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Mistakes and Correcting

 

Amorey Gethin

 

This web page is an edited extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark, published by Intellect in 1996 http://www.intellectbooks.com

 

Contents

 

1 How important are mistakes?

2 Grammar mistakes

3 The importance of mistakes varies according to your purpose

4 Decide not to make mistakes

5 The problem is remembering the problem

6 Make a note of your 'favourite' mistakes

7 Can one avoid making mistakes even if one does not have a teacher or guide to help?

8 Being corrected when you speak

9 Being corrected when you write

10 Choosing the right person to correct your mistakes

11 How much should a corrector correct?

12 How conscientious is the correcting?

13 Correcting mistakes is very boring

14 Possible correcting methods: by private teacher

15 Corrections need in the end to be in your head, not on pieces of paper!

16 Possible correcting methods: by computer

Notes

 

 

1 How important are mistakes?

Many writers on the subject of learning foreign languages will tell you that you should not worry about making mistakes. This is always right if they mean that you should never feel you have committed some terrible crime, or are a very stupid person, if you make mistakes. But in all other ways it depends on what you are trying to do.

If you only want to use your foreign language for practical purposes, such as travelling, it will normally not matter much even if you make a lot of mistakes. It may not matter even if you use a foreign language in your daily work, though that will depend very much on what sort of work you do. But simple mistakes can of course cause difficulties even for travellers.

I have had personal experience of this: My wife and I once had to stay overnight in a little place in the Swiss Alps when we discovered there were no more trains going anywhere that day. That was all simply because earlier in the day I had asked someone a question in my limited German, which I had not practised for many years, and had said already schon - when I really meant soon bald. (We also discovered it was a lovely place to be stranded in, but that is another story.)

Again, and much more recently, I was talking to a restaurant owner in a troubled part of the world who I knew had lost his restaurant in another town in the region and had had to start up again from scratch. So I was dismayed when he then told me that he would have to "move out" soon. It was some time before I realized he meant that he was preparing to move outside for the summer season.

 

2 Grammar mistakes

However, when people advise you not to worry about mistakes they are probably thinking above all of grammar. The examples given in the section above were simply of people choosing the wrong word. For travelling and work, mistakes in grammar do not usually matter much, but even grammar mistakes can have serious results. If my German grammar had been better on the Swiss railway I would probably not have been misunderstood, in spite of my mistake in vocabulary. My wife, whose native language has neither articles nor plurals, caused confusion on one occasion by talking about the whole meal, when she really meant wholemeal (as in wholemeal bread), and on another, festive, occasion by announcing she was giving some flour - rather than flowers - to an elderly friend. "What on earth for?!" people asked. In the first case she used the article when she should not have, although more often, of course, people with languages without articles leave them out when they should put them in. But the point is that in any case there may be misunderstandings if a person has not mastered the grammar.

 

3 The importance of mistakes varies according to your purpose

However, in spite of the possibilities of misunderstandings arising from mistakes, it is worth repeating that for many people, perhaps even the majority, it does not as a rule really matter if they often make mistakes, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. One cannot emphasize too often that the question of whether mistakes matter, like so much else in the study of a foreign language, depends both on what you want it for, and on your personal ambitions in it. If you are keen to achieve a high standard in the language you plan to study, to speak it correctly as well as fluently, perhaps even perfectly or near perfectly, then mistakes obviously matter very much indeed.

 

4 Decide not to make mistakes

The real problem with mistakes is psychological. Usually when people say mistakes do not matter they mean, most of all, that making mistakes does not stop you learning well. You will learn, they tell you, through your mistakes.

Unfortunately, for most people, this is not true. In real life it doesn't work like that. I have corrected the English, in writing or speech, of thousands of students from many different parts of the world, at levels of English varying from that of beginners to advanced. Sadly, almost none of all those students learned effectively from their mistakes. A great many went on constantly making the same mistakes, however many times they were corrected; a very large proportion of students will make exactly the same mistake again within half a minute of being corrected, if they have the opportunity. Even those who do in the end stop repeating their mistakes very often need to make the same error some thirty, forty or fifty times before they finally put it right. This is obviously a very inefficient as well as frustrating way of working - it cannot be a satisfactory way of trying to learn!

The problem is again a problem of attitude. Believing you will learn from your mistakes is one of the ways of relying on others instead of on yourself which are so harmful; it is one of those ways of expecting others to do the work, when you should be doing it yourself. That making mistakes does not matter is a strange idea if one thinks about it logically and realistically. It is a very negative approach and must mean that the student will take a careless attitude to studying the language.

If you want to master the language really well and quickly, your attitude should instead be, from the very beginning, that you are determined not to make mistakes. You will of course almost certainly make some mistakes all the same, and when you do you should naturally not be miserable about it. Above all, though, you must not give up your determination not to make mistakes. If you keep up your determination, there will be two good results: you will in fact make very few mistakes; and when you do make mistakes you will be able to stop making those particular mistakes very soon.

When you are determined not to make mistakes you will think before you write or speak. Then, if you are not certain exactly what you ought to say to express your ideas, you will find out what the right thing to write or say is. In this way you will learn a great deal about the language, and much more quickly than if you don't mind about mistakes. As you get better at the language in this way, you will find you no longer need to think about the points you were not sure about before. You will get them right automatically.

 

5 The problem is remembering the problem

But if you do not care about making mistakes, you will miss or take a much longer time to get hold of most of the knowledge that the inquisitive finding-out approach would give you. And even if you finally have the knowledge, you will very probably go on repeating some mistakes nevertheless. I know non-native-English-speaking university teachers and professors of English who know practically all that it is important to know about the grammar of English, but who make the same one or two grammar mistakes again and again and again. If one pointed the mistake out to them, they would probably say, "How terrible!", and be very shocked at themselves, because they know about that particular point of grammar very well. What is happening is this: They have not forgotten the correct grammar. They have forgotten about the problem connected with that particular part of the grammar.

Apart from simply not remembering, or forgetting to remind themselves of the correct language, the most common sort of mistake that people make is to translate the grammar or vocabulary of their own language directly into the foreign language. They tend to assume that the foreign language works the same way as their own. Whenever you are not sure how something is expressed in the foreign language, it is a very good principle to assume that the foreign language does it in a different way from your own. It does not matter if you find out that the two languages do in fact work the same way. Whether they work the same way or not, you have thought about a problem and found something out.

So where mistakes are concerned there is a very practical truth that you should always keep in mind. Most people believe that the biggest problem, at least in grammar, is remembering rules, remembering the answers to grammatical questions. In practice this is not so. We can express the real situation by a sort of slogan or maxim:

Remembering the answer to the problem is not the problem. The problem is remembering the problem.

 

6 Make a note of your 'favourite' mistakes (note 1)

If my university teacher friends would only remember that, they would very soon stop repeating their 'favourite' mistakes. When you make a mistake it does not in practice help to say, "How bad! I must study the grammar or usage again and learn it by heart." Or, if you have made mistakes in a composition you have written, it will not help much just to go through it with a teacher and have the mistakes pointed out to you (or what is far more likely to happen, have the teacher more or less conscientiously correct your composition at home by himself and hand it back to you). You must of course know what mistakes you have made, and you must understand them. But that is only the beginning. It does not matter at all, at this stage, if you cannot remember the exact grammar or usage. The essential thing is to make a note in some way of the problem, even if it is only a mental note. In note 2 there is an imaginary example of what a personal list might be for students of English as a foreign language.

But make sure you keep the problems in mind. Whenever you arrive at one of them, decide whether you know the answer to the problem or not. If you know the answer, fine. But don't think you will always get that point right in future. You only got it right this time because you remembered that there was a problem for you there. You will almost certainly get it wrong next time if you do not remember the problem next time.

If you decide you do not know the answer to the problem, you find out what the answer is. You can look it up in a book, or in your notes if you have made any about it, or in your earlier writings in the language; or, if you are talking to a native speaker, you can ask. If you do this every time you come to one of your problems, you will very quickly learn the right grammar or usage without having to do the nasty boring work of learning it by heart; furthermore, you will learn it really deeply, and finally the correct language will become part of you, and you will get it right every time without thinking about it.

You should use the same methods, of course, for the mistakes that you do continue to make. If you follow this advice really systematically you will almost certainly find that you learn much more quickly.

Except when you are preparing for an exam - and assuming you are the sort of person who likes to make written notes - organize your mistakes and their corrections in a looseleaf notebook. (Never write on the back of the page unless it is about the same subject as on the front.) You should put in here everything that you find particularly difficult in the way of grammar, choice of words, spelling etc. If you go through this collection of special points from time to time, and particularly when you are about to do a new piece of writing, you will avoid repeating your mistakes. (Many people prefer these days to use computers or word processors for storing their notes.)

 

7 Can one avoid making mistakes even if one does not have a teacher or guide to help?

Can one avoid making mistakes even if one does not have a teacher or guide to help one? We think the answer is "yes", although it is more difficult; or at least one can avoid making many mistakes. The secret is to be very careful to do what has already been recommended: always assume, if you are not certain you already know what to say, that the foreign language works differently from your own. As always, if you don't know how, find out!

 

8 Being corrected when you speak

Students of foreign languages sometimes complain that teachers or others do not correct them when they speak and make mistakes. If the people who do not correct you are native speakers but not teachers, try to be understanding. They may have very honourable or practical reasons for not correcting you. They may feel it is rude to do so, or that it would be arrogant to take your teacher's place. Or they may feel - very often rightly, perhaps - that it would break up the conversation too much. On the whole it is probably better not to ask people to correct you, unless of course you know them very well. Otherwise you can never be sure that you will not embarrass them in some way. (Asking people questions about their language is quite another matter.)

Moreover, the same arguments apply that I put forward in 4. Most students, unfortunately, including those who ask to be corrected, take little or no notice of the corrections. Once more the tendency is to rely too much on other people, instead of doing the work themselves. Experience shows that most of the people who really do learn from being corrected are the sort of people who make very few mistakes in the first place, and who ask beforehand "Is it right to say it like this?" or "How should I say that?" In other words, they are aware of the problems in advance. They know when they don't know.

As a teacher I have always conscientiously corrected the mistakes that students have made in speaking. But it has always been a rather depressing process for me, as I know that probably well over ninety per cent of them will make exactly the same mistake the next time they get the chance. I am really happy to correct students only when I know they are the sort of people who are constantly asking their teachers questions.

9 Being corrected when you write

Correction of your written language is a completely different matter. You should always try to get this done. It should be for most people the most efficient way of finding out for certain whether they are using the foreign language accurately and naturally. The best person to do the correcting is a native speaker who is also a teacher; unfortunately it is of course very often not possible to find such a person.

 

10 Choosing the right person to correct your mistakes

You can naturally always ask people who are not teachers to correct your writing for you. But you should be on your guard. However kind and intelligent and well-educated people may be, they can make statements about their own language that are not true. It may seem strange that this is so. But it often happens, sometimes because they have not thought consciously about how their language works, and sometimes because they have unrealistic ideas about language, and think one ought to speak or write in a certain way which is not the way they actually speak or write themselves, and may not be the way other native speakers speak in practice either.

 

11 How much should a corrector correct?

How much should a corrector correct? In my opinion, everything that is the slightest wrong or unidiomatic should be corrected down to the smallest detail.

One can hear the argument "At this stage it is not necessary to correct that and that sort of mistake. It will only confuse the student if you correct too much. It is better to get the basics right first. Then we can deal with the more difficult stuff later."

The trouble with this approach is that what is considered unimportant at one stage becomes important at the next stage, and absolutely essential at the stage after that. Yet on the way the student has been allowed to get into the habit of writing what is wrong, while believing the whole time that it is right. Correctors who only correct some mistakes are deceiving students, unless they tell them what they are doing. I would be extremely worried if my corrector told me that some of my mistakes were not being corrected. I would start wondering the whole time whether what I had written was right or wrong; I would not be able to forget that what one person would consider important another might not; and I would ask myself how much language I was continually using incorrectly that I would later find it very difficult to start using correctly.

 

12 How conscientious is the correcting?

There is another problem connected with correcting. Not all correctors correct equally conscientiously. This is a very difficult problem, and before one condemns the more careless correctors, one should consider the reasons there may be for their carelessness.

They may, of course, simply be lazy or ignorant, or both. There is no excuse for this, but unfortunately there are some teachers of this sort around, and it is not always easy for their students to spot them. People who are lazy, or don't know enough about the language, or about how to correct, should never take on correcting work for a foreign-language student. Good correctors not only put right what is wrong. They also explain how and why it is wrong. There is obviously little point in making a correction if it does not show what to do the next time the student wants to express a similar idea. This often involves a great deal of work. Very often teachers just do not have enough time to do complete corrections. They may react to this situation by not asking their students to practise writing as much as they should. Or they only correct what they consider the worst mistakes. Or they correct everything that is wrong, but give few explanations, or none at all.

I have myself always been a conscientious corrector. After a year or two of experience I was able to correct students' writing much more quickly than when I started, because I did not have to think so much about how to explain the mistakes. Even so, I don't think I was ever able to correct in an hour more than five 150-word compositions by middle-stage students of English. Very often the work was far slower than that. (The writing of more advanced students tends to be quicker to correct. On the other hand such students tend to write more, and sometimes their language needs longer explanations.)

I was only able to correct as thoroughly as I did because I was nearly always lucky and privileged. The classes for whose compositions I was responsible seldom contained more than fifteen students, often fewer, and I was seldom responsible for more than two such classes at the same time. Nevertheless, there were other things written by the students to attend to, so even at the best of times I had many hours of concentrated homework.

My own personal experience, as well as what I have heard, suggests to me that most foreign-language teachers are not as lucky as I have been. Many of them do not have enlightened employers, or are unable to enjoy the comparative luxury of free-lance work. Their employers demand from them far too many hours of teaching of too many students in an ever larger world-wide industry (at least as regards English) that often puts commerce and image before true effectiveness and service. If these teachers did their correcting properly, one would only be able to describe their work as sweated-labour, and they would have practically no leisure at all.

 

13 Correcting mistakes is very boring

There is one other important reason why corrections are sometimes not done properly. They are horribly boring to do.

Every student is, like everyone else, a unique human being, and so students are constantly interesting to any teacher who is interested in people. Unfortunately students' mistakes are not at all unique. Most of them are depressingly the same. (With a little experience one can work out the nationality of students from the mistakes they make, even if you didn't know it before!) You can imagine how soul-destroying it must be to have to deal with exactly the same problems, write exactly the same sort of explanation, over and over again for twenty years or more. I no longer do any teaching, and often greatly miss it. But there are just two things I am very glad to have escaped: getting up every day knowing I have to go off to follow a strict timetable; and that terrible correcting, the interminable tedium of the hours spent in solitude dealing with students' mistakes.

There are in principle two solutions to the problem. One is already a practical solution for some people, but not for all; the other is unfortunately only a future and perhaps uncertain possibility, not a present one.

 

14 Possible correcting methods: by private teacher

Of the ways to have your written work corrected that are possible at the moment, easily the best is to get a teacher to go through it with you in private sessions. This is the best method from every point of view. If you do not at once fully understand a mistake or your teacher's explanation, you can immediately ask any questions you like, and your teacher should be able to answer immediately in a way that is just right for you personally. Most competent teachers will greatly prefer this method. They do not have to spend long hours alone doing boring writing work, they can make sure that the student is thinking seriously about the problem, that their correcting is really effective, and they can enjoy the student's company in the process.

 

15 Corrections need in the end to be in your head, not on pieces of paper!

Different people like to study in different ways, but a method I have often suggested to private students is that they should not write down the correction of a mistake during the session when they discuss it. Instead, I asked them to write it later, perhaps the next day. In this way they may make themselves concentrate more efficiently. Very often people who always write the 'answer' down do not take enough trouble to put it firmly into their heads; they have the feeling - conscious or unconscious - that everything is fine, because the information is nice and safe on paper. This is often a bad mistake. In the end language knowledge is only useful in your head, not on a piece of paper.

 

16 Possible correcting methods: by computer

One day, we can hope, most of the work, or at any rate all the routine repetitive work, of correcting can be taken over by computers. This would almost certainly encourage language students to become more responsible for their mistakes. At the same time it would free teachers from the most tedious part of their work and allow them to concentrate on the most important tasks of all: showing students how to learn for themselves, and answering their questions.

More than half the mistakes language students make are usually predictable, and so presumably a computer system is, in principle at least, ideal for picking them up. It would presumably be a good deal more difficult for the system to explain the mistake in each unique context, but let us hope that too will eventually be possible. (note 3)

However, such a wonderful labour- and tedium-saving device would make matters worse, not better, if it performed its correcting work in the same way as unfortunately most conscientious language teachers still do today, unless we are mistaken. Most students do not benefit by having each mistake they make immediately pointed out and explained to them. They tend to make exactly the same mistake again the next time the opportunity arises, or if not next time, four weeks hence. As I have pointed out, the most important truth to be recognised about all grammatical problems, and a great many problems of word use as well, is that the real problem is remembering the problem.

Computers surely offer a marvellous opportunity for providing a system of correction which is truly effective, but which human teachers of classes would in practice never have the time to apply. Such a system would work something like this:

Let us take the use of the past and present perfect tenses in English as an illustration. The system might, the first time it caught the student making a mistake with these tenses, tell him:

"You have made a past/present perfect tense mistake in line x."

If the student did not immediately understand by himself how he had gone wrong, he would still have to find out for himself, preferably from the system's own store of grammar explanations. It could presumably be arranged that the system would not respond to any question "What is wrong with this particular sentence of mine?" until the student had consulted the general grammar.

In the next composition (say) in which the student made the same mistake, the system would reveal only that there was a tense mistake (not what sort of tense mistake) in line x.

The next time it might draw attention to a tense mistake in paragraph x; then to a mistake (unspecified) in line x; and finally merely to a mistake in paragraph x.

At each successive stage the restrictions preventing the student obtaining a direct answer to any question about what was wrong would be increased. It is not difficult for the student to work in this way, because he is continually being reminded what his own particular problem is - and being made to remind himself.

The system should go an essential step further by mentally jogging the student's elbow as he writes material in the first place.

"You are using 'suggest' - bleep! - what happened last time you used that word? How is it used in English?'

The student should be able to disarm the bleep by indicating in advance that he was aware of the problem.

The sort of procedure just described is one important way in which one can apply the fundamental principle we have continually emphasized earlier - that language students should think of and do things for tliemselves. It also trains the student to direct his attention to the area where it is needed at any given moment, in contrast to the 'course' approach.

 

 

Notes

 

1. There is a school of thought which says that students of foreign languages should never be encouraged to commit to paper anything that is wrong, on the grounds that they are inviting themselves to remember what is incorrect rather than what is correct. This is to be wholly unrealistic. The vast majority of language students will anyway make what one might call 'classic' mistakes, as well as their own personal mistakes, even if they do not write any notes at all. Once more we have to come back to the reality that the greatest problem is remembering the problem. It is pure practical sense to remind oneself of the dangers.

 

2.

Past/Present Perfect
NOT "do something for doing" (purpose)
NOT "the nature, the life"

since: NOT "since three weeks"
NOT "suggest somebody to do"
word order: NOT "I eat seldom eggs"
if: NOT "if I would"
NOT "by his car"
NOT "bigger as"
NOT "a so beautiful country"

 

Keep a count of how many times you make the same mistake!

 

3. There are difficulties, however, that computers may never be able to overcome. They can already cope perfectly easily with 'overt' distinctions like that between the incorrect "He are" and the correct usage "He is". But will they ever be able to distinguish the far more intangible difference in meaning between 'as' and 'while', or 'going to' and 'will', and pick up any incorrect uses of such words? Perhaps even more difficult for any 'intelligent' system to spot would be distinctions in meaning that depend on context, such as the different meanings of the English "-ing" form, which can vary between sentences which are grammatically identical.

 

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