Fossils, Slips and the Power of Positivity

A recent question posted in a Facebook group got me thinking. The question was along the lines of “how should I deal with students’ fossilized errors?” The answers were varied, ranging from drills, games and repetition to gestures, signals and electric shocks (ok, I made that one up, but…).

Maybe the first question, rather than ‘how?’, should be ‘why?’ – Why are they making the error and why should we correct them?

Selinker coined the term ‘fossilization’ in 1972 to describe the errors made as a result of differences between a learner’s L1 and the L2 they have learned; where the L1 has a strong influence on a learner’s use of the L2. Selinker also, handily, came up with the concept of ‘interlanguage’ in order to explain the process of using the L1 as a template for learning the L2. Fossilized errors are the L2 language that stops changing despite more of the L2 being learned.

For example, pronunciation of ‘ed’ in the past simple (looked, liked, showed etc) is troublesome for even high-level French speakers – instinctively using /id/ rather than /d/ or /t/ because of the L1 need to articulate all vowels. Similarly, speakers of many nationalities often have difficulty with the third person singular –s in English because it just doesn’t exist in their L1.

The term has, however, become widely used and abused to encompass all errors repeatedly made by learners. But are all of these ‘errors’ actually errors? Are there different types of errors? At what point do they become fossilized? (and is it really such a terrible thing?).

James (1998) defined errors as ‘an unsuccessful bit of language’ (a gloriously vague definition which somehow makes perfect sense), but are there degrees of success? Should a valiant attempt to use language, with little or no effect on intelligibility, really be deemed an error? Using James’s definition, if the language is successful (in that the learner is understood) then no error has occurred.

For this reason, I wonder whether it would be helpful not to use the word ‘errors’ at all, perhaps ‘slips’ and ‘attempts’ might better describe (and serve) our learners’ language use.

Slips are very often what we mean by ‘fossilized errors’ and can often be corrected without too much trouble, but only if the learner is in on the idea. The learner knows the rule/meaning/grammar etc but their interlanguage has got in the way of internalising and acquiring the language. They use an incorrect form/meaning/grammar because it is instinctive, not because they don’t know it. Recasting, gestures, facial gestures are simple ways of prompting the learner into realising their slip and correcting themselves. If the corrections are not internalised after a period of time and the error has little effect on the intelligibility of the learner, I would be inclined to ignore it after a while rather than repeatedly denting the learner’s confidence.

Pieneman (1988) came up with the teachability hypothesis; it runs along the lines that if the learner isn’t ready to learn something – they won’t learn it. This means that all the corrections, games, drills, recasts, role-plays, gestures and electric shocks won’t make the blindest bit of difference. As a teacher this is the point at which we should consider sitting the learner down and firmly say ‘this isn’t working, perhaps we shouldn’t do it again for a bit’. It can become infuriating, and somewhat soul-destroying, for the teacher to repeatedly point out the same wretched slip lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson ad infinitum, and similarly distracting and depressing for the learner. We can facilitate learning, but we can’t force it.

Attempts, on the other hand, come from a different place entirely. These could result from language the learner has noticed (nothing can be learned unless it has already been noticed, Schmidt, 1990), possibly has been taught at some point (but not yet acquired), maybe has been heard somewhere or is a close or unsuccessful direct translation of the L1.

Attempts could also be language the learner does not yet know, has not learned, but has maybe noticed (and thus, attempted to use). This may seem contradictory; how can a learner use language they have not learned? This is often language that forms a ‘false friend’ in their interlanguage (vocabulary or structure that they think they know, but does not translate) or a genuine misunderstanding about the meaning/use of a structure or vocabulary. Either way, because the learner hasn’t already learned the language/vocabulary/grammar they can’t self-correct and need to be taught the form, meaning and pronunciation.

Attempts are ripe for teaching. This is language that is useful to the learner, that makes some degree of sense to the learner, that they have heard and are now curious about. This is the language that you can teach, this is the language that will have your learners leaving your classroom thinking ‘that was really good, I learned something useful that I understand’ – just the reaction we all really want! Attempts are what you should be using to plan your lessons, attempts are proof of the language your learners want and need to use. Attempts are good and to be encouraged because it shows you what they can and can’t do and what they want to be able to do. When people say ‘we learn from our mistakes’, in ELT, they really mean ‘we learn from our attempts’.

Attempts show us, the teacher, what our learners can and can’t do and also what they want to do with the language. Because the learner can’t self-correct, this is where things can get a bit sticky; do we really need to (indeed, should we) correct all of these errors? Perhaps it should be the consequence of this ‘unsuccessful language’ that should drive our correction technique for this type of error. It is up to us to decide whether the attempt affects the learner’s communicative intelligibility and should be corrected, or whether (for the time being) it can be left.

Errors are negative; they are the big red marks in my maths book. Errors make the learner feel they are wrong. Errors are rarely praiseworthy. Attempts are what we should be striving for. Attempts are positive. Attempts are the best bits about teaching. Attempts show effort, need and the confidence to try. Make a note of attempts in the classroom, use them. Maybe not in that lesson, maybe the next, or the one after that – but use them.

Imagine saying to your learners ‘that was a great attempt – let’s see how we can make it even better’. It sounds much more encouraging than ‘let’s correct the errors together’ (and so much better than an electric shock).

Tamara Parsons

References

James (1998) Errors in Language Learning and Use: Exploring Error Analysis. Harlow, Essex: Addison-Wesley Longman

Pieneman (1988) Determining the Influence of Instruction on L2 Speech Processing. AILA Review

Schmidt (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching

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