On Language Learning: Part 3 — Error Correction
Whether as a teacher or a learner, errors can be anything from roadblocks or speed bumps to launch pads for language acquisition.
Round table discussions with fellow learners or teachers about language acquisition can somewhat lackluster in the excitement department. However, whenever someone mentions “error correction,” I perk up. I’ve been to a few lectures singly focused on the concept and/or research of error correction, and each one was surprisingly thought-provoking.
Now, every single learner in each situation is going to have a different relationship with how they would like their errors to be corrected. Let’s take a simple writing exercise for example. Their is the hands-off approach where the teacher may simply point out, “there’s a mistake somewhere in this paragraph.” There’s the “underline the mistake with a red pen” and the much clearer “red pen fixed it for you” approaches. Each having their own merit based on the individual, the teacher and the materials itself. In a different example, perhaps a more communicative structured conversation, let’s say the student says “Yesterday, I eat pizza.” The teacher may just let mistake slide, hint at an error existence (Sorry, what did you say?), repeat a similar phrase with the correction (Wow, you ate pizza?) or outright stop the conversation to discuss the finer points of irregular verb conjugation in the past tense.
I remember a research lecture that I went to years ago that had asked language-learning students in various situations what kind of error correction they prefer. The results of the study were interesting in that two fairly firms conclusions were met. Firstly, there were no predictable preference to any kind of error correction in any kind of situation; every single student and situation was unique. Secondly, however, there was the general conclusion of a very strong dislike of error correction done by peers.
This is interesting because quite often in a educational setting, it is extremely important to be learning from our peers. Language, however, can be rather personal, so despite one’s confidence it can be easy to be made uncomfortable when a peer corrects you.
My personal experience is similar; when speaking Japanese, I feel much more comfortable around native speakers and higher-level (or significantly lower-level) speakers than I do around peers whose level is similar to mine.
Perhaps those with greater language skills than mine are, in fact, more compassionate about errors, or more likely they don’t really care as long as they understand.
Of course kindness and patience are necessary, except for when it may actually be appropriate to abandon both. Straight up constant repetition of key targets without compassion for error (one more time, repeat after me!) drill-sergeant-type-learning rightfully has its place, too.
I guarantee you that the above is why a good friend or partner very rarely makes for a good teacher.
A final three-point error-correction memo that I like to remember as a teacher (or as a student that I may explicitly say to my teachers) is the following: The error can generally be ignored unless it is glaringly obvious, continuously used or directly related to the specific target. Other than those kind of errors, if I understand what the student is trying to communicate, I let mistakes slide.