E is for Error

9 05 2010

“It’s self-evident,” wrote an MA student of mine recently, in an online forum, “that most learner errors are caused by mother tongue interference”.  Is it really self-evident? It was certainly self-evident in the mid-twentieth century, when the notion of interference reigned supreme.  But the advent of interlanguage studies put paid to that.  The new science of error analysis (as distinct from contrastive analysis)  suggested that many – some would say most – errors are the effect of developmental  processes and performance demands, and have nothing to do with the learner’s L1. This is evidenced by the fact that many errors are shared by learners from different language groups, and occur in a similar developmental sequence and under comparable processing conditions.

Büyük Han, Nicosia

Nevertheless, the idea that errors are caused by negative transfer is a persistent one and is still invoked in order to justify proscribing translation activities in the classroom (see T is for Translation). I was intrigued, therefore, to find that the case against L1 interference in fact predates the work of Pit Corder and Jack Richards in the 1960s and 70s, judging by a book I found in a second-hand bookshop in Nicosia this week. (The photo shows Büyük Han, the restored Ottoman inn in one corner of which the bookshop was nestled). The book is called Common Errors in English: Their Cause, Prevention and Cure (!), by F.G. French (published by OUP in 1949).  The author states his case thus:

The argument here presented is that if errors are due … to cross-association, then the Japanese form of error should be one thing and the Bantu form quite another…. But that is not the case. .. The collection of ‘common errors’ … proves that the errors which exasperate teachers of English are indeed ‘common’.

French adds: “In seeking the source of error in the vernacular, the teacher is searching in the wrong field. The fact that the errors are common indicates that they have a common cause”.

This ‘common cause’, according to French (although he doesn’t use the term) is false hypothesizing, including over-  and under-generalising.  (The antidote that the author suggests, by the way, is much more typical of its time: he recommends the ‘drilling-in’ of correct forms, and the ‘drilling-out’ of errors, all of which involves “considerable trouble and constant vigilance”).

In discussing this topic on the bus from Nicosia to Kyrenia en route to the conference dinner, Nick Jaworski pointed out, that if transfer were the explanation, why is it that his Turkish students willfully produce errors like *I went Antalya, when the analogous verb + prepositional phrase exists in Turkish (even if the preposition is attached as a suffix)?  The same might be asked of the commonly attested *I working, *the boys playing etc, by speakers of languages, like Spanish, that have a matching auxiliary construction: estoy trabajando, los niños están jugando…

But is the case for interference  really dead and buried?  Isn’t it a fact that many (if not most) learner errors are – as my student suggested – directly traceable to L1 influence?  

T is for Translation

21 04 2010

During a talk on grammar teaching techniques, last week in Turkey, one participant queried my suggestion that translation could be a useful technique for raising awareness of similarities and differences between the students’ L1 and the target language. I went so far as to suggest that – with some structures (such as the future perfect) it could be the most economical way of presenting them. However, the participant felt (strongly) that encouraging learners to translate L1 forms into the L2 would cause negative transfer.

This led to an interesting discussion with other trainers and teachers, after the session, as to the current status of translation – specifically as a means of presenting grammar – on methodology courses, and prompted me to re-visit the entry in An A-Z of ELT. There I don’t exactly come out in favour of translation, but, in weighing up the pros and cons, I definitely give translation the last word. To quote:

Apart from being a skill in its own right, translation is also an aid to teaching and learning a second language. In this sense, translation has been central to some teaching methods, such as grammar translation, and frowned upon by others, such as the direct method. The reasons for not using translation in teaching include the following:

  • translation encourages a dependence on the L1, at the expense of the learner constructing an independent L2 system
  • translation encourages the notion of equivalence between languages, yet no two languages are exactly alike (although languages from the same language family may be similar in lots of respects)
  • the L1 system interferes with the development of the L2 system
  • translation is the “easy” approach to conveying meaning, and is therefore less memorable than approaches that require more mental effort, such as working out meaning from context
  • the “natural” way of acquiring a language is through direct experience and exposure, not through translation
  • translation is simply not feasible in classes of mixed nationalities, or where the teacher does not speak the learners’ L1.

On the other hand, the arguments for using translation in the classroom include:

  • new knowledge (e.g. of the L2) is constructed on the basis of existing knowledge (e.g. of the L1), and to ignore that is to deny learners a valuable resource
  • languages have more similarities than differences, and translation encourages the positive transfer of the similarities, as well as alerting learners to significant differences
  • translation is a time-efficient means of conveying meaning, compared, say, to demonstration, explanation, or working out meaning from context
  • learners will use translation, even if covertly, as a strategy for making sense of the L2, so it may as well be used as an overt tool
  • the skill of translation is an integral part of being a proficient L2 user, and contributes to overall pluralingualism
  • translation is a natural way of exploiting the inherent bilingualism of language classes, especially where the teacher is herself bilingual

The question is, do the pros outweight the cons – or should I have emphasised the negative factors more strongly?