingual errors reflect the general characteristics of rule learning such as faulty generalization, incomplete application of rules and failure to learn conditions under which rules apply.’


Preposition by used with means of transport

‘we are being by train now’

- whenever we show how we travel we use the preposition by + the noun expressing the means of transport (We usually go to work by bus, but today we are going by taxi.); but by is not used when the above nouns are preceded by a possessive adjective or by the articles a or the; in such cases the preposition in is used with the noun car, and on with the nouns bicycle, motorbike as well as with the nouns indicating means of transport (He didn’t go to London on a motorbike, but on the train.)

Present Continuous of the verb to be

‘we are being by train now’

- the student knows he has to use the Present Continuous, but he does not know that the verbs expressing a state or a condition are not normally used in a continuous aspect

Use of the gerund instead of the infinitive of purpose

‘tourists come here in the summer spending …’

- the infinitive is used to express purpose (tourists come here to spend)

Past tense -ed of an irregular verb

‘We heared the door.’

- hear is an irregular verb so the Past Tense of the verb is not formed with the final ending -ed

Use of the preposition with the moments of the day

‘It’s Saturday in the evening.’

Long infinitive following a modal

‘I should to help my parents’

- a common characteristic of modal verbs is that they are followed by Short Infinitives (except ought to and used to)

Final -s after irregular plurals

‘I never have an appetite when I eat with old peoples.’

- the general rule of making plurals is to add -s or -es to the singular form of the noun; some of the nouns though have irregular plurals

Word order

‘It’s night Saturday.’


-ing adjective instead of -ed adjective

‘I grew tired of reading and became very boring.’

Use of wrong final ending to form the adverb

‘he takes his lunch so quietful…’

Wrong quantifier

‘very much tourists’

Wrong indefinite pronoun

‘we don’t hear something’

- the pupils are not associating the right form to the right concept or function

Most students tend to lay stress on the acquisition of the meaning of words. All these have led to literal translations of some words and phrases from Romanian to English on the part of the learner. That is mother tongue interference. Therefore, it is high time the students changed their ways of acquiring English vocabulary.
As discussed at the beginning of our research, the negative transfer as demonstrated in writing is a reflection of the difficulty that the students encounter in Second Language Acquisition. The error transfer suggests that the learners are confused about the essential differences between those forms or structures that they think to be similar within the two languages. Moreover, results from error transfer indicate that the subjects have reported to have difficulty, to some degree, in telling cross-linguistic differences. Therefore, some information about contrastive studies of the two languages is needed so as to help students to see more clearly some of the problems they encounter.

Intralingual errors still play a significant role in students’ writing. Overgeneralization, ignorance of rule restriction, incomplete application of rules is due to students’ poor command of grammar structures. In the basic stage, students should focus their energy on the grammar courses.

By the quantitative analysis of IL errors from the dimension of grammatical rules and error source, the frequency and distribution of IL errors have mainly been scrutinized. This process led us find what kind of IL errors influence IL development. Accordingly we have given some suggestions on the knowledge of second language acquisition. The major findings of this study can be summarized as follows:

a. After three years of study only four students are in their ‘systematic stage’, five are in a transitional stage between ‘systematic stage’ and ‘emergent stage’ and the rest are in an ‘emergent stage’.

b. Interlingual errors are committed most often by this group of intermediate English learners. We can infer that the interference of mother tongue still play a significant role in these students’ language system.
c. Apart from native language interference, target language interference affects the acquisition of the foreign language seriously.

d. Students should be exposed more to English because there is a long way for them to reach the final stage – the stabilization stage.

However, the study is limited in the following aspects. Firstly, due to the time and difficulty in analyzing IL errors, the number of samples collected is somehow limited. Secondly, in the process of categorizing interlingual and intralingual errors, some sources identified maybe overlapping with each other, i.e. some errors maybe attributed to two or more sources.

Brown, H., 1994, Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents, pg. 204, 208, 214

Brown, H. D., 2002, Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, pg. 204

Carl, J., 2001, Errors in Language learning and Use: Exploring Error Analysis, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, pg. 129

Corder, S. Pit., 1967, The significance of learners’ errors, International Review of Applied Linguistics, pg. 17

Corder, S.Pit., 1971, Idiosyncratic dialects and error analysis, International Review of Applied Linguistics, pg. 151

Ellis, R., 1995, Understanding Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford, University Press, pg. 51

Ellis, R., 1999, Understanding Second Language Acquisition, Oxford University Press, pg. 6

Fries, C., 1945, Teaching and learning English as a foreign language, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pg. 213-214

Hubbard, P., Jones, H., Thornton, B. and Wheeler, R., 1996, A Training Course for TEFL, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pg. 135-141

Nemser, W., 1971, Approximate systems of foreign language learners, International Review of Applied Linguistics, pg. 9

Odlin, T., 2001, Language Transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in language learning, Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, pg. 9

Richards, J., 1971, A non-contrastive approach to error analysis, English Language Teaching Journal, pg 175-187

Richards, J., 1974. ‘A Non-Contrastive Approach to Error Analysis’, in Richards, J. (Ed.), Error analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition, Essex: Longman, pg. 172

Selinker, L., 1974, ‘Interlanguage’. In Richards, J. (Ed.), Error analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition, Essex: Longman, pg. 35

Selinker, L., 1972, Interlanguage, International Review of Applied Linguistics, pg. 201



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