The Role of Errors in Second Language Learning

This is the fourth in our series of mini-articles aimed at helping language learners become aware of their own learning processes and judge which teaching approach works best for them. Articles are written in simple, jargon-free English so that the latest findings in the field are accessible to all without distinction.

Research shows that while parents often respond to the semantic content of what their children say (“No, it’s not a puppy, it’s a cow”), they very rarely respond to the grammatical state of their children’s sentences. In fact, when parents respond to speech errors, they often respond positively.

This shows that in natural communication, only meaning errors that make communication difficult are corrected.

However, as we saw in our previous mini-articles, this does not prevent children from acquiring perfect command of the language in a relatively short period of time.

There are clear implications here for second language teaching. In light of current research, we can say that teachers should only deal with these mistakes so as not to create a negative atmosphere. They should correct only the kinds of mistakes that impede communication, not just all the mistakes the child makes.

Unfortunately, modern classrooms do not reflect this kind of practice. Teachers of a second language tend to teach too much grammar without context (which is NOT natural communication), as well as to correct students too much; thus creating a negative atmosphere in which some students may be afraid to express themselves for fear of being corrected

This results in students losing fluency as they are generally trying to parse the rules and grammar before saying something, to avoid being “punished” for being wrong.

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