The significance of learners’ errors for English as a foreign language

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015
35 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Errors
2.1. Defining errors
2.1.1. The behaviorist view
2.1.2. The cognitive view
2.1.3. The interlanguage view Errors vs. mistakes
2.2. Interlanguage (Selinker 1972)
2.2.1. Fossilization

3. Error Analysis (EA)
3.1. Errors in EA
3.2. Identification of errors
3.3. Classification of errors
3.4. Source of errors
3.4.1. Interlingual and intralingual transfers
3.4.2. Context of learning
3.4.3. Communication strategies
3.5. Types of errors

4. Error correction
4.1. Learning from errors: providing corrective feedback

5. The students’ task and its relation to the curriculum

6. Analysis of the student’s errors
6.1. Explanation for correction

7. Feedback on improvement

8. Conclusion

9. References

10. Appendix


The significance of learners’ errors and mistakes in the process of learning English as a foreign language has been widely discussed in the field of second language acquisition. This paper aims at examining how appropriate the approach of ‘error analysis’ is to characterize students’ errors in order to be able to adapt the content of school lessons according their difficulties. To do so, the difference of ‘error’ and ‘mistake’ will be explained and important concepts of interlanguage and fossilization (Selinker, 1972) will be introduced. The second part of this paper will deal with the identification and classification of errors and will show possible ways of their treatment through providing corrective feedback. Finally, an authentic student material will be analyzed according to the ‘error analysis’ approach, through showing what kind of errors and mistakes can be found, and how they could be corrected. Furthermore, a feedback on improvement will be formulated

Die Bedeutung von Fehlern beim Erwerb des Englischen als Fremdsprache ist ein weit diskutiertes Thema in der schulischen Fremdsprachenlern- und -lehrforschung. Das Ziel der vorliegenden Arbeit ist es, zu untersuchen, wie gut sich der Ansatz der ‚error analysis‘ nutzen lässt, um Fehler von Lernenden zu charakterisieren und den Unterricht entsprechend ihrer Defizite anzupassen. Dafür werden der Unterschied zwischen ‚error‘ und ‚mistake‘ definiert sowie bedeutungstragende Konzepte der ‚interlanguage‘ und der Fossilisation (nach Seliker, 1972) vorgestellt. Der zweite Teil der Arbeit beschäftigt sich mit der Identifikation und der Klassifikation von Fehlern und gewährt Einblick in einen durch Korrekturen möglichen Umgang mit ihnen. Abschließend wird ein authentisches Textbeispiel einer Englischschülerin mithilfe der ‚error analysis‘ auf Fehler untersucht, indem beschrieben wird, welche Fehler darin auftreten, wie sie sich charakterisieren lassen und wie sie korrigiert wurden. Außerdem wird ein abschließender Kommentar zu möglichen Verbesserungen formuliert

List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Introduction

One of the main tasks teachers have is to correct students’ texts. They look for errors and correct them in order to help their students to progress in their English language development. But what exactly are errors? How can they be defined and what role to they play in the process of English language learning? What types of errors are there and how can they be categorized? And finally, how can a teacher handle them and what ways do exist to correct them? Among others, these questions will be answered in the following paper.

For students as well as for teachers it is unavoidable and of great importance to cope with errors in order to improve their language skills. Since teachers are responsible for the development of their students English language development, it is necessary to inform themselves about characterizing errors, dealing with them and providing corrective feedback. One way to do so, is the application of the approach of ‘error analysis’.

Dealing with the significance of errors and mistakes in the learning process of English as foreign language, this paper aims at examining how appropriate the approach of ‘error analysis’ is to characterize students’ errors in order to be able to adapt the content of school lessons according their difficulties. To do so, an authentic example from a student will be analyzed regarding her language errors by applying the methodological approach of ‘error analysis’.

To be able to analyze a text with regard to its language errors, a basic requirement is to define an error and its different perception from the behaviorist view to the approach of ‘error analysis’. Selinker’s theory of interlanguage and fossilization will be topic of the next chapters, to explain how languages are learned. Taking this as a basis, the following part of the paper will focus on ‘error analysis’ and introduce how errors can be identified and classified. Furthermore, it will be explained what sources can be responsible for committing errors and what types of errors exist. Then the focus will be put on the didactical theory of error correction since different ways of providing corrective feedback seen from a teacher’s perspective will be presented. Finally, the authentic essay from a student will be analyzed. First of all, the reference to the curriculum and the student’s writing task will be presented. After that it will be described what errors were committed by the student and how they can be characterized according to the approach of ‘error analysis’. The following part will explain how the student essay was analyzed a will give reasons for the chosen procedure. A formulated feedback on improvement will help the student to become aware of her errors and include recommendations for further steps.

2. Errors

The field of how teachers should correct their students’ errors in the best way has been discussed in several disciplines such as Pedagogy, Psychology, Medical Science, Neurology and Engineering Science (Wuttke & Seifried, 2012).[1] Therefore, the field of research on identifying errors and the types they belong to, errors correction, their importance and how students can learn from them, is of strong importance. The following main and subchapters will focus on the theoretical aspects of errors. To start with, the term ‘error’ will be defined from different views, in order to be able to distinguish it from mistakes. Furthermore, Selinker’s approach of interlanguage and its connected concept of fossilization will be explained.

2.1. Defining errors

As stated in Roberts and Griffiths (2008), it is problematic to find a definition of errors, since they can be seen from different views. Lennon (1991), for example, relates errors to native-speaker-utterances, although there are various variations among people who consider themselves to be a native speaker, which makes it difficult to find a standard (cited in Roberts & Griffiths, 2008). However, James (1998) judges an error according to grammatical correctness and acceptance. He relates errors to ignorance, inferring that error correction (EA) is "the study of linguistic ignorance, the investigation of what people do not know and how they attempt to cope with their ignorance" (ibid, p. 62). James argues that the learners’ ignorance of the target language (TL) can be expressed in terms of four categories: grammaticality, acceptability, correctness and strangeness and infelicity. Grammaticality, synonymous with well-formedness, “is the grammar […] who [sic] decides whether something said by a learner is grammatical” (ibid, p. 65). According to Lyons (1977), “the best indicator for grammatical unacceptability is corrigibility” [italics changed] (cited in James, 1998, p. 65); therefore, c orrigibility is the criterion for grammaticality, and helps to see whether it fits to the context. Correctness means insisting on prescriptive normative standards. Finally, the category strangeness and infelicity refer, according to Allerton (1990) to ‘linguistically strange’ word combinations (cited in James, 1998, p. 75).

Although grammar seems to be a “relatively objective criterion” (ibid, p. 282) due to standardized grammar books, there exists the discussion of correctness regarding different varieties which subjectively consider what is correct or not. Therefore, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005) argue that there is no ‘unproblematic’ definition of errors (cited in Roberts & Griffiths, 2008).

To give an overview, the following subchapters will shortly introduce the different views on errors.

2.1.1. The behaviorist view

Skinner (1957), proponent of the behaviorist approach to language learning, defined language as a “process of habit formation – the acquisition of a series of responses to external stimuli developed through a process referred to as operant conditioning” (cited in Roberts & Griffiths, 2008, p. 282). Hereby, errors were considered to be counter-productive since they “led to the formation of bad habits, which, if left uncorrected resulted in fossilization” (ibid) (see chapter 2.2.1. Fossilization). In order to solve this problem, one aimed at avoiding errors through on the one hand rigorous correction practices, and on the other hand contrastive analysis. Teachers tried to help their students to avoid errors by comparing the target language to their mother tongue and putting the focus on their differences. Lado (1957), who introduced the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, stated that the differences and similarities between the two languages explained the “relative ease or difficulty of learning various language features” (cited in Roberts & Griffiths, 2008, p. 282).

2.1.2. The cognitive view

The main proponent of the cognitive view is Noam Chomsky, who queried Skinner’s approach in his work of 1959. He states that language learning was “a process of rule formation, that it is a cognitive process” (Roberts & Griffiths, 2008, p. 283). Consequently, it became clear that language learners form hypotheses, which are not completely random, but underlie certain rules. Out of this, Chomsky “postulated a species-specific (human), domain-specific (language), biological endowment: a genetically encoded predisposition to learn languages” (ibid), which is called Universal Grammar (UG) or sometimes Language Acquisition Device (LAD), proposing that children are born with an inherited ability to learn any human language and that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the brain. According to Chomsky, this Universal Grammar consists of a core of principles which encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures into the child’s brain that all human languages share. While receiving language input, a learner is able to “glean enough evidence to ‘trigger’ the correct setting of the parameter for that particular language” (ibid).

2.1.3. The interlanguage view

Corder (1967), taking Chomsky’s approach, found out that there is a difference between input and intake. Whereas the first refers to “what is made available to the student”, the second means “what is taken in” (Roberts & Griffiths, 2008, p. 283). Furthermore, he discovered the difference between error and mistake, which will be explained in detail in the following subchapter.

Corder changed the view on errors, because for him they are not considered to be counter-productive anymore, but that they provide insight into the learner’s language learning, since they “provide evidence of progress to the teacher, they provide evidence to researchers of how language is learned, and they are a device by which learners learn, testing and modifying their hypotheses about language” (Roberts & Griffiths, 2008, pp. 283-284). Errors vs. mistakes

As shown in the chapters before, it is difficult to give an explicit definition of an error. One way to explain the term, however, is through distinguishing it from another term: in this case mistake, a distinction which was introduced by Corder (1967), who "associates errors with failures in competence and mistakes with failures in performance" (cited in James, 2008; p. 78). According to Gass and Selinker (2008) “mistakes are akin to slips of the tongue” [italics added] (ibid, p. 102) and therefore “generally one-time-only events”, whereas errors are systematic. This means that learners are able to recognize mistakes and correct it, while errors are not recognized as a wrong form, which leads to the fact that they often occur numerous times repeatedly (ibid). James (1998) defined an error through intentionality, since he states that "an error arises only when there was no intention to commit one" (ibid, p. 77). Therefore, mistakes can be a result of insufficient concentration and are a failure to utilize a known system correctly, whereas an error is a deviation from accuracy or correctness (James, 2008). It is important to consider that “[e]rrors are only errors with reference to some external norm” (ibid, p. 103), which means that errors only exist in the teacher’s or researcher’s mind who correct a student’s text, because from student’s points of view, the utterances made are correct, since they are a part of the grammatical system, the student’s interlanguage (see chapter 2.2. Interlanguage (Selinker 1972)).

As stated in Corder (1967), these errors and mistakes prove that every learner has an interim, still incomplete language system, the so called interlanguage (Selinker 1972), which will be explained in the following chapter 2.2.

2.2. Interlanguage (Selinker 1972)

The American linguist Larry Selinker introduced the term interlanguage (IL), referring to adult second language learners who try to express meanings in the language they have learned, the so called target language (TL). The IL is characterized as a separate linguistic system that, however, contains elements and links to both languages, the native language (NL) and the TL (Tarone, 2006). This is due to the fact that in most cases, the utterances “of a second language learner [are] not identical to the hypothesized corresponding set of utterances which would have been produced by a native speaker of the TL had he attempted to express the same meaning as the learner” (Selinker, 1972, p. 214). Consequently, most of the adult second language learners will never reach the same level of facility for the TL children with the TL as their NL have. Selinker states that a mere five per cent of language learners reach this state (ibid, p. 212). So why do children always succeed in acquiring their NL, whereas adult second language learners have problems learning a second language? This is what interlanguage research tries to find out: its goal is “to describe and explain the development of interlanguages and also to explain the ultimate failure of interlanguages to reach a state of identity with the target language” (Tarone, 2006, p. 747).

The interlanguage hypothesis aims at identifying the psycholinguistic processes that influence the learner’s language. According to Griffiths and Parr (2001) the significance of interlanguage theory lies in the fact that it is the first attempt to take into account the possibility of learner conscious attempts to control their learning. Furthermore, it is stated that the interlanguage hypothesis initiated an expansion of research (e.g. Robin 1975) into psychological processes in interlanguage development, with the aim to determine what learners do in order to facilitate their own learning, i.e. which learning strategies they use. Hence, Selinker supported Corders view of the significance and judged learner’s errors “as evidence of positive efforts by the student to learn the new language” (ibid, p. 248).

Selinker (1988) summed up that interlanguage utterances can be characterized by the following factors (ibid, pp. 47-48):

(1) Whenever a learner attempts to express meaning in a second language, the utterances which he or she produces will not be identical with those which would have been produced by the native speaker of the target language (TL) (in attempting to express the same meaning).
[(2)] Learner-produced L2 utterances will not be an exact translation from the native language (NL) but will be formed by a variety of learning and production strategies, language transfer clearly being a major strategy.
[(3)] Furthermore, some utterances (and some portions of utterances) may remain [fossilized] in learner speech and writing over time.

As stated in the third criteria, learner’s interlanguage can also stop devoloping: a process which is called fossilization and will be the topic of the following chapter.

2.2.1. Fossilization

The process which contains a stop in the development of learner’s interlanguage in the direction of the TL, is called fossilization. This means that any interlanguage “ceases to develop at some point short of full identity with the target language” (Tarone, 2006, p. 747). As already explained in the chapter before, adult second language leard particular NL will tend to keep in their IL relative to a particular TL, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation and instruction he receives in the TL (ibid, p. 215).

These fossilizable structures can be, for instance, well-known ‘errors’ such as the “German Time-Place order after the verb in the English IL of German Speakers” or the “English rhythm in the IL relative to Spanish” (ibid, p. 215). They tend to remain in the IL although it seems as if they were already eradicated: this behavioral reappearance can be seen in situations of anxiety, stress, other excitement, or even in the state of extreme relaxation. However, above all when learners concentrate on new difficult subject matters fossilizable structures have the tendency to re-emerge in the IL.

Selinker (1972) argues that within this interlanguage there can be identified five fossilization processes, “which are central to the process of second-language learning” (ibid, p. 216):

1. Language Transfer: sometimes rules and subsystems of the IL may result from transfer from the NL.
2. Transfer of Training: some elements of the interlanguage may result from specific features of the training process used to teach the SL. Serbo-Croatian Speakers at all levels of English proficiency regularly tend to say rather “he” than “she” and even use the “he” form while speaking about females, although the same distinction can be found in their NL. According to Selinker, this is due to the fact that “textbooks and teachers in this interlingual situation almost always present drills with he and never with she” (ibid, p. 218). Created by these sources of transfer of training, the fossilizable error will later turn in a strategy of second-language communication.
3. Strategies of Second-Language Learning: some elements of the IL may result from a specific approach to the material to be learned. The example “I am feeling thirsty” shows “tendency on the part of learners to reduce the TL to a simpler System” (ibid, p. 219). Here, “the learner has adopted the strategy that all Yerbs are either transitive or intransitive” (ibid).
4. Strategies of Second-Language Communication: some elements of the IL may result from specific ways people learn to communicate with native speakers of the TL. Coulter (1968) states that Russian speakers of English tend to avoid grammatical formatives such as articles: “It was Ø nice, nice trailer, Ø big one”. He sees is as a communication strategy because the learner noticed that “if he thinks about grammatical processes while attempting to express in English meanings which he already has, then his speech will be hesitant and disconnected, leading native Speakers to be impatient with him” (cited in Selinker, 1972, p. 220).
5. Overgeneralization of the Target Language Linguistic Materials: some elements of the IL may be the product of overgeneralization of the rules and semantic features of the TL (see chapter 3.4.1. for a definition of overgeneralization). The example “After thinking little I decided to start on the bicycle as slowly as I could as it was not possible to drive fast.”, uttered by Indian speakers of English, shows the overgeneralization in their IL about the use of drive to all vehicles (ibid, p. 218).

3. Error Analysis (EA)

Learning to swim, to play tennis, to type, or to read all involve a process in which success comes by profiling from mistakes, by using mistakes to obtain feedback from the environment, and with that feedback to make new attempts that successively approximate desired goals.

H. Douglas Brown (2007, p. 257)

The given quote by Brown demonstrates again the importance of errors, an approach that is also applicable for the language learning process. With the change from the contrastive analysis to the interlanguage view, errors were viewed from a different perspective, understanding that they are necessary and helpful for language development. One of the research fields that occupies with the significance of errors is the branch of Applied Linguistics: Error Analysis (ibid). Emerging in the 1960s, its goal was to show that errors did not exclusively occur because of the influence of the learner's mother tongue but also because of underlying universal strategies (Lennon, 2008, pp. 3-4).The following chapter will introduce the theoretical background of the approach and present the negative aspects of it. Moreover, it will be explained how errors can be identified, classified, what sources exist that lead to committing errors and what types of errors can be found.

Gass and Selinker (2008) define error analysis as “a type of linguistic analysis that focuses on the errors learners make” (ibid, p. 102). Whereas the contrastive analysis (see chapter 2.1.1. The behaviorist view) puts its emphasis on the comparison of the NL and the TL, the concept of error analysis exclusively examines the TG through comparing “the errors the learner makes in producing the TL and the TL forms” (ibid). Since errors are not viewed as a “product of imperfect learning” (ibid) or a “reflection of faulty imitation” (ibid) anymore, but as “indications of a learner’s attempt to figure out some system, that is, to impose regularity on the language the learner is exposed to” (ibid), they became an object of investigation the of the field of second language acquisition.

In order to analyze students’ errors, Corder (1974) proposes the following five stage model of EA proceeding:

1. Selection of a corpus of language.
2. Identification of errors in the corpus.
3. Classification of the errors identified.
4. Explanation of the psycholinguistic causes of the errors.
5. Evaluation (error gravity ranking) of the errors.

Gass and Selinker (2008) expanded this model to another step of quantifying the errors (ibid, p. 103):

1. Collect data. Although this is typically done with written data, oral data can also serve as a base.
2. Identify errors. What is the error (e.g. incorrect sequence of tenses, wrong verb form, singular verb form with plural subject)?
3. Classify errors. Is it an error of agreement? Is it an error in irregular verbs?
4. Quantify errors. How many errors of agreement occur? How many irregular verb forms occur?
5. Analyze source. […]
6. Remediate. Bases on the kind and frequency of an error type, pedagogical intervention is carried out.

3.1. Errors in EA

Critics of EA argue, however, that its emphasis is exclusively put on errors, whereas nonerrors are completely disregarded. Therefore, they criticize that not all aspects of the student’s linguistic behavior is examined (Gass & Selinker, 2008, p. 104). Furthermore, Schachter (1974) criticizes that EA focuses exclusively on learners’ production and does not consider the "avoidance phenomenon" (ibid, p. 212). Herby, the author refers to the strategy of avoiding difficult language structures: It might be that learners avoid structures that include difficulties and therefore avoid errors. This absence of errors, however, does not necessarily represent a nativelike competence (ibid). In addition to that, Brown (2007) argues that EA "is an overemphasis on production data" (ibid, p. 259).

3.2. Identification of errors

According to Corder (1974), the second step after the collection of data, is to identify the error. Therefore, Corder (1971) provided a schema (see p. 9, Figure 1), which helps to analyze any learner's utterance for idiosyncrasies. A first distinction which is to differentiate between overtly and covertly idiosyncratic utterances: As stated in Corder (1971), overt errors are ungrammatically at the sentence level, they are superficially 'ill-formed' (ibid, p. 155). In contrast, covert errors are formally acceptable, superficially 'well-formed' (ibid), but do not express the meaning the learner wanted to convey. For example, “I'm fine, thank you” is a formally correct sentence, but a learner would use it as an answer to "Who are you?", the utterance would be covertly idiosyncratic (Brown 2007).

Figure 1: Procedure for identifying errors in second language learner production data

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Corder's model indicates that if a plausible interpretation can be made of a sentence, regardless whether it is an overt or covert error, the next step should be to form a reconstruction of the sentence in the target language and then compare this reconstructed sentence with the original idiosyncratic sentence, uttered by the learner and describe the differences. In the case of not finding a plausible interpretation of the overt and covert errors, the teacher or researcher should refer to the learner's mother tongue. If it is known, the model indicates to use a literally translation from the L1 to the L2 to see whether an interpretation in context is possible. If this leads to an understanding of the meaning, the translated utterance in L1 should be translated back into the TL to provide a reconstructed sentence. If all these steps did not lead to a plausible interpretation, the teacher or researcher is not able to analyze the error.

Brown (2007) gives an example to portray how the model works: If one takes the provided utterance "Does John can sing?" one would first decide whether the utterance is superficially well-formed or not. Since this is not the case, it is an overtly idiosyncratic sentence. As a consequence, one would continue to find out whether a plausible interpretation can be put on the sentence in context. Since "Can John sing?" is a well-formed reconstruction and consequently such a plausible interpretation, one can go on to the next step and compare the two sentences. The result is that the "[o]riginal sentence contained [a] pre-posed do auxiliary applicable to most verbs, but not to verbs with modal auxiliaries." (ibid, p. 262).

3.3. Classification of errors

According to Brown (2007) there are many different categories for the description of errors (ibid, pp. 262-263):

a) One division of them characterizes errors by the criteria of addition, omission, substitution, and ordering. Addition refers to an addition of e.g. a do auxiliary, shown in the example before "Does John can sing?". The utterance of "I went to movie" shows that the definite article can be omitted, an example of omission. A substitution, however, can be find in the example of "I lost my road" instead of "I lost my way." Finally, an ordering error would be "I to the store went".

b) Each category can again be subdivided into the four different levels of language, which are phonology or orthography, lexicon, grammar, and discours e. Brown underlines that it is often hard to distinguish different levels of errors. To explain this, he introduces the example that the level of a misspelled word might be syntactic or lexical. According to Brown (2007) phonological and orthographical errors refer to mispronunciations, misspellings, such as punctuation errors, typographic errors which are errors that occur because of an illegible handwriting, which also refer, for example, to twisted letters (ibid, pp. 130-131; 139). Lexical errors can, for instance, be misformations, which refer to nonexistent words, or omissions (ibid, pp. 149-150). Semantic errors hint at vocabulary related errors (pp. 151), whereas grammatical errors include morphology errors or syntax errors (ibid, pp. 154; 156). Finally, discourse errors can be devided into pragmatic errors, which arise whenever learners misencode a message, and receptive errors referring to misunderstanding a meaning (ibid, pp. 164; 167).

c) Moreover, another way to classify errors is, as stated in Burt and Kiparsky (1972) to distinguish them between local and global errors. Whereas local errors are errors that do not obstruct communication and understanding the meaning of an utterance, global errors do. Local errors involve noun and verb inflections, and the use of articles, prepositions, and auxiliaries. Global errors, for instance, refer to a wrong word order in a sentence (cited in Brown, 2007, p. 263).

d) As a last step, Lennon (1991) suggests that an EA should always comprise two related dimensions of error: domain and extent. Domain"is the rank of linguistic unit (from phoneme to discourse) that must be taken as context in order for the error to become apparent" (Brown, 2007, p. 263). Extent refers to "the rank of linguistic unit that would have to be deleted, replaced, supplied, or reordered in order to repair a sentence" (ibid). According to Brown (2007), this distinction helps to "operationalize Corder's overt-covert distinction" (ibid, p. 263). In the example "a scissors" the whole phrase in the domain, whereas the indefinite article is the extent.

3.4. Source of errors

After the errors in SLA have been identified and classified, the next step will be to try to find the source of the error. According to Brown (2007), the goal is to find out, why certain errors are produced and what strategies or styles underlie errors? It is self-evident that there is not always the possibility to identify the error's source. Nevertheless, it helps the teacher or the researcher to understand "how the learner's cognitive and affective processes relate to the linguistic system and to formulate an integrated understanding of the process of second language acquisition" (ibid, p. 263). Brown (2007) differentiates the following sources of errors: inter- and intralingual transfers, the context of learning and communication strategies.

3.4.1. Interlingual and intralingual transfers

According to the cause of errors, there can be found interlingual and intralingual errors in a student's utterance. Since the main focus of this work is to analyze a written text, the following part will exclusively take a look at errors in written language. Richards (1971) defines interlingual errors as "errors caused by the interference of the learner's mother tongue" (ibid, p. 205). Above all during the beginning stages of learning a SL, interlingual errors occur, because the mother tongue is the only linguistic system a learner can refer to. In contrast to that, intralingual errors, which are also called developmental errors, are independent from the learner's mother tongue, which means that they do not derive from contrasts with another language, and occur frequently during the learning process of the TL. Sentences, such as "did he comed, what you are doing, he coming from Israel, make him to do it, I can to speak French" are examples of intralingual errors. They "reflect the learner's competence at a particular stage, and illustrate some of the general characteristics of language acquisition." (ibib, p. 173). According to James, Scholfield, Garrett & Griffiths (1993), intralingual errors can be subdivided into four types: overgeneralization, homophone confusion, mischoice and letter naming. Overgeneralization means the fact that a certain L2 rule is learned and applied to other phenomena where the rule does not apply: e.g. the rule [jə] = <iour> applies to words like in saviour and behaviour, but not to the word picture, since it is not *<pictiour>. The phenomenon homophone confusion refers to words that have the same sound but are spelled in a different way, such as < there> for their or <through> for threw. When students misspell a word, such as *<meens> instead of means, it is a mischoice. These do only differ from homophone confusions in the way that the misspelled form * meens does not exist in the English language. The last type letter naming is a "spelling strategy that consists of using a letter to represent a sound which is identical to the sound of the name of the latter" (cited in James, 1998, p. 139). The given example *<mt> [emti] instead of empty clarifies this type of intralingual error (ibid, pp. 138-139). Besides, James (1998) adds that intralingual errors can be a result from learning strategy-based errors. These can be categorized into seven subgroups:

The first one is the false analogy, which describes errors that are made by the learner, who wrongly assumes that the new item behaves like another item. The learner could have learned, e.g. that the plural of “boy” is “boys” and therefore think that the plural form of “child” is “*childs” (ibid, p. 185).


[1] See e.g. Bauer, J. (2008): Fehler und Lernen aus Fehlern – Die Notwendigkeit deskriptiver und kumulativer empirischer Forschung. In: Erwägen, Wissen, Ethik, 19, pp. 306-310; Graber, M. L., Franklin N & R. Gordon (2003): Diagnostic Error in Internal Medicine. In: Arch Intern Med., 165 (13), pp. 1493-1499; Mehl, K. & T. Wehner (2008): Über die Schwierigkeit aus Fehlern zu lernen. Auf der Suche nach einer angemessenen methodischen Vorgehensweise zur Untersuchung von Handlungsfehlern. In: Erwägen, Wissen, Ethik, 19, pp. 265-273; Oser, F. & M. Spychiger (2005): Lernen ist schmerzhaft. Zur Theorie des negativen Wissens und zru Praxis der Fehlerkultur. Weinheim/Basel: Beltz; Weingardt, M. (2004): Fehler zeichnen uns aus. Transdidziplinäre Grundlagen zur Theorie und Produktivität des Fehlers in der Schule und Arbeitswelt. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt.

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The significance of learners’ errors for English as a foreign language
University of Kassel  (Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften)
Error Analysis
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Error Analysis, Significance of errors, Fehleranalyse, Schülerbeispiel
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