Chia Suan Chong: Language change and error correction

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If you were to google ‘error correction’ online, you are bound to find multiple websites and blog posts with from useful linguistic distinctions between the terms ‘error’ and ‘mistakes’ to interesting discussions about innovative and constructive ways we can correct students’ errors, and how we can help them sound more ‘native’.

But before we consider how to tackle errors in the classroom, perhaps it might be helpful to first reflect on what we consider to be errors, and whether these ‘errors’ are worth spending our valuable classroom time on.
For this post, I’ve chosen to leave the linguistic distinction between the terms ‘error’ and ‘mistake’ at the door and deal simply with the concept of what we consider to be correct or incorrect English. I’ve also chosen to deal with spoken errors and not written ones.
So in a situation where English is spoken, which of these would you consider grammatical errors?
NB: I’ve kept this list to grammatical issues for the purposes of keeping this post short, but the same logic would apply to pronunciation, discourse and lexical features. 
  • She always go there everyday.
  • Say me well to your family.
  • They are come already.
  • I’m not hungry. I’m just after eating.
  • Who was she talking to?
  • He works a large amount of hours every week.
  • Don’t you think this way is more better?
  • May I ask what is it you do?
  • We saw that movie already.
  • I’ve had that bottle of whiskey since 15 years.
It might not surprise you to know that the above ten sentences are all spoken by people who use English as their first language. They include typical sentences in a variety of Englishes: American English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Nigerian English, Singaporean English, South African English, Irish English, Scottish English and even Old English (‘They are come already’) and modern English (‘Who was she talking to?’ as opposed to ‘To whom was she talking?’)
Perhaps while reading this post, you are having a version of the following conversation in your head.
You: Just because a native speaker says it does not make it right. It’s still a mistake.
Your Devil’s Advocate (DA): What if lots of native speakers from a particular region are saying it?
You: It still doesn’t make it right.
Your DA: Doesn’t it at least give it the status of being a distinct feature of a dialect of English?
You: Yeah, but… it still doesn't make it right.
Your DA: What if this ‘incorrect’ feature of language catches on and lots of native speakers all over the world start using it too? Like the use of ‘less’ in ‘There were less people in this conference’, ‘gonna’ for ‘going to’, ‘tele’ or ‘the box’ for ‘television’ or even the glottal stop in ‘little’ and ‘water’ that started in the South-East of the UK and has now become a recognized feature of British English?
You: Uh…’tele’ and ‘the box’ is different. New words come into language all the time…
Your DA: And new grammatical structures, new pronunciation features, and new discoursal expectations don’t?
You: It just goes against the rules! New isn’t always better! And it certainly isn’t always right either! Take for example the recent Olympics. Those commentators kept making up verbs from nouns, like ‘He is medalling for the fourth time’, and ‘She is silvering’ and ‘When they podium,’ etc.
Your DA: Um…’to medal’ isn’t exactly new. It was used first by Byron in 1822.
You: He was just being creative with the language. Artistic license and all that. But that was just one instance.
Your DA: It has been in the Oxford online dictionaries as far back as 2000.
You: Oh. I just don’t like all this new-fangled stuff.
Your DA: When the word ‘edit’ was first used as a verb (derived from the noun ‘edition’), it got a lot of the educated up in arms too. They deemed it incorrect. Would you say ‘to edit’ as a verb is incorrect?
You: No. Of course not. But language changes.
Your DA: Yes. Language changes. And when it changes right before your eyes, you can either see it as an abomination or embrace it with excitement. Either way, it’s not up to you. Language will go ahead and change anyway.
And when the language is a lingua franca of trade, commerce, science, education and tourism, the language is bound to change and develop in a multitude of different ways to suit its users and its purposes. In a world where there are more so-called non-native speakers of English than native speakers, and when these non-native speakers of different first language backgrounds are using English to communicate with each other, perhaps we need to re-think our framework for measuring language learning success.
Take for example the rhetoric of ‘interlanguage’ and ‘fossilization’. Words like these play a part in suggesting that any traces of the learners’ first language in the acquisition of the second language is undesirable and can lead to bad habits, despite attempts to learn to speak the language ‘correctly’. These bad habits, perhaps due to complacency, could become impossible to change if left uncorrected over time.
However, such a model of learning can only apply if we are speaking about a learner who wants to learn a specific variety of native speaker English and is learning it to communicate with people who speak that particular variety. But when our students are learning English because it is a tool for successful international communication, it is arguable that there is a better way of spending precious classroom time than devoting hours to perfecting the present perfect, mastering the third person ‘s’, drilling the schwa, and learning idioms that only the English would understand.
So perhaps instead of measuring a learner’s mistakes according to our own narrow use of English (and what we were taught as ‘correct’ when we were younger), consider the following:
  • Who is the learner communicating with? Who does he/she want to use English with in the future? And in what circumstances?
  • Is what the learner said easily understandable? Is the point he/she wants to make coming across?
  • What impression might he/she give by talking in this way?
  • How can we help him/her communicate more effectively?
Language feedback and correction is an important part of language learning. But let’s not correct for the sake of correcting. And let’s have the discussion with the learner and help them become better at communicating in English.

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