When we speak in a foreign language, there is a very high probability that we will make mistakes. We make more mistakes when we first start using the language, and gradually the frequency of these mistakes diminishes. Everyone who learns a foreign language would like to speak as accurately as possible, with the least possible number of mistakes, but how do we get there?
Krashen on Error Correction
Error correction, along with grammar instruction and grammar drills have long been the mainstay of language instruction. In this model, the teacher is the language expert and teaches rules to the students. The teacher then corrects the students as they try to use the language, whether in writing or speaking.
Is this really how we learn languages? Stephen Krashen doesn’t think so. An excellent place to read about his theories of language acquisition is his grade book Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition, which available for free download.
In this book, Krashen points out that “Error correction is not of use for acquisition. Acquisition occurs, according to the input hypothesis, when acquirers understand input for its meaning, not when they produce output and focus on form”
Leave It up to the Parents?
It is often said that, when learning our first language, our parent or other adults correct us when we make mistakes and this enables us to eventually speak correctly. But is this really so? Do children learn their language from their parents? If that is the case, then how do the young children of immigrants learn to speak the language of their new country so quickly? The answer is that children do not learn their language from their parents, they learn from their peers, or from people that they interact with. They learn the language from input, from the environment that surrounds them and from trial and error.
The number of errors that a child can make in the language is simply far too great for the parents to be able to correct them all. The parent may correct a few mistakes, but usually those errors would have self corrected in any case. The vast majority of errors are corrected naturally through interaction with others with whom they have meaningful communication, and receive comprehensible and meaningful input.
This has been my experience as a language learner. I enjoy speaking with language tutors online once I have acquired a sufficient vocabulary to be able to express something. Typically I receive a conversation report from my tutor which I import into LingQ as input, saving key words and phrases. The likelihood is that I will make the same mistakes again and again, but over time I become more and more attentive to my gaps and mistakes and improve. Whether or not the tutor corrects me, it is the process of trying to use the language, of exposing my passive knowledge to the demands of using it, which enables me to discover my gaps. That and continued listening and reading is what improves my accuracy.
There is a condition, however. The learner needs to be motivated to improve. The learner has to want to pay attention to different aspects of the language that cause him or her difficulty. If this attitude of the learner is present, then self-correction and self-improvement are sure to continue as long as the learner is exposed to the language and has the opportunity to use it. If, on the other hand, the learner is not motivated to do these things, error correction by a teacher will likely not have much effect either. I am sure that all the non-native speakers of English who continue to say “he go”, instead of “he goes” have been corrected tens if not hundreds of times, without any noticeable effect.
The Dark Side of Error Correction
It is even possible that error correction can have negative consequences. The expectation on the part of the learner that error correction is essential to acquiring the language may discourage the learner from putting enough effort into input activities (listening and reading). The learner may feel that without a teacher he or she cannot learn.
Being constantly corrected may also discourage the learner from participating in natural and compelling conversations in the language. Just as compelling, authentic, comprehensible and interesting input is essential to language acquisition, the same is true for output. If I am talking to someone, I like to feel that my counterpart is interested in what I am saying. If I am corrected every time I make a mistake, it makes me feel that the conversation is artificial, just some kind of learning exercise, not a meaningful exchange of views.
So, in summary, just let people talk, and encourage them to listen and read a lot. The errors will take care of themselves, as long as the learner wants to improve. Who should correct our mistakes? With enough exposure and the will to improve, the errors will gradually fall away by themselves. You don’t believe me? Why not give it a try?