The role of error

Module One | Background to language learning

Errors and slips

Normally, students make mistakes when speaking or writing in English. We can separate these mistakes into errors and slips. Errors are when students attempt to say something that is too difficult for them or over their level of language processing. Students are unable to correct their own errors because they themselves do now understand the mistake they made. Errors are very important when learning a language.

Slips are what happens because of excessive tiredness, worrying, fleeting emotions or circumstances. These mistakes are perfectly normal. When students are able to recognize that they have made an error, they can correct it.

The role of error:


Questions 1-6 are statements. In the box are given types of mistakes. Match the statements with the types.

Types of mistakes

A.     A slip

B.     A developmental error

C.     Interference


  1. Every beginner confuses the tenses in English.
  2. The student forgot a lot of grammar because she was very tired.
  3. The student had the ability to correct his own mistake.
  4. The student kept on using vocabulary that was based on her own language.
  5. The student’s pronunciation had a lot of sounds from his own language.
  6. She kept making mistakes because she was very angry at that moment.
  7. All the students made errors when it came to the word order in English present simple tense question forms.


Errors: reasons

Students who are learning a second language make errors for two major reasons:

  1. Influence from the student’s first language on the second language (LI). This is known as interference or transfer. Students use from their own language sound patterns, lexis or grammatical structures in English.
  2. Students are figuring out and putting language into order but they have not yet completed it. This is known as a developmental error. Developmental errors are made by students of any mother tongue. These errors are almost the same as the errors made by very young speakers of first language. It is a piece of their ordinary language development. Let us have a look at an example: very young first language English speakers usually make errors when using verb forms e.g. instead of saying ‘I went’ they may say ‘I goed’. These mistakes are known as overgeneralization. These are mistakes in students use a rule for one item of the language in the wrong way to another item. With development, these mistakes vanish. If the student is a second language learner, these type of errors vanish as the language ability of the student increases.

Interlanguage and its role


Interlanguage is the students’ own version of the second language they speak in as they learn. Errors are a part of this as well. Students examine and restructure their interlanguage. Therefore, it is not stable. As the student’s learning expands, their interlanguage broadens and progresses. According to experts, interlanguage is a stage in language learning that is important and unavoidable. That is to say that interlanguage and errors are important when learning a language.

When learning their mother tongue, children speak their own version of it for a while. They make progress on certain language items, then regress and make errors for a period of time until they disappear at last. When they disappear, it normally happens without obvious feedback or correction.

Errors: correcting

errors2 (1)

Errors are a perfectly normal part of any learning that are signs that the students are learning. They also show that the internal mental processes of the student are busy working on and experimenting with the language. There are stages of learning that everyone goes through when learning a new language. Every new segment of language that is learnt helps us to learn other segments of it that is already known to us, but we are able to know it more completely. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, all of it makes any sense to us when it is in one place and all together.

As the student learns more of the language and progresses, developmental errors and those of interference usually vanish on their own without the student having to be corrected. Learning by correction is something that sometimes can help students only if they are at the correct stage of their learning process. However, experts say that it is possible to aid students enhance their interlanguage in three major methods:

  1. Students must be exposed to a great deal of interesting language when they are at the right level of learning.
  2. Students must use the language as much as possible with others.
  3. Students must work to concentrate on forms of language.

In some cases, errors do not vanish completely. They tend to become ‘fossilised’ errors. These are errors that the students keeps on making for a long period of time or even for the rest of his/her life. This usually happens when the students (especially adults) have the ability to interact with others as necessary in a foreign language and therefore have no reason to further improve their language. Errors that are ‘fossilised’ could possibly be because the student has not had enough exposure to the second language language and/or because the student is not motivated enough to improve their accuracy level.


Nerd baby says ...​

It is necessary for us to think very carefully about:
a. When we should correct students.
b. Whether we should correct students.
c. How we should correct stuents.

Teachers must never expect their stuents to learn things at once. Learning takes its own time and errors are completely common.

The teacher must think about whether the student is making a slip or an error.

If the mistake made by the student is a slip, then the student himself can correct it, perhaps with a little help from the teacher or a classmate.

Sometimes it is much better for the teacher to ignore the student’s errors especially in activities regarding fluency. This is so that the student is given the chance to develop his/her confidence and fluency and makes them unafraid to experiment with the language and try new things.

Some mistakes are more important than others and need to be corrected right away. Mistakes which hinder proper communication are much more important than those that do not. For example, missing the s off a noun does not hinder communication but mixing up tenses can completely given the wrong message and therefore prevent communication sometimes.

It is important to consider what is best for each student’s learning. Depending on what learning stage they are at, different students in the same classes may or may not need to be corrected. This may need to be done in different ways, using different methods.

There are a few ways of aiding students to get over their mistakes. They are given below:
a.To expose the students to as much language as possible which is slightly higher than their level. This should be done by reading or listening.
b.To give the students chances to pay attention to the form of language.
c.To give the students enough time in the class to use the language to communicate and interact and to observe whether or not they can do it properly.

When the students have understood that they have made an error or that they need some new language, it is a good time to correct them or supply them new language. Teachers must encourage the students to ask for help when they need it.

Errors are useful to the teacher as well as to the student because they aid the teacher to see how well or otherwise the student has learnt something. It also helps the teacher to realise what type of help the teacher can give to improve the student’s learning further.

Test Your Knowledge

Given below is a dialog between two English students who are in the elementary-level who are doing a fluency activity. In the activity, they discuss the hobbies that they would like to start in the future. The lady is Japanese and the gentleman is Spanish.

Read the conversation and take note of how the students are trying to communicate with each other and helping one another to communicate. The words which are in italics and in brackets are spoken by the main speaker as well as the other speaker.

Woman: Oh if, if you can (mm) um, what hobbies you would like to start?

Man:      Yes, I like er so much the, to play the piano (ah, play the piano), it is one of my, my dreams                               (dream, ah your dream, ah, yes) because when I listen (yes) the piano music (yes) I, I imagine, I imagine a lot of things (ah), beautiful things (yes, ah I see) a um I like so much the, the piano (playpiano) play the piano (yes). And you?

Woman: Um, yes, er, I want to, I want to learn (to learn) to dance (to dance) um flamenco (flamenco) yes (Spanish flamenco) yes flamenco. When I finish my school I maybe, I’ll go to Spain (mm) to learn (tolearn flamenco) yeah, yes flamenco (mm) yes and then… would, would you like to (laughter)…

Man: And I play an instruments too.

Woman: No I can’t, I can’t, I can’t play anything, any instrument (yeah) even piano (mm). So how about you? (yeah) Could you, can you play-

Man: No, I play nowaday the guitar, nothing more (guitar, oh it’s good) yeah, the Spanish guitar (yes, ohit’s lovely) the sound is lovely.

Woman: Yes, yes, one day (yeah) please, please play the guitar for me.

Man: of course (yeah) of course.

(from English for the Teacher by Mary Spratt, Cambridge University Press 1994)

Here are some comments from teachers and students. Do you agree with them? Why or why not?

  1. I like it when my teacher corrects all my mistakes. I need her to do that.
  2. It is not possible for a teacher to know the reason why a student is making a mistake in the class.
  3. When my students make mistakes, I must correct them. If I do not, they will keep making the same mistakes over and over again and they will end up as bad habits.
  4. Using different correction techniques with different students is a hard thing to do.


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