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INTRODUCTION .................................................................................................................... 6
Part 1: Understanding the learner’s personal curriculum. ................................................ 11
1. Language and language learning. ................................................................................. 11
1.a Language ....................................................................................................................... 12
1.a.1 Language as a system ........................................................................................... 12
1.a.2 Early views of language as a system .................................................................... 15
1.a.3 The social function of the language system ......................................................... 17
1.a.4 Conceptualisation, metaphor and metonymy in cognitive linguistics ................. 20
1.a.5 The functional description of language – using the system ................................. 24
1.b Language learning ......................................................................................................... 26
1.b.1 Discussing learning and acquisition .................................................................... 26
1.b.2 Connectionism ...................................................................................................... 28
1.b.3 Cognitivism .......................................................................................................... 30
1.b.4 The Gestalt theory ................................................................................................ 31
1.b.5 Integrative theories ............................................................................................... 32
1.b.6 Constructivism and related theories ..................................................................... 34
1.b.7 Humanistic, situational and social views of learning ........................................... 40
1.b.8 Concept of learning in this book .......................................................................... 44
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................... 48

2. From interlanguage to the personal curriculum ............................................................. 49

2.a Interlanguage re-defined ............................................................................................... 50
2.b Universals and progression .......................................................................................... 54
2.c The notion of mastery ................................................................................................... 57
2.d Defining the personal curriculum ................................................................................. 62
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................... 66

3. Main components of the personal curriculum ................................................................. 67

3.a The learners‟ needs and expectations ........................................................................... 68
3.b The learner‟s communication style and strategies. ...................................................... 69

3.b.1 Discussion and definition. .................................................................................... 70

3.b.2 Favourable and unfavourable communication styles and strategies .................... 75
3.b.3 Communication styles and strategies analysis .................................................... 83
3.c The learner‟s learning hypotheses, styles and strategies .............................................. 86
3.c.1 Learning hypotheses ............................................................................................ 86
3.c.2 Learning styles ..................................................................................................... 88
3.d The learner‟s method .................................................................................................... 94
3.e The learner‟s questions and their role in the personal curriculum ................................ 95
3.f Compensation: a re-definition and a description of its role .......................................... 97
3.g Errors as manifestations of the personal curriculum .................................................. 101
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 108

4. Final level of attainment in the personal curriculum ................................................... 109

4.a A re-definition of fossilisation .................................................................................... 110
4.b The impact of feedback on fossilisation ..................................................................... 112
4.c The role of acculturation – in whose culture?............................................................. 114
4.d Biological factors ........................................................................................................ 117
4.e From fossilisation to language ceiling ........................................................................ 119
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 123

PART 2: Exploring errors in the EFL classroom .............................................................. 124

1. Error analysis as a teaching tool ................................................................................. 124
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 130

2. Methods and instruments for error analysis ................................................................ 131

2.a Valid samples for error analysis ................................................................................. 131
2.b Descriptive and diagnostic analyses ........................................................................... 139
2.c Error classification in the descriptive analysis ........................................................... 144
2.c.1 Error Rating ....................................................................................................... 148
2.c.2 Error Type .......................................................................................................... 152
2.c.3 Error Class ......................................................................................................... 157
2.c.4 Causes of intralingual errors .............................................................................. 161

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2.c.5 Compensatory utterances/errors ......................................................................... 175

Final comments ..................................................................................................................... 176
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 179

3. Completing the classification of errors .......................................................................... 180

3.a Productive and unproductive errors............................................................................ 180
3.b Pre-systematic, systematic, post-systematic stages. ................................................... 186
3.c Developmental, fossilisable errors. ............................................................................ 187
3.d Teaching-induced errors .............................................................................................. 189
3.d.1 Specific causes of teaching-induced errors ....................................................... 198
3.d.2 Compensation-provoking teaching ................................................................... 211
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 214

PART 3: Exploiting errors .................................................................................................. 215

1. Error analysis for completing progress evaluation ...................................................... 215
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 220

2. Error exploitation vs. error correction .......................................................................... 221

2.a Problems with correction ............................................................................................. 222
2.b Error exploitation ....................................................................................................... 228
2.c Comments on error exploitation ................................................................................. 239
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 242

3. Teaching learners at their language ceiling .................................................................. 243

3.a Recognising language ceiling ..................................................................................... 243
3.b Unproductive errors and language ceiling .................................................................. 247
3.b.1 The significance of learners‟ comments on learning and teaching. .................. 256
3.c Horizontal development. ............................................................................................ 261
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 266

4. The correspondence between errors and learning hypotheses .................................... 267

4.a Errors and learning hypotheses: finding the match ..................................................... 267
4.b Error prognosis ............................................................................................................. 269

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


4.c Error prognosis and teaching ........................................................................................ 275

4.d Ceiling prognosis .......................................................................................................... 276
4.e The desirability of prognoses ....................................................................................... 277
EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION ............................................................................. 285

Summing up .......................................................................................................................... 286

APPENDIX 1 ........................................................................................................................ 288

APPENDIX 2 ........................................................................................................................ 290
A - Text of the test. ....................................................................................................... 291
B - Description of the testing items. ............................................................................. 293
References.............................................................................................................................. 301

Figure 1 – Measuring the development of learners‟ interlanguage ........................................... 61
Figure 2 – Main components of the personal curriculum .......................................................... 65
Figure 3 – Kolb‟s learning styles in his experiential learning model ........................................ 92
Figure 4 – The processes of error production and error analysis .............................................. 94
Figure 5 – Summary: the personal curriculum ........................................................................ 107
Figure 6– Valid sample for error analysis ............................................................................... 133
Figure 7 – Practical applications of error analysis .................................................................. 139
Figure 8 – Error classification ................................................................................................. 146
Figure 9 – Compensation ......................................................................................................... 176
Figure 10 – Errors of learners with scores between 65% and 80% in language tests ............. 183
Figure 11 – Errors of learners who scored below the passing mark........................................ 184
Figure 12 – The teacher‟s leadership ....................................................................................... 194
Figure 13 – Experiential learning model ................................................................................. 228
Figure 14 – The process of error exploitation. ........................................................................ 238
Figure 15 – Students who had probably reached their ceiling ................................................ 247
Figure 16 – Ms XXX may have reached her language ceiling. .............................................. 250

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



We have been reminded recently of Von Humboldt's statement that we cannot

really teach language, we can only create conditions in which it will develop

spontaneously in the mind in its own way. We shall never improve our ability to

create such favourable conditions until we learn more about the way a learner

learns and what his built-in syllabus is. When we do know this (and the learner's

errors will, if systematically studied, tell us something about this) we may begin to

be more critical of our cherished notions. We may be able to allow the learner's

innate strategies to dictate our practice and determine our syllabus; we may learn

to adapt ourselves to HIS needs rather than impose upon him OUR preconceptions

of HOW he ought to learn, WHAT he ought to learn and WHEN he ought to learn

it. (Pit Corder in Richards, 1974, p.27)

Pit Corder‟s visionary statement, which so clearly defines learner-centredness in foreign

language teaching, is consistent with the now over thirty-year-old trend towards the adaptation

of curricula and methods to the learners‟ learning styles and language needs, which places the

focus on the learner rather than on prescribed methodology. Informed eclecticism, a

combination of methods and techniques taken from different approaches, to construct tailor-

made courses, created by a teacher who is well-grounded on theoretical knowledge and hands-

on experience, is thought to guarantee fully learner-centred teaching and learning. Although

teachers have turned their attention to the analysis and diagnosis of learners‟ needs,

preferences and cognitive structure, this has not always included a deeper exploration of

learners‟ interlanguage as a source of information on inner learning processes and their

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characteristics. The way learners construct their interlanguage system and the errors they make

provide valuable insight into how, when and what they are able or willing to learn and might

truly lead teachers to re-consider their “cherished notions” and to fully understand and

implement learner-centredness.

The classroom teacher is often well prepared to analyse interlanguage from the point of view

of its accuracy and appropriacy, but in teacher education, errors have seldom been presented

as concrete, observable manifestations of language learning processes, to be exploited rather

than simply corrected.

I will attempt a discussion and interpretation of errors as manifestations of the learner‟s

personal curriculum, which runs parallel to the course curriculum and reflects a way of

structuring the language system and approaching learning. I will also provide examples of

teaching methods and activities which seem to enhance learning through the exploitation of

errors, at courses partially based on the learners‟ personal curricula, and we will also reflect

upon the phenomenon of fossilisation, which I prefer to call language ceiling.

This work is based on research I undertook at a language school for adults in Buenos Aires,

Argentina, and then continued privately. It lasted for over twenty-seven years, in several

stages, and I was assisted by a team of professionals consisting of a psychologist, a linguist, a

mathematician, language teachers and course supervisors. The data came from recordings or

transcriptions of the learners‟ linguistic performance during lessons and at language tests,

from interviews with teachers and learners, reports on guided lesson observations and the

administration of a learning hypotheses test, as appropriate for each phase of the research

project. Also depending on the aims of each stage, different quantitative, qualitative and

interpretative methods of data analysis were used, as I will explain later on. The phases of the

project sometimes overlapped, so it is not possible to present them sequentially. I will prefer to

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


discuss each manifestation of the personal curriculum and the explored point of

fossilisation/realisation and outline the method used in each case, with a focus on error

analysis, as well as the practical pedagogic implementations of error exploitation.

The subjects under study were learners of English as a foreign language, older than eighteen,

the age when people leave secondary school in Argentina. This was arbitrarily chosen as the

beginning of “adulthood” and the moment when learners start taking English lessons at private

language schools or at extra-curricular courses at universities voluntarily, rather than as part of

the obligatory school curriculum. Learners were, then, university students, company

employees or independent professionals who took lessons at the rate of three to four hours per

week, nine months per year (March through December). Their native language was Spanish

and they had started learning English after puberty, that is, after the end of the critical period,

first defined by Penfield and Roberts (1959), further described by Lenneberg (1967), under

constant scrutiny since then and re-named the sensitive period (Locke, 1997).

Learners who had previously learned English at home, at bilingual schools, at a bilingual

workplace or during long stays in English-speaking countries were excluded from the project,

to focus the study on a specific population and limit the number of variables to control, which

was already very large. Previous language instruction at state-run secondary schools was

sometimes considered insignificant when the results of placement testing showed that its

results had been very poor – a frequent situation in the country.

The learners‟ language production was analysed within the teaching-learning situation: no

data was gathered during spontaneous conversations outside the classroom or in informal

environments. Research was centred on observable behaviour and performance which was

deemed useful to account for errors as manifestations of the personal curricula and on the

results of classroom practices which supposedly addressed them.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Though based on research, this book is not a collection of research reports, but a teacher-to-

teacher account of the knowledge gained, both formally and informally, during the research

process, and the questions that remain unanswered – probably, the most interesting part of this

exploration. These questions may be related to the deep, hidden, psychological, sociological or

biological roots of the personal curricula, a study which was beyond the scope of our work and

remains an exciting topic of research.


overview of the theoretical framework and aims of this book.

Part 2, EXPLORING ERRORS IN THE EFL CLASSROOM, loosely describes part of the

research carried out and its tentative findings, with plenty of examples of learners‟ production

and accounts of lesson observations. It also outlines the insight as well as the doubts derived

from the process.

Part 3, EXPLOITING ERRORS, is more teaching-oriented and has three important aims: to

discuss some accepted teaching practices and materials which may actually go against

learning, to describe activities and methods to exploit errors rather than correct them, in order

to enhance learning and accelerate progress, and to invite discussion and further study.

I will also attempt a description of learners‟ errors at the point of language ceiling, which I

consider the moment when the learner‟s personal curriculum is realised, when the end

performance in that curriculum is reached. It also contains advice to teachers on how to teach

learners at their ceiling.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Finally, the reader will find a summary of the main ideas outlined in the book and their

implications for teaching and course management, as well as suggestions for possible future


The EXPLORATION AND REFLECTION sections invite the readers to review their

“cherished notions” about their teaching practice and explore new possibilities. They may also

be used to trigger discussion or as activities in teacher education courses or study groups.

For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the teacher as “she” and to the learner as “he”. This will

avoid sentences such as “When the learner makes a mistake he/she must be made aware of

his/her error and given the tools to correct it himself/herself”. No sexism involved.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Part 1: Understanding the learner’s personal curriculum.

1. Language and language learning.

The terms language and language learning have changed their meaning through history,

depending on the development of different theories and scientific discoveries arising from

empirical research and advances in different fields, such as the neurosciences and cognitive

psychology. In order to clarify some terms and describe the background to our study, I will

briefly discuss several theories of language belonging to the second half of the twentieth

century, with a focus on some notions which seem central to all of them, and which we used as

the basis for our exploration of interlanguage, errors and learning hypotheses:

 The concept of language as an integrated system.

 The value of conceptual and non-conceptual categorisation styles for building

the language system.

 The role of metonymic and metaphorical association styles in language

production and use.

 The role of imagination and creativity in the construction of the language


I will then give an equally brief account of the theories of cognitive psychology which

explain how these processes are set in motion in the individual‟s cognitive structure when

learning takes place.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


1.a Language

Language: a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which

human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture,

communicate. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008).

This clear, simple definition is far from expressing the variety of theories of the nature and

use of language which have developed through time. Language is, to teachers and learners, the

object of study, the thing to learn, the skill to acquire, the knowledge to transmit or the code to

access, depending on the definition they adhere to, which bears close correspondence with the

foreign language methodology they put into practice, for how we teach and learn a language

depends largely on how we define this “object of learning”.

1.a.1 Language as a system

I will refer to language as a highly integrated and interactive symbolic system of systems

used for human communication, the apprehension of culture and the creation of knowledge,

with a grammar code governed by generative rules, a highly flexible lexical code, a phonetic

code, and conditioned or shaped by social, psychological, genetic, cultural, neurological and

physiological factors.

This conception of language comes from a comparison of the main late 20th century

linguistic theories about the nature of language carried out by Akmajian, Demers, Farmer &

Harnish (1995), which revealed that some concepts are shared by practically all theories, the

clearest exception being behaviourism. Their conclusions are summarised below:

a) Human languages are always governed by rules. All known languages follow

systematic rules of pronunciation, word formation and grammatical structure. The way

in which meanings are associated to utterances in a language is also governed by fairly

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stable rules; that is, the use of language for communication is ruled by important

generalisations which can be stated as rules. These rules are descriptive and not

prescriptive and do not lock the language system but always allow for language to

continue changing and developing.

b) The different human languages are a unified phenomenon. The comparative study of

several languages will disclose common, universal characteristics. There is little which

is expressed in one language which would not have an equivalent in another. At the

abstract level, beyond the surface, languages are notably similar in form and function

and ruled by universal principles.

c) Like Chomsky (1975), most linguists view language as a complex system. The idea of

a language system refers to interrelated elements, ordered in a hierarchical fashion (the

broader concepts including the more specific or restricted ones), which are relevant

only because they belong to the system and if separated from the system, lose their

sense and function. For example, we would have no use for a letter if it did not belong

to the language system and were not used to form words.

How are these elements pictured in the mind? Representations of meanings are

concepts. Concepts allow us to categorise, to group elements into categories, to leave

aside circumstantial or accessory characteristics and see the essential properties of

things. The concept verb allows us to form a category where we place auxiliaries,

modals, etc. as sub-categories, for example. The difficulty seems to lie in describing

the internal structure of a concept.

Traditional views advocated the existence of simple concepts, derived from

perception, such as the concept of red and complex concepts resulting from the

combination of several simple concepts, such as red hat. This is not compatible with

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modern conceptions of language which attach great importance to contexts, culture and

idiosyncratic factors and according to which, red may be a different concept to

different language users or in different contexts. Zadeh‟s (1965) fuzzy view, used to

construct artificial intelligence nowadays, may help to define concepts. Concepts

would be mental categories applied to objects in the outside world which belong to

these mental categories, because of their characteristics, properties and functions. The

mental category triangle would be closed with the definition of “geometric figure,

consisting of three sides”, but it is not so easy to define the category happy, for

example. Zadeh holds that each object belongs to a category to some extent and the

notion of belonging to that category has different degrees, which he defines on a

numerical scale.

However, not even this theory fully explains the relationships between concepts,

which appear to be influenced by several rules, for example, the rules of prototypes: it

is more prototypical to combine the concepts of dear and sister, in dear sister than the

concepts of dear and penguin, in dear penguin. Therefore, the combination of two

fairly typical simple concepts would not result in an equally typical complex concept.

Even with these limitations, the theory of the equivalence between meanings

and concepts is still valid, as is the idea of the necessity to combine concepts and the

possibility to do so creatively. To overcome part of these limitations, we might add

cultural, psychological and social sub-systems to the complex language system.

d) Language is an unbounded system allowing for an infinite number of combinations to

express an infinite number of meanings. Chomsky (Ibid.) attributes the creative power

of language to the reactions that utterances cause in the interlocutor, who is stimulated

to create new ways of expressing his ideas or feelings. These social and creative

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properties of language depend, of course, on the associations which people are able to

create between the different elements in the system, combining them in personal,

original ways, to express new meanings. These associations and combinations are

influenced by the language user‟s creativity and imagination and by the scope and

degree of mastery of his language: people who have recourse to higher levels of

language use have more possibilities to produce innovative or more precise

expressions of meanings.

Although this description of language was produced as a synthesis of concepts which are

common to theories of language, I am going to review some of those theories, to better define

the notion of language as a system and the role of the three central aspects of learning outlined

above in the process of system-formation: abstract conceptualisation, association styles and

the use of imagination and creativity to advance in the construction of the system.

1.a.2 Early views of language as a system

The idea of language as a system in which all elements are interrelated and where the value

of a given element depends exclusively on the simultaneous presence of all the others dates

back to de Saussure‟s (1916/1959) definition of language as “un système dont tous les termes

sont solidaires et où la valeur de l'un ne résulte que de la présence simultané des autres "
(p.9). It is a structuralist concept, in which each element in the system acquires a contrastive

value deriving from the fact that it belongs to the system. (Allen, 1977) The concept has been

expanded to include the social nature of language and its value to construct meaning and

create a categorization of reality, but the central idea of an interrelated system is still valid.

“…a system of interdependent elements, in which the value of the different parts is derived from the
simultaneous presence of all the others”.

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Systems are basically constructed by creating associations, discriminating between similar

and different elements and ordering categories hierarchically. Two predominant association

styles, association by proximity (metonymy) and association by analogy (metaphor) are placed

at the service of building the language system. Associating root to origin is a metaphor,

associating root to tree or soil is metonymy.

These association styles are present in de Saussure‟s paradigmatic (having to do with

synonyms, coherence with stimuli, etc.) and syntagmatic (related to word order, syntax, etc.)

axes of language. Associations are primarily metaphoric along the paradigmatic axis and

metonymy prevails in the syntagm. Language learners also set their creativity and imagination

in motion to advance in the creation of this system by finding new associations between


It is interesting that de Saussure‟s ideas should have influenced Lacan (1959), who holds that

the unconscious is structured like a language and claims that its two central mechanisms,

condensation and displacement, are basically two linguistic phenomena: metaphor and

metonymy. Metaphor condenses meaning and metonymy displaces it. The unconscious

possesses language awareness.

Behaviourism advocated the idea of language as verbal behaviour (Skinner, Ibid.), a group

of behaviours conditioned by a social process of stimulus-response-reinforcement by which

users learn progressively more complex chains of language units. Chomsky (1957) challenged

this view and postulated that in any syntactic description of language the surface structure has

to relate to a deep structure from which it derives. According to his transformational grammar,

each utterance “contains” others, as part of its deep structure. He also stated the existence of a

finite number of rules used to generate an infinite number of utterances, a process which is

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made possible by the explicit knowledge of such rules. Similarly to de Saussure before him,

Chomsky talked about language universals: abstract concepts which rule the structuring of any

human language.

In the second half of the 20th century, more importance was given to the study of the

influence of the social medium in the structuring, transformation and development of

language. Hymes (1979) criticized Chomsky for having defined linguistic competence as the

ideal command of abstract rules, thus not giving enough importance to communicative

competence, that is, the use of language for communication in certain contexts, for specific

purposes and within various cultures. He also pointed out that language use should be marked

by errors, hesitations and idiosyncratic elements.

Pragmatics was later incorporated to linguistic study, to go beyond syntax and semantics and

explore the value of utterances as carriers of the users‟ intentions and purposes. (Dascal, 1999)

has even held that without an element of intentionality, there is no communication.

1.a.3 The social function of the language system

In the 1970s, language began to be regarded as a social construction, including the notions of

contexts of use and cultural components of discourse. One of the starting points in this trend

was Firth‟s (1977) criticism of Bloomfield‟s (1977) structuralism and his disagreement with

the American school. He considered that language is fundamentally meaning and that

linguistics should concentrate on the analysis of meaning and not of grammatical systems. He

rejected the distinction between langue and parole made by de Saussure (Ibid.) as well as

Chomsky‟s (1957) concepts of performance and competence. He saw language as a social

function, a way of “doing things”, each language act deriving its meaning from the context

where it occurred, which included many non-linguistic elements, and had an effect on this

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same environment. Language appeared as an integrated system of linguistic and social

elements, with a primarily social function.

This theory was called contextual theory of meaning or context of situation. The latter name

was actually taken from Malinowski (1923), who had coined the word years before. Its

implications for language teaching were extremely important, as it highlighted the importance

of contexts over and above the teaching of grammar rules. At the same time, it denied all

possible generalizations about language and the notion of universals, by making meaning

depend entirely on contexts. Malinowski regarded language as “a mode of action and not an

instrument of reflection” (p.296), that is, as human behaviour. This view emphasised the role

of language in practical action and as a link in concerted human activity, as a piece of human

behaviour (p.296). Note that these ideas have a behaviouristic component: language as

actions, events, social behaviour, but they also lay an emphasis on communication and its

cultural aspects, by making language use rely heavily on contexts.

We find the origin of functional and systemic descriptions of language in Halliday (1976).

He conceived of grammar as a non-arbitrary network or system of potential options. It is

functional because it tries to fulfill communicative functions by making choices and

combining elements within the system. His position was different from the idea of context of

situation in that although he attached more importance to communicative aspects of language

than to structural features, he did not discard them for language analysis. Halliday‟s basic

three functions of language could well be considered metafunctions: experiential or ideational

(to represent processes, objects, things, developments in the world); interpersonal (to transmit

information to other human beings) and textual (the composition of text so that language will

be operational and perform a social role). Later, Halliday expanded and supplemented this

early classification of functions, but this extremely brief description will be enough here, but I

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would like to point out that he then added the logical function, to express a set of relations

between ideas (Halliday, 1989).

Halliday (1976) warned us that we should not equate functions of language with use of


There are indefinitely many uses of language, which no linguistic theory has

attempted to systematize; but the fact that language can serve such a variety of

purposes is precisely because the language system is organized into this small set

of highly generalized functional components. Whatever we are using language for,

we need to make some reference to the categories of our experience; we need to

take on some role in the interpersonal situation; and we need to embody these in

the form of text. (I think there may also be a „logical‟ component to be brought in,

but this need not concern us here.) We draw on all these areas of linguistic

potential at the same time (pp.29-30).

Language users have to consider the role-relationships, the purposes of the utterances and

their coherence and cohesion (Widdowson, Ibid.) with the interlocutor‟s utterances – their

place in the broader context where they occur, among other elements. The user will also have

to select the adequate verb tense, adjectives and other notions and combine them in a syntagm;

that is, put the words in the correct order. To carry out horizontal associations, such as those in

the syntagm, the person has to associate by proximity, using metonymy, to know “what comes

next”. To find the elements of cohesion and coherence, the vertical associations such as those

in the paradigm, he needs to associate by analogy, using metaphorical associations.

According to Halliday, then, to use language we draw from all three metafunctions at the

same time, so it is not too bold to assume that in order to actually become proficient language

users, EFL adult learners need to construct the system of the foreign language according to a

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set of logical principles, by association and differentiation, and by making connections among

realms of the system to the degree that their imagination and creativity permit.

Errors are manifest in language use, but if to use language we resort to the three

metafunctions simultaneously, we may claim that errors will lead us to gain insight into the

way a person performs these metafunctions and thus enable us to learn more about the

learner‟s hypotheses about the construction of a language system.

1.a.4 Conceptualisation, metaphor and metonymy in cognitive linguistics

Cognitive linguistics advocated the study and description of language with reference to its

underlying mental processes, an idea that Firth had rejected. Two fields were studied:

cognitive semantics and cognitive grammar. Johnson and Lakoff (1980), among others,

centred language study around several key processes:

a) The conceptual metaphor, defined as the comprehension of a conceptual

domain in terms of another conceptual domain, for example, understanding a person‟s

life experience by comparing it to somebody else‟s, which is taken as a model or

paragon. A conceptual domain is any organization of experience and the theory is

based on metaphors joining concrete to abstract concepts or thoughts, sometimes

previous to language, in the brain.

b) Categorisation, based on the Aristotelian concept of categories as individual

entities whose members share certain properties which are necessary and sufficient to

define the group. This notion was then expanded on by Rosch (1981) on the basis that

- people do not categorise according to objective characteristics of things;

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- when they categorise, people find that certain members of a given category are

more typical or preferable, for example, a humming bird is a better candidate for

the category “bird” than an ostrich, and

- because of this, it is easier for people to place more typical members within

categories than those who are less typical. Her research also disclosed the

existence of more comprehensive categories in smaller children, which then

become more restricted or specific with the passing of time, as well as the

presence of networks of categories and sub-categories associated to them.

The presence of these categories created by children on the basis of over-

generalisations seemed to contradict Piaget‟s idea of the absence of abstraction in

children, as pointed out by Wohlwill (1970), who also contributed the idea that

categorisation is taught. When children call all men “Dad”, they are corrected by

adults, who teach them to restrict the category. In the initial categorisation, the child

has worked on the basis of wrong indicators – for example, that all the members of the

category are men – to make the abstraction, but the abstraction has existed.

c) Metonymy: attaching the concrete meaning of a word to another, when the two

have a known similarity in their meaning. For example, “Let‟s buy a Monet” (It is

actually a painting by Monet), or “These lands belong to the crown”. (They belong to

the monarchy or to a monarchic state)

d) Conceptual organization: the way in which we organize the categories into

which we classify linguistic concepts. The frames of reference, the schemata, the

relationships and meanings which develop in the mind and which we access, for

example, to answer questions, give information or make judgements.

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e) The structure of mental schemata. A schema is a recurring structure of

cognitive processes which establishes a pattern of comprehension or reasoning. It

arises from interactions with the social environment, experience, linguistic knowledge

and the historical and cultural factors. (Johnson & Lakoff, Ibid.)

f) Social stereotypes. They are, actually, metonymies. A sub-category within a

category has such a well-known status within a social group that its characteristics are

taken as valid for the whole category. This simplifies judgements and definitions of the

individual members of the group. Schools are often full of these stereotypes: the nerd,

the class clown, the cheerleaders, the barbies, the apple-polishers, etc.

g) Iconicity. The similarity or correspondence between a linguistic form and its

meaning, as well as the analogy between two concepts and the fact that one can stand

for the other. For example, two rock‟n roll singers have iconic representation because

they belong to the same profession, but if one of them becomes extremely successful,

people may refer to him as “a Paul McCarthy”.

h) Gestures and body expression, often conveyors of involuntary but powerful

messages. In pragmatics, communications which are not ruled by volition are often

left out of analyses and in linguistics, non-verbal forms of communication are not

studied. However, body language can only be encoded and decoded according to the

native language or the shared language of the interlocutors involved. Gestures, facial

expressions, body attitudes stand for words and concepts.

Body language would not be perceptible or comprehensible if the user were unable to

“translate” it into other “languages” or adapt it to reach different audiences. Besides, it

should be possible to verbalise the possible meanings of a gesture, a certain body

posture or any other movement made in the representation-interpretation (Austin,

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1962) game, for this body language to be meaningful, because it relies on verbal

language to be comprehended. Because of this, gestures are often causes of social

blunders, when they are addressed at users of different languages where these gestures

“translate” into words or phrases not shared by the interlocutors.

i) Linguistic relativity: language is not a scientific notion; it is a social, political

and cultural notion. Carroll (1973), among others, has claimed that a particular


………exerts an influence on the minds of those who use it, channelling their

thoughts in special and distinct ways and perhaps even causing them to experience

their world differently from those who speak other languages. […..] The theory

that languages have special effects on the mental activities of their users has been

called the theory of linguistic relativity, because it asserts that mental activity is to

at least some degree relative to, and dependent on, the language in which it takes

place. (p.126)

The most characteristic statement of this theory is known as the Whorf (1973)

hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. They held that

“…we cut up nature – organise it into concepts – and ascribe significances as we

do … largely because of the absolutely obligatory patterns of our [own] language.

[…….] Grammars are the cement out of which we fashion experience…” (p.p.134)

The theory was hard to prove, because despite offering many examples of the

correspondence between language and thought, Whorf was unable to demonstrate that

this correspondence was conditioned by language (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996).

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Language relativity analised categorisation most specifically. Whorf pointed out that it was

almost impossible to define categories “on the basis of nature”, and that they were not there

“staring us in the face” but their definition had to be attempted with reference to the necessary

and obligatory categories in the language of the definer, containing a vision of the world

shared only by the users of that language.

Carroll (Ibid.), on a more moderate key, held that as languages differ in the way they encode

subjective and objective experience, their users tend to classify and categorise experience in

different ways, according to the categories which exist in their languages. These differences

should necessarily affect behaviour.

We should note the influence of these theories on foreign language teaching and learning:

learning a language would also entail observing and codifying experience in a manner

resembling that of native speakers of that language. Whether that is possible or even desirable,

in the case of a foreign language, remains a moot point.

1.a.5 The functional description of language – using the system

Austin (1962) and Searle (1980) contributed to a more precise functional description of

language, particularly with the concept of speech acts, which acknowledges the difference

between structure and function, joined by intent. Language users choose the elements they

need to use in order to perform a certain speech act. Austin (Ibid.) made a distinction between

what we say (locutionary act), what we mean (illocutionary act) and what we achieve when

we perform a speech act (perlocutionary act). Searle (Ibid.) has been credited with

participating in the development of the theory of speech acts and having introduced novel

elements into it, like the role of the interlocutors‟ intentions in the construction of meaning in

speech acts. His research, however, was more addressed at defining the use of language than

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its intrinsic characteristics, better described by Wilkins (1976) and used since then as the basis

for all language programs with a functional-notional language syllabus.

Notional-functional descriptions do not question the existence of paradigmatic and

syntagmtic axes in language or language structuring as a system of interrelated elements,

deriving their significance from the whole. The functions, similar to Austin and Searle‟s

speech acts, are constructed with recourse to general notions (Duration, time, etc.) and specific

notions, which are semantic units (Within the general notion of time, the word yesterday is a

specific notion). This conception also includes, as we can see, a hierarchical-logical

organisation of language categories.

Going back to the concept of language as a system, it is quite clear that de Saussure‟s idea

has been expanded to include social, cultural and personal factors in the system, but the

systemic nature of language remains practically unchallenged. It seems possible, then, to

conceive of language learning as a process of system formation ruled by the learner‟s style for

placing items into categories, organizing these categories hierarchically and making

associations among them, either by proximity or analogy. Creativity would entail opening up

possibilities for more novel associations or transferring concepts from one context to many

others. We are going to analyse the role of these concepts in different theories of learning.

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1.b Language learning

When do we claim that a person has “learnt” a language? How are languages learnt? These

and many other questions have haunted researchers for years, and will continue being the

object of scrutiny. Finding partial answers to these queries was one of the main objectives of

our work. Errors can help us gain more insight into learning processes, but the information

about these processes is by and large still incomplete.

In the previous section, I defined the view of language used in our research and then

expanded on it. Here, I am going to get to our conception of learning through an analysis of

some relevant schools of thought, thus reversing the procedure, as I have already explained the

three basic cognitive processes central to our research: conceptualization, association, use of

imagination and creativity, within system-formation. I will now point out the importance

attached by cognitive psychology to these processes.

1.b.1 Discussing learning and acquisition

When talking about learning I mean learning in order to acquire. Learning and acquisition

have been often described as two different processes, not necessarily related (Krashen &

Terrell, 1983). I will consider that learning leads to acquisition and always precedes it, even

when it takes place in very informal environments and at an extremely fast pace which makes

the learner think there has been no formal learning. In Ellis‟ (1985) definition, acquisition is

considered the internalisation of rules and formulae which are then used to communicate in the

foreign language. In this sense, the word acquisition seems to be a synonym of learning, but if

we consider that communicative activities are the link which leads to the acquisition of what

has been learnt, we should conclude that learning occurs before acquisition.

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A similar view was held by O‟Neill (2002), who even suggested that Krashen‟s ideas would

be better understood if he stopped using the word acquisition, particularly when referring to

adult language learning. Harmer (2001) also saw conscious learning as a methodological

device which encourages and favours acquisition through the provision of a considerable

amount of finely-tuned input and an emphasis on communicative tasks and activities which

facilitate internalisation of what has been learnt.

I will also refer to Harmer‟s (Ibid.) criterion for defining the role of age in the

correspondence between learning and acquisition, that is, that adults need to learn about the

language to learn the language. This approach allows for the explicit statement of rules, the

exploration of verbal logic, learning activities and structured learning methods in general, a

conception which departs from the basic tenets of the natural approach.

At this point, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the word natural, and its different

implications, as what is natural for some may go against somebody else‟s nature. Moreover, at

this stage of psychological research, it is a household truth that there are as many cognitive

structures as human beings, which may make a generalised definition of “natural” learning

rather complex, not to say undesirable, for it might lead to useless and even harmful over-


Considering that many of the arguments to demonstrate the existence of acquisition as

defined by Krashen and Terrell come from observation of first-language development or of

second-language development by immigrants in English-speaking communities, we should be

careful when trying to transfer this notion to the EFL learning situation of adults, where it

hardly ever applies. It is extremely unlikely that a learner will “acquire” language by osmosis

in a classroom, following a course based on a syllabus, and surrounded by other non-English

speaking learners. In these situations, formal teaching, however flexible and adaptable,

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coupled with conscious learning and communicative practice, leads to acquisition in the sense

Ellis uses the word. This follows the natural process for these teaching-learning situations.

It should be noted that I am making this claim only on the basis of my life-long experience

in teaching and not based on formal research. To make up for this feebleness in my arguments,

I will offer, in the following sections, some brief reviews of cognitive theories which shed

more light on learning mechanisms and describe conscious as well as unconscious processes,

their significance and role in the apprehension of different forms of knowledge.

1.b.2 Connectionism

Early connectionism of the first sixty years of the 20th century explained learning as a series

of stimulus-response associations. The exploration of learning processes was largely carried

out by means of laboratory experiments, such as Pavlov‟s (1927) work with conditioned

reflexes in animals.

Psychologists researched concepts such as the frequency of occurrence of an event and how

it could be modified, the effect of positive and negative reinforcement on behaviour, the

extinction of behaviours when their reinforcement disappeared, their spontaneous recovery,

generalization (the tendency to produce the same response to similar, but different stimuli) and

discrimination (the tendency to distinguish and discriminate, through reinforcement, similar


These scientists were the heirs of positivism and believed that their work had to be centred

on the study of observable phenomena, leaving the explanation of their causes in the hands of

philosophers. Positivism was against inferring, assuming or exploring non-observable entities

or processes. Milder versions of this school of thought accept that human behaviour is not

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always the response to direct stimuli and Skinner (1957) recognized changes in behaviour

depending on the operant conditions; that is, the circumstances under which it was emitted.

Since 1986, we have known modern connectionism, which conceives of the mind as a

system with a series of processing units or nodes resembling neurons, interrelated by multiple

connections and forming networks. Between the points of input and output of information,

there are a series of hidden layers through which information spreads until an outcome is

reached in the output units.

Learning takes place when two units of a neural network are excited in a simultaneous

fashion and the connecting force between them increases. When a pattern arrives at the output

layer, it finds a system there which compares the ideal output to the actual output, and this

reinforces, retrospectively, the path followed by the activation pattern which best resembles

the ideal output. After several repetitions of this trial and error process, learning occurs.

(Díaz-Benjumea, 2002)

Connectionism has explored conceptualization. The placement of elements in conceptual

categories with necessary and sufficient characteristics seems to pose certain problems,

mainly, the variations and exceptions within categories. Connectionism seems to clearly

define the characteristics of categories and handle categorization with great ease, as networks

can learn to detect subtle patterns of repetition of special characteristics which would be

difficult to explain applying general rules. This tries to account for the flexibility and insight

of human intelligence with recourse to methods which are not exception-free, so as to avoid

rigid forms of symbolic representations. Cognition needs a language of thought, but its rules

have to be flexible, not rigid as those which govern algorithms or as the rules of physics

(Horgan & Tienson, 1996).

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1.b.3 Cognitivism

Cognitive theories of learning differ from connectionism in that they concentrate on human

perception, attitudes, beliefs, motives and values and the way in which these forms of

cognition interact with experience, shaping each other in the process. They deal with the

causes of phenomena, claiming that a mere objective description of behaviour is by no means

enough for the study of human learning, for if we lose sight of people‟s motivation, feelings

and life experience, we may be treating them like laboratory rats. Humans do not always learn

because there is a piece of cheese at the end of the maze and sometimes, they learn without the

stimulus of a visible, tangible reward – with no cheese. Even more, they often learn even by

putting up with a lot of negative reinforcement, criticism or failure. Cognitive psychologists

challenge connectionists to explain these phenomena, which the modern equations ruling

neural networks do not seem to clearly map out.

According to cognitive theories, people learn when they are involved in situations they find

meaningful and significant, to the point that there are no generalisable meanings, because the

meaning of a situation is inside the individual, and only by understanding the person

empathically, by talking to him, can we reach this meaning. Please note that this is

intrinsically related to the idea of the personal curriculum in this book, which I will explain in

the following section.

These positions derive from Descartes‟ philosophical idealism and have found a place in

phenomenology. Rogers (1972) held that the individual exists within a phenomenological

field. The important thing, in this study of human cognition, is not an event or an object per se,

but how the person perceives and understands it.

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All the learner-centred approaches of the 1980s derive from this position. The teacher can

only understand the processes developing in the learner‟s experience by “stepping into his

shoes”, by understanding the learner empathically. This is what our research attempted and the

main reason for embracing an exploration of the personal curriculum. Perhaps this exploration

and the desire to empathise with the learner contributed more to raise the quality of our work

than the answers we might have found.

1.b.4 The Gestalt theory

The first questioning of connectionism came, however, from the Gestalt theory advocated by

three German theoreticians living in the United States: Wetheimer, Köhler & Koffka.

They considered learning as the perception of a complete object which cannot be divided

into components of the stimulus-response type without damaging its meaning. The learner‟s

conscience perceives a scene as a meaningful whole and this is what makes this whole

relevant to produce changes in the person‟s behaviour. Our thought is composed of whole,

meaningful perceptions, scenes, rather than by elements associated by conditioning or

otherwise, or by isolated images. (Köhler, Koffka & Sander, 1963) When we see a giraffe, the

concept our mind perceives in the first place is that of the whole animal, a giraffe, not an

ensemble of four legs, two ears, a body, a neck, a tail and all the other “components” which,

put together, would make a giraffe.

According to this, learning does not entail erasing tracks and producing others, but changing

the person‟s perceptive configuration of whole fields of stimuli (meaningful gestalten)

Learning occurs when this restructuring of the field takes place, which may happen all of a

sudden, through insight, or after a period when the learner seems not to understand or care

about the problem, although he is exposed to it.

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Insight calls for presenting different aspects of a situation as a whole or at least, related in

such a way that they may stand out as a Gestalt on a less clear-cut background. The laws of

Gestalt state that items which are closer in time, space or in their logical association are

always grouped together and that closed areas tend to be perceived as units more quickly. The

importance of the learning activity does not depend on reaching the reward at the end of the

road but on completing an activity the learner may find meaningful. In industry, this principle

was used to explain that it is frustrating for a worker to labour at an assembly line without ever

seeing the finished product. In class, we always try to round-up lessons so that learners will

experience a feeling of achievement.

Memory tends to close open areas, so if teachers do not round-up topics or lessons, learners

will, following their own cognitive paths. They will tend to turn the unknown into known,

which explains that over-generalisations are not accidents, but they will necessarily occur

when teaching does not help learners to discriminate between similar grammatical structures.

According to the Gestalt theory, discrimination is not spontaneous but must be guided and

stimulated. Generalisation, on the contrary, is a general tendency towards forming closed,

coherent systems.

The Gestalt theory also claims that comprehension aids learning more than mechanical

exercises or, in any case, it is the best possible reinforcement of learning.

1.b.5 Integrative theories

Edward Chace Tolman tried to bring together the tenets of connectionism and cognitivism.

His theory has been called purposive behaviourism. Tolman (1932) believed that human

beings do not simply respond to stimuli in a conditioned fashion, but they act on the basis of

their beliefs and interests, responding in complex ways to fields of stimuli but never to

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individual, isolated stimuli, in a one-to-one stimulus-response relationship, at least, outside the

experimental laboratory. Tolman considered many “variables” of the stimulus-response

process, mostly: knowledge, beliefs, demands, interests which affect the individual‟s response.

When an element of the field of stimuli makes an impact on the learner, it triggers the wish

to respond according to the person‟s view of the world, his beliefs about causes and

consequences, how things are sequenced in time and other concepts belonging to his particular

perception of the world. Predicting behaviour becomes more difficult than in the simple, direct

stimulus-response paradigm.

The notion of mediating response was also a move towards reconciling connectionist and

cognitive theories. A mediating response to a field of stimuli is one which produces further

stimuli in the same person. For example: when a learner receives a stimulus he finds

interesting, this produces in him the response of paying attention, beyond the actual contents

of the original stimulus, which of course, he will feel more ready to explore, thanks to the

mediating response. (Slamecka & Ceraso, 2000)

These are the typical learning situations in which, rather than respond to a stimulus, learners

show interest in finding knowledge or answers by themselves. We might conclude it is better

to present a problem than to send a stimulus, but the problem remains of how to frame this

problem so that it is close-ended enough to avoid over-generalisation and open-ended enough

to induce discrimination.

We may claim there is a mediating response for each concept in each person, which is a

word associated to it which evokes another concept, paving the way for the individual to

complete the meaning of the thing in question. When a word is associated to a thing, a third

concept, associated to both, is evoked. This completes the meaning of the word.

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In the classroom, we accept semi-gramatical utterances as long as they convey their meaning

and achieve communication: they maintain their connection with the mediating response they

evoke – the utterance which would have been fully correct.

This concept is shared by pragmatics (Dascal, Ibid.) and it is also found in day-to-day

communication among native speakers of a language, where a lot of imperfections are


1.b.6 Constructivism and related theories

In 1947, Jean Piaget published his theory of human cognitive development, which

acknowledged four stages: sensory-motor, pre-operational, of concrete operations and of

formal operations, with the following characteristics:

a) They always occur in the same order.

b) They are universal and are not affected by cultural factors.

c) They are related to cognitive development.

d) The sequence is organised hierarchically, that is, each stage contains elements of the

previous ones, which are integrated but also stand alone.

e) The represent qualitative as well as quantitative differences in thinking styles.

In the last stage, which appears in adolescence, Piaget places the capability for conceptual

thinking, which enables the individual to group objects or events according to their essential

and permanent characteristics and associate or differentiate abstract concepts with no need for

empirical or motor elements, by means of conservation: the possibility to retain and remember

abstract or invariable characteristics.

In each stage, cognitive structures adapt to the development process by assimilation and

accommodation, an idea which Bartlett (1932, 1958) had already put forward. In assimilation,

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the person interprets events with reference to his previously acquired structure, but in

accommodation, this structure changes to adapt to the medium. Learning may be described as

a constant challenge to the existing structures, which have to make room for others, either

more advanced or requiring higher mental processes – a concept related to the pedagogic idea

of creating cognitive conflicts to trigger curiosity and the eagerness to learn.

Piaget grouped mental operations into systems. Each group is a class, but classes are placed

into a classification or system of classes, within which they make sense. These groupings must

be liable to several operations: classification, categorization, substitution, multiplication,

relations; in other words: hierarchical classification systems must be related to each other for

intelligent thinking to exist.

In this theory, Language is not only the vehicle for the apprehension of culture but also an

agent for the construction of knowledge. These ideas bear great resemblance with Vygotsky‟s,

whose work Piaget came to know after the former‟s death, for political and historical reasons.

They are the foundations of constructivism. In Vygotsky‟s view, however, there are no clear-

cut genetically determined stages, but the moment when children go from one stage to the next

depends on the stimulation they receive and is different for each individual. The social

medium heavily influences the duration of each developmental stage. (Vygotsky, 1934/1962).

It is interesting to note that Vygotsky considers that language emerges as a social tool, then

becomes egocentric and finally reaches the stage of inner talk, one of the higher mental

processes. Piaget also talks about egocentric speech in children before the stage of abstraction,

not meaning that children are self-centred, but that they are not able to comprehend events

except through the filter of their own experience, which they do not differentiate from that of

others (Piaget, 1962). He also describes egocentric speech as a succession of monologues in

conversation, without strategic adaptation of the messages or a genuine attempt at following

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the interlocutor‟s line of thinking. He places this egocentric speech in the period of pre-logical

thinking, when the person groups elements by their function, external characteristics, uses, and

not by their essential characteristics.

These concepts are related to the discussion of communication strategies and learning

hypotheses I will undertake further on. Our research disclosed egocentric speech and the use

of non-conceptual or pre-conceptual categories for grouping elements in adult learners, very

often, in those who seemed to have a lower language ceiling in the foreign language.

Egocentric speech often materialized in a communication strategy I have termed soliloquy, by

which conversation is just two monologues, one interrupted by the other to let the interlocutor

deliver a portion of his speech, but where no real exchange of ideas occurs.

On the basis of Vygotsky‟s ideas and the main tenets of constructivism, Bruner (1966)

developed the idea of learning as an active process by which learners build new knowledge on

the basis of already acquired knowledge, by a process of selection, hypotheses-forming and

testing, decision-making and others, all of them relying on cognitive structures which allow

them to go “beyond the information given” (Bruner, Ibid.).

His theory of instruction rests on four main concepts:

a) The predisposition for learning.

b) The structuring of materials or any form of didactic presentation of new knowledge, so

that learners will find it accessible.

c) The efficient sequencing of items to be learnt.

d) The way in which reward and punishment are progressively provided. Bruner (1986,

1990, 1996)

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Bruner (1960) attached special significance to the categorisation of information and the

construction of cognitive maps and most specially, to the processes of perception,

conceptualisation, decision-making and inference.

In his view, elements are grouped into categories which possess objectively necessary and

sufficient characteristic to be in a particular category; however, these classifications are always

influenced by subjective factors, as we have seen.

Bruner specifies four basic attributes objects must possess to be placed in a certain category:

a) Concrete, necessary and sufficient characteristics for an object to be included in a

particular category.

b) The way in which these characteristics are combined in the object.

c) The weight that the different characteristics or properties of objects have for their

definition and inclusion in a given category. (A bicycle is still a bicycle if it lacks a

klaxon, but not, perhaps, if it has three wheels instead of two).

d) The recognition of the boundaries of these characteristics or properties, distinguishing

between variable and fixed properties. In the case of a bicycle, its colour is acceptably

a variable characteristics, but not the fact that it must have two wheels and a seat, for


Bruner describes two basic types of categories:

a) Identity categories: they include objects which share distinctive traits.

b) Equivalent categories: they provide rules to combine objects according to affective,

functional or formal criteria.

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For example, a banana is still a banana (identity) although it may be ripe or green, large or

small, etc. and it is food or nourishment (function) as well as belonging to the fruit category,

according to a botanical classification (formal).

The systems for relating categories form a coding system, a hierarchical structuring of

categories which are related or differentiated. According to Bruner, people interpret the world

in terms of differences and similarities and thus build their personal conceptions of the social

and natural environment.

The stages of development Bruner outlines are not similar to Piaget‟s but gradually progress

towards independence from the concrete and reliance on the abstract. Learning may begin at

the concrete level and move to conceptual levels.

Bruner has distinguished between paradigmatic or logical-scientific thinking and narrative

thinking, attaching different functions to each. The former deals with categorization and seeks

to classify and explain reality. The latter produces coherent and reliable narrations which place

human experience in time and space, chronicle historical events and also tell stories which are

not concerned with the truth or the verification of facts but with their credibility within certain

conventions: a fairy tale is credible if frogs turn into princes and marry the poorest girl in

town, who happens to be the sweetest one.

Paradigmatic thinking is the instrument of science, whereas the narrative modality preserves

collective memory, culture, beliefs and traditions. It is the foundation of our life experience,

which we also conceive of as a tale. The capability for relating events or inventing credible

stories is closely related to second or foreign language learning ability, as is the learner‟s

recognition of different genres and their conventions. The capability for generating, accepting

or understanding coherent fiction is also central to language development. These capabilities

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are usually acquired in the native language and transferred to the foreign or second language

(Bruner, Ibid.).

Within the same school of thought and heavily influenced by Piaget, Ausubel (1963, 1978)

developed his theories through classroom observation and field experiments, not in the

research laboratory, and postulated that learning processes are juxtaposed, representational and

combinational. Knowledge merges with relevant ideas already present in the learner‟s

cognitive structure, though not explicitly verbalized. He describes the use of advanced

organizers, present in the mind before learning occurs and which exist at the highest level of

abstraction, generalisation and categorisation, selected according to their potential for

explaining, integrating and interrelating the material being learnt. These organisers act as a

nexus between new knowledge and the previous extant ideas which relate to this knowledge.

There is a strong connection between these principles and Bartlett‟s (Ibid.) concept of schema

stating that memory is composed of schemata which provide framework for understanding and

remembering information.

These ideas are related to Bruner‟s concept of spiralled learning and with Kolb‟s (1984)

experiential learning model. They have been the foundations of materials design; Ausubel‟s

idea that learners have to discover knowledge through problem-solving is one of the main

premises of task-based learning. The main difference between Ausubel and the constructivists

is, however, that his subsumption theory states that new knowledge is merged with previous

knowledge in a process which does not add cognitive structures, but modifies them.

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1.b.7 Humanistic, situational and social views of learning

The so-called humanistic schools in cognitive psychology point to motivation as the engine

of learning. Maslow and Rogers are two of the most representative thinkers in this domain,

with a strong influence from Dewey (1897) and his experiential pedagogy. Dewey had

advocated that education had both social and individual aspects, had described the role

interests in the advancement of education and generally favoured experience and

experimentation over lecturing or rigid, authoritarian teaching methods. Maslow (1954) sees

learning as an activity which humans carry out to achieve their utmost development and

satisfy affective and cognitive needs. He places this achievement at the top of his well-known

pyramid of needs. According to Maslow, human beings seek to satisfy their physical needs

first, then their needs for safety and security; for love, recognition and esteem; for knowing

and understanding and ultimately, their need for self-actualisation, which leads to satisfying

the need for transcendence. In this paradigm, the individual may move to higher levels of need

satisfaction only when the lower-level needs have been met.

These theories consider the teacher a facilitator and they have greatly influenced teaching in

the late 20th century, but the pillar of learner-centredness was Rogers‟ (Ibid.) notion that

learning is based on the interpersonal relationship between learners and teachers, the latter

being responsible for detecting learners‟ needs and catering for them, developing rapport and

meting out reward and criticism. His idea of the need for a non-threatening learning

environment is similar to Krashen & Terrell‟s (Ibid.) recommendation of lowering the

affective filter to foster learning, by reducing correction, criticism and the degree of demand

placed on the learner.

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Bandura (1977) and Lave & Wenger (1991) focus on the social aspects of learning, claiming

that the learner should find his identity within a community whose knowledge and practices

are acquired through observation, trial and apprehension. In their idea of situated learning,

Lave & Wenger (Ibid.), place learning within social relations or in participatory situations, so

that it always takes place in communities where the learner may act as an observer or as an

active member of the group. Note the affinity with Dewey‟s principles of social, experiential


These researchers do not focus on cognitive processes as much as on the type of social

interaction which will foster or facilitate learning. Learning, in this conception, is not

acquiring structures or schema to understand the world, but participating in communities of

practice which are already structured in a particular way. Intelligence, in this view, is

distributed in the world and does not belong to each individual, as Gardner (1991, 1993) has

also stated. He claims that “knowledge does not reside with a single individual” (¶8) but

belongs to a community of knowledge, as is the case with an office full of employees who

depend on the skills and understanding of the group to carry out their work. If they work on

computer programming, for example, their intelligence about this topic is widely distributed

across these individuals, in that situation.

If we take these principles in their most radical form, we may assume that, if all learning has

to take place through experimentation, these humanistic approaches underestimate the value of

abstract knowledge. This kind of knowledge may not be the result of concrete experimentation

but of deductive, creative or associative thinking. We might also point out that, if learning

depends on community action, it might never reach higher individual levels than those already

achieved by the learner‟s community, or go beyond the community‟s resources. However, the

relationship individual-social group also includes changes brought about by those individuals

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who act upon their community to transform it, sometimes radically. We could also question

the validity of the communities of practice for learning a foreign language, since in the EFL

situation there is no native-speaking community available to the learners, nor will they build

their own identity in the process of learning a foreign language, particularly, at an adult age.

Lesser & Storck (2001) seem to define a more sensible role for the communities of practice,

for they view them as valuable contributions to the learning process, but not as central to


These situational or social theories offer very little insight into inner cognitive processes but

have made an important pedagogic contribution to language teaching by emphasising the

relevance of group work and the connections between language and society.

Within humanistic views of learning, the study of the characteristics of different age groups

has also received attention and it is extremely relevant in this work, because we will focus on

adult learners of a foreign language.

Andragogy is a concept which has been used for more than two centuries to denote adult

self-directed learning, sometimes taken as the opposite of pedagogy. I will discuss some of the

claims made by Knowles (1984), one of the most important representatives of andragogy in

the 20th century:

a) Self-directed learning: as people mature, they stop considering themselves dependent

and begin to act as independent human beings. They need to be involved in the process

of planning and carrying out their own learning.

b) Experience: as people mature, they gain experience and this is a rich learning resource.

However, it is also flawed with biases and preconceptions. Mistakes are part of this

experience and therefore, a part of learning.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


c) Readiness to learn: as people mature, their interest for learning is based on their

willingness to cope effectively with life situations.

d) Learning orientation: as people mature, they begin trying to acquire knowledge which

they will apply immediately and not in a future time. Thus, they are more ready to

learn if they know this will enable them to perform real life tasks more effectively.

Their focus of attention goes from theory to practical or potential problems and in

general, adults learn better through problem-solving.

e) Motivation: as people mature, their motivation for learning becomes more intrinsic.

Knowles‟ ideas have been criticised as non-scientific and largely based on assumptions, but

most of them refer to processes an experienced teacher has observed in her classes. Some

other points are highly arguable, of course: If adults were so independent and self-directed, the

world would have no room for fanaticism, fundamentalism and totalitarianism sustained

through brain-washing of whole populations. As for motivation, any classroom teacher might

argue that a lot of adults study English because they want to obtain a better job, move to an

English-speaking country or obtain a scholarship. Some of them even explicitly state they

would have never taken the course if they had not been driven by external stimuli of this type.

We should also consider that the boundaries between external and internal motivation are so

flimsy that the real problem might not be trying to establish if adults possess one or the other,

but how to define them.

It is also odd to attempt to generalise about how adults learn while at the same time

postulating that their learning is self-directed, because if it is, then it should necessarily escape

any generalisation or categorisation, as each individual is unique and will have a personal way

of learning. It does not seem possible for this self-direction to be realised in the same way for

everybody. However, the concept of self-directed learning is relevant for this discussion, from

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a slightly different point of view: I will set to explore the processes underlying the personal

curriculum, as manifest in errors, as a step to create a classroom medium where each learner

might best use his particular learning hypotheses. Self-direction will be taken not only as

related to motivation, but also as the inevitable result of operations the learner is bound to

perform, because they are already part of his cognitive structure, which he may be unable or

unwilling to modify. Errors will open windows into this cognitive structure.

1.b.8 Concept of learning in this book

I will draw the concept of learning from Bruner‟s (1966,1986, 1990, 1996) theories of

conceptualisation and association, influenced by Piaget‟s previous work and Vygotsky‟s

constructivism, summarised as follows:

a) Learning is an internal mental process involving perception, information processing,

conceptualisation, experimentation and memorisation, among other operations.

Individuals create their own construction of knowledge rather than incorporate a

construction already present in the outside world.

b) Constructing knowledge entails constructing a system of inter-related hierarchical

categories. Categories of a higher class, like verbs, include lower-class categories, such

as modals or phrasals.

c) Formal education provides capabilities and skills which allow people to learn better, as

their higher mental processes develop. All forms of education make us “better


d) The central role of the teacher or the materials is to structure contents to be learnt so

that they may be accessible to the learners.

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e) Adults learn within their acquired cognitive structures, creating knowledge on the basis

of previous knowledge and with reference to their schemata. The influence of the

native language on the process of learning a foreign language will necessarily be very

strong. This does not refer so much to translation, but to using the same devices to

construct the system of the foreign language which were used to build up the system of

the native language.

f) Associations, either by proximity (metonymy) or by analogy (metaphor) are natural

and necessary processes.

g) There is a natural tendency towards generalisation. Learners tend to generalise in order

to construct a rule-governed system. The correctness of these generalisations depends

on their cognitive capabilities and on external influences.

h) The transfer of an element from one context into another is carried out by a process of

transposition and similitude, when the item is given a unique identity which makes it

independent from a single context and applicable in various contexts.

i) Imagination and creativity are present in narrative thinking, which Bruner (Ibid.)

considers the means for the transmission of culture and values. Knowledge and respect

for the conventions of narrative texts help the apprehension of culture and are vital for

language learning. The role of education is crucial here, as we are born narrators, but

we need to learn how to structure and develop our narrations.

j) Reward and punishment do not come from a parent-child relationship with the teacher,

but from the learners‟ appraisal of their achievements and failures. The learner is an

intelligent, autonomous being, capable of self-evaluation, as advocated by social-

situational cognitive theory (Lave & Wenger, Ibid.)

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The process of native language acquisition, often used as a paradigm to explain foreign

language learning processes, provides misleading foundations for classroom practices. First

language acquisition takes place in social contexts which help the learner to decode meanings

and assimilate them to his life experience. Language acquisition is associated with identity-

building and acculturation. These conditions are impossible to recreate in the foreign language

classroom, where learners will be putting known concepts into new words.

As Vygotsky (Ibid.) points out:

.... It is known that learning a language at school and learning the native language

entail two completely different processes. When we learn a foreign language, we use

words that we already master in the native language and we only translate. Foreign

language acquisition differs from native language acquisition in that the former uses the

semantics of the latter as its foundations.(p.54)

Vygotsky does not talk about translation in a literal sense, but refers to the constant use, by

adult learners, of the systems of the native language as a source of reference, as a conceptual

framework for the construction of the system of the foreign language.

In his Fundamental Difference Hypothesis, Bley-Vroman (1988) describes the differences

between child language acquisition and adult language learning. He lists nine factors which

produce these differences, of which two are particularly relevant for our discussion: the fact

that in adulthood, the need for formal instruction through a graded and structured programme

is taken for granted, and the advisability of exploiting and formally correcting learners‟ errors,

which will otherwise not take care of themselves, as it seems to happen in the development of

the first language.

We will be discussing learning a foreign language through formal instruction, in a country

where this language is not the official one. We will distinguish this from learning a second

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language, which we will define as a process taking place in a country where this language is

spoken by the largest part of the population. In these latter situations, part of the input for

learning comes from the social medium.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Think about your motivation for learning something. Did your situation match the

principles of andragogy?

2. Have you ever learnt/acquired a foreign language? How did that happen? Which of the

theories of learning discussed in this section might explain the process you went


3. Think of three instances when you could say you “acquired” knowledge of a foreign

language, for example, while walking along a street in a foreign country.

4. Take one of the instances of acquisition you have listed and map it out into steps: what

happened? What was the process like?

Example: a) I was walking in Rome and I saw several signs which read “Fermata”; b)

I thought that the word had something to do with the French verb “fermer”, which

means “close” or “shut”; c) I tried to see what was happening around the places with

the “Fermata” sign; d) I did not see anything “closed”; e) I noticed that a bus stopped

at one of these spots; f) I began to suspect that “Fermata” meant “bus stop”; g) I

observed what happened at other places and noticed that buses were stopping near

those signs; h) I thought I had learnt that “Fermata” meant “bus stop”, but when I went

back to the hotel, I asked the reception clerk about the meaning of the word, to make

sure I had come to the right conclusion.

5. Analyse what cognitive processes were involved in the example above and in your


Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2. From interlanguage to the personal curriculum

Language teachers have shown great interest, in the last few years, in the role that factors

such learners‟ learning styles, motivation, personality and culture play in learning. Learners‟

behaviour, feelings, opinions and strategies have been carefully scrutinised and continue under

scrutiny. The data has come from lesson observation, surveys, personality and learning styles

tests and video-taping of lessons and interviews.

Sometimes, it seems as if researchers had somehow neglected the main source of

information about learners‟ cognitive processes: their interlanguage. It provides ostensible,

measurable and recordable data. It contains all the tangible and analysable manifestations of

the mechanisms learners set into motion within the classroom situation and is a reflection of

teaching methods and procedures, the teacher‟s leadership style, the results achieved through

the use of certain materials and the learners‟ expectations. When interlanguage has been

analysed, the analysis has mostly remained at the linguistic level, concentrating on

correspondences between linguistic forms in L1 and L2, or the way the verb system develops,

or whether speakers of a certain language show more difficulty learning the English

prepositions than others. The value of interlanguage as a mirror of learning processes and

styles, however, should take its exploration beyond the linguistic level into the learner‟s

personal methods, needs and type of expected end performance. To do this, we need to

broaden the concept of interlanguage to include these further levels of analysis.

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2.a Interlanguage re-defined

Selinker (1972) defined interlanguage as a developing system modelled partly on

successfully acquired target language forms, partly on elements erroneously transferred from

the native language and partly on self-originated rules and semantic content, which sooner or

later reaches fossilisation; a point beyond which learners would keep their interlanguage

unchanged, regardless of further instruction, input or personal efforts.

Without challenging Selinker‟s definition, I will re-define interlanguage for the classroom

teacher as the observable manifestation of the learner‟s personal curriculum, which is shaped

up by a variety of social, psychological, biological and cultural factors, and fossilisation as its

end performance objective, the point when learners consider, consciously or subconsciously,

that they have completed their personal curricula, often different from the teacher‟s or the


The concept of a personal curriculum is similar to the idea of a built-in syllabus, (Pit Corder,

1974; Ellis, 1989) which acknowledges the existence of a personal order of acquisition of

grammar items in foreign language learning, not necessarily matching the teaching

curriculum. I prefer the name “personal” because the term “built-in” might suggest that this

curriculum is innate, a claim Pit Corder (Ibid.) makes, in fact. In the light of modern

conceptions of cognitive development, it may be more appropriate to assume that the personal

curriculum may have genetic components but it should have been influenced by the

individual‟s life experience.

On the other hand, I am not simply talking about a way of building up the grammar system,

but about a style for constructing the language system, according to a person‟s learning

hypotheses, involving the satisfaction of communicative needs, concepts which were

incorporated into curriculum design long after the language learners‟ built-in syllabus was

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detected and explored but which were already present in Pit Corder‟s (1972) conception of a

personal order of acquisition and learning style. I will refer to curriculum in the sense Candlin

suggests: a combination of general statements about language learning, purpose and

experience, goals and objectives, evaluation, the role of teachers and learners, also containing

banks of learning items and how they may be used and exploited in class, according to an

approach and a method. Within curricula, syllabuses are more detailed accounts of what to

teach. (Candlin in Nunan, 1988)

The interlanguage of an adult EFL learner contains some elements modelled on the learners‟

native language, plus standard features of the target language which the learner has

successfully acquired, plus elements of a personal grammar containing errors with reference to

the ideal system of the language being learnt; in Selinker‟s (Ibid.) words, a “separate

linguistic system based on observable output which results from a learner's attempted

production of target language norms” (p.31)). Interlanguage is in constant change and

evolution, but as stated, it tends to fossilise and become relatively stable at a certain stage of

its development.

In first language acquisition, this interlanguage system is partly formed by accessing the

latent language structure (Lenneberg, Ibid.), a kind of in-built brain device which realizes the

universal grammar into the grammar of a particular language. However, Selinker (1975,

1988), attributed the emergence of interlanguage to the activation of a latent psychological

structure in the brain, accessed and activated for the learning of a second or foreign language.

The differences between a learner‟s interlanguage and the language of native speakers should

then be visible by contrast, when both try to convey similar meaning through utterances which

have obviously been constructed according to different linguistic systems. In this view,

interlanguage description and analysis would entail a comparative study of the learner‟s

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utterance with reference to the same utterance in his native language and an equal or

equivalent utterance by a native speaker of the target language.

The latent language structure and the latent psychological structure are in the brain but the

latter is considered less reliable, independent of the universal grammar and generally

overlapping with other learning areas. According to Selinker (Ibid.), 95% of foreign language

learners have access to this second device only, not to the latent language structure described

by Lenneberg, and therefore never achieve mastery of the new language.

Selinker (Ibid.) lists five factors affecting the formation of the interlanguage system:

a) Positive language transfer or negative language interference. Utterances and words

are sometimes modelled on the systems of the native language. When the two systems

are equal, positive transfer facilitates the learning process, but when the systems differ

and one is used to form the other, interference occurs and results in erronous


b) Transfer of training – language items resulting from particular approaches, methods,

materials, features of group dynamics or the tutor‟s leadership.

c) Strategies of second language learning - identifiable techniques and methods used by

the learner to process the material to be learned. In this work, I have made a distinction

between strategies and hypotheses and I will suggest that error analysis sheds light on

hypotheses, not only on strategies, which are sometimes observable without too much


d) Strategies of second-language communication - identifiable techniques and methods

used by the learner to communicate with native speakers of the target language. I have

also drawn a distinction between communication styles, general approaches to

communication, and communication strategies as defined by Selinker.

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e) Overgeneralization of target language rules.

By analysing learners‟ interlanguage, Selinker (Ibid.) suggests we can see the type of

psychological devices being used for learning. Error analysis should shed light on learning

processes, in particular, those aspects related to fossilisation, special “linguistic items, rules,

and subsystems” that foreign language learners will

…tend to keep in their interlanguage relative to a particular target language no

matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation and instruction in the

target language received (p.35).

In this perspective, some changes to a fossilised language system may still occur, through

unconscious acquisition or formal correction. Ellis (1985), on the other hand, does not believe

in possible changes to a person‟s fossilised interlanguage, but adds to the definition of

fossilisation the concept of correct fossilised language forms. This idea would be more akin

with the concept of fossilisation as the end performance in a personal curriculum.

I will use the terms language ceiling to refer to this fossilised stage, on the model of

Vygotsky‟s (1962) related concept regarding first language development, which he deems

closely associated to the development of thinking, one acting as a resource for the other, so

much so that thought cannot develop beyond the person‟s language ceiling. I will then add a

few more processes to Selinker‟s list, particularly, sub-categories of intralingual errors,

namely: adherence to first form or meaning learnt, types of simplification and cue-copying,

while also making a distinction between errors which represent an attempt at learning and

those which reflect processes that seem to hamper progress or sidestep learning.

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2.b Universals and progression

Pit Corder (1981) considers learners‟ errors as components of a systematic, regular and

consistent system, probably built according to the rules of a personal grammar. Interacting

with the data they are exposed to, learners create a personalised version of the system of the

target language, partly based on the structural properties of this language, partly on those of

their native language, and partly on their version of the target system. In this view, the system

is also liable to be modified, either by unconscious or conscious processes.

Pit Coder (Ibid..) points out that interlanguages have features in common but show personal

variations as well, depending on each learner‟s personality and situation and probably, the

learning context. He explores the order of development of interlanguage, making some

important considerations:

a) Interlanguage structures are more similar in younger learners, probably due to a more

limited need for communication at an early age. It is interesting to note, in this case,

that Pit Corder does not base this claim on complexities or characteristics of language

systems, but on communication needs, more likely to be found in the latent

psychological structure than in the latent language structure.

b) The properties of the learner‟s interlanguage become more similar in more

communicative learning contexts. Again, communication is seen as shaping up

language and not vice-versa.

c) Considering that there is a universal grammar and there are universal properties of

language, there should be similarities between interlanguages.

Pit Corder holds that interlanguage is a process of transitional competence and not of

restructuring and re-organising. He also acknowledges a point of fossilisation as the learner

advances towards full command of the foreign language. While the latter concept remains

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largely undisputed, it is not very clear how transitional competence might reach higher stages

of mastery without restructuring and re-organising its system. Even if we conceived of

language learning as a linear process, each element added to the previous ones would have an

impact on the whole of the language system.

The theory of a universal grammar and its associated concept of a natural order of

acquisition of both the native and the foreign language seem to contradict Selinker‟s idea of a

latent psychological structure which sometimes works independently from the latent language

structure and therefore, from universal grammar. If universal grammar may only occasionally

be accessed in foreign language learning, how is it that interlanguages show similarities in the

order of acquisition of language items? Is there a universal grammar of interlanguage? There

may be, and this would not necessarily deny the existence of a latent psychological structure

but point to psychological universals within it causing certain items to appear before others.

These psychological universals might be the basic communicative elements of human

interaction which, according to life experience and socialisation, human beings regard as

essential. The properties of interlanguages listed by Pit Corder, which I have reproduced

above, refer more to communicative requirements than to language universals. Psychological

universals might actually be communication universals, fairly independent from cultural

elements. They are perhaps realised by the learner in the system of a particular foreign

language according to an order of priorities determined by basic human communication needs,

drawing from the foreign language only those elements which appear to satisfy those needs

more readily. When these elements are not available or are difficult to access, parts of the

system may be creatively devised by the language user and parts can be modelled on the

native language, but the communicative need is never ignored, set aside, or placed in a

different slot in the order of acquisition.

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Thus, learners may be permanently selecting language elements from the course curriculum

or other input which matches their needs, discarding those which appear superfluous at a

certain stage, and teachers may not know enough about these processes even to realise they are

taking place.

Nemser (1974) describes interlanguage as a succession of approximative systems, directed to

the goal of attaining command of the target language. This view is similar to Rutherford‟s (As

cited in Gas & Selinker, 1983), as he considers interlanguage a structured system constructed

by the learner, which gradually approximates the system of the language being learnt. Its

evolution is achieved by testing the hypotheses the individual makes about the differences and

similarities between the two languages and the specific features of the foreign one. This view,

akin to contrastive analysis, has proved insufficient, as other processes have come to light

through research in error production. Hypotheses are tested by trial and error, according to

Rutherford, when the person attempts to communicate and is rewarded with comprehension or

punished with lack of it, with the subsequent frustration on the part of the unsuccessful


Hypothesis-testing, however, is not a collection of independent processes. As Piaget (Ibid.)

pointed out, trial and error is a method which produces a re-accommodation of the whole

system involved, either to incorporate a new feature or to correct an erroneous assumption.

The newcomer causes chaos and the system re-arranges all its elements to accommodate it

and regain stability, so an interlanguage system develops and is transformed as a whole with

each hypothesis which stands or falls. In this process, there are moments of stagnation when

hypothesis testing seems to stop, or a lot of information is apparently held in store for later

use, until suddenly, a significant re-accommodation of the system occurs, producing a leap

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forward in the learner‟s mastery of the language, a process which has been called learning in

plateaux or U-shaped behaviour (Kellerman, 1983).

2.c The notion of mastery

All these theories seem to consider that learners master a language and address their efforts

at mastering another, but this assumption may need further consideration, as mastery does not

seem to be a clear-cut concept. We might define it as the almost perfect command of an

ideally correct system of grammatical, phonological, pragmatic and semantic rules, effectively

used for the apprehension of knowledge and culture, for socialising and communicating within

a community where these rules are generally accepted and applied; that is, a relevant

communication system for the attainment of personal and social goals. We should also accept

that this description fits the system developed by all the native speakers of a language.

However, the native speaker‟s “mastery” will necessarily have heavy idiolectal components,

as Pit Corder (Ibid.) himself acknowledged, because each person‟s perception of mastery will

vary according to life experience, education, personality, goals in life and other factors. It will

also vary in degrees of approximation to the ideally correct system, which in turn makes it

necessary to further define the concept of “native speaker command of a language” within a

spectrum, in different degrees of linguistic and communicative competence. We may find that

comparing the systems of two languages will not shed enough light on the interlanguage

between them; rather, what we should compare is the learner‟s personal mastery of the native

language to a similar level of performance in the foreign language, assuming that this is the

goal he will set for his learning, as this is the level of communication within which he attains

his personal and social goals.

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Learners may not be trying to master an abstraction called “the foreign language”, but a

concrete, personal representation of this language, which they have mentally described,

measured and assessed according to their hypotheses of how much they should learn, for what

purpose, and how they should learn it. Their interlanguage will approximate this self-

originated goal more than the actual system of the foreign language; the learner will have a

personal curriculum modelled on his communicative needs, logical structuring of his native

language, compensation and communication strategies, culture and personal history, to

mention the most important factors. Interlanguage analysis and description, instead of marking

a point between the native and the foreign language, should shed light on the progress of the

personal curriculum towards the end performance, which will be similar to the end

performance in L1, and additionally, on the gap between the end performance in the personal

curriculum and the ideally complete and correct system of the target language.

The degree to which the end performance in the learner‟s curriculum resembles mastery of

the foreign language of native speakers with similar communication needs and goals and at

almost the same level of linguistic and communicative competence might determine the real

height of the person‟s language ceiling with reference to an ideal “mastery” of language. This

mastery, though related to grammatical and lexical accuracy, refers primarily to the

individual‟s ability for using language effectively to cater for his communicative purposes and

needs, as suggested by Bialystok & Hakuda (1994), who defined mastery with reference to

language use rather than usage (Widdowson, 1978).

It seems that learners with better access to the latent language structure should have higher

language ceilings. The key may be the possession of language awareness, defined as conscious

knowledge and appreciation of the linguistic system, its functions, registers and possibilities

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for the expression of ideas, the apprehension and creation of knowledge and its manifestations

in literature of various genres.

This does not refer only to grammar, vocabulary and functions, but also to conscious

handling and understanding of humour, satire, beauty, rhythm, metaphor, symbols and more

subtle aspects of language, such as its tactical, aesthetic and artistic possibilities. This type of

awareness includes appreciation and understanding of foreign languages and the openness to

communicate with other cultures; according to the Association for Language Awareness, it is

the “explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language

learning, language teaching and language use.” (¶ 1)

However, language awareness is both explicit and implicit, sometimes because the implicit

has become explicit through instruction; sometimes because conscious knowledge and

reflection on language and its role in human life have increased and sharpened intuitive,

implicit processes. The interplay of these processes resembles the relationship between

cognition and metacognition outlined by James (1999) in connection with language


There are however two versions of LA. In fact these two versions of LA have been

with us for some time. The first kind, LA as cognition, works from the outside in, so to

speak: one first learns about language or something about a language that one did not

know before. You can stop here, in which case you have done some linguistics. Or you

can go on and turn this „objective‟ knowledge towards your own language proficiency,

making comparisons and adjustments.

This is to personalise the objective knowledge gained. The second variant, LA as

metacognition, works in the opposite direction: one starts with one‟s own intuitions

and through reflection relates these to what one knows about language as an object

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outside of oneself. It is a case now of objectivising personal knowledge, not

subjectivising outside knowledge. This distinction can be reformulated as a distinction

between working at what one does not know and working on what one knows. I shall

refer to the first as Consciousness-Raising and to the second as Language Awareness

proper”. (p.102)

James limits access to true language awareness (LA) to native speakers, as he claims that to

develop LA, a person needs to have certain control of a language and have developed a set of

intuitions about it. He believes it is more appropriate to talk about Consciousness Raising, in

the case of foreign language learning:

Consciousness Raising is, unlike LA, for learners, who are not yet in command of

certain desirable knowledge, skills, and intuitions. I define CR as becoming able to

locate and identify the discrepancies between one‟s present state of knowledge or

control and a goal state of knowledge or control. CR gives the learner an equally

important but different insight into what he does not know and therefore needs to learn

if he is to achieve objectives. (p.103)

The distinction does not refer to the whole of two languages. As soon as the learner‟s

proficiency in a foreign language or in certain aspects of a foreign language reaches

satisfactory levels of fluency, appropriacy and correctness, the user can treat it as a native

language and begin developing awareness.

The fact remains that making knowledge about language rules and mechanisms explicit to

learners has always been acknowledged as an important learning resource. Ellis & Gaies

(1998) regard it as a tool for effective grammar learning and the issue seems to be whether we

should proceed from declarative to procedural knowledge (Johnson, 1996) or vice-versa, not

whether declarative knowledge has a place in the foreign language curriculum. Despite its

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value, there is little evidence that declarative knowledge of language could actually help

learners overcome fossilization. Butler-Takana (2000) conducted an experiment with Japanese

learners of English, to explore if consciousness-raising could remedy fossilization. The

experiment was successful, but the learners participated in singling out the errors they wanted

to de-fossilize and knew the researcher‟s objectives. Without this degree of willingness on the

part of the learner, it is not clear whether consciousness-raising would actually stop or correct


With no conclusive proof that fossilization of interlanguage may be overcome, we may

claim that the personal curriculum has an end performance which constitutes the final

objective, the desired level of attainment of the curriculum owner and is his language ceiling.

The stage of development of a

learner‟s interlanguage


a similar native
the extent to which the speaker‟s linguistic and
foreign language

Height of their language ceiling

resembles communicative
learner‟s linguistic and competence. (The end
communicative performance in the
competence in L2. learner‟s L2 curriculum)


as compared to the learner‟s level of linguistic and

communicative competence in L1
an ideal level of mastery,
in both languages.

Figure 1 – Measuring the development of learners’ interlanguage

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2.d Defining the personal curriculum

In Candlin‟s (Ibid.) definition, then, a foreign language course curriculum includes language

contents, a final objective and is taught according to an approach, with special materials. An

approach is the combination of a theory of language and a theory of learning, used as the

theoretical background to a method, which is a series of practical steps or procedures to learn

something (Richards & Rodgers, 1998). Theories of learning and theories of language,

approaches, methods and curriculum content are not the expert‟s exclusive domain, as each

learner seems to have a personal approach to language learning.

The learner knows, partly intuitively and partly consciously and rationally, what he needs to

learn in terms of lexis, grammar and function or genres and this determines the personalised

contents of his curriculum. We may also find a non-personalised part, comprising

communication universals all learners seem to find useful and worth learning, such as saying

the alphabet, saying numbers, telling the time and other fairly culture-independent functions.

The personalised contents will be more heavily influenced by cultural and psychological


Regarding the approach, its principles are largely unconscious to the learner and only

partially revealed through research, but each person has a personal conception of language

which works as his theory of language and a cognitive structure which determines his learning

hypotheses and therefore acts as his theory of learning. This is the learner‟s personal approach,

which provides the foundations for his learning method: the observable strategies and

procedures the learner‟s cognitive structure sets into motion.

The personal theory of language has to do with the learner‟s knowledge of his L1 – his

degree of language awareness and general level of proficiency, on the one hand, and on the

other, the role of language in his life: the value he attaches to precise and appropriate

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communication, and his appreciation of language as a vehicle for humour, poetry, subtleties,

fiction, rhetoric, that is, whether he cares for going beyond straightforward and factual


The theory of learning has to do with the three central processes I have already explained

and will discuss in more detail further on: the learner‟s style for structuring his own language,

using conceptual or pre-conceptual classification and categorisation systems; his association

style: by proximity or by analogy, and the degree to which he uses his creativity and

imagination to build the system of the foreign language.

Thus defined, the notion of personal curriculum relates to Selinker‟s idea of a latent

psychological structure in the brain and the existence of a universal grammar of interlanguage,

with basic features belonging to a another universal system, which I have tentatively called

psychological or communication universals, plus elements common to a particular social

group and completely personal elements determined by the individual‟s construction of reality.

Learners may be unable to access the latent language structure, but they may access universal,

almost instinctively needed features of language, and use the more flexible part of the latent

psychological structure for the rest, the reason being that their construction of language and

mental representation of its uses has been affected and transformed by life experience and they

can no longer resort solely to a universal grammar to build up the system of a particular

language, as was the case with their mother tongue. They also need to use their socialised and

personalised language behaviour.

The meagre 5% of learners mentioned by Selinker (Ibid.) as having recourse to the latent

language structure might well be individuals whose education, culture and life experience has

enabled them to keep this access relatively intact, mostly by enabling them to acquire a high

degree of language awareness in L1 to which they have recourse when learning L2.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


A curriculum is taught with teaching materials, usually selected or designed by the teacher or

the school authorities. Many schools tailor-make materials to cater for learners‟ special needs

in specific professional fields or use supplementary texts, videos or other sources of input,

sometimes provided by the learners themselves. These adaptations refer mostly to content and

are highly desirable, but an in-depth exploration of learners‟ learning hypotheses, styles and

strategies should be added to tailor-making, to best fulfil the learners‟ needs.

The management of a course is also part of its curriculum. The initial placement of the

learners, the total number of hours needed to cover the detected training gap, the number of

weekly contact periods, the size of the group, the time-table and the type of evaluation should

be tailored to the learners‟ needs but also to their possibilities and expectations. We should not

forget that learners also have a management style and expect to handle their learning

experience in particular ways: they have an idea of their placement which may or may not

agree with the results of the school‟s placement test, they normally know how many hours

they are ready to devote to reaching the level they aspire to; they have preferences regarding

learning in groups or in one-to-one lessons and they make choices regarding the frequency of

their lessons, enrolling in intensive or non-intensive courses. The exploration of the learner‟s

curriculum should take all these aspects into consideration.

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 Learner‟s conception of language.

Learner‟s  Learner‟s appreciation of language.
“theory of  Learner‟s acculturation in his own
language”. culture.
 Learner‟s proficiency and awareness
in L1.
Learner‟s approach

Influenced by psychological, sociological, political and economic factors.

 Learner‟s style for structuring L1,
using conceptual or pre-conceptual
Learner‟s categories.
“theory of  Learner‟s association style: by
learning”. proximity or by analogy.
 Learner‟s capability for using
imagination and creativity to
advance into the construction of the
L2 system.

 Communication universals.
Language  Personal communication needs.
content  Special language areas (ESP)

 Chosen and/or designed by the

Materials teacher.
 Partly provided by the learner.

 Learner‟s expectations.
Expected end  Learner‟s fulfilled needs.
performance.  Learner‟s view of desired end
performance, if ceiling is reached.

 Total number of hours.

Course  Time-table.
management  Size of the group/one-to-one.
 Evaluation.

Figure 2 – Main components of the personal curriculum

In the following section, I am going to discuss some of the components of the personal

curriculum and explain how, during our research, we attempted to unveil them.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Selinker identifies positive language transfer or negative language interference as one

of the five factors affecting the formation of the interlanguage system. This may mean

that teachers who do not master their learners‟ native language have access to less

information about their interlanguage. How could they cope with this problem?

2. Consider the language proficiency of five native speakers of your native language. List

them and place the height of their communicative competence in L1 on a scale from 1

to 10. Account for your ranking: what factors have you considered for their placement?

3. Consider the case of a “good” learner and a “poor” learner. Is there any

correspondence between their level of language awareness in L1 and their achievement

in L2?

4. List three situations where you felt that the learners‟ curriculum did not match yours,

and that they wanted something else. What did they want and what were they getting?

5. In the three cases listed in 4, what did you do? Did you consider you knew better than

they did, and go on with your curriculum? Did you introduce changes to the course,

method or syllabus? What were the results?

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3. Main components of the personal curriculum

Considering that a large part of the personal curriculum is not visible or even conscious,

teachers should be concerned with looking for its observable manifestations. When and how

do learners send us signals that they are focusing on their curricula or performing operations

which are personal-curriculum specific? Here, I will briefly discuss some of the observable

manifestations of the personal curriculum which we deemed available to us: the learners‟

communication strategies, compensation strategies, language needs, objectives and learning

hypotheses. In Parts 2 and 3, I will concentrate on a discussion of errors as the most revealing

manifestations of the personal curriculum, their interpretation and the classroom practices and

activities which may exploit them to accelerate progress and enhance learning.

The learner‟s personal curriculum sometimes resembles the course curriculum and

sometimes differs from it, originating a struggle between the two. The course curriculum is

available to the public and teacher and learners may consult, review or supplement it as

needed, but how can each person‟s curriculum be unveiled and followed? The external

manifestations of the personal curriculum are so many and so complex, its structure so

intricate and fluctuating, that we may reasonably expect never to answer this question in full.

We found it wiser to limit our exploration to some of its possible manifestations, rather than

attempt a comprehensive study of the phenomenon.

The learner‟s manifest needs and objectives, his communication style and strategies, his

learning hypotheses and style constitute the necessary background to the description of his

personal syllabus, and they can be partly disclosed through questionnaires or tests. The task of

deciding what types of observable classroom performance may be manifestations of the

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personal curriculum, however, will necessarily be based on arbitrary choices, trial-and-error or

intuition, as not enough is known about this phenomenon. The problem does not concern areas

in the learners‟ curricula which match the course curriculum, but those which depart from it.

We may attempt to make their identification more reliable by using a general criterion, partly

derived from lesson observation, partly based on informed assumptions: we may define the

manifestations of the personal curriculum in the classroom as learners‟ contributions during

lessons which do not address the contents of the course, or the focal point in the lesson, or

follow the prescribed approach or method. They are expressed through questions, comments

or requests for explanations or clarification which seem to engage the learner‟s deepest

interest. However, the most powerful, useful and clearest manifestations of learners‟ personal

curricula is to be found in errors.

The general background information about the personal curriculum and a description of its

possible manifestations in the classroom or even before a learner joins a course are discussed


3.a The learners’ needs and expectations

This is not a particular manifestation of the personal curriculum in the classroom, but its

general background, similar to the overall aims of a course or set of materials. The learner‟s

needs and expectations are normally explored before starting a course, at an interview or by

asking the learner to complete a form or answer a questionnaire. In Appendix 1, there is an

example of a protocol for such an interview and its accompanying questionnaire. The results

should be analysed vis-a-vis the school‟s or the teacher‟s appraisal of the learner‟s entry level

within the programme of study (Beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate, post-intermediate,

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advanced) and the degree of feasibility of the learner‟s goals, particularly in what concerns the

time-learning gap relationship, with reference to five main questions:

a) Is the learner realistic in his appraisal of his present level? In his expectations of

achievement? In his measurement of the time he will need to reach his desired level?

In other words, is he able to measure his training gap?

b) What is his previous history as a learner of foreign languages/English?

c) To what factors does he attribute success or failure? How much responsibility is he

willing to assume for his learning?

d) What is his attitude towards learning this language?

e) Does he hold the culture he attributes to this language in high regard? Does he reject


If the answers to these questions show that the learner is realistic in his expectations, can

describe his needs in a concrete fashion and is willing to commit himself to learning, his

personal curriculum may or may not agree with the course curriculum, but is correctly

addressed at the desired objectives and will most probably lead the learner to achieve his


3.b The learner’s communication style and strategies.

Are errors communication strategies, or manifestations of communication styles? Although

some communication styles and strategies favour the appearance of certain types of errors or

underlie them, they are not errors and in fact, appear in perfectly correct utterances as often as

in erroneous ones. This departs from the conception of communication strategies as resources

for overcoming limitations in the mastery of a foreign language, which equates

communication strategies with error styles, two concepts which are best kept separate, the

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former depending more on the person‟s way of encoding and transmitting messages and the

latter relating to methods for system-formation.

3.b.1 Discussion and definition.

We will refer to communication styles as the ways and means by which people issue and

interpret messages using language, how they interact with the social medium through language

and generally perform as communicators. We will define communication strategies as

individual, identifiable, observable plans or techniques for conveying and negotiating

meaning, arising from particular communication styles.

From this perspective, styles and strategies reveal people‟s particular way of making contact

with their fellow human beings, their degree of reliance on language for communication and

the type and range of concepts they use in their interactions. This is mainly conditioned by

their cultural level, schooling and degree of language awareness, as well as by cultural,

psychological and even age factors on which human beings base their conceptual

representation of the world and their relative position in society.

Communication styles and strategies thus defined are not acquired by adults at the foreign

language class, but have developed through the person's life experience. At the EFL class, it

has been suggested that the problem of adult language learners is more textual than discoursal

(Widdowson, 1979). Their problem is to textualise discourse into the foreign language, and

rather than change the characteristics of their communication strategies, they will simply try to

acquire the necessary language elements to use them. I will claim that the scope and type of

their personal discourse and the communication strategies which characterise it are identical in

any language for any one person, so adult learners will not be likely to modify them at the

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EFL course. Besides, they ought to re-live their lives, change their view of the world and of

interpersonal relations, or engage in specific instruction, to bring about this change.

It is not too bold to suppose that there may be communication styles and strategies which

correspond to a high language ceiling and others which are typical of low ceilings. By the

same token, we may expect a certain correspondence between communication styles and

strategies and error types. It is very common to see adult learners fail at EFL courses because

they are limited as communicators, although this situation is regarded as failure by language

teachers more often than by learners. Poor communicators are frequently content with learning

just enough to satisfy their limited communication needs, an issue we will address when we

discuss the pedagogical implications of a low language ceiling.

If communication strategies exist in adults before they begin learning a foreign language,

they can hardly be considered attempts at using this particular language or at coping with

problems of interlanguage communication, as has been suggested by Tarone, Cohen & Dumas

(1983). They produced a novel analysis of errors as the product of communication strategies

used by language learners to cope with limitations in their command of the foreign language.

They claimed that learners' communication strategies were only observable when errors were

made, a highly debatable concept which might suggest that there is practically no distinction

between how messages are emitted and received, and how language limitations are overcome.

During our exploration of learners‟ communication strategies and styles, we observed that,

with errors or correctly, the person who uses the strategy of message abandonment (Tarone,

Cohen & Dumas, Ibid.), for example, will leave his sentences unfinished in any language, in

utterances such as: "Well, I did not like the film and ..... well, you know." If his English is poor,

he will probably say " Well, I not liked the film and ........ well, you know ", but his

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communication strategy will not change: it consists of leaving the final part of many messages

in the interlocutor‟s hands, as if everybody was supposed to know what he meant and this

would make it unnecessary for him to say it or as if completing the meaning was the listener‟s


My disagreement with Tarone, Cohen & Dumas (Ibid.) arises from results of our research

which suggested that messages are not abandoned because the learner does not know how to

continue or complete them, but because this is the way in which he usually frames his

messages – a communication strategy he will use in any language, including the mother


Cohen (1998) insists on the approach to communication strategies already discussed, when

he defines them as

“…….those processes which are consciously selected by learners and which may

result in action taken to enhance the learning or use of a second or foreign

language, though storage, retention, recall, and application of information about the

language” (p.4)

Færch & Kasper (1983) establish a distinction between strategic and non-strategic

interlanguage use and hold that

“describing communication strategies in interlanguage communication is

the same as describing the strategic use of interlanguage systems"(p.xviii)

It is not very clear how language use might not be strategic. A broad definition of strategy

would consider it an operation performed by the language user in order to attain his goals, and

no instance of language use is purposeless, so we might conclude that language is a strategic

instrument per se.

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Therefore, the person‟s strategic use of the first language system can also be described, and

this description would not be related to error production. Would the concept of “strategic use”

be different for the two languages? The processes defined by these authors, however, provide

insight into important aspects of interlanguage and learning, such as the distinction between

production strategies, learning strategies dominated by "the desire to learn the target language

more than the desire to communicate" (Tarone, Cohen & Dumas, Ibid.) and the so-called

communication strategies, a concept which may, however, lead to the more pedagogically

appropriate idea of "compensation", meaning the output of language which the learner,

because of the amount of instruction or input received, cannot possibly produce accurately and

appropriately. The mechanisms used to make up for this lack of resources reflect the learner‟s

compensation strategies.

Later, research into learning strategies undertaken by authors such as O'Malley & Chamot

(1990) and, among others, drew a better distinction between learning strategies and

communication strategies, and although they did not include data from error analysis in their

studies beyond the provision of examples, it was obvious that the analysis of the learners'

production and behaviour had provided the basis for their work. O‟Malley & Chamot (Ibid.)

define a learning strategy as marked by the desire to learn the target language rather than the

desire to communicate, but agree that communication strategies emerge “from failure to

realise a language production goal”. Their comprehensive description of learning strategies,

grouped into metacognitive, cognitive and social-affective, was not aimed at differentiating

them from other processes, but did so by showing that these strategies had their own domain.

The problem of separating error production from communication strategies, however,

remained unsolved and in fact, the O‟Malley and Chamot agree with Faersch & Kasper (Ibid.)


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…communication strategies may be a „psycholinguistic‟ solution to the

communication problem instead of one which relies upon negotiation of

meaning (p.45).

In Oxford‟s (1990) classification of learning strategies, we also find “social language

learning strategies”, which are not attempts to develop linguistic competence but negotiations

of meaning such as asking for clarification or information. According to this, a learning

strategy is used to construct the language system and a communication strategy, to convey

meaning. The distinction is rather complex, not clear enough and we might even find that the

two categories overlap, as a communication strategy such as asking for clarification could well

be used to better grasp certain parts of the language system. We are faced, then, with two

aspects of communication strategies: the cognitive and the interactional. Are they cognitive

processes of the speaker or an exchange among interlocutors to get their meaning across? If

we agree on a distinction between learning and communication strategies we will find that

only in the second case can we come across processes we may legitimately call

communication strategies.

The definition of communication strategies I am going to use is based on Bialystok &

Kellerman (1987):

...the manipulation of either a semantic concept or a language or both in

order to express particular intentions” (p.169)

I will also adhere to their idea that there are no differences in the processes used by native

and non-native speakers when using communication strategies, beyond language proficiency

and age.

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The exploration of communication styles and strategies we are going to undertake is based,

then, on the following tenets:

a) There is no distinction between interlanguage communication styles and strategies of

adults and their native language communication styles and strategies.

b) Communication styles and strategies develop in the native language, and learners carry

them over into any foreign language regardless of their degree of proficiency in this

language. They are the basis of the personal curriculum and often mark the height of

language ceiling. In a rather over-generalised fashion, we might claim that people will

learn as much as they need in order to use their communication styles and strategies in

those areas and genres where they wish to use them.

c) Styles and strategies which do not exist in the native language do not develop in

the foreign language, unless the learner makes a conscious effort in this sense. When

this happens, styles and strategies should change in both languages, with the foreign

one influencing the native tongue. (Cook, 2003)

3.b.2 Favourable and unfavourable communication styles and strategies

Communication strategies may have an influence on the height of language ceiling. We may

assume that learners will tend to lose interest in learning when they begin communicating in a

manner they consider satisfactory. This degree of satisfaction varies according to how

sophisticated a communicator a person is, so in a way the quality, of his communications

determines the degree of his ambitions and his needs. In the learner‟s personal curriculum,

communication styles and strategies account for a large part of the functional content. A poor

communicator will be satisfied with less and reach his ceiling at an earlier stage in his mastery

of a foreign language.

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On the other hand, despite their role in determining the kind of end performance in the

personal curriculum, communication styles and strategies do not account for error production,

neither can error analysis be used to detect them. An error is a sign that, when placed in a

communicative situation, the learner will display his command of the language to cope with

the demands of communication and that in so doing, will also resort to rules, concepts or

compensation mechanisms present in his interlanguage. This will shed light on inner processes

used to construct the language system, which will be the same he uses to learn, as they derive

from his learning hypotheses. Communication strategies belong, in this view, to a different

domain, having more to do with relational and psychological aspects of the individual as a

social being.

Communication styles are mostly personal, and any classification is bound to be incomplete.

It is not my aim, here, to produce such a classification, neither will I set out to duplicate those

already available. In the process of studying the possible bearing of communication styles and

strategies on the height of language ceiling, my research identified two broad categories,

which we termed “favourable” or “unfavourable” for lack of better names. Our exploration

was by no means complete or conclusive, but enough evidence was gathered as to attempt a

tentative definition of these communication styles and strategies.

a) Styles which reflect an awareness of social, aesthetic and tactical uses of language and

a reliance on linguistic codes as means of communication, such as

a.1) Use of various degrees of formality, according to the perceived


a.2) Predominance of linguistic over non-linguistic forms of

communication. More is communicated with words than with

gestures, for example.

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a.3) Conciseness.

a.4) Precision.

a.5) Humorous and/or artistic-aesthetic use of language.

a.6) Message adjustment to respond to ongoing stimuli during

conversational exchanges.

These styles usually aid language learning and may be considered “favourable”.

b) Styles which make use of a very narrow range of strategies, language, registers or

aesthetic possibilities or tend to replace language by other, non-verbal codes of

communication. We found these styles in learners with very low language ceilings, not

reaching beyond pre-intermediate or intermediate level. Because of this, we will

consider them “unfavourable”:

b.1) Soliloquy

The person cannot listen to his interlocutor and adapt his messages to the

ongoing conversation. When the others talk to him, he waits politely until they

finish and then goes on with the idea he has interrupted. These learners often

have problems of listening comprehension and their phonological capabilities

may not be very high. They may be, however, good readers.

b.2) Egocentrism

The communicator only talks about personal experiences or passes all topics

through the filter of his personal experience. He cannot discuss any subject that is

not within his day-to-day life experience, and conceives of the world as a highly

limited space where he includes only what is within his eye span. He often has no

make-believe capabilities or sense of humour, and tends to be a bad actor or

impersonator. A variation on this is the learner who does not listen or interact

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because he is extremely self-centred and vane. This is sometimes the case with

successful people who have lost their humility.

It is interesting that Vygotsky (Ibid.) considered that language appears as an

external, social manifestation, then becomes ego-centric and finally reaches the

stage of inner speech, which is one of the higher mental processes. In his

conception of ego-centric speech he disagrees with Piaget, although the latter

held that Vygotsky had misunderstood him, clarifying that he did not think that

cognitive egocentrism arose from the individualism which precedes socialisation

but from a lack of differentiation between the personal point of view and those of

others (Piaget, 1962). Piaget describes egocentric speech as a succession of

monologues in conversation, with no strategic adaptation to the interlocutor‟s


This egocentric speech is typical of the period of concrete operations,

dominated by pre-logical or pre-conceptual thinking, where groupings and

categorisations of concepts are carried out according to functions, external

properties and uses of objects rather than by their essential characteristics.

Piaget‟s descriptions of stages of development have not been seriously

questioned, but the boundaries between them have been found not to be so clear

as he set them (Vygotsky, Ibid.) and further studies have demonstrated the

enormous influence of the social medium on human development, also

acknowledged by Bruner (1990).

Another important questioning of Piaget‟s stages of development has come

from the discovery of broad categories in children‟s conception of language, like

calling all four-legged mammals “dog”. These too comprehensive categories

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point to conceptual generalisation and would show that children are capable of

conceptual thinking from an early age. However, despite all these new

developments in our knowledge of cognitive evolution, the main concepts

outlined by Piaget remain valid and in the case of egocentric communication

styles, the fact remains that this style is common in learners whose language

ceiling appears to be low and seems to point to lacks in the conceptual system.

c) Literality

Nothing may have a fictional or humorous meaning. The person cannot use

words figuratively, and does not understand metaphors or similes. If told that

"every cloud has a silver lining", he will probably say he cannot confirm this

because he does not know very much about natural phenomena. If he hears that

somebody has "piles of money" he will ask exactly how high these piles are and

where they are. These people often react angrily to humour and irony, which they

find insulting. This points to limitations in the field of metaphor, a vital domain

for mastering a language. As for humour, it has been listed by Vygotsky

(1930/2000) as one of the higher mental processes.

More than a communication style, literality represents the impossibility to

move in the domain of imaginary or figurative meanings. The learner is relatively

unable to role-play situations, to impersonate characters or to enjoy fiction, let

alone move in the metaphoric domain, which accounts for a large part of

language use.

d) Duplication of the messages

The person verbalises his message and mimes or draws it in the air at the same

time. "Susan was here (points at a napkin in front of him) and Tom was there

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(points at a jar of water on the table) Susan approached him (moves the napkin

towards the water jar)......", etc. "My book was this thick" (gestures with his hand)

A lot of these communicators constantly "speak with their hands" when they talk,

not clarifying but duplicating the message. Note that in the classroom, this is

sometimes favoured by teachers who overuse the technique of joining language

to body or facial expression to be better understood, a practice they often pass on

to their students, particularly, if they are small children. While observing lessons

in the first years of primary school, it is common to witness storytelling by

teachers who might well not say a word to convey the meaning of the story they

are telling, as they clearly duplicate all their messages with mime or gesture.

e) Use of only one or two levels of formality

The person uses semi-formal and informal language, but never other registers,

which they ignore as useless or not very operational. The disappearance of more

formal levels is a narrowing of the linguistic field and consequently, of the

conceptual domain.

f) Preambling.

Nothing is said without an introduction, such as “Let me tell you …”, “I would

like to say…”, “It is important for me to say ….”. The person permanently

announces what language function he is going to perform, or asks for permission

to perform it, or tells his audience what type of reaction he expects. “This is

going to surprise you …”, ”Let me give you another example..", "I would like to

point out that ..", "Let us discuss this .....", "I am going to tell you an anecdote

.....", "I know I am going to bore you, but at the risk of being repetitive I would

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like to mention what happened the other day ....", “I would like to ask you a

question”, etc.

This seems to show lack of confidence on the interlocutor‟s capability for

understanding what the speaker is going to say, or his intentions, or perhaps lack

of reliance on language as a means of expression, which seems to be so limited

that it has to be permanently explained.

g) Overuse of detail.

The person does not distinguish main from additional information, has no

power of synthesis and no priorities. If this communicator wants to tell his

audience that he has bought a new car, he will also include a detailed and totally

irrelevant description of the dealer's shop, the clothes the employee was wearing,

how he got to the dealer‟s, what the weather was like, etc. This seems to point out

problems with organising elements hierarchically or finding boundaries between

semantic domains.

h) Vagueness

Messages are not precise, either because they are not syntactically clear or

because they contain umbrella words such as things, stuff, folks used to avoid the

use of words belonging to more restricted categories: "Bring me that stuff", "I

think things are sort of wrong here", "Folks like that kind of thing", "When I like

somebody I feel something inside, you know, that kind of thing", “Shit happens”,


I will not attempt a classification of communication strategies for the same reasons I

explained in connection with communication styles. I cannot give a comprehensive list of

“favourable” strategies, either, as they are related to the expression of favourable learning

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


styles and easy to infer from their description. I will simply describe two of the strategies we

more often found in learners with low language ceilings, which can be considered


a. Message abandonment

"I got up this morning, looked out of the window and ............" The person drops the

message altogether. It seems as if he had lost interest in the idea or as if he took it for

granted that his interlocutor will understand what he means and mentally provide the

missing part. He does not take responsibility for conveying the whole message or try to

replace it for mime or gesture.

b. Message substitution

The same as before, but the last part of the message is replaced by a gesture, an

onomatopoeia, an exclamation: "I slipped on a banana peel in the yard, and ......paf!"

It is important for the teacher to detect the learner's communication styles and strategies in

his native language and exploit them at the language course. The learner‟s performance during

lessons will reveal them, but by the time the teacher is in a position to carry out an analysis of

the learner‟s communication strategies he will have been attending the language course for

several weeks and decisions about the curriculum and the materials will have been made.

Therefore, we are proposing an analysis of the learner's communication style and strategies at

the placement interview, in the manner outlined below, provided that the interviewer speaks

the learner‟s mother tongue. Unfortunately, if this is not the case, the teacher will simply have

to observe the learner during lessons and infer his communication style and strategies.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3.b.3 Communication styles and strategies analysis

The following procedure was used during our research and is suggested for a quick, informal

analysis of a prospective learner's communication strategies:

a) The candidate is asked to tell a story, an anecdote, an accident, etc. and to report a

conversation. There should also be a brief discussion of local and world events, and he

should be asked to give opinions. This gives the interviewer some insight into the

person's cultural awareness and general knowledge and exposes his general

communication style and communication strategies in several domains: narrative,

reporting, giving opinions. Care should be taken to discuss just the news of the day or

matters known by any informed citizen in a casual, natural fashion, not as a question-

and-answer session or a general knowledge quiz.

b) Beginners carry out the interview in their native language, but with intermediate or

advanced learners the recommended procedure is as follows:

b.1) The conversation is held in the learner‟s native language and in English,


b.2) The candidate is allowed to answer in either language, but the interviewer

should make sure the learner uses both in the course of the interview.

b.3) Some topics dealt with in one language, are brought up again in the other a

bit later on in the interview. This is done to check whether the same strategy

is used in both languages.

We will discuss an example.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Example (Transcription of a fragment of an actual interview):

Candidate: My dog had sick. (Meaning: My dog was sick)

Interviewer: What happened to your dog?

Candidate: I had that take him to the vet, because he had sick. (Meaning: I had to take him

to the vet, because he was sick. )

Interviewer: But what was wrong with him?

Candidate: I had that pay a large bill. (Meaning: I had to pay a large bill)

Interviewer: Is your dog all right now?

Candidate: Yes. My wife was very angry with me.

Interviewer: Bueno, pero no era culpa suya. (Translation: Well, but it wasn‟t your fault)

Candidate: Ella detesta los animales y siempre dice que no quiere tener perro. (Translation:

She hates animals and always says that she doesn‟t want to have a dog)

Interviewer: Qué raro.... Los perros son muy lindos. ¿Qué le pasaba al suyo? (Translation:

How strange ... Dogs are very nice. What happened to yours?

Candidate: Lo llevé al veterinario y me cobró un montón de plata y mi mujer se puso

furiosa. (Translation:I took him to the vet and he charged me a lot of money

and my wife was furious)

Our candidate never actually answers his interlocutor – a style I have called soliloquy, and

on the other hand, he shows traces of egocentrism, as he finds it difficult to talk about a topic

unless it is through the filter of his personal experience or feelings regarding the issue, which

even take precedence over the topic, as in:

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Interviewer: But what was wrong with him?

Candidate: I had that pay a large bill. (Meaning: I had to pay a large bill) (He does not

answer the question about the dog but concentrates on talking about himself)

The question about the dog‟s condition is repeated four times and never acknowledged, let

alone answered, and this happens in both languages, at different levels of proficiency.

The error in "I had that pay a large bill" is a feature of the learner's grammar, not a

communication strategy. He structures this utterance on the model of Spanish, probably

because he has not been able to grasp the difference between different uses of the verb to have

and have to.

The other error, "My dog had sick", is a confusion between to be and to have. The learner

provided a very interesting authoritative explanation of this error, which we would not take for

a communication strategy: To be, in English, is often used in expressions where tener (To

have) is used in Spanish. ("I am twenty years old" is equivalent to the Spanish "Yo tengo

veinte años", and in expressions such as "I am cold", the translation is also "Tengo frío" and "I

have a cold" is "Tengo un resfrío" or "Estoy resfriado") The learner had come to confuse to be

and to have because of his overuse of translation as a learning tool.

Language errors occur in the foreign language and are related to the learner‟s degree of

mastery, whereas the communication style depends on personality factors and remains the

same in both languages. Errors tell us how and what he is learning, his communication style

tells us what and how he is prepared to communicate.

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3.c The learner’s learning hypotheses, styles and strategies

When reading the many inventories of learning strategies, we feel there must be some

general, unconscious processes ruling them. It is not possible to describe strategies as

behaviour without wondering what produces this behaviour. I am going to propose three levels

of analysis: observable learning strategies which are part of general learning styles determined

by the learner‟s learning hypotheses. Error analysis discloses strategies; by grouping and

describing them we can have access to learners‟ learning styles but most importantly, we can

get a glimpse of their learning hypotheses.

3.c.1 Learning hypotheses

The concept has already been introduced, but we I clarify it further here. We will call

learning hypotheses the processes and operations which the mind sets in motion for

constructing the system of the foreign language during the learning process. The specific

characteristics of these mental processes are personal, as each human mind chooses what it

considers “has to be done” to achieve the final goal of structuring the system. Learning

hypotheses depend largely on each individual‟s cognitive development and on his structuring

of the native language.

These learning hypotheses, which could be compared to the process of selecting tools and

procedures to carry out a task, are not independent from social, affective or idiosyncratic

factors and are also influenced by education and the social context.

If we accept that learning a language entails constructing a system, as we have discussed,

then the central processes should be categorisation, association and distinctions between

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


elements and categories, as well as the generation of novel connections or creations within the

system, so we will centre our attention on how learners

a) Place concepts into categories, using conceptual or pre-conceptual systems of

classification. For example, to place the concept chair into the furniture category, a

learner may define it conceptually, with a dictionary-style definition, such as “A seat

which usually has four legs and a back and is only for one person”, or may define it

pre-conceptually, “The things we put around the dining-room table”, “An object

where we sit”, “My favourite kind of seat”, “A comfortable seat”, etc. Note that the

pre-conceptual definitions are based on external characteristics, uses or location of the

object and do not attempt to define what the object is.

Conceptual categorisation has been discussed by Bruner (Ibid..) as essential for learning

and although fuzzy logic (Zahed, Ibid.) has questioned that categories might be clearly and

objectively defined, it remains a central concept in all cognitive models. In language

learning, it is the capability needed, for example, to distinguish nouns from adjectives or

auxiliaries from main verbs. Is does a third person singular auxiliary for the present

simple, interrogative or negative, or is it “the word we put when we talk about „he‟ or

„she‟?” Note the implications for learning of using a conceptual or a pre-conceptual

category for categorising this word. If the learner uses the pre-conceptual category, he will

tend to use does whenever he refers to he or she, independently from time or aspect

references. This could lead to errors such as “He does is American”, “She does liked the

film”, and similar utterances.

b) Associate concepts, either by analogy, (metaphor) or by proximity (metonymy).

Metaphor is associated to the paradigmatic axis of language (De Saussure, Ibid.) and

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


has to do with synonyms, different ways of expressing similar ideas, etc., whereas

metonymy is useful to move along the syntagmtic axis: understanding that after a subject

we need a verb, then perhaps a direct object, that adjectives precede nouns in attribution,


c) Use their imagination and creativity to advance in the structuring of the system,

opening up a series of creative associations, or just using closed, self-contained

systems. For example, if asked to use several related words found in a particular

context to create a new text, does the learner simply seek to produce a variation of the

original context, or does he use the words in a new one, connecting them to previously

acquired knowledge, thus exploring more possibilities to exploit his resources?

During our research into the role of errors in the learner‟s personal curriculum, the

psychologist in our team developed a Learning Hypotheses Test which appears in Appendix 2.

This test is currently used by a number of teachers and has proved extremely reliable for

diagnosing learning hypotheses, with a margin of error of 0.6%.

I will frequently refer to the correspondence between error styles and the different learning

hypotheses the test helped us to disclose and understand, in order to clarify the role of

conceptualisation, association styles and creativity in foreign language learning.

3.c.2 Learning styles

Although the concepts of learning hypotheses, learning styles and learning strategies are

connected, they should be clearly differentiated. Ausubel (1968) defines cognitive styles or

learning hypotheses as “self-consistent and durable individual differences on general

principles of cognitive organisation(p.171), while the learning hypotheses explored by Piaget

& Inhelder (As cited in McCarthy Gallagher, J.& Reid, D.K. 2002) are structures and

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


cognitive processes present in the mind, which represent ways of approaching the processing,

apprehension and structuring of knowledge. Garger and Guild (1984) describe learning styles

as “…stable and pervasive characteristics of an individual, expressed through the interaction

of one‟s behaviour and personality as one approaches a learning task” (p.11). A learning

style is a general preference for certain operations or ways of learning whose origin or internal

roots have more to do with personality aspects which are also a part of the learning

hypotheses. According to Kinsella (1995) they refer to an individual‟s natural, habitual,

preferred ways of absorbing, processing and retaining new information and skills, which

persist regardless of teaching methods and content areas. A learning strategy is a conscious

act, a procedure or action taken to achieve an objective, usually having to do with problem

solving: how to remember vocabulary, how to develop reading comprehension techniques, etc.

Different learning styles, which complement learning hypotheses, lead the individual to

choose certain learning strategies. Learners will not be able to identify their learning

hypotheses or learning styles without some guidance from a professional, but they will always

know what they DO or what they PREFER to DO, what strategies they use for learning, and

their counterpart: what they prefer the teacher to do. Questionnaires which help the teacher

find out the learners‟ learning styles and strategies also shed light on their inner learning

hypotheses. Reid (1995) provides interesting models of such questionnaires and surveys. We

are excluding from our discussion the diagnosis of auditory, kinaesthetic, spatial, visual

learning styles, because that classification is only concerned with the way information is

captured and retained, not with how it is processed. That classification complements the

exploration of learning styles and it is very useful for the teacher.

Are errors learning strategies? The British Encyclopaedia (2002) defines a strategy as “the

art of devising or employing plans or stratagems to achieve a goal”. This definition implies

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


that a strategy is a conscious act and also that, as it is created according to the objective, there

must me as many as objectives are pursued. Tarone, Cohen & Dumas (Ibid.) define learning

strategies as operations that learners carry out to develop linguistic and socio-linguistic

competence. The motivation for the creation of the strategy comes from the desire to learn, not

from the desire to communicate, which would turn it into a communication strategy.

O‟Malley & Chamot (1990) have classified learning strategies into three categories:

cognitive, having to do with the processing, manipulating and storing knowledge; socio-

affective, concerning the learner‟s interaction with other members of his group, the way he

asks for clarification and his “inner speech” (considered by Piaget and Vygotsky as a higher

mental process and not conscious at all, however); and metacognitive, which relate how the

learner plans, monitors and assesses his own learning. Further classifications have been added

in recent years, mostly as a result of research into brain functions and of a renewed interest in

the role of the social medium in learning processes. I would like to discuss one of them as an

example: Kolb‟s (1984) experiential learning diagram, expanded by MacCarthy (1995) to

explain learning styles, which relies heavily on Piaget‟s (Ibid.) theories, the Gestalt theory and

more specifically, the experiential learning cycle by Lewin (1951) and Dewey‟s (Ibid.)

concept of learning by doing.

Kolb holds that the unique and particular characteristics of individual learning styles arise

from each person‟s way of perceiving and processing information. His research into learning

styles starts with and examination of the degree of emphasis people place on the four steps in

the learning process: concrete experience, observation and reflection, abstract

conceptualisation and active experimentation. He combines two dimensions of perception:

concrete experience and reflective observation; with two dimensions of processing: abstract

conceptualisation and active experimentation. With each stage of active experimentation a

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


new concrete, enriched experience occurs, which originates a new cycle of continuous

spiralled learning, an idea also shared by Bruner (Ibid.)

Learning from learners‟ errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel

Learning from feeling
(Concrete Experience)

 Learning from experiences

Accommodator  Relating to people. Diverger
 Sensitivity to feelings.

Learning by doing Learning by watching
(Active experimentation) HOW WE PROCESS (Reflective observation)

 Ability to get things  Careful observation before

done. making a judgement.
 Risk taking.  Viewing things from different
 Influencing people and perspectives.
events through action.  Looking for the meaning
of things.
 Logical analysis of ideas.
 Systematic planning.
 Acting on an intellectual
understanding of the situation.
Converger Assimilator

Learning by thinking

Figure 3 – Kolb’s learning styles in his experiential learning model


Kolb‟s classification, like many others, clearly shows that a learning style is the description

of external, observable manifestations of deep processes (Reid, 1995). These classifications

are the map, not the territory.

Errors are also external manifestations of inner processes. They are the result of certain

learning strategies but they are not, in themselves, learning strategies. They do not only expose

strategies but also shed light on learning styles and hypotheses, which makes error analysis a

valuable tool for exploring the learners‟ unconscious cognitive structure. The learner

producing “He cans goes with me”, due to an overgeneralisation of the rule of the third person

singular verbs in the present simple, is perhaps showing a strategy of drawing general rules by

examining specific cases, which reflects the learning style of the assimilator, in Kolb‟s

classification, and shows he can place concepts into categories using conceptual classification

systems, but the categories being used are not sufficiently restricted2.

In this case, the teacher ought to remember that this learner needs help in examining and

remembering rule restrictions, which has to do with his learning hypotheses, not with the

strategy applied. Thus, insightful error analysis may provide information about the deepest

layers of the learner‟s cognitive processes and cognitive structure.

This interpretation, of course, is only valid as an example here, as we ought to know a lot more about the learner
and his interlanguage to venture such a diagnosis.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Full arrows show the

process of error analysis.
Error: Dotted arrows show the
He cans goes with you. process of error production

resulting from

learning by watching
drawing general rules and thinking.
from concrete cases. derived from


an ability for using conceptual classification systems in which the categories,

however, are too broad and lead the learner to over-generalisation.

Implications for teaching: the learner needs help to find rule restrictions and
exceptions to rules, by being exposed to many contexts and communicative
situations where the rule does not apply, as well as those where it applies.
However, he will profit from inductive processes and can be trusting for
accessing rules on his own.

Figure 4 – The processes of error production and error analysis

3.d The learner’s method

The learner‟s observable strategies and procedures, plus his attitude towards learning, lead

him to develop a method for learning which does not always agree with the procedures and

methods proposed by the teacher. Learners‟ behaviour during lessons and their remarks about

the course, the pedagogy, the teacher and the materials should be recorded and analysed, as

supplementary information to understand the processes observed through communication

strategies analysis, error analysis and the diagnosis of learning hypotheses. Standard methods

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


of detecting learning styles and strategies, such as the questionnaires already suggested, may

be used here to complete the description of personal “methods” or understand them better.

Chapelle (1995) describes the procedures and methods used by several learners to support her

classification of learners into field dependent and field independent. Perhaps the analysis

could be taken further, to describe their learning hypotheses. Field-independent learners seem

to reach abstract conceptualisation more easily and consequently, may be faster learners.

When there is an overt disagreement between the teacher‟s and the learner‟s method, it is

usually the latter which prevails, unless the teacher manages to thwart it to corset the learner

into the course curriculum, usually with poor results. In this case, more attention is often paid

to training learners in the “correct” methods and procedures than to learning, and achievement

is usually measured by how well the learner adjusts to classroom conventions, developing

competencies which are very valuable for surviving …. in the classroom. Acknowledging the

existence of the learners‟ methods and respecting them usually means doing away with many

of our “cherished notions” (Pid Corder, Ibid.) about what should be done in order to learn. It

also means correcting teachers‟ wrong assumption that being professionals means being able

to tell people what to do, rather than interpret what they want to do and support these

processes with advice and encouragement.

3.e The learner’s questions and their role in the personal curriculum

During our research, we carried out an experiment with a group of learners, which was then

replicated with other groups, to explore whether learners‟ questions may be considered

manifestations of their personal curricula. The research team hypothesised that if they were,

they should be answered as they were asked, without delays or re- formulation, and this

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


treatment of questions would accelerate progress, because it would address the personal

curricula, which we regarded as more important than the course curriculum. Some

experimental groups were chosen, where teachers were instructed to answer questions in this

fashion. Groups of students at similar levels of attainment were also set as control groups, and

after six months, all the groups were given the same tests, to assess their progress, which

turned out to be dramatically higher for the experimental groups.

In the experiment, some variables were only formally controlled; for example, all the groups

were supposed to be at the same level of communicative competence, but of course, individual

differences persisted. This may have influenced the reliability of the results, but the teachings

derived from the experience were extremely useful and could well be used as the basis for

further, deeper research:

a) Learners‟ questions which seem to be above and beyond the level of the course or

which are asked in class “out of the blue” may be manifestations of their personal

curricula and they also show that these curricula are not identical to the course

syllabus. It is common for teachers to avoid answering these questions or to tell the

learner that the topic will be dealt with at a later stage. The personal syllabus may well

contain a completely different order of presentation of language items, which is usually

determined in course design by giving priority to highly productive and frequent

language forms or functions. The degree of productivity and frequency of language

forms has been determined by linguistic research and is the product of statistical

studies, but some learners may depart from the profile of the average language user

and have their own criteria for the order of presentation of language items.

b) Questions about broad language areas which are usually taught gradually, in

progressive degrees of difficulty. "How many auxiliaries are there in English? How do

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


they work?", "How can I connect sentences in English?" Gradualism is a pedagogical

concept created to make subject matter more “teachable” and does not necessarily

reflect real cognitive processes. Together with the order of presentation of language

items, it is perhaps the “cherished notion” which requires more reviewing in

curriculum design. Gradualism may simply mean teachers are corseting learners into

classroom procedures instead of facilitating their learning. In class, learners not always

ask questions about one particular language point but about a whole area: how to talk

about the past, how to use the word for in a variety of situations, how to use the bare

infinitive, how to join sentences, etc. When their curiosity is satisfied with an equally

comprehensive answer, they may select the parts they can reasonably handle and

incorporate them, leaving the rest in stock for later use. They can be trusted for

sensibly dosing their learning without following the textbook writer's or the tutor's

programme, thus following their own idea of gradualism.

3.f Compensation: a re-definition and a description of its role

Compensation has been listed as a learning strategy, for example, in cases when the learner

infers the meaning of a word from a context, thus enriching his knowledge. In our research,

however, we used the word in a different sense, dividing learners‟ performance into

compensatory and non-compensatory, a distinction we found relevant for the discussion of

learner performance in the classroom. We will define a compensatory utterance as one coined

by the learner in an attempt at expressing an idea requiring language forms he has not yet been

exposed to. We shall call compensation strategies the processes and resources learners use to

bridge the gap between their communication needs and their communication possibilities as

determined by their level, and which reflect their style for problem-solving, also derived from

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


learning hypotheses. When coining utterances, the learner often produces wrong language

forms, but it is not very appropriate to say he makes an error; rather, he creates a form to fill

the gap.

It might be argued that all errors are compensation strategies, but when we talk about foreign

language classes we can assess when the learner is making errors in items that have been

taught or he has been exposed to but he has not yet learnt, and when he is making

overambitious attempts at using language that is above the course level and beyond his means.

It is within this context that compensation strategies can be detected: when the input is well-

known. The relevance of this distinction is purely pedagogic and marks the difference between

failing to use what has already been taught and not learnt and applying one‟s creativity to

solve a communication problem, and how this is done.

Example: A learner produces, “The down old get jobs easily”, meaning that it is easy for

younger people to get jobs. This learner has never been exposed to the comparison of

adjectives. The production of The down old" to compensate for Younger people is showing

great ingenuity and a very positive trend towards trying to solve his communication problems

with elements well within the code of English. He is also combining two conceptual categories

in a personal fashion. He does not take the easy way out, which would be modelling the

sentence on the code of Spanish, his native language, to produce something like The more

youngs. This is resourceful compensation disclosing conceptual learning hypotheses, although

it results in an erroneous utterance.

If this happens at an intermediate level course and the learner producing The down old would

have been supposedly able to say Younger people, because of the input received, it is showing

the learner has a gap in his learning and fills it in with elements to which he is attaching novel

uses and meanings. He should not only know younger but the uses and meanings of down, too.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


This is an error in a non-compensatory utterance and although the strategies, styles and

hypotheses for solving the problem remain the same, its origin and implications are different.

The teacher cannot equally interpret errors which involve elements already taught but not yet

learnt and errors produced by a learner who is over-ambitious or takes risks. Both learners use

their creativity for turning out an innovative combination of concepts, but the first is engaged

in an exploration of boundaries of the code of English, whereas the second tries to make do

with the little knowledge he has managed to acquire. The utterance is a sign of

experimentation in one case, of a gap in learning in the other. Of course, this latter definition

does not imply that all classroom input should be learnt, but that the input has existed and has

been discarded or ignored.

Compensatory production of a highly monitored nature may be one of the key manifestations

of the learner‟s personal curriculum, when the learner seeks to fill the gaps and asks, "How

can I say .......?" or "What is the English for ......?" The missing elements may well be part of

the contents of the learner‟s curriculum and the teacher should be well advised to supply them.

Again, most learners can be trusted with deciding whether they are ready to incorporate these


Compensation is sometimes the result of teaching practices or materials-induced, as we will

discuss later on, but when it is learner-originated, it sometimes reflects problem-solving

strategies or learning hypotheses. In those cases, it may take three main forms:

a) Learners effect compensation because they are very ambitious and want to explore the

language. They take risks and use their imagination and creativity to structure the

language system. If their personal curriculum is respected, they will sooner or later

tailor their ambitions to their possibilities.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


b) Learners effect compensation because they do not regard the language they are

learning as a reliable tool for communication. They do not try to exploit what they are

exposed to, which they ignore completely at the time of performing in class. This

would be the case of the raw beginner who has just learnt how to say "Thank you", but

insists on trying to say the equivalent of "I am thankful to you" and asks the teacher for

help to frame his utterance. The result will probably be "I am thanks to you", or a

similar compensatory sentence. The difference between these learners and those in the

previous category is that they do not explore more advanced language forms out of

curiosity or to learn more quickly: they just try to ape the production of native

speakers, because they are unaware of gradualism. They probably have difficulty

organising language into hierarchical categories, and do not rank language forms from

simple to complex or organise their learning with some central criterion, e.g. going

from the general to the particular, or from the concrete to the abstract, etc.

Care has to be taken not to confuse these learners with those who ask ambitious

questions as part of their personal curriculum. The distinction is not easy and has more

to do with how they process their requests: whether they ask for specific language all

the time, as if they were repeating the lines in a script, “How can I say …….?”, but

then never use these elements again, or whether they ask for more advanced language

forms which are then incorporated to their language, at least partially. The language

they request is not assimilated to the language being taught but used at the moment it is

needed and then discarded, while the contents of the lesson are ignored. Thus, the

learner acquires neither the items in his curriculum nor those in the course curriculum.

c) Learners are creative and imaginative but they cannot structure the system

conceptually. Their production is hap-hazard, their conclusions erratic and their

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


associations unpredictable. This type of completely unstructured creativity does not

help for the creation of a language system or even a personal grammar, as changes are

constant and do not follow patterns. Compensation occurs because of this deep lack of

rule-governed language structuring.

3.g Errors as manifestations of the personal curriculum

In the 20th century, audio-lingual approaches of the sixties tried to prevent learners‟ errors as

undesirable; later, cognitive code learning stated that errors were features of experimentation

and necessary tools for learning, but also problems to overcome, and communicative

approaches of the 80‟s and 90‟s sometimes advocated that all errors were developmental and

would disappear as learners‟ command of the target language increased. (Richards & Rodgers,


As we have explained, the well-known paradigm of learning by trial-and-error was discussed

by Piaget (Ibid.), who pointed out that the trial of a single element produced a re-

accommodation of the whole system this element belonged to, not simply a correction or

confirmation of an individual hypothesis.

We have already explained the theories of modern connectionism and the statement that

nodules or network units in the brain are connected in a unidirectional fashion and the

connections can be activators or inhibitors and have an assigned value, which is the

connection force. Learning occurs when two units of the neural network are simultaneously

activated, which raises the connection force between them. We have also described the role

assigned to trial an error in this process, which causes a pattern to activate a system before the

exit which compares the real output to the ideal output and this reinforces, in retrospect, the

path followed by the activation pattern which resembles the ideal output more closely.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Learning takes place by repeating this trial and error process several times (Díaz-Benjumea,

Ibid.). As we can see, the value of errors is also recognised by more biologically-oriented

theories of learning.

The clearest manifestations of the learner‟s personal syllabus are the errors found in the

learners‟ interlanguage and the underlying cognitive processes they seem to reflect, namely,

whether learners are categorising conceptually and what type of associations and creations

they are making. The term error will be used to refer to a language form in learners‟

interlanguage which does not comply with the standards of correction and/or appropriacy of

the type of language being taught at their EFL course, observable in open-ended oral or

written production and which is a manifestation of learning hypotheses, styles and strategies.

Errors can be classified with respect to the language category where they belong: an error in

the use of a verb tense, a plural form, a referential lexical error, a phonological error involving

a particular sound, etc. This is essential in learner profiling and also when assessing progress.

This type of classification is also vital in the description of a learner's personal syllabus,

particularly for detecting the learner‟s conception of progression and gradation of difficulty,

but we will concentrate on error types, classifying them according to the cognitive processes

which appear to have originated them and their implications, either placing them in Selinker‟s

(Ibid.) categories or in the new categories we have incorporated through our research.

It is a complex task to describe the desirable levels of correctness or appropriacy of the

language of a social group, given all the national, cultural and generational variants, and the

range of criteria available for such a description, but the language taught at an EFL course is

fairly identifiable and describable. Besides, all courses have an end performance level, stated

by the curriculum or examination designer, which is used as a parameter for measuring the

learner‟s degree of achievement.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The term appropriacy is used here in the sense Widdowson gave it (1978) but it should be

remembered that the appropriacy and correctness of the utterances analysed will be measured

with respect to communicative classroom activities, not in natural social situations.

We will consider an utterance appropriate if

a) It is in the right register, according to the context and to role-relationship.

b) It performs the function for which it was intended.

c) It conveys meaning in a manner satisfactory to the speaker, which helps him achieve

his communicative goals.

Appropriate language may contain lesser errors, which should not affect any of the

characteristics listed above. Conversely, a fully correct utterance may be inappropriate if it is

not in the right register or departs from the topic of the conversation, for example:

A: What‟s the time?

B: You‟re welcome.

We will not use the traditional distinction between an error = a systematic breach of the

code, and a mistake = an occasional slip of the tongue or the pen (Pit Corder, Ibid.). This

analysis is not so much related to the external manifestation of errors but to the underlying

processes they may disclose. If a learner makes mistakes or errors, according to the traditional

classification, we should analyse whether they point to overgeneralisation, interference from

the mother tongue, lack of proper conceptualisation, etc. The learner‟s error styles are present

in all his errors, be they systematic or occasional, because they are reflections of deeper mental

processes – learning hypotheses – which do not change even when the learner produces wrong

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


utterances on purpose, for instance, when he is joking, or when he goofs because he is tired, ill

or under emotional strain.

Tired, confused, trying to be funny, erring on purpose, the learner will not be able to change

his cognitive structure and if he uses pre-conceptual categories for grouping concepts, he will

have no recourse to any other form of categories for joking; neither will he take his confusion

or doubts to a conceptual level. This study will pay more attention to the systematicity of the

error style, not of the systematicity of the erroneous form. For example, we will discuss to

what extent the learner effects simplification, not how many times he simplifies the rule for

the use of the "s" in the third person singular present.

Although all errors are manifestations of the learner‟s personal curriculum, there are some

which seem to expose it more clearly, as was observed in the experimental courses:

a) Highly frequent errors which are becoming a definitive element of the learner‟s

language system.

b) Errors common to a group of learners. They point to error-provoking materials or


c) "Master errors" – errors that affect many subsystems, errors that have important

ramifications and, when addressed, have a domino effect on other errors which are also

corrected as a result of the master error disappearing. This is a name we coined when

we observed mysterious effects that exploiting a particular error had on others which

had not been addressed.

For example, if a learner consistently uses a double comparison, like “My car is

more better than yours”, this error will affect just the structures related to the

comparison of adjectives and adverbs, but if the learner consistently says “I no come

at seven” or “I no like apples”, we are probably in the presence of a master error: if

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


the learner has not grasped the sub-system of auxiliaries and their role in negative

statements with respect to the auxiliary do, he will also have problems with other

auxiliaries, including modals.

If we address another error we have discussed, “He cans goes", this may improve the

syntax of the modals and the syntax of the present simple and probably of the past

simple or produce an improvement in the learner‟s ability for properly restricting

conceptual categories.

Sometimes master errors are personal and not easily recognisable through a purely

linguistic analysis. During our research, we found learners who made unexpected

associations between language domains. For example, a learner under observation

corrected the word order of his sentences when he was trained to stress words properly,

a phenomenon nobody could explain and nobody could have anticipated.

To detect master errors, great attention has to be paid to the errors that worry THE

LEARNER, even if the teacher considers them irrelevant. In the case we have just

mentioned, the teacher was trying to teach word order when the learner asked to be

taught word stress, showing complete lack of interest in word order.

The personal curriculum also contains items, methods and approaches which agree with the

course curriculum, but it is not a proven fact that learners who do not seem to depart from the

course curriculum learn more or faster. They are just less troublesome, because they do not

make unexpected errors, they do not ask odd questions, they do not propose novel activities or

methods. They are the “good pupils” that teachers like, but their adaptive behaviour may be a

sign of passivity, a refusal to take risks or a reluctance to explore new paths in language use.

Error avoidance is not a good learning style, but neither is continuous exploration by learners

who are pushed beyond their level of mastery.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Lewis (1993) gives the example of a learner who, when asked how he had travelled to

Britain, answered “I came by plane” because he did not remember the past of the verb fly.

Lewis suggests that it would have been better for this learner to answer, “No, …er… I flied”,

because then, his teacher could have re-formulated the utterance, “Oh, you flew, didn‟t you?”.

The basic idea here is that experimentation leads to learning whereas error avoidance stunts it.

Why should learners have to choose, however? The answer could have been, “I came by

plane” and the learner could have asked about the verb later. Encouraging learners to make

mistakes by departing from language forms they already master seems just as negative as

favouring error avoidance. Learners should be well advised to put the language they know to

full communicative use and explore new language.

This permanent swing of the pendulum seems to have caused great harm to EFL teaching, by

prescribing extreme positions: to correct or not to correct, to translate or not to translate, to

repeat or not to repeat, to make grammar rules explicit or not. Incorporating the learners‟

personal curricula to the course curriculum puts an end to these unproductive dichotomies: the

teacher follows both curricula, according to need, allowing learners to choose part of the work

to be done or topics to be learnt, in the order and to the level they decide, but the teacher does

not relinquish her role as a leader of the learning group.

In his report on an experiment to teach a course on the basis of a process syllabus, Budd &

Wright (As cited in Nunan, 1993), explain the learners‟ demands for more guidance and their

wish that the teacher assumed responsibility for professional decisions regarding content and

method. This reaction forced the teacher, who had been negotiating the syllabus practically

before each lesson, to reconsider the advisability of such practices. Their experiment of

putting a process syllabus into effect had to incorporate more guidance and a firmer grip on

the general conduct of the course, allowing learners to make contributions but not crucial

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


decisions. They wanted to be taken into consideration, but they also wanted the teacher to

carry out his professional work and lead the way.

Error analysis as one of the main explorations of the learners‟ curricula may contribute to

implement this balanced combination in an informed manner.

Culture, life experience, psychology, personality,

cognitive structure, logical structuring of native
language, communication needs and strategies and
other factors.


The learner‟s degree of command of his

Learning hypotheses, styles, strategies.

native language and communicative range

shape up

Communication strategies.
Needs and expectations.

Learner‟s questions.
The learner’s personal curriculum evidenced

Learning method


Error types
consisting of

grammar lexis language learning method
content hypotheses

leading to

END PERFORMANCE (Language ceiling)

Figure 5 – Summary: the personal curriculum

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Make a list of the manifestations of the learner‟s personal curriculum we have

described in this chapter. How many of them are you addressing in your lessons or for

course planning?

2. Carry out a communication strategies interview in the manner recommended in this

chapter. Do it with a learner you consider either “fast” or “slow”. See if you detect

“favourable” or “unfavourable” communication strategies in this person and if they

match your assessment of this learner.

3. Think about it: what do you do when a learner asks you a question “out of the blue”?

4. Draw up a list of master errors.

5. Think about a situation when you felt your students were not interested in what you

were teaching. Were they interested in another topic, structure, activity? What did you


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


4. Final level of attainment in the personal curriculum

It is not always very easy to define the expected level of attainment for a particular language

programme with precision, but this is usually done in terms of performance and through a

rubric. For example, the end performance of an advanced business English course could be:

To be able to participate in meetings, discussions and negotiations. To deliver

presentations and field questions from the audience. To produce written

communications such as e-mails, memos, letters and reports. To perform all these

tasks with lesser language errors which would not seriously hamper communication, in

the appropriate register and using the style, vocabulary and format proper of Business

English, thus communicating efficiently and effectively.

When a learner decides to enrol in such a course and this description of the end performance

is made available to him, he may consciously accept to work towards this level of attainment,

but there are still two levels of interpretation of this goal: the learner‟s and the teacher‟s.

What does “participating in meetings, discussions and negotiations” mean to the learner?

The teacher is dreaming of pertinent, clever and fluent contributions to discussions and the

learner may be a person who just drops a few words here and there on such occasions.

How does the learner understand the concept of “errors which would not seriously hamper

communication”? We have all known people whose language is error-ridden and yet manage

to make themselves perfectly understood with the aid of gestures, mime and even visuals.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


We may even wonder what the learner understands by “Business English”, as he is likely to

be familiar with the style and jargon used by his company and maybe a couple of other

companies in the same line of business, and will probably know his needs better than his

teacher. He will, for sure, know his clients and their culture and will know, for example, than

in some countries, being a heavy drinker is more valuable for doing business than being a

great talker. So, exactly how much of this pre-established end-performance is the learner ready

to attain….. if any?

4.a A re-definition of fossilisation

The personal curriculum is not linear but spiralled, developing in plateaux towards the

desired end performance. When this final goal is attained, the learner reaches his language

ceiling and changes still take place, but only in certain areas. We will define the manifestation

of language ceiling as a point beyond which learners refuse to incorporate, mainly, new

grammatical items, but also lexical or functional elements and prefer to “make do” with the

language they have acquired, however flawed. Rather than a process of fossilisation, we might

consider it a sub-conscious refusal or impossibility to move forward. Motivational,

physiological, sociological and cultural factors always play a role and sometimes the decisive

one; we will discuss them briefly, but they are better studied by psychologists, neurologists

and sociologists.

Refusal may occur when the learner has achieved to the measure of his needs and

expectations or has completed the system he attributes to the foreign language, according to

his cognitive structure and learning hypotheses. He has reached the desired end performance

in his personal curriculum. Selinker and Lakshmanan (1992) define fossilization as

interlanguage containing persistent non-target-like structures, but in 1996, Seliker talks about

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cessation of learning and a permanently fossilized competence and insists that adult learners

are not able to reach native-like competence. Since 1972, then, Selinker‟s idea of fossilized

structures has evolved to an idea of global fossilization, which is not cessation of learning but

a level of ultimate attainment, similar to the idea of end performance in the learner‟s personal

curriculum and to the concept outlined by Ellis (Ibid.), which we have already discussed.

We may assume that some features of this end-performance fossilise because the learner‟s

motivation is low or he is not very ambitious and in his personal curriculum, the satisfactory

end level has not been set too high. His satisfaction is achieved fairly early in the learning

process, but the learner does not always seem disturbed by his lack of progress, which is often

evident only to the teacher or other observers. In these cases, we may find transient

fossilisation, and the learner may continue improving his command of the foreign language if

he makes a conscious effort or his motivation changes.

The impossibility to move forward becomes apparent when learners reach their language

ceiling even while striving to go on learning, which brings about frustration. This may be

related to biological or psychological explanations of permanent fossilisation. In these cases,

motivation and need do not seem to help; rather, the desperate attempt to move forward

creates more obstacles. The situation may be dramatic when a promotion, a scholarship or a

new job depends on the attainment of a certain level of command of the foreign language or

when huge sums of money are spent on intensive courses, to no avail. When opportunities

may be lost or money is wasted – particularly if it is the employer‟s money – anxiety and

stress reinforce the presence of language ceiling and learners find themselves beyond help. In

these cases, we might find that the content of the personal curriculum has not been learnt and

the satisfaction of communicative needs has not been attained because the method and

learning hypotheses in the personal curriculum were not appropriate and they are so firmly

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


lodged in the brain that they cannot be altered. The end performance may have been set at a

higher level than the personal learning approach can lead the person to attain.

4.b The impact of feedback on fossilisation

Vigil & Oller (1976) outlined a model of fossilisation which took extrinsic feedback

(Selinker & Lamendella, 1979) as the determining factor. In their view, positive cognitive

feedback combined with negative affective feedback favoured fossilisation, whereas negative

cognitive feedback combined with positive affective feedback would cause learners to modify

their linguistic knowledge and move forward in their learning. The model has several weak

points, however, as already discussed by Selinker & Lamendella (Ibid.) who argue that the

beginning of fossilisation is controlled by internal factors, although extrinsic feedback plays a

role in reinforcing certain parts of the learner‟s interlanguage; the lower boundary of

fossilisation is set by the learner‟s communicative needs; reinforcement of communicative

competence is not necessarily combined with reinforcement of correctness and finally, there is

no fossilisation in the native language. The latter argument is a moot point. At any social

event, we will be surrounded by native speakers who display different degrees of mastery of

their native language, depending on their background and personality. Their language ceilings

are not at the same height.

We would also need to characterise “positive” and “negative” feedback, both cognitive and

affective, and find a way to describe the participation of affect in cognitive processes, to

outline the boundaries of each type of feedback. There is no feedback which can be

objectively classed as “positive” or “negative”, as this would ultimately depend on the

learner‟s perception of the nature of feedback; something which he himself may find

impossible to define or classify. We would not know, either, how much feedback of each type

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a learner would need to avoid fossilisation or fall into it. If we were talking about feedback in

a limited way, similar to the notions of positive or negative reinforcement (Skinner, 1977), it

should be relatively easy to answer all these questions, but in the broader context of holistic

communication, feedback may take so many forms and it may be interpreted in so many ways

that its categorisation appears quite elusive. A typical example of the impossibility to class

feedback as “positive” or “negative” may be the case of a highly motivated and optimistic

person who, when told that his utterances are incomprehensible, or faced with a complete

breakdown of communication with his interlocutors, sees this as an interesting challenge to

learn more rather than as a source of frustration. On the other hand, learners who communicate

fairly well but are extremely competitive and self-demanding, may feel frustrated when they

make a lesser, irrelevant error, even if the interlocutor does not seem to notice it and it does

not affect their performance.

We might even consider cases of learners who respond to aggression, criticism or

punishment better than to any other form of stimulation, because they come from

dysfunctional environments or are in need of psychological counselling. Professional teachers

would never ill-treat a learner even if he required it, but their democratic, professional, non-

inhibiting feedback may well be taken by these learners as weak and unreliable and cause lack

of motivation. This is, of course, an extreme example, but it shows the relativity of the

concepts of “positive” and “negative” feedback. The case of interactive computer-based

programmes for learning English should be an interesting field of research. The same learners

who would find a teacher authoritarian if she constantly said “You are wrong” and “You are

right”, without further explanations, gladly sit in front of a computer and learn with programs

which just sanction their production as right or wrong, providing no real feedback.

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Brown (1994) adheres to Vigil and Oller‟s (1976) theory of the importance of feedback and

claims that fossilization may be reverted if learners are given positive affective feedback (“Try

again, you can do it”, e.g.) together with neutral or negative cognitive feedback, i.e., mistakes

are pointed out, but the learner is encouraged to reconsider his hypotheses. The method is

rather naïve and it is not clear how the teacher would distinguish a fossilized error from a

developmental one and whether the same procedure would be effective with both.

The influence of extrinsic factors on the height of a person‟s ceiling is undeniable, as man is

a social being and many mental processes originate in the environment. Measuring and

assessing this influence reliably is almost impossible, unless we are satisfied with describing

models of feedback in the classroom in order to correlate their use with observable features of

the learners‟ interlanguage. We might then be able to see the correspondence between types of

feedback thus classed and the learners‟ production, but not to make generalisations about their

affective value. We would know if saying “I think I see what you mean, but could you clarify

it, please”, rather than, “I don‟t understand”, produces better re-formulations of messages,

but we would be hard put to establish if this happens because the remarks are taken as positive

or negative feedback.

4.c The role of acculturation – in whose culture?

Tollefson & Firn (1983) also stressed the role played in the appearance of fossilisation by

negative cognitive feedback combined with an overemphasis on communicative tasks in the

classroom, placing interaction at the core of the phenomenon. They also discussed the role of

acculturation, holding that fossilisation occurs when the learner‟s acculturation to the target

language culture ceases. We will refer to acculturation in foreign language learning as the

acceptance and adoption, by the learner, of cultural features of the foreign language speech

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communities, without significantly changing his own culture or losing awareness of his

identity. We should note that the acculturation agents in a language course are not the real

members of the foreign community, as would be the case with second language acquisition,

but the teacher, the school and the materials. Fossilisation would appear when the

acculturation process has reached its feasible limits, when it cannot continue because of

insufficient input; for example, because learners are not in contact with a foreign community,

or when the learner rejects further acculturation.

Although learning a language inevitably entails apprehending its culture, it should be noted

that English as a lingua franca is so widely used nowadays that the teacher or the school would

be hard put to decide which English-speaking community their learners should acculturate in;

perhaps, they would prefer to concentrate on teaching a fairly universal, culturally unmarked

variety of English which might be understood by other non-native speakers or to expose

learners to different language varieties. The issue is extremely relevant for the consideration of

language ceiling, as acculturation involves power struggles, ideologies, supremacy, resistance

and survival as well as tolerance, personal enrichment and maturity, depending on how both

parties approach the issue. When two communities are in touch and have to learn from each

other, these processes are very clear and usually result in the “dominant” culture prevailing on

the other or in the weaker community adapting to a culture it regards as “superior”, but in the

foreign language class, it may well happen that neither the teacher nor the learners will be

natives of an English-speaking community and will not be willing to acculturate. They will

seek to learn and teach the language while at the same time defending their cultural identity. In

this case, acculturation may come exclusively from the materials.

Will this result in a lower language ceiling for the learners? The case of non-native teachers

who have had very little or no direct experience of living in an English-speaking community

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and whose command of the language is extremely high, might invite reflection on the relative

value of acculturation. On the other hand, it is a fact that first-hand contact with a native-

speaking community enhances acquisition of a foreign language, particularly if the non-native

speaker feels comfortable in this social group, as the two cultures come together in an

experience from which both profit. In this case, we should be talking about interculturation, a

more enriching phenomenon.

Further research may be needed into the influence that the degree of identification and

appropriation of the learners‟ native culture has on language ceiling and on the learner‟s

willingness and readiness to regard the contact with a foreign culture as a way of better

understanding other human beings and a contribution to his appreciation of his own cultural

identity. Informal observations and conversations with learners who show a low language

ceiling very often disclose particular attitudes in the cultural domain, for example:

a) A complete and usually unfounded rejection of the target language culture, usually

because of a single traumatic event related to it or due to very specific actions of one or

two prominent members of this community, or simply due to clinging to stereotyped

concepts of its users‟ idiosincracy. This points to a cultural background where reasons,

concepts and ideas seem to have been replaced by prejudice, clichés and over-


b) A refusal to learn about events or people belonging to other cultures, which is seen as

completely alien and useless for learning the language, compounded with a lack of

interest in culturally relevant events in the native culture. The learner does not want to

hear about the history of the foreign culture or that of his own. He only reads the

football page of the local newspaper and is totally unconcerned about local music,

politics or economy, let alone history or art, which are considered a waste of time

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because they are not immediately useful. The impossibility to relate another culture to

one‟s own is due to an incomplete acculturation in the native community. The foreign

culture finds no links in the native culture and learning is not meaningful because it

cannot be associated to previous knowledge. This may cause a low language ceiling,

besides limiting the topics of conversation and areas of interest.

c) The complete willingness to acculturate in the foreign language, due to poor

appreciation or ignorance of the value of one‟s own. Learners look up to the foreign

culture, but trying to become good Americans or good Canadians is an impossible

goal, because new knowledge is usually constructed on the basis of previous

knowledge and in these cases, the foreign culture finds no links to the native one,

which has been rejected. Knowledge thus acquired is never significant or meaningful

and tends to be easily forgotten or to become totally context-bound, as if the learner

were trying to learn the contents of a phrase-book for tourists in the country of his


There may be cultural universals where language anchors itself, such as the notions of

identity, roots in a historical past, appreciation of traditions and cultural heritage, to mention

but a few. Perhaps, an exploration of language universals and probable communication

universals should also include a study of learners‟ awareness and appreciation of their culture

and their language, to estimate if the foreign language and culture will be anchored on solid

ground or sand dunes.

4.d Biological factors

Studies in the field of neurolinguistics have disclosed the presence of permanent fossilisation

brought about by biological factors, mostly genetic and age-related, and transient fossilisation

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produced by acculturation limits or other socio-affective influences on the learning process.

(Selinker & Lamendella, 1978; Tollefson & Firn, Ibid.) and more recent experiments, using

the event-related potentials (ERP) method of brain scanning seem to back this theory. This

method studies consistent patterns that accompany the registration and evaluation of each

discrete piece of sensory information in the brain, as opposed to general electric changes and

fluctuations. Vos et al (2001) used ERP techniques to research how individuals process

language input and achieve comprehension and found that the subjects of the experiment

possessing a high working memory capacity were more accurate in their interpretation of

words and sentences and were more efficient in their processing of concurrent information.

These experiments have explored comprehension rather than production, and at a very limited

level, but they are indicative that biological factors play a crucial role in determining the

height of a person‟s language ceiling.

The assumption that age brings about the loss of an executive component of the capacity to

adapt existing systems or construct new systems (Lamendella, Ibid.) has been seriously

challenged by electrophysiological investigation, which has pointed out that the brain

performs its executive functions at any age, so fossilisation should be attributed to other

factors: processing efficiency, for example, rather than executive capacity, or the location in

the brain of native language and foreign language systems. If they are separated in the brain,

the former should be language-specific and the latter might be of a different nature. (Gunter et

al, 1997) The distinction may support the theory of a latent language structure and a latent

psychological structure (Selinker, Ibid.).

The efficiency to process information and to form associations and systems has been pointed

out by Purdy (2001) as a brain capacity potentially traceable through ERP techniques. A

working hypothesis might be that the processing of fossilised syntactic forms of a foreign

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


language shares the same characteristics as the processing of native language forms and their

representations are collocated together, whereas non-fossilised forms are found in the brain in

another area and are not easily accessible under communication constraints, when the

fossilised forms tend to prevail. The difference here is that we are not talking about fossilised

errors, but about fossilised forms constituting a solid system, such as the first language system,

either correct or incorrect. An important factor to consider in these biological or genetic

explanations is that the neurosciences do not ignore the role of motivation and social stimuli in

shaping up neural maturation, so the limits between genetic and developmental or extrinsic

factors remain unclear when attempting to explore the causes of language ceiling.

4.e From fossilisation to language ceiling

As we can see, research into the factors which determine the height of a person‟s ceiling

would call for collaborative, multi-disciplinary efforts, as they may be psychological, social,

physiological and even economic or political and probably originating in several of these

domains simultaneously. It is even unclear whether the causes determining the height of this

ceiling might be identified at all, as research ought to be, necessarily, ex-post facto: once

learners have reached their ceiling, we should explore the whole of their previous life

experience and physical/psychological traits in depth to find traces of possible causes of high

and low ceilings. The data would be extremely ambiguous, incomplete and subjective, when

not impossible to obtain.

Teachers are unable to detect the causes which set the height of a learner‟s ceiling and are

not professionally prepared to act upon them – a job which might be undertaken by a

psychologist or a neuroscientist. However, they can be trained to detect the manifestations of

language ceiling and address this stage in learners‟ progress appropriately.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


As explained, teachers can greatly enhance the results of their courses if they diagnose the

learners‟ expectations, needs, background, learning hypotheses and communication styles

before the start of a language programme, then describe their learners‟ linguistic performance

and behaviour during lessons, particularly at ceiling level, use the information to interpret the

external manifestations of personal curricula and language ceiling and tailor their teaching to


Is there a way to predict the height of a person‟s ceiling? This was a recurrent question

during our research, and one which gave rise to a lot of misgivings: What if you can, but in

doing so, actually condition the teacher‟s expectations, and learners who are supposed to have

low ceilings are, in fact, led by the tutor in that direction? This is the famous Rosenthal effect,

by which the researcher conditions the subjects‟ behaviour so that a hypothesis may be proven


If we analysed the diagnoses of the Learning Hypotheses Test included in Appendix 2, we

might presume that resorting to pre-conceptual categories for grouping concepts, having a low

degree of imagination and creativity, poor acculturation in the native language and culture, a

predominantly metonymic association style, and a poor level of command of the native

language, might point to a low language ceiling. We may also suppose, without using the test,

that poor motivation, lack of ambition and rejection of the language or the culture which is

associated to it might also determine a low language ceiling. However, humans are very

fluctuating beings, the mind is a liable entity, the social and affective domains have unforeseen

effects on cognitive capabilities, so making a prognosis of the height of a person‟s ceiling does

not seem an easy or even feasible task.

Many of my research colleagues would say that much as they do not believe in witches, but

they are there, nothing is a sure indicator of a potentially low or high language ceiling, but the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


indicators are there. In twenty years, we did not find a single case of a learner with a pre-

conceptual style for structuring language and either very high or very low imagination and

creativity (Diagnosed using the Learning Hypotheses Test) who would reach a high language

ceiling, and this included some who were highly motivated. Of course, there were others who

had a low language ceiling despite their conceptual style for structuring language, because

they lacked interest in learning or had personal problems.

Therefore, we could not be so bold as to claim that the height of a learner‟s language ceiling

can be predicted by analysing his style for structuring language and his level of imagination

and creativity, but we can report that in our longitudinal studies, 100% of students with a pre-

conceptual style for structuring language and either a very high or very low level of

imagination and creativity proved to have low language ceilings, reached at pre-intermediate

or intermediate levels or even earlier, regardless of their degree of motivation or the approach

and methods used to teach them. These longitudinal studies were carried out with 12 cases,

over a period of about five years, initially, and then continued with all the cases which were

diagnosed as pre-conceptual, with either a very high or very low level of imagination and

creativity, as a matter of routine. The possible prognosis of the height of an adult learner‟s

language ceiling is, undoubtedly, a line of research to be pursued much further, but the

diagnosis of the Learning Strategies Test already provides valuable indicators.

Another interesting issue is whether learners at their language ceiling show a particular

pattern of error production. Can we diagnose ceiling through error analysis? The answer

depends on the causes of this ceiling. When learners reach their ceiling due to an impossibility

to progress any further, caused by the nature of their learning hypotheses or other factors

already described, there is a considerable increase in the number of “unproductive” errors: too

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


many semantic errors or errors in appropriacy, interlingual errors or a considerable number of

compensatory utterances, for example.

When ceiling is caused by unwillingness to learn or other motivational problems, error

analysis will not disclose it. The composition of the learner‟s errors will show fairly balanced

values for all the types of errors involved. Thus, we may conclude that whereas error analysis

is not enough to diagnose language ceiling, it will reveal language ceiling which has been

reached due to an impossibility to continue learning. Correlating the results of the Learning

Hypotheses Tests with the results of error analysis can shed more light on these assumptions.

We will come back to the question of diagnosing and making a prognosis on language ceiling

later, after a description of the categories used in our analysis of errors.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Record yourself delivering a short speech in your native language. Listen to the

recording. How many fossilized errors have you made? If you can‟t detect them,

consult with a specialist in that language.

2. Have you ever had students who were at their language ceiling? How did you know

this? Make a list of the indicators you paid attention to.

3. Have you ever had students who reached their language ceiling only because they were

not interested in moving forward? Or do you think they had lost interest because they

had reached their desired end performance? Would you re-consider your opinion of

these learners now?

4. Are there structures, functions, lexis or other language items adult learners always

seem to learn? Make a list. Why do you suppose they learn this easily?

5. Do you know whether your students share your idea of a level of end performance for

the course you are teaching? In other words, do you have the same expectations?

Devise a questionnaire and carry out an informal survey, asking them what they expect

to learn.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


PART 2: Exploring errors in the EFL classroom

1. Error analysis as a teaching tool

Traditionally, teachers have considered errors as problems to overcome and have taken

corrective action in order to help their students eliminate them from their interlanguage.

Approaches of the early 20th century regarded correction as a process by which teachers

pointed out and corrected errors, offering the correct form, and students were expected to

study or even memorise this correction in order not to make recurrent mistakes.

Behaviourism advocated that if students were not exposed to erroneous language; for

example, their classmates‟ interlanguage or even their own, they would not produce mistaken

forms. Therefore, care was taken to reduce production to the repetition of correct sentences; a

procedure in line with the idea that learning a language was practically a question of

developing the right habits. Unfortunately, these practices seemed to deprive the student of the

possibility of making hypotheses about the language they were learning and trying them out in

order to correct or corroborate them.

The communicative approach re-defined the teacher‟s role as that of a moderator, co-

ordinator, facilitator or guide. From this position, teachers were not supposed to use their red

pen to cross out errors and provide correct forms, or to interrupt a learner while he was

speaking, to point out a mistake. Correction techniques changed, but correction was still the

only treatment of errors, although the concept of error acquired new meanings and new facets.

Communication became of paramount importance and utterances containing lesser errors

began to be tolerated, reflecting real language use, and learners‟ interlanguage began to be

analysed not only from the point of view of accuracy but also according to degrees of

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


appropriacy, which aroused researchers‟ curiosity about the processes behind error production

beyond interference from L1.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, methods and approaches continued focussing

on error correction, albeit with innovative techniques based mostly on feedback and re-

formulation (Krashen & Terrell, Ibid.; Johnson, 1988; Lewis, Ibid.). Correction became less

and less threatening and less teacher-based, as techniques such as peer or group correction

sought to strip correction of any resemblance with criticism or punishment.

Some approaches that came into fashion in the nineteen eighties, namely Krashen and

Terrell's Natural Approach (1983), the constant preaching against teacher-centred classroom

practices and the focus on learner autonomy that prevailed in the nineteen nineties were

widely misinterpreted as banning error-treatment and correction altogether. The idea that

mistakes should not be regarded as problems to overcome but as manifestations of the learners'

needs gained widespread acceptance but in most methodologies the only concrete

implementation of this principle referred to methods of correction that might encourage

reflection, analysis and self-correction or metacognition, rather than to concrete exploitation of

errors for learning purposes.

In some of the so-called "natural" approaches, correction was discouraged on the assumption

that learners should learn the foreign language as they had learnt their first language:

presumably, spontaneously and without formal correction. It is arguable whether lack of

correction or treatment of errors is natural or desirable. It may not be natural, because even a

little baby is punished and corrected when he makes a language error. He is punished with

lack of communication and corrected by the social environment. When faced with the anguish

of isolation and the impossibility to satisfy his most basic needs, such as nourishment, pleasure

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


and comfort, the baby earnestly tries to pick up the words he needs to communicate and


The baby's plight is heart-breaking: he has to communicate with people the size of a three-

storey building who manipulate him, feed him, clothe and unclothe him at will and even force

him to sleep, wake up or dive into an unwanted bath. These giants seem to get everything

wrong: when he consistently throws objects to the floor to learn how things fall, and the notion

of "down", they think he has dropped his toys and tie them up to his pram or cot, thus

interrupting his learning game. Baby cries, and instead of untying his toys, his gorilla-size

mother thinks he is hungry, or cold, or hot, or maybe teething; so baby gets bottles, medicines,

a fresh set of nappies - anything but his toys. One day, he manages to utter a word, but it is not

recognisable in the giants' language, so he still gets the wrong results. The relief comes the day

when he manages to say "Toys". Who wants to be in this situation at the language class?

Methods had better avoid all resemblance to this early period and find more humane methods

of dealing with language limitations.

To hold that babies are not formally taught – again an implication made by Krashen and

Terrell (Ibid.), seems a moot point as well. A simple walk around a toy-shop or a playground

will provide enough evidence to counteract this assertion. We will hear a lot of adults telling

very small babies: "Say „Hello‟ to Santa Claus", "Say „Thank you‟ to this nice lady", " Oh!

What has baby got? An ice-cream. Ice-cream. Ice-cream. Come on, say ice-cream.", "Good

Lord, he can say „Mum‟!” Ok. Can you say "Dad", too? Come on: Dad, Dad, Dad.", not to

mention poems, songs and lullabies which are sung and recited with mime and gesture to

convey the linguistic message to the tiny, not proficient user of the language in question. The

world is a language class, and parents and adults are nothing but diligent teachers.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Approaches which deny the value of error treatment have left learners fairly helpless and

teachers with a weaker role to play in their learners' language acquisition process. In spite of

the appearance of task-oriented and experience-based methodologies, the teacher's work is still

not centred on the interpretation of errors as much as it should be. As discussed before,

descriptions and classifications of learning strategies and styles have finally succeeded in

changing the emphasis of teaching from concern with methods and approaches to an in-depth

study of the learner and an ongoing, pragmatic response to feedback. Describing learning

styles and strategies, as well as analysing errors from a purely linguistic point of view, may be

simply the map, not the territory. It may mean describing the manifestation of processes, not

their roots. The roots should be sought in the type of learning hypotheses these features of the

learners‟ personal curricula seem to reflect: conceptualisation or lack of it, association by

proximity or analogy, use of creativity and imagination.

The study of errors as manifestations of the learning hypotheses in the learner‟s personal

curriculum is based on the assumption that teachers cannot teach adult learners how to

structure their learning. Rather, they should seek to unveil and follow the learner‟s personal

curriculum and incorporate it to the course curriculum.

When we look at present-day approaches and methods, at the amount of research into

learning styles and strategies, motivation, brain structure and functions, we can clearly see that

an in-depth study of the learner takes central place in modern conceptions of learning and

teaching. Nevertheless, it is not very clear whether teachers always attach so much importance

to these aspects in their actual practice; in fact, they often seem to be simply concerned about

results, measured by the degree of accuracy of their learners‟ interlanguage. Error analysis, in

the classroom, frequently stops at the linguistic level and the following anecdotes are

illustrative of this situation:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Several years ago, I heard a colleague complain, in the staff room, that her students made a

lot of errors and she seemed to be unable to eradicate them from their interlanguage. The

situation was serious, because these students were trainee teachers who would, upon

graduation, teach English, and my colleague happened to be their Language teacher.

I offered to analyse the errors of that class if she gave me some samples of their production,

collected according to my instructions. Although she knew I had been engaged into this kind

of study for years, she answered, “Analyse their errors? What for? They are always the same!

I can find them myself!” That answer was disappointing to say the least. Persistent errors of a

group of learners may well be teaching-induced, on the one hand, and on the other, the teacher

did not understand the purpose of error analysis at all and thought I wanted to help her detect

what part of the language system the errors affected: verbs, sentence structure, etc.

My worries did not end there. Another Language teacher decided to accept my offer and

brought me a list of errors for me to analyse, which read, for example: “The „s‟ in the third

person singular affirmative, present simple”; “I suggest you to come”; “We use to have ice-

cream in summer”, and similar transcriptions of learners‟ errors. She was very surprised when

I told her the list was useless, because it did not tell me anything about the contexts of the

errors, the kind of learners producing them or the type of teaching they were exposed to.

Besides, she remarked that if she had to provide all this information, error analysis was not

worth the effort.

These episodes reflect a deeply-engrained attitude towards error analysis in the teaching

profession, whereby analysis stops at the linguistic level, probably because teachers are more

concerned with the observable manifestations of interlanguage than with the inner processes

they reflect, as overt linguistic performance provides data for student evaluation and is scored

at examinations. When these examinations are administered and marked by third parties, like

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


international examination boards, they even act as auditing instruments for the teacher‟s work,

so it is not surprising that teachers should concentrate more on correcting language errors than

on addressing the messages they send – a procedure that would correct them more readily,


I am going to talk about error exploitation and not about error correction, because if we

consider errors as items in the learners‟ personal curricular, we cannot talk about correcting

them, but about using them to foster learning and to complete the course curriculum, to which

they make important contributions. We should study the extent, manner and system of

exploitation in great depth, to avoid inhibiting learners or penalising errors. Errors should even

be celebrated as productive experiments and ways that learners have of validating their

hypotheses about the language being learnt (Strevens, 1969).

Errors provide a lot of information about the process of learning but it should be

remembered that the reason for a learner's progress or lack of it cannot be found exclusively

through error analysis. Learners whose errors disclose highly favourable learning hypotheses

often fail at their courses because they are not interested in learning or because their teachers

or bosses do not motivate them properly. Sometimes, motivation that is apparently positive

works against adult learners, as is the case with company employees who want to learn

English in order to get a promotion. Getting the promotion, not learning the language, often

becomes the priority, and the anguish this produces hampers learning. I will concentrate on the

interpretation and exploitation of errors, but understanding learners means using several types

of analyses and approaching the issue with an open mind.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Give your students a communicative oral task and record their errors while they are

performing it. How many of these errors could you attribute to interference from their

native language?

2. Have you ever heard your students come to personal conclusions about the language

items they were learning? Think about an example of a learner-generated rule of


3. What methods of error correction have you tried out? Make a list of those which

worked and those which did not work. Can you think of reasons for their success or


4. Would you say that learners who make few errors always communicate better?

5. Have you tried not correcting your learners‟ errors? What were the results? If you

haven‟t tried, ask other teachers or some students about their experience with this

approach to error treatment.

6. When you were a very small child, did people correct you when you made language

errors? If they did, how did they do it?

7. Was there any teaching involved in your acquisition of your native language? Any

formal learning?

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2. Methods and instruments for error analysis

The colleague who thought that error analysis was not “worth it” because it entailed a lot of

work and consideration for many factors had, in fact, grasped one of the aspects of data

collection in this field with great precision: the fact that so much information about an error is

needed before it can be analysed.

I am going to describe how to obtain valid data for error analysis and how to use certain

criteria to analyse it, but before I do that, I wish to express my deepest appreciation for the

course supervisors who observed hundreds of lessons to record errors for our research project

and conducted dozens of interviews with learners to obtain either authoritative explanation or

more insight into the processes behind errors. Without these reliable records, nothing would

have been possible.

2.a Valid samples for error analysis

In error analysis, the samples to be analysed have to be drawn from the object under

scrutiny: language. Therefore, they have to contain all the elements that make them instances

of language use (Widdowson, Ibid.): text, context, intention, expression, and the user's

purpose. One of the key issues in error analysis is, then, how to collect valid samples of

learners' production. James (1998) recommends two procedures: broad trawl elicitation

through role-plays and simulations, where the researcher‟s intervention is minimal, and

targeted elicitation, where the researcher selects specific samples from learner diaries, cloze

passages or specific sources, to focus the analysis on particular traits of error production. In

our case, the procedure resembled broad trawl.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Utterances lose part of their meaning when they appear out of context or divorced from other

communication codes which usually accompany them, so a simple list of errors made in

writing is of little value unless the whole text produced by the learner is available. A

transcription of errors made in oral performance hardly ever reflects non-verbal codes of

communication or even intonation, prominence and tone, so a complete register of the error

should be available. The analyst should also know the type of activity where the error was

produced, and have access to basic information about the school, the course, the materials, the

teacher and the learner. Additionally, it is essential to discuss the error with the learner in most

cases, to obtain an authoritative explanation and avoid mistakes in the interpretation and

diagnosis of the error. This shows that the researcher‟s task is extremely complex and perhaps

this explains why the research which serves as the basis for this work lasted twenty-seven


The classroom teacher, however, will find error analysis much easier, as a lot of the

necessary information is already available to her. Besides, the teacher can correct and clarify

her assumptions as needed, as she is in daily contact with the class, which in turn gives her a

lot of insight into the problems under analysis. Also, the teacher‟s objective is instrumental,

whereas the researcher‟s is scientific. If the teacher finds that error analysis is a positive

teaching tool, she will not be bothered with keeping records, controlling variables and carrying

out statistical analyses: the learners‟ achievements will be her only concerns and to achieve

these good results, her task will be much easier than the researcher‟s.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


What shall we analyse?



if we know

The learner's The level The The group What the learner
personal of the activity. dynamics. meant or
data. course. should have

Age, Level Language Teacher‟s Reconstruction of

background, includes objectives, leadership the utterance, by the
occupation, placement pedagogic style. learner and/or the
objectives, system, aims, type of Learner- teacher.
history as a materials, interaction, learner and Distinguishing
foreign curriculum, learner roles teacher- between
language approach, and teacher learner compensatory or
learner, needs, method and roles. relationships non-compensatory
expectations, resources as Suitability Dominant utterances.
learning well as for course interaction Interpretation of
hypotheses/styl background level. style non-verbal
e/strategies, knowledge Previous (circular, communication.
communication of the school preparation radial, by
style, and any or institute. provided. sectors)
other relevant

Figure 6– Valid sample for error analysis

The learners' oral and/or written production should be recorded in fairly open-ended and

creative activities such as communicative writing tasks, conversations about a classroom topic,

role-playing, etc.. Errors produced in close-ended activities such as fill-in-the-blanks or

transformation exercises will not be very revealing, for when a person concentrates on only

one language item, his errors will be related to this item, and when the operation to perform is

too mechanical, the only information we may get is whether the learner can perform the

operation requested by the exercise. This may be of interest to the language teacher and useful

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


for passing certain examinations, but is not so useful for gaining insight into the learner's

hypotheses or strategies, basically because he is not selecting what operation to make.

The analyst of an error should know the context in which it is produced, the level of the

course, the level of the activity in which the learner is performing, the role he is performing in

the activity and all the pertinent personal data of the learner: age, occupation, education,

nationality, native language, reason for learning English, needs, expectations, etc. Wright‟s

(1987) classification of activities is very useful in this domain, as is Tomlison‟s (1998),

because they map out the processes that learners are expected to carry out, as well as their role

in the activity.

The information related to the textbook, the approach, the method and the teacher's

leadership style is also relevant. The context of errors made in writing is relatively easier to

preserve than the context of errors made in oral production. In this latter case, a reliable

method is to analyse the error on the spot, the moment it is produced, before the context is

forgotten, even if the researcher uses video cameras or audio tapes to record the learners'


When we speak of roles, we do not refer only to the role outlined for the learners by the

activity designer, but also to the psychological role he decides to play in the interaction: his

intentions, his aims and how he sets about achieving them (Wright, Ibid.; Pichon Riviére,


It is vital to know exactly what the learner meant in order to determine what he should or

could have produced. We will call authoritative explanation the procedure by which the

learner explains the structuring and meaning of his utterance. The concept is partly borrowed

from Pit Corder (Ibid.), who called it authoritative reconstruction. I will attach further

pedagogical implications to Pit Corder‟s idea, too, because I will present it not only as a

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


research method for data collection, as a necessary step in the analysis of an error, providing

the basic raw data, but also as a teaching tool for accurately understanding an error to be

exploited. We will call expert reconstruction the procedure by which the teacher reconstructs

and often re-phrases the learner‟s utterance according to her interpretation of the learner’s

intentions and before or instead of obtaining authoritative explanation.

Inviting authoritative explanation - that is, asking the learner "What do you mean?", or "Why

did you say that?", or just “So you mean that ….”, when he makes an error is not such a

standard procedure as it should be and very often, telling people what they should have said

precedes asking people what they wanted to say. The result is that many errors go unexploited

whereas a lot of errors that learners have not made are carefully corrected and discussed.

Let us analyse some examples recorded at EFL lessons:

Example 1:

Learner: (Describing a picture) There are some books on the floor and there are /tu:/ books on

the table.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction) There are four books on the table.

Learner: Yes, there are three books on the floor and there are /tu:/ four books on the table.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction) Oh! I see. You mean there are some books on the table, too.

Learner: Two? There are four.

In the utterance "There are some books on the floor and there are /tu:/ books on the table",

/tu:/ stood for too, not for two, as the teacher thought.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Example 2:

Learner: This weekend, will paint my house.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction and on-the-spot correction) No, no: "my house will be

painted". You need a verb in the passive voice: "to be" plus a "past participle".

Learner: OK. This weekend, I will be painted my house.

Teacher: (Authoritative explanation. The teacher begins to suspect her interpretation is wrong)

Will you paint it yourself?

Learner: (Authoritative explanation) Yes, I will be painted it.

Teacher: Oh! Then, you meant "This weekend, I will paint my house"!

Learner: Yes. What did I say?

In "This weekend, will paint my house", the learner was simply omitting the subject. His

error had nothing to do with the correct use of the Passive Voice. This example also illustrates

that there are ways of asking for authoritative explanation which do not necessarily entail

asking “What do you mean?” or any other direct question about the learner‟s error.

Example 3:

Learner's written production:

"Dear John,

I am very happy what you are getting married ...............etc."

Teacher's corrected version:

"Dear John,

I am very happy to hear that you are getting married ............ etc."

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Expert reconstruction by the teacher: The learner tries to use what as the relative pronoun

that. This is interference from Spanish, but he is unaware of the difference between qué and

que in his native language, too.

Authoritative explanation by the learner: "My previous teacher told me that, so as not to

confuse „what‟ with „that‟ I had to translate „what‟ as „lo que‟ and „that‟ as „que‟. For

example: „This is what I want‟ means „Esto es lo que quiero‟. In this letter, I meant „Estoy

feliz, lo que vas a casarte‟. I forgot to write a comma, that's why you did not understand."

This expert reconstruction is wrong on two counts: a) The teacher has hastened to produce a

bold interpretation of an error which she did not understand well enough; b) She has not

effected a reconstruction of the utterance but has edited the learner's letter, providing a

sentence that is "better" than the learner's but does not address the error. We will discuss

editing again later on.

It should be noted that the Spanish sentence on which the learner modelled his utterance

contains a sub-standard use of lo que which the teacher who recommended translation of the

relative what may not have thought about.

Example 4:

Teacher: Can you swim?

Learner: Yes, I possibility swim.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction) You mean you CAN swim.

Learner: Yes, I can swim.

Teacher: And can you swim well?

Learner: Yes, I possibility swim well.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction) You CAN swim well, you mean ...

Learner: Yes. And I possibility teach children to swim.

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Teacher: (Authoritative explanation) Why do you say "possibility" and not "can"?

Learner: (Authoritative explanation) Because it's the same. My previous teacher told me that

“can" means "possibility".

An inspection of this learner's copybook showed that his previous teacher had made him

copy a list of modals from the board, which read:

can = possibility

must = obligation, assumption

may = permission, etc.

When describing errors, the problem does not lie so much in making the right inferences or

deductions as in getting information from the learners and interpreting it. Error analysis that is

not based on authoritative explanation often tells the researcher more about the teacher than

about the learner.

It would not be possible to show or describe all these aspects of utterances in any type of

evidence that might back up research into errors or include it in a research report which

covered a relevant number of cases. Analyses and discussions are extremely difficult unless all

the participants have had first-hand contact with the errors being discussed and are familiar

with the complete data, as outlined above. Audio or video recordings of lessons, transcriptions

of errors, researchers‟ logs and reports on classroom observation are some of the instruments

which attempt to capture the error and its circumstances and all these records ought to be

available to the readers for them to judge the analyses of errors we are going to present.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Due to these obvious constraints, the examples of errors in this work will not include all the

information about the social, institutional, pedagogical and psychological components of each

error, but the reader can trust that the diagnoses we will offer as examples were made only

after examining all the pertinent data.

2.b Descriptive and diagnostic analyses

Once we have a reliable sample for analysis, we can undertake the study of learners' errors

both for a diagnostic, teaching purpose and for a descriptive purpose, to gain insight into

learning hypotheses, compensation strategies and communication strategies. We will not

propose doing this from a purely scientific point of view, but for the practical purpose of

facilitating teaching and learning. The process is summarised in Figure 7.


Diagnostic analysis complements Descriptive analysis

consists of consists of

Evaluation of results Description of processes underlying errors

leads to leads to

Adjustments to teaching and Exploitation of the learner‟s

materials. curriculum.

brings about Better results

Figure 7 – Practical applications of error analysis

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The diagnostic aspect of error analysis simply addresses what parts of the language code

have been breached: grammar, lexis, rules of appropriacy or register. It is the kind of analysis

teachers carry out when they are correcting compositions, for example. This enables teachers

to measure their learners' progress, evaluate the materials they are using, reflect upon their

teaching and correct or adapt methods and procedures to obtain better results. It is directly

related to the classroom situation, to examination-taking and to the general results of the

language course. When carrying out diagnostic analysis, the teacher will find out what

language forms have been wrongly used: verb tenses, the wrong exponent of a function, a

mispronounced word, etc. This type of analysis also sheds light on the learner‟s personal

curriculum, by showing what he seems ready to learn and where he appears to depart from the

course curriculum. Both Norrish (Ibid.) and George (1969) have produced important

inventories of errors from a diagnostic point of view and all the materials of common errors in

English are valuable resources in this field.

The other aspect of error analysis, that we have called descriptive, provides insight into the

learners' learning hypotheses, compensation and communication strategies, among other

processes, by unveiling operations used to incorporate and process knowledge, to cope with

problems of learning and to use newly acquired language for communicative purposes in

personal creations. When carrying out descriptive analysis, the teacher will find out if the

errors detected during the diagnostic analysis are due to interference, overgeneralisation,

simplification, or various other processes which tell her not what people are learning, but how

they are doing it. Teachers may also pay attention to the number and frequency of

manifestations of these processes, to establish error trends.

More often than not, descriptive analyses will bear out error-provoking teaching or expose

flaws in the materials, particularly when error types are common to a whole group of learners

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


or when an error can be clearly traced back to some features of the materials or to something

said in class, as was the case in our example of the learner who produced “I possibility swim”.

We will deal with materials or teacher-induced errors in greater detail later on.

I am going to discuss an example of Diagnostic and Descriptive analyses, to show how they

complement each other, even though I have not fully explained the terminology I am going to


Example 1:

Sample of a learner‟s written production:

Dear Fred,

Thank you for your letter. Peter also send me a letter yesterday.

Is very well, and may be come the next week. He bought a cycle and ride it to work every

day. I would be like that you seen him .................

DIAGNOSTIC ANALYSIS (After expert reconstruction)

SEND for SENT: He has not internalised the use of the Past Simple Tense.

IS for HE IS: Has not internalised the necessity of the subject.

MAY BE COME for MAY COME: Has concluded that modals must be followed by "be".

THE NEXT WEEK/NEXT WEEK: Does not know when to omit the definite article.

CYCLE for BIKE: He knew he could shorten the word "bicycle", but could not remember

exactly how to do it.

RIDE for RIDES: He has not internalised the use of the "s" in the third person singular,

Present Simple Tense.

WOULD BE LIKE for WOULD LIKE: Same as "may be come".

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


THAT YOU SEEN HIM for "QUE LO VIERAS": He does not know how to say it and effects

compensation by creating an utterance as

best he can.

From this analysis, the teacher knows this learner needs further practice in the use of

certain verb tenses, needs to be reminded of the need to put a subject in most sentences and

must be re-taught the use of articles.

DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS (After authoritative explanation)

SEND for SENT:Appropriate, semi-correct. Syntactic, intralingual error, due to simplification

(only one form of the verb for all cases). Non-compensatory.

IS for HE IS: Appropriate, semi-correct. Syntactic, interlingual error (interference). Non-


MAY BE COME for MAY COME: Appropriate, semi-correct. Syntactic, intralingual error due

to adherence to first form learnt. (The lesson in the book where modals were introduced

presented them in connection with "be": will be, may be, should be. He now keeps “be” as a

necessary part of the construction, refusing to flexibilise it). Non-compensatory.

THE NEXT WEEK for NEXT WEEK: Appropriate, semi-correct . Syntactic, interlingual error.


CYCLE for BIKE: Semi-appropriate, correct. Semantic, intralingual error due to confusion.


RIDE for RIDES: Appropriate, semi-correct. Syntactic, intralingual error due to simplification

(The same verb form for all persons). Non-compensatory.

WOULD BE LIKE for WOULD LIKE: same as "may be come".

THAT YOU SEEN HIM for "QUE LO VIERAS": Semi-appropriate, semi-correct, semantic-

syntactic, compensatory utterance created on the model of the Spanish pattern, but the learner

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


is aware of the fact that he needs a verb form he does not know, and chooses "seen", hoping

this is close to the subjunctive, because he identifies past participles with complex forms. Half

interlingual and half intralingual. The construction is modelled on the Spanish "que lo vieras"

but the choice of verb is an overgeneralisation of the use and meaning of the past participle.

There are actually two errors.

N.B.: The sample of the learner‟s production analysed is too small to venture

any deeper interpretation of the processes behind his interlanguage. At least

fifty errors would be needed, recorded at different moments and in different

contexts, to attempt a preliminary in-depth analysis. However, we will offer a

mock interpretation: the learner relies on the code of English for most of his

utterances, resorting to the code of his native language only when there are

gaps in his learning. His errors are mostly syntactic, not semantic. Both

trends are productive, as we will discuss later on, but some of his intralingual

errors are due to non-productive processes, like adherence to first form

learnt or simplification, which are attempts at simplifying learning by taking

shortcuts. The materials need special treatment in those areas where they

present several analogous items together. Activities should encourage

inductive processes and language rules should be discussed with the learner

when he accesses them, to point out exceptions and special applications.

Although the example is extremely limited, it shows the wealth of information

to be obtained by combining the two types of analyses.

The purpose of the descriptive study is not to grade or score the learner's production, but to

learn more about him and view his progress in terms of whether certain error types tend to be

replaced by others, which we may consider more conducive to learning. In the example, if a

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


second analysis of the learner‟s written production showed the same number of mistakes, even

some affecting the same language forms, but no adherence to first form learnt and no

simplification, which are, in general, operations used to simplify the process of learning or the

object of learning, we might assume that the learner has made progress – not in his command

of the language, but in the mechanisms he is setting in motion for learning. This type of

progress will later produce an improvement in his language, as well.

To detect learning hypotheses, styles or strategies through error analysis, about fifty errors,

belonging to the same learner, should be collected and recorded in the manner we have

explained, over a period of at least three months. This avoids focusing on a learner‟s

production at a very specific point in time and making generalisations on limited data.

2.c Error classification in the descriptive analysis

Errors do not fall neatly into any one category, but should be classified using criteria which

describe their different aspects. Classifications of errors by Selinker (Ibid.), Richards (Ibid.)

and Pit Corder (Ibid.), attempt to classify errors according to the element which the author of

the classification considers crucial: the semantic meanings, the grammar rules breached, the

degree of appropriacy of the utterance or even its strategic value. James (1998) offers a

comprehensive review of error taxonomies, ranging from those produced by grammarians who

have listed types of deviances, to those who make allowances for ambiguity by describing the

type of foreign language targets the error approximates: when an error occurs, the linguist

considers several possibilities for what the learner intended to say (Legenhausen in James,


James (Ibid.) discusses comparative taxonomies and communicative effect taxonomies, the

former dealing with error causes in terms of language deviances and the latter with error

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gravities in terms of whether the communicative purpose of the utterance has been achieved

(Dulay, Burt and Krashen in James, 1998) He goes on to describe these taxonomies separately,

including breaches of the grammar and lexical codes in comparative taxonomies and lists a

number of alterations made by learners to surface structure features. However, he then goes on

the describe and discuss mental or linguistic processes leading to error production, such as

omission, overgeneralisation, ignorance of rule restriction, and others already described by

Richards (Ibid.). He disagrees with considering these processes learning strategies, making an

important point: how can ignorance of a system be considered a strategy for learning that

system, as in, for example, ignorance of rule restrictions? James (Ibid.) further questions the

identification of error-producing processes with learning strategies with reference to “system

simplification”, holding that rather than a strategy for learning, it is a strategy for simplifying

the object of learning – a point we also make when talking about productive and unproductive


Dulay, Burt and Krashen (Ibid.) propose a blend of the comparative and effect taxonomies as

a means of describing all the aspects of errors: the formal and the communicational. James

(Ibid.) suggests that a third dimension should be added to this description: the number of

errors, a quantitative dimension.

I will use a method of classification which

a) takes pedagogic considerations into account, by rating errors by the degree of

achievement they reflect, according to the criteria of the communicative approach,

b) measures form and meaning as two aspects of language use, closely linked but having

an independent value as well,

c) distinguishes between errors produced by interference from the native language

(interlingual) and those made within the code of the foreign language (intralingual),

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


d) adds new categories to the types of intralingual errors, which we will consider

extremely important for unveiling inner learning hypotheses and needed to define

intralingual errors better and more precisely,

e) distinguishes between compensatory and non-compensatory utterances and errors, for

pedagogical purposes.

This set of criteria was created with the focus on the research context, subjects and purpose:

the errors to be analysed in the framework of the classroom, to describe the performance of

foreign language learners, in order to improve the quality of instruction and by doing so, we

hoped to improve the quality of learning. Within these parameters, the resulting taxonomy was

more than three-dimensional, as proposed by James (Ibid.); perhaps multi-dimensional, as it is

quantitative, descriptive, communication-oriented, pedagogic and qualitative.

The table used for classifying errors is shown below.

Appropriate, semi-correct
ERROR Semi-appropriate, correct
RATING Semi-appropriate, semi-correct
Inappropriate, incorrect
ERROR Semantic
TYPE Syntactic
ERROR Interlingual
CLASS Intralingual
Accessing attempts
CAUSES (Overgeneralisation, confusion,
OF misunderstanding)
INTRALINGUAL Simplification (Of the system,
ERRORS of the message, of the syllabus)
Shortcutting (Cue-copying,
conditioning, adherence to first
form or meaning learnt)
Compensatory utterances/errors

Figure 8 – Error classification

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The classification of an error should include all the pertinent categories and sub-categories.

In the descriptive analysis shown in the previous section, for example, the use of RIDE for

RIDES in the example of descriptive and diagnostic analyses I have presented was classified

as an appropriate, semi-correct, syntactic, intralingual error due to simplification (The same

verb form for all persons). Non-compensatory.

To avoid writing these lengthy classifications of errors, we devised a code. In our research,

the utterance we have just presented would have been coded 30-020-10b. (3 = appropriate,

semi-correct; 0 = non-compensatory; 020 = syntactic; 10 = intralingual; b = simplification)

This is just an example of how codes can help the teacher classify errors. When describing our

classification table, I will also provide the suggested code for each category and sub-category,

in case the reader wishes to learn how to use this coding system. My experience in this field

shows that if the teacher needs to record and classify an error produced in an ongoing lesson, it

saves time to write a code rather than all the labels. The context of the error is as important as

the error itself or more, so even if the utterance is written down, a classification attempted

after the lesson may be unreliable, as details of the context or the authoritative explanation

may have already been forgotten. On-the-spot classifications are often necessary and codes

facilitate them.

In the following section, I will now describe all the categories and sub-categories in the

classification table and the criteria used for creating them. These criteria were chosen for this

particular research and are not necessarily applicable to other studies of errors. They reflect the

decisions which were made along the process, on the basis of the theory available at the


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2.c.1 Error Rating

The first category is called RATING, because it defines the communicative value of the

utterance, which is taken into consideration for scoring learners‟ production, for example, at

tests, within a predominantly communicative approach where fluency and appropriacy are

ranked higher than correctness. Please note that in this category, we are analysing whole

utterances, not specific language items. An utterance, here, is a group of words constituting a

unit of meaning, a sentence with a finite verb or a verbless clause such as “Good luck!”

The parameters in this category are correctness and appropriacy. (Widdowson, Ibid.) As

explained, we will consider that an utterance is appropriate when it is produced in the right

register, respecting role relationship, when it fits the context in which it occurs, performs the

intended function and carries its meaning across satisfactorily, thus catering for the language

user's communicative needs. If this utterance has been correctly constructed according to the

rules of English grammar and syntax, and lexis has been accurately used, we say it is also


In this communicative view, it is possible for an utterance to be fully appropriate and semi-

correct, but it is not possible for an utterance to be totally correct and inappropriate, for

grammar is not considered as a pattern for putting words together, but as a part of meaning,

subordinated to appropriate language use. The sub-categories in Error Rating are as follows:

a) Appropriate, semi-correct. (Code 30) The utterance conveys its meaning satisfactorily,

is suitable to the context, is in the right register, but contains an error in grammar.

Example: (John and Mary are having dinner. Mary wants the salt)

Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: Certainly. Here you is.

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Although semi-correct, the utterance is appropriate, for it conveys its meaning, it is in the

right register, it performs the function for which it was intended and thus caters satisfactorily

to the user's communicative needs. It is the type of utterance a teacher would not correct on the

spot, not to interrupt communication during an activity, or perhaps would rather not correct at

all, but jot down for future exploitation. At an examination, it would obtain a higher mark than

the utterances in the next category, if communication were ranked above correctness in the

teaching-learning approach being used.

b) Semi-appropriate, correct. (Code 20) The utterance has been correctly constructed, but

it does not fully fit the context, or it contains lexical or other errors that make it

partially inappropriate according to the definition above.


Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: Certainly. It is here. (Meaning "Here you are")

Note that only the physical action of giving Mary the salt would denote that John has

understood the request and is willing to comply with it. In the classroom, this would depend

on the degree of realism of this kind of practice in situations. The textual meaning of his

utterance is not clear. Again, if the error occurred during a communicative activity, the teacher

might take it down for future exploitation, as it does not significantly hamper communication,

and store for future exploitation.

c) Semi-appropriate, semi-correct. (Code 10) An utterance that contains errors in

grammar and does not convey meaning satisfactorily, but is not totally

incomprehensible and to some extent caters for the user's communicative needs, for it

partially fits the context in which it occurs and the language user‟s objectives:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: Welcome. Here are you. (Meaning. "Certainly. Here you are")

As in the previous example, only the physical action and the intention, the connotation,

makes his meaning clear, but in this case, there are also mistakes in grammar and lexis.

d) Complete failure to communicate, or inappropriate, incorrect utterances:

(Code 00)

Communication may be interrupted due to lack of comprehension, a combination of

inappropriate, incorrect elements or an utterance rendered incomprehensible by serious lexical

or grammatical errors.


Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: It's half past ten.

Although superficially well-formed, this utterance interrupts communication and cannot be

considered correct, if we adhere to the concept that grammar must carry meaning and this

meaning must serve communicative objectives. Special consideration should be given to the

fact that John may CHOOSE to say "It's half past ten", to interrupt communication on

purpose, because he is angry with Mary, or because he wants to remind her that it is time to

stop eating and go home, for instance. In this case, his utterance would be fully appropriate

and correct.

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Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: (Before performing any action) Excuse me salt give you.

Mary cannot know, until he performs some physical action, whether she will be getting the

salt or not. Communication has been totally interrupted by grammatical and lexical errors.

Even if the action were performed, the rating of this error would not change, as we are not

analysing communication as a whole but language within communication.

e) There is a category of error that we shall not include in this analysis because it is very

difficult to detect and extremely rare: the error that does not look like an error, because

the utterance is correct by chance.


Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: (Giving her the salt) Certainly. Here.

John has not said "Here" because he knows this is correct, but because he meant to say

"Here you are" and could not remember the rest of the expression. John's utterance seems

correct, but it is an error, because he is not aware of the fact that he has produced an

appropriate and correct utterance, and will probably never repeat it. The utterance actually

shows a gap in his command of English which is difficult to perceive.

The concept of right by chance was first stated by Pit Corder (1974) and he even

recommended that all learner utterances be considered erroneous until proven correct. This is a

rather apocalyptic view of learner interlanguage, but teachers should train themselves to be

excellent listeners and ask for clarification when learners produce sentences with structures

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they have not yet been exposed to and presumably do not master. There may be two

explanations: they have learned the form elsewhere, or it is correct by chance.

In one of the courses under observation during our research, a learner at a fairly elementary

level said: "My father is to work here", when he meant "My father works here". He had

misinterpreted the rules for the formation of the present simple affirmative, but the resulting

utterance was superficially well-formed and seemed correct, semi-appropriate, when it was

actually semi-correct, semi-appropriate. It could not be concluded that this learner new the use

of the verb “to be” to denote a future event which has been programmed and he would not use

it with that meaning – in fact, he was surprised when the teacher explained to him what he had

actually said.

2.c.2 Error Type

The second category is TYPE, where we classify erroneous utterances according to the

language area they affect the most, into Syntactic, Semantic and Semantic-syntactic. The

parameter here is: does the error affect meaning at face value or does it affect form, not

harming meaning seriously? If it affects meaning primarily, the error will be classified as

semantic. If form is affected but meaning is conveyed in a satisfactory manner, the error will

be considered syntactic. I talk about affecting meaning or form at face value because what was

considered important here was the result of the learner‟s production; for example, a

phonological error such as “The sheep (ship) sailed at dawn” will be considered lexical

because the effect of the error is that the listener heard the wrong concept, even if a

sympathetic listener would probably understand that the speaker meant “ship”.

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a) A semantic error (Code 200), here, is an error in lexis, such as using one word for

another, the use of an expression in the wrong context, the use of the wrong register,

the wrong pronunciation or intonation.


The learner said ...................................... when he meant ..................................

Reporters questioned the car racers. Reporters interviewed the car racers.
Frank works in a great factory. Frank works in a big factory.
Please, madam, may I help you? Excuse me, madam, may I help you?
Dad, behold the fair fish I've caught! Dad, look what a fish I've caught!
(The learner loved reading Sir Walter Scott)

The following are errors in pronunciation and stress which were considered semantic,

according to the criterion I have explained. Some of the errors in the examples are so serious

they may bring about complete failure to communicate. The diagnostic analysis will have to

describe them as phonological, however, so that classroom exploitation of the error may be

correctly focused.


What the learner said sounded like…….. when he actually meant ………..
The king lost the battle on the bitch. The king lost the battle on the beach.
He bought a ship. He bought a sheep.
I am in the semen industry. I am in the cement industry.
The male man has come. The mailman has come.
The beds in our hotel have double shitting. The beds in our hotel have double
He is the major in our town. He is the mayor in our town.

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b) A syntactic error (Code 020) is, in this classification, an error in grammar or syntax,

affecting the structure of the language, having to do with the correct superficial

formation of the utterance. It affects form at face value.


The learner said ............................. when he meant....................................

A lot of people was watching the race. A lot of people were watching the race.
He likes the fish. He likes fish.
At what time leaves the train? What time does the train leave?
When he leave the hotel, he walk down.... When he leaves the hotel, he walks down ....
What did do you on Saturday evening? What did you do on Saturday evening?

Then I am going to read newspaper. Then, I am going to read the newspaper.

We included spelling and punctuation in this category, unless they affected meaning. "They

gave her a price" for "They gave her a prize", would have been considered semantic even if

the learner had explained it as an error in spelling, whereas "They gave her a prise" for "They

gave her a prize", would have been considered syntactic. A typical phonological-syntactic

error was the absence of the final /d/ or /t/ sound in regular past tenses, which made the word

sound as if the learner had produced a bare infinitive.

Authoritative explanation often disclosed that the learner thought he had pronounced this

final sound when he had not, simply because Spanish, with few exceptions, does not have /d/

or /t/ sounds at the end of words, and Spanish speaking learners of English never produce

those sounds audibly enough. The phonological difficulty resulted in a semi-correct utterance.

c) A semantic-syntactic error (Code 220) is at the same time a breach of the grammar

code and an error in lexis or in appropriacy. Both form and meaning are affected.

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The learner said.................................. when he meant ...................................

In general cases, people says .............. In general terms, people say ....................
I things it is important ....................... I think it is important .........................
What did house? Where was the party?
I couldn't think so. I don't know.
Exist ignorance of the price. We don't know the price.
Can you indication me how to do it? Can you show/teach me how to do it?

It might seem that syntactic and grammatical errors are the same thing, and that semantic

errors always result in semi-appropriate or inappropriate production, but there are a few

exceptions, so it is not superfluous or redundant to make this distinction.

The distinction between appropriacy and correctness versus semantic and syntactic accuracy

is also relevant in that appropriacy and correctness are results, not causes, of errors.


Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: Welcome. Here you are.

John has confused the exponents of two language functions. He says "Welcome" when he

means "Certainly". This confusion is a semantic error that results in an inappropriate


Appropriacy is breached as a result of a semantic problem, and it could equally be breached

as a result of a syntactic problem:

Mary: Would you pass me the salt?

John: Yes, I would pass you the salt.

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Mary will be totally puzzled by this answer, or she will think John is trying to be funny, or

that he is half-deranged, but what actually happens is that John does not know what to say to

agree to Mary's request, and thinks that if he answers her question literally he will be

expressing this agreement. Besides, he is not very proficient in the use of the modal would, but

knows "I would like some tea", which he associates with "Would you pass me the salt" and

other polite expressions, so he feels that he is more or less safe if he frames his answer as he

does; on the other hand, his teacher is constantly forcing him to answer questions in

"complete" sentences ("Did you go to the club on Saturday?" "Yes, I went to the club on

Saturday") so he sees nothing wrong with repeating what Mary said.

This classification of errors into semantic and syntactic, done according to the manifest

results of the utterance, is debatable, and the two categories thus described are rather broad.

However, the distinction serves the purpose of focusing on observable language behaviour and

on communicative language use. An in-depth revision of these criteria may prove relatively

futile, as the truly interesting information about learning hypotheses is to be found elsewhere;

for example, in the sources of intralingual errors. For pedagogical purposes, the relative

number of semantic and syntactic errors may show a learner‟s potential or give information

about the course: if most errors are semantic, the learner is facing more communication

problems than if his errors are mostly syntactic, but this may be due to his learning hypotheses

or to flaws in his placement, in the approach chosen to teach him or in the teaching style he is

being exposed to, so when semantic errors outnumber syntactic ones, the situation should be

carefully analysed.

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2.c.3 Error Class

The third category is CLASS, where we group errors according to their code of origin:

whether they were originated within the code of the language being learnt or whether they

were caused by the learner's attempt at trying to structure the foreign language on the model of

his native language. Errors, here, fall into two sub-categories:

a) Interlingual, (Code 01) with utterances in the foreign language constructed according

to the rules of the learner‟s native language, in cases where these rules are not identical

in both languages and therefore cannot be transferred from one to the other.

Examples: (Interlingual errors of Spanish-speaking learners of English)

The learner said ................................. when he meant ................................

I have twenty years.(Tengo veinte años) I am twenty years old.
We saw to Mary.(Vimos a Mary) We saw Mary.
The important is to study the problem. The important thing is to study the
(Lo importante es estudiar el problema) problem.

Interlingual errors are usually called errors due to negative transfer or language interference

(Selinker, Ibid.). The learner is thought to resort to the code of his native language either

because he does not master the necessary rules of the foreign language or because he still finds

the code acquired in the first place more reliable for effective communication. This rather

simplistic view of the relationships between L1 and L2 was replaced, in the 1970s, by the

more dynamic and humanistic idea of an interaction between two languages based on the

learner‟s perceived distance between the two, in a series of papers by Kellerman, who rejected

the notions of interference or transfer, and preferred to talk about cross-linguistic influences,

ruled by a process he called psychotypology.

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Our research has many points in common with Kellerman‟s psychotypology and the

influence of the native language on the foreign language, which is based on the learners‟

judgements, strategies, and views of language and the construction of a language system.

Analysing the two languages would not be enough, then, to gauge the influence one can have

on the other. It would be more enriching to analyse the person‟s perception of language and

how it should be structured. (Kellerman & Sharwood Smith, 1986)This is the kind of

information we have sought to obtain through the Learning Hypothesis Test and descriptive

error analysis.

The second factor influencing cross-linguistic influence is learners‟ perception of the

distance between the two languages and the third one is their actual knowledge of the foreign

language. (Kellerman, as cited in Gass and Selinker, Ibid.). Why and how learners use

psychotypology to effect language transfer is still a topic of research. Gass & Selinker (1992)

and Ringbom (1987) consider the learner as an active and conscious participant in the learning

process, making comparisons between the two languages as a default learning strategy.

Beginners are supposed to use this strategy more often, as they tend to believe that the

distance between the two languages is very short, but as they learn more about L2, they begin

to realize it is longer, and do not rely on transfer so often. Conversely, some learners tend to

consider the distance between the two languages much longer than it actually is, and reject

cross-linguistic influences altogether. This leads them to make mistakes in areas where the two

languages are identical and transfer would have led them to acquire the correct form.

A very peculiar form of interference occurs when a person who speaks several languages

attempts learning one more. In this case, interference hardly ever comes from the learner‟s

native language, but rather from the language whose grammar the learner has internalised the

least, or monitors the most. Interference comes from the language whose system the learner

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


uses most consciously. It has been claimed that this type of cross-linguistic influence occurs

when a learner feels that a language rather than his own is a better candidate for transfer when

learning a third language (Ringbom, Ibid.) This may happen because declarative knowledge is

more readily available in the second language than in the first, if we are to adhere to the view

that transfer is a conscious process.

During our research, we often discovered what foreign language a learner had acquired

before English by analysing his errors. The following examples were recorded during lesson



(Native speakers of Spanish who speak French and then learn English)

The learner said .................... when he meant ................................

Give me of coffee. (Donne moi du café) Give me some coffee
I attend the bus. (J'attend l'autobus) I wait for the bus.

It is not clear whether cross-linguistic influences are always the result of conscious

strategies. If they vary according to psychotypology, depending on the learner‟s perception of

the distance between the two languages, they seem to have a sub-conscious origin. The first

factor in Kellerman‟s explanation of psychotypological factors, the learner‟s style for

structuring L1, is not at all conscious. We may then talk about conscious strategies which

work on the basis of unconscious processes leading the learner to rely on cross-linguistic

differences and similarities to a greater or lesser extent, depending on his learning hypotheses.

b) Intralingual , (Code 10) with utterances which denote an effort to adhere to the code

of the foreign language, at grasping the rules of the system being learnt.

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The learner said ............................ when he meant ............................

I go to school yesterday. I went to school yesterday.
He cans goes. He can go.
I have two book. I have two books.3
He is come at two. He comes at two.

Some errors have an intralingual and an interlingual component. When this happens the

teacher should take the root problem as the source, or record the error twice. A typical case

was the statement "My dog had sick", discussed in the sample Communication Strategies

interview. The real origin of the error was interlingual but it had resulted in an intralingual

problem. The learner was trying to model the utterance on the code of the native language, but

he had confused "to have" and "to be". Note that a researcher not resorting to authoritative

explanation might have even thought that if the learner had resorted to Spanish to construct the

equivalent of "Mi perro estuvo enfermo" in English, he would not have made an error.

Knowing its sources, this error should be considered interlingual.

As we can see, in this category we are no longer concerned with the superficial effects of the

utterance but with the processes that produce it. We are moving into a different facet of the


The use of a Spanish-based construction would have prevented this error.

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2.c.4 Causes of intralingual errors

The fourth category is actually a sub-category, but it is of paramount importance in revealing

learning hypotheses and diagnosing language ceiling. It comprises the causes of intralingual


a) The most common cause of intralingual errors is the learner's attempt at grasping the

new language code, at coping with the difficulties of textualizing his messages in the

foreign language. We will call these operations Accessing Attempts, which are affected

by overgeneralisation, unawareness of rule restrictions, misinterpretation or confusion

(Code a). These categories were outlined by Richards (Ibid.) as separate types of

errors, but we will group them together because they are an attempt at accessing the

code of the foreign language and reflect highly productive operations or processes.


The learner said .... when he meant .................................

He cans speaks English. He can speak English. (The learner is trying to
grasp the rule for the third person inflection of
the present simple, but he places all verbs in the
same category, including the modals)
He should have came. He should have come. (The learner mistakes the
past form of the verb for its past participle)
We did saw it. We did see it. (The learner remembers he can use
the auxiliary verb in the affirmative sentence for
the sake of emphasis, but not that he should not
use the main verb in its past simple form)
How many children does he How many children does he have? (The learner
has? extends the use of the third person singular
inflection in the present to the two verbs

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Why are you telling me all Why are you telling me all this? (He is being told
these? many things, so he thinks he has to use a plural.
Had he structured this utterance on the model of
the Spanish equivalent, he would not have made
an error.)
The boys are in the living- The boys are in the living-room ,watching TV.
room are watching TV. (He has learnt the use of "to be" in utterances
such as "The boys are in the living-room", and he
has grasped the formation of the present
progressive as a chunk of "to be+present
participle". He cannot yet combine the two
concepts in this utterance successfully. Note that
if he had constructed this utterance on the model
of the Spanish construction, he would not have
gone wrong.)
What did they happen with? What happened with them? (The learner thinks
that all prepositions must be at the end of
questions, overgeneralising the rule for questions
such as "What did you do it with?" or "What are
you talking about?" He would not have gone
wrong if he had resorted to Spanish.)
Who can coming? We must Who can come? We must decide. (Incomplete
decide. application of rules. He uses the bare infinitive
after “must” but not after “can” because he has
not yet grasped that the bare infinitive is to be
used after all modals. Maybe the category of
“modals” is not clear to him, either)

The learner who overgeneralises a rule or uses it where it does not apply, or confuses two

rules, is anyway trying to grasp the foreign language system, he is trying to get to the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


generative rules on which to base his language production - in other words, he is trying to

form conceptual categories and organise them into a system. All he needs is time, guidance

and communicative, purposeful practice.

Overgeneralisation, Unawareness of Rule Restrictions and Incomplete Application of Rules

(Richards, Ibid.) are closely related concepts, and the extent to which they affect the learner‟s

production is determined by the learner‟s conceptual classification style, on which they often

shed light. We have already stated our assumption that learning and subsequent acquisition

depend largely on the learner‟s style for placing concepts into conceptual or pre-conceptual

categories, for ordering these categories into hierarchical systems and for finding or creating

associations between different language forms. Ordering categories hierarchically means being

aware of the fact that some categories include others, for example, within the category verb,

we can find the sub-categories auxiliary, irregular, non finites, etc. Learners have to identify a

word as a verb before including it into any of the other sub-categories.

Conceptual categories can be precise, (A chair is a kind of seat, usually with four legs and a

back – dictionary-like definition); insufficiently restricted (It is a seat – Stools, benches and

other objects fall into the same category); insufficiently comprehensive (It is a seat with four

legs and a padded back – Chairs with no padding or with fewer legs are left out of the

category); or vague (It is a piece of furniture – The category is so broad that it would be

impossible to know it includes only chairs).

The following examples and their analyses illustrate how conceptual categorisation relates to

over-generalisation, unawareness of rule restrictions, incomplete application of rules and how

our analysis changes if we carry it out considering categorisation styles as learning

hypotheses. Once again, I would like to reassure the reader that the sentences in these

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


examples were analysed after authoritative explanation and taking all the elements of valid

data for error analysis into consideration.


Utterance Learner’s personal grammar or structuring of the foreign

My brother cans goes (Learner-generated rule: Third person singular verbs in the
with you. present take an "s" - "can" and "go" belong to a broad category:
"verb". The category is insufficiently restricted, and the learner is
relative unaware of rule restrictions, due to his particular style for
creating broad categories.)
I have spoken to Mary. (Learner-generated rule: The present perfect is formed with the
She says she had never auxiliary "have" in the present and the past participle of the main
saw that car until she verb. Category "had" belongs to: past verb. The category is
saw it parked in front insufficiently comprehensive, for it does not include the concept
of her house yesterday. of "perfect auxiliary" or "perfective aspect", so the learner does
not believe that the rules for the formation of the present perfect
apply to the formation of the past perfect, and resorts to "saw"
because it is also a past verb, which he places in the same
category as "had".)
He informationed me (Learner-generated rule: All words that refer to an action take
of that. "ed" in the past tense. Category "information" belongs to: word
that refers to an action. The category is vague. Any word can
"refer to an action". The learner needs to build up the categories
of noun, verb, adjective, etc.,)

The use of insufficiently restricted and insufficiently comprehensive categories is not

uncommon, for very few people handle precise logical categories and clear concepts all the

time and even the possibility of defining categories clearly has been questioned, but frequent

recourse to vague concepts or categories may hamper learning if the teacher does not lead the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


learner to define categories better and make his concepts more precise. Unfortunately, when

the use of vague logical categories is coupled with great imagination and creativity, the learner

will show a tendency to jump to hectic conclusions and to make wild associations. In these

cases, teaching will have to provide guidance and organisation.

Creative, imaginative individuals often make very poor language learners when their

imagination and creativity do not rest on a strong conceptual system, and the fashion of

stimulating creativity and imagination in the language class at all costs is actually a double-

edged weapon that should be used with great care and together with activities for the

development of the learners' conceptual thinking.

b) Intralingual errors due to simplification (Code b) occur when learners do away with

annoying redundancies, nuances of meaning, exceptions to rules, second meanings to

words; in brief, when they suppress all the elements of the linguistic code they find

"unnecessary" or difficult to cope with.

The most important learning hypothesis of simplifiers is to close systems before they

are complete. The system of "plural of nouns", for instance, is complete with the

addition of a quantifier to the noun, after a process of reasoning which resembles the


I. "two" is a plural.

II. "Two book" is a plural.

III. "This two book" is a plural.

This is simplification of the language code, but sometimes we find simplification of the

message: the learner keeps only the semantic part of the system, and syntax is

neglected, shortened or left out altogether.

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The learner said ................... when he meant ........................................

Yesterday, we go to the theatre. Yesterday, we went to the theatre. (There are two
markers of past time in the fully correct version of this
utterance: "yesterday" and "went". The learner eliminates
the most troublesome one.) The language code is
He come every day. He comes every day. (Only one marker of frequency
"every day" and one marker of third person singular are
left.) Simplification of the language code.
Which platform is the platform? Which platform is it? (The learner suppresses an
operation: the substitution of the second noun for a
pronoun) Simplification of the language code.
One room, single room, please. A single room, please. (The learner has resorted to the
minimum possible language operation - "Tharzan
English" - to get his message across. We may call this
Simplification of the Message. Language is practically
stripped of the complexities of syntax )
Ill, you? Are you ill? (Another Simplification of the Message)
Old? How old are you? (Simplification of the Message is taken
to such an extreme that it may prevent communication

Alongside simplification of the language code and simplification of the messages, that we

have already discussed, we can recognise a third type: simplification of the syllabus, which is

frequent in cases of unsuitable materials. The learner finds it impossible to cope with the

avalanche of structures and vocabulary, either because the design of the materials is poor or

because the course is too advanced for him, and he simplifies the contents of the materials.

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Example: After a lesson in which five Modals were introduced and practised together, all the
learners in a class of four started using "have to" instead of all five,
Learners said…. when they meant …..
I have to swim I can swim.
She has to go. She should go.
We have to come. We must come.
You have to pass the exam if you studied You would pass the exam if you studied.
He has to work here tomorrow. He will work here tomorrow.

In some cases, the simplification process was not very easy to detect, for only through

authoritative explanation could we know that the learners who were saying "She has to go", an

apparently correct utterance, were using have to to avoid using should, and thus incurred

simplification of the syllabus.

This type of simplification is not so much an error trend as a defence strategy, and the

learner will stop using it if the materials are changed or taught in a more adequate fashion.

Although it is part of the descriptive analysis, it is heavily diagnostic.

When simplification is a result of learning hypotheses or a feature of the learner‟s personal

curriculum, it produces a highly unproductive type of error, for it shows learners are trying to

simplify the system to be learnt. Eliminating, rather than incorporating, and making do with

primitive forms of communication point to limitations in the learner's language awareness and

may forecast a low language ceiling for the person effecting these operations consistently. It

resembles the process of Shortcutting that we explain below, but the difference is that whereas

in Simplification the learner is trying to modify the object of learning in Shortcutting he is

trying to devise ways and means of simplifying the process of learning.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


c) Shortcutting: Cue-copying, Conditioning, Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt

(Code c). Although these are different processes, we have placed them in the same sub-

category because we are mostly interested in the learning hypotheses and attitudes they

reflect, which are common to all three: stagnation, passivity, reluctance to develop a

system of rules, and sometimes associating by proximity. The language system is not

misused or simplified; rather, there is an attempt at finding formulas and recipes for

side-stepping the effort of building up a language system. Sometimes, the learner does

not try to cope with the system of the foreign language because he is relatively

unaware that language IS a system. All these process entail taking shortcuts at

mastering the foreign language, hence the name we have given to this category.

Examples of Cue-copying:

The learner said............. when he meant ......................

- Who wants some coffee? - I do. (The learner explained he could not use a word in
- I want. the answer that did not appear in the question)
- What do you want to do? - I want to go to a movie. (The learner explained his
- I want to do go to a movie. teacher had asked him what he wanted TO DO)
- How much does George earn? - George earns $ 3,000. (The learner explained he had
-George earns how much been asked HOW MUCH George earned)
$ 3,000.
- What gate the flight (The learner was looking at the chart of ARRIVALS and
departure? DEPARTURES at an imaginary airport, which he was
supposed to complete with information he had to get
from another learner)
- What does he have to do? - He has to study more. (The learner explained that the
- He have to study more. question said "he have")
- Where may those who are - Those who are successful may work abroad.(This was
successful work? an answer to a question in a written test. Learners were

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


- Those who are successful mislead by the distance between the modal and the bare
work may work abroad. infinitive, and tended to attach the latter to the subject,
that was closer to it.)

In cue-copying, then, the learner tends to reproduce the stimuli rather than respond to them

in a creative way. Certain elements are included in the utterance "because they are there". A

typical case of teacher-induced cue-copying occurs when the teacher prompts the learner the

correct form when he makes an error, as in the following case:

Learner: Tomorrow, he going to study for his exam.

Teacher: is ....

Learner: Yes, he going to study for his exam is.

Cue-copying, even when it is training-induced, will develop more often in those learners

who associate by proximity and not by analogy. This is greatly favoured by teaching, methods

and approaches that rely too heavily on repetition, imitation, rote learning or mechanical

stimulus-response activities. The learner's production will be aimed at imitating rather than

exploring and generating, at following classroom procedures rather than coping with

communication requirements. Because of this, cue-copying was very high in audio-lingual

approaches, where it produced an "illusion of progress" that misled teachers into believing that

learners were learning a lot of English, when they had actually become proficient at going

through the steps of their highly programmed and standard lessons, but were at a loss to

perform in open-ended situations. The word “cue-copying” was borrowed from Selinker

(Ibid.), but we gave it a completely different meaning. Selinker used it to refer to sounds or

words students pick up from their teachers‟ particular regional or idiosyncratic accents, a

concept similar to transfer of training, but referred to a more involuntary process.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt occurs when the learner clings to elements

learnt - or taught - at early stages of the course and refuses to attach further meanings or uses

to them, or even carries them over into new structures. It is an unproductive type of error, for

the learner refuses to expand or modify his early knowledge, or to gain access to more

complex language forms.

One wonders if this does not happen because the order of presentation of language items in

textbooks is always based on linguistic analyses and not on a serious study of the learners'

personal curriculum, where these items may appear in a different order. Gradualism and the

assumptions regarding grading of difficulty may account for most of these errors, too.


- Learners who are taught the verb to be at an elementary stage tend to carry it over to the

formation of the present simple, and produce "I am go to school every day". This is

Adherence to First Form Learnt.

- First Meaning Learnt is often fossilised in words such as room. The learner learns room as

in "There is a table in the room", and then refuses to incorporate "There is no room for so

many people on this bus" and prefers to say "There is no space" or "There is no place".

Because he adheres to the first meaning learnt and refuses to attach further meanings to the

word, the learner has to resort to interference from his native language to construct his


Further examples:

The learner says ...... when .....................

Where is you from? "is" was taught before "are"
Can you typing letters? "can" was introduced after the Present Continuous.
Look at she! "she" was taught before "her"

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


He is come at nine. "is " is the marker of Present Tense he knows, and he carries it
over to other verbs.
He was write a letter the past of "to be" was taught first, as a marker of past tense,
yesterday. and the learner carries it over to other verbs.
I love you going to the (I love going to the theatre.) the learner picked up "I love you"
theatre as a language unit, a chunk, in the first place. When it came to
learning "I love (doing something)" he refused to drop the
Have you been written the (Have you written the note?) The present perfect was
note? introduced and practised with the verb "to be". The learner
took this to be a unit, a chunk.

These errors are normal at the moment of incorporating a new form within a sub-system that

the learner thought was closed. We can only talk about Adherence of First Form or Meaning

Learnt as a trend in the learner‟s production when the first form or meaning learnt does not

disappear as the learner advances - or the course advances - into more complex language


Some of the most frequent assumptions of those learners who adhere to first forms or

meanings learnt in a consistent fashion, are:

I) There is a one-to-one correspondence between all the words in the native language and

those in the foreign language. Each item in one language has one, and only one, equivalent

in the other. Thus, for the Spanish speaking adherent to first forms or meanings learnt,

llegar is arrive and cannot be get to, which should have a different translation into

Spanish. They learn one of these words and then refuse to incorporate the other. This is

one of the reasons why Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt is often compounded

with a large number of interlingual errors. It should be noted that in these cases the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


learner's vocabulary is usually limited in the vernacular language, and he hardly ever uses

synonyms or metaphors. Association is often by proximity or pre-conceptual.

II) Language items are context-bound. This is a way of conceiving of language that adherents

to first form or meaning learnt share with cue-copiers, because both types of learners are

likely to use a pre-conceptual system for structuring language, based on attributes,

functions or uses of items (A chair is what I sit on; It is a useful piece of furniture; It is

what I put in front of my desk, etc).

This makes it difficult for them to use language flexibly, to generate language from

general rules and to get to abstract rules from an analysis of concrete cases. Induction and

deduction are equally difficult. These learners find it hard to accept that the "is" in "there

is" is the same as in "he is"; when they find the expression "table of contents", they will

never accept that "table" is formally the same word as in "The book is on the table", with a

different meaning - for them, there has to be a new word to fit the new context, so they

will tend to call the table of contents index, for example, unless they learn table of contents

as a unit. If they do this, they will have to be re-taught the word contents in expressions

such as the contents of my pockets and the word table in expressions such as time-table.

Learning a language, then, becomes a process by which each word has to be learnt in

relation to all the possible contexts where it may appear as if it were a new word each time,

for the learner will not tend to make transfers. It calls for a memorisation of all the possible

contexts for each item - an impossible task that the learner simplifies by sticking to the first

form or meaning he can grasp, or by simply imitating the stimuli.

A curious side of the particular relationship that adherents to first form or meaning learnt

and cue-copiers have with contexts is that when a word is found in isolation it is taken as

having only one meaning in L1 and presumed to fit any context where that L1 meaning is

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


required, without regard for connotations or specificity of use. Small, limited bilingual

dictionaries have a role to play in this phenomenon. For example, if the English-Spanish

dictionary entry says: Isolate = Aislar with no further explanation, this learner will say "I

have to isolate the cable" meaning insulate, and he will argue that the dictionary says aislar

and will not be persuaded to accept that he is wrong, since both insulate and isolate

translate as aislar in Spanish. He will sooner conclude that the dictionary is wrong.

III. Many flexible structures are transformed into rigid language chunks, mostly as a

consequence of the tendency towards binding language to contexts and associating by

proximity. In the statement "I want to get rid of him", the adherent to first form or meaning

learnt or the cue-copier will ask for the meaning of to get rid of him, and not for the

meaning of to get rid of, because he does not consider that him can be a variable element

in this set of items that he has transformed into a chunk.

A further problem with these self-originated chunks is that they are so arbitrary that they

may contain an unpredictable number of elements and variations may occur within the

same chunk, according to where the learner focalises each time the “chunk” is used. For

example, when he comes across "I want to get rid of them", after having asked about to get

rid of him, he may ask for the meaning of rid of them, because the pronoun is the

unfamiliar element this time and he focalises more on that than on the rest of the


Arbitrary chunk-formation points to difficulty for organising the syntagm and

unawareness of certain basic language concepts such as the distinction between verbs,

nouns, adjectives and adverbs and is impossible to correct unless these concepts develop in

the learner's mind. This would call for the learner‟s acceptance of the problem and a

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


considerable conscious effort, but leading the learner in this process of developing new

hypotheses about learning is often beyond the teacher of adults.

Conditioning is almost always training-induced, and occurs in classes where teachers

rely heavily on programmed, stimulus-response activities or over-simplified language

exchanges. It is part of the diagnostic analysis of errors more than of the descriptive

analysis, for it is not usual to find learners who will show conditioning as a result of their

learning hypotheses unless they are absolutely formulaic in their conception of language.


Whenever he is asked a question, the learner answers with the same words used in the
stimulus. He does not replace or manipulate them.
Question: Do you know Mary Brown, my teacher?

Answer: No, I don't know Mary Brown, your teacher.

Question: How many sandwiches must we send to that restaurant?

Answer: We must send five hundred sandwiches to that restaurant.

These examples are typical of learners whose teachers demand that they answer "in complete

sentences" - a very old-fashioned and unsuitable practice that dies hard. Although it can't be

said that the answers are wrong, they are certainly not fully appropriate and would sound odd

to native speakers.

Other examples of conditioning are:

- Do you speak French?

- Yes, I do. I speak French. (The teacher wants him to practice the "short" and the "long"

answers, so he systematically produces them together)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


-Will you have tea or coffee?

-Coffee, please. I'd like some coffee, but I don't want any tea. (Learnt from an audio-lingual

drill, and produced within the wrong context, where the natural answer would have been just

"Coffee, please.")

2.c.5 Compensatory utterances/errors

We have so far discussed cases of errors produced on the basis of language the learner has

been exposed to, language he is "supposed to master", or according to his teacher, language

"he has been taught" and could have learnt. We have already explained the concept of

Compensatory Production (Code: change the 0 for a 5 in error Rating: 05, 15, 25, 35) in this

research and its relevance for the classroom teacher. The following example is a reminder of

the distinction between compensatory and non-compensatory production:

The learner says .............. when he means ....................

I wanted that he came with me. I wanted him to come with me.

If this learner is attending an elementary course and he does not know the structure

want+somebody+to do something, because he has not yet been exposed to it, his utterance is

Compensatory. If this learner is attending an advanced course, and he has not learnt the

structure although he has been repeatedly exposed to it, the utterance is Non-Compensatory.

The following diagram illustrates the process of deciding if an error is compensatory or non-


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



No Could the learner have produced the correct form? Yes

Compensatory Non-Compensatory

Figure 9 – Compensation

3. Final comments

Teaching focuses more on diagnostic error analysis and the trend towards correction, rather

than exploitation of errors, dies hard. In view of recent developments in the neurosciences and

cognitive psychology, we might expect to see a change in the near future. Methods which

mistakenly place communication above all other concerns, including accuracy or appropriacy,

have also misled teachers into considering that anything learners produce should be celebrated

as an attempt at communicating, or even worse, as a learning attempt. I usually find evidence

of teachers‟ prime concern for obtaining linguistic production of sorts when I conduct

seminars and workshops on error analysis. I like to begin by asking teachers to look at two

errors and say whether it would make them happy to receive these answers from their beginner

students, after at least five lessons:

Teacher: What‟s his name?

Learner: What‟s his name is Pedro.

Teacher: What‟s his name?

Learner: Name Pedro.

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The answer is always affirmative, and teachers explain to me they would feel satisfied to see

that these beginners are trying to communicate and producing a comprehensible answer. When

I insist that there is, perhaps, something a bit worrisome in these responses, they claim that

errors are learning attempts and should be tolerated, suggesting that I belong to the old school

that would seek to correct every deviant form.

It is clear that teachers are concerned with developing strategic and communicative

capabilities in their learners and that they are also aware of the role of errors in the learning

process, but it is also clear that they have not often considered errors as manifestations of

cognitive processes, let alone as items in the learners‟ curricula. It is also clear that most of the

theory teachers learn and preach is often never put into practice in the classroom. When I point

out, on these occasions, that “What‟s his name is Pedro” shows that the learner is not

effecting any transformation but just copying the stimulus, which is not a very profitable

learning operation, and that “Name Pedro” is a simplification of the structure of the answer,

teachers begin to understand the purpose of descriptive analysis and how it can complement

their diagnostic analysis. At this point, I even claim, quite boldly, that the mechanisms behind

these errors cannot be considered learning attempts. Of course the teacher should feel happy

that learners are trying to communicate as best they can, but that is only one aspect of the

value of learners‟ interlanguage, which can give us much more information for us to carry out

truly learner-centred teaching.

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Examples of coded errors:

Using the codes we have been supplying, the following errors would have been coded and

classified as follows:

“He goed to the park yesterday” (Meaning: He went …) = Appropriate, semi-correct; non-

compensatory; syntactic; intralingual, due to overgeneralisation: 30-020-10a; the same error,

but compensatory: 35-020-10a.

“I met her by casualty” (Meaning: by chance) = Semi-appropriate, correct; compensatory;

semantic; interlingual: 25-200-01. The same error, non-compensatory: 20-200-01.

It should be remembered that these diagnoses depend on the teacher‟s or the researcher‟s

use of a reliable sample for error analysis and on the availability of authoritative explanation.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Choose a “good” and a “poor” student from one of your courses. For two or three

lessons, record the errors that they make in relatively open-ended activities. Analyse

them and find out whether the “poor” learner makes more semantic errors than the

“good” one. If this is not the case, review your opinion of these learners or look

elsewhere for the “poor” learner‟s lack of progress. His motivation, perhaps?

2. Record four errors which you would classify as appropriate, semi-correct, syntactic,

intralingual: wrong verb forms, wrong word order, etc. Make a quick, on-the-spot

diagnostic analysis of these errors and then ask for authoritative explanation. Had you

made the right diagnosis or did the students‟ explanations reveal aspects of the errors

you had not discovered?

3. Record four interlingual errors and ask for authoritative explanation. Were they really

interlingual or fully interlingual?

4. Analyse your students‟ production to find examples of Simplification. If there are too

many, reflect upon your teaching practice or the level of the course. Learners may be

finding it too difficult.

5. Record three instances of compensation and ask yourself: why did it happen? Were

learners too ambitious? Were they trying to tell you something important, but lacked

the language for doing so? Was the topic of conversation or the written assignment too

difficult for them? Did you ask them to undertake a task without enough preparation?

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3. Completing the classification of errors

There are other criteria for classifying errors, besides those described in the categories and

sub-categories I have presented. They supplement the classification and aid the teacher to

tailor the curriculum and approach to the learners‟ personal curricula.

3.a Productive and unproductive errors

We have already previewed these sub-categories and defined them according to the following


a) A productive error denotes an attempt at learning the code of the foreign language.

b) An unproductive error denotes an attempt at taking shortcuts at learning or at

simplifying the object or the process of learning.

Actually, what is productive or unproductive is not the error, but the learning hypothesis it

reflects through the strategy originating the error. However, we will use the term loosely to

denote both the error and the learning hypothesis.

This classification of errors into productive and unproductive contradicts the generally

accepted idea that all errors are learning attempts and means for learners to try out their

hypotheses about the language being learnt. There is no attempt at learning in simplification or

in shortcutting, as we have seen, but rather, an attempt at sidestepping it with some kind of

gimmick or stratagem. This invites us to take a less sympathetic view of some errors, which

should be addressed as problems to overcome. We are not proposing criticism or penalisation

of these errors, but changes in methods and teaching to favour conceptualisation and

metaphorical associations to counteract these processes, perhaps coupled with a different

organisation or better dosing of the input.

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As Lewis (Ibid.) pointed out, language is grammaticalised lexis and not lexicalised grammar.

The value of lexis and meaning, the higher value of appropriacy and communication over

correctness has been acknowledged by linguists and language teachers. Again according to

Lewis, we can talk with words but we cannot talk with structures (Lewis, Ibid.).

Appropriate, semi-correct utterances tend to be more productive than correct, semi-

appropriate ones, for they show the learner‟s achievements in the fields of meaning and of

social and strategic language use. The proportion may be: around 65% of the learner‟s errors

should be appropriate, semi-correct utterances and 35% correct, semi-appropriate utterances,

with a remaining 10% of more flawed utterances. Roughly the same values apply to the

balance between syntactic and semantic utterances. Syntactic errors should almost double

semantic errors to constitute a productive trend. Please remember that these values should be

calculated over at least 50 errors, collected in the prescribed manner, over at least three months

and that these figures are always tentative.

Interlingual errors are unproductive, for their presence shows that the learner is not fully

aware of the existence of the code of the foreign language, but they should be present in a

learner‟s production, accounting for approximately 30% of the errors made. This shows that

the learner is using the code of his native language as a resource to a reasonable degree.

Intralingual errors, usually 70% of the learner‟s erroneous production, tend to show a

productive trend when they are due to Accessing Attempts operations: overgeneralisation,

confusion, misunderstanding, etc., but they are unproductive if they are mostly due to

Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt, Cue-copying or Conditioning. In these cases,

they hamper learning more than Interlingual errors.

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If a learner's interlingual errors are dramatically above 30% and his intralingual errors are

mostly due to Accessing Attempts, we may suppose that his production will improve if he is

guided into detecting differences and similarities between the two languages concerned.

If a learner's interlingual errors are dramatically above or below 30% and his intralingual

errors are mostly due to Shortcutting, he may well be near his language ceiling and trying to

reduce interlingual errors to the supposedly desired 30% will not raise this ceiling unless the

causes of his intralingual errors become more productive. No change is impossible, but it

should be noted that in twenty-seven years, our research did not produce a single documented

case of significant changes in any one learner‟s causes of intralingual errors.

Compensation is unproductive if it is very high, accounting for more than 10% of a learner‟s

erroneous production. Otherwise, it is a normal process and can often be exploited to help the

learner develop his personal curriculum.

All these percentages have to be taken as indicative and in a very broad sense. These figures

were produced by Selinker in his research, and they appeared to apply to the learners we


After analysing and classifying 5,312 errors made by learners at different levels of

proficiency, who had all passed the same kind of tests with marks between 65% and 80%, we

found the average distribution of errors to be as shown below and to be the same for all levels.

The degree of mastery of the foreign language produced differences in the diagnostic analysis

of errors and in their number, but the descriptive analysis revealed practically the same picture

for learners at different levels.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



ERROR RATING Appropriate, semi-grammatical 63 %
Semi-appropriate, grammatical 24 %
Semi-appropriate, semi- 8.50 %
Inappropriate, ungrammatical 4.50 %
ERROR Semantic 24 %
DESCRIPTION Syntactic 64 %
Semantic-syntactic 12 %
ERROR Interlingual 30 %
CLASSIFICATION Intralingual 70 %
CAUSES Accessing attempts 70 %
OF Simplification 22 %
INTRALINGUAL Shortcutting 8%
Compensatory errors 6%

Figure 10 – Errors of learners with scores between 65% and 80% in language tests

The fact that proficiency levels did not make a difference in this picture of error seems to

question the idea that cross-linguistic transfer is more usual when people begin learning a

foreign language, or even that it is a default strategy, and that it decreases when more

proficiency is attained. In our analysis, about 30% of learners‟ errors were due to interlingual

problems, at any level.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


When 1,236 errors belonging to learners who had not passed the tests or who were supposed

to have reached their ceiling were classified and the results averaged, the values showed

considerable increases in the number of the errors we have classed as unproductive.

The size of the sample was, in this case, considerably smaller, because fewer learners usually

scored below standard or just above the passing mark.

The table below shows the results.


ERROR RATING Appropriate, semi-grammatical 53 %
Semi-appropriate, grammatical 25 %
Semi-appropriate, semi- 10 %
Inappropriate, ungrammatical 12 %
ERROR Semantic 46 %
DESCRIPTION Syntactic 41 %
Semantic-syntactic 13 %
ERROR Interlingual 47 %
CLASSIFICATION Intralingual 53 %
CAUSES Accessing attempts 52 %
OF Simplification 31 %
INTRALINGUAL Shortcutting 17 %
Compensatory errors 12 %

Figure 11 – Errors of learners who scored below the passing mark.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The tests were as communicative as possible and their productive, relatively open-ended

sections, Writing and Oral Test, were scored with criteria which resembled those used for

error analysis:

a) Appropriate, correct answer: 5 marks.

b) Appropriate, semi-correct answer: 3 marks.

c) Semi-appropriate, correct answer: 2 marks

d) Semi-appropriate, semi-correct answer: 1 mark

e) Inappropriate, incorrect answer: 0 marks

These more open-ended and communicative sections of the tests were given more weight

than the close-ended sections, such as cloze passages or multiple-choice questions and the

errors made in the close-ended sections were not analysed.

We fully realised that the criterion of using test scores to group learners into average

achievers and under-achievers was artificial and ambiguous, but a clear-cut criterion was

needed and this was the clearest we could find. The test results were supplemented with

teachers‟ reports on the development of the courses and the learners‟ progress. Attendance

records were also examined, to determine the possible influence of learners‟ absences on their

progress. Supervision reports provided information on possible problems regarding the

teacher-student relationship or the group dynamics, which could have led learners to under-

achieve. Learners whose performance at the tests was not consistent with their usual

performance in class or whose test results were probably influenced by known external events,

such as the death of a close relative, were not included in our general analysis of errors, but

were treated separately.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Further research was carried out with learners who were thought to be at their language

ceiling, and I will discuss the findings in Part 3.

3.b Pre-systematic, systematic, post-systematic stages.

These are the categories defined by Pit Corder (Ibid.):

It has already been noted that learners often appear inconsistent in their

production of errors. They often seem to alternate between getting something wrong

and getting it right. We may be able to distinguish three steps in learning as

evidenced by the nature and degree of systematicity: (a) the presystematic stage: the

learner is unaware of the existence of a particular system or rule in the target

language. His errors are quite random. He may even occasionally produce a correct

form. When asked to correct his sentences he cannot do so nor give any account of

why he chose the particular form he did. (b) The systematic stage: his errors are

regular. He has discovered and is operating a rule of some sort, but the wrong one.

When asked to correct his error he cannot do so, but he can give some coherent

account of the rule he is following. (c) The post-systematic stage: the learner

produces correct forms but inconsistently. He has learned the rule but fails through

lack of attention or lapse of memory to apply it consistently. This is the practice

stage of learning a particular bit of the language. When asked to correct his error he

can do so and give a more or less coherent account of the rule. Learners will, of

course, be at different stages in respect of any particular system of the language, e.g.

postsystematic in the number system, systematically erroneous in the use of articles

and presystematic in the use of the perfective aspect. (p. 131)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Edge (1989) proposes a similar classification, with different criteria. He calls “slips” the

errors which the teacher suspects the learner could self-correct; “errors” are mistakes the

learner can‟t correct even if they are pointed out to him, but the teacher thinks the class should

be familiar with the correct form and is therefore called upon to provide it, and “attempts” are

mistakes made in forms that the class have not yet learnt. The third would be a case of

compensatory production, in our classification, resulting in an erroneous utterance.

Both categorisations of error are consistent with the theory that describes learning as taking

place in stages: from unconscious ignorance to conscious ignorance and then from conscious

knowledge to unconscious knowledge (Taylor, 1988). This is also related to the idea of the

realisation of the learner's personal curriculum: items move from one stage into another as the

course curriculum comes closer to the learner's personal curriculum and it is impossible to

predict how long it is going to take for a particular item to go through the three stages, or how

long it will remain at a certain stage.

Neither the diagnostic nor the descriptive analysis of a learner's production, nor test scores,

will show the placement of the errors at any one of Pit Corder's stages, and yet, changing his

errors from one category into the next may be a remarkable achievement for a learner and the

teacher should pay attention to these processes to measure his progress.

3.c Developmental, fossilisable errors.

Developmental errors appear when a new item is incorporated to a system the learner

thought closed and are signs that learning is taking place. We should remember, in connection

with these phenomena, Piaget‟s (Ibid.) and Ausubel‟s (Ibid) learning theories and the idea of

learning in plateaux or U-shaped learning. The items in the closed system will have to "move"

to make room for the newcomer, and for a while this will cause a disturbance leading to error

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


production. When the new item has finally found its place in the system, the "stir" will quiet

down and errors in the use of that system will disappear.


a) Learners incorporate the use of "to be" in the present simple and close the verb system.

b) Learners learn the present continuous and have to open the verb system to include the

present participles. For a while, they say "I going" and "You is coming", until they

acquire the sub-system of the present continuous and close the verb system again.

c) Learners learn the present simple of verbs expressing likes and dislikes and they have

to open up the verb system again. For a while, they say "I is like" or "You disliking",

etc., until they acquire the new item, which does not happen before they have properly

associated and/or differentiated it from the rest of the sub-system in the system, and

established its relative value.

Adherence to first form or meaning learnt is often present in developmental errors, as in “I

am like coffee”, for “I like coffee”, produced when the learner clings to previous forms of the

present while incorporating the syntax of the present simple, a very natural phenomenon

which then corrects itself after a few lessons.

Developmental errors sometimes affect correct forms which were already stable (Harmer,

Ibid.), for example, when the past simple is introduced, learners who have been using different

present tenses accurately and appropriately suddenly begin to confuse them or use them

wrongly. The newcomer has shaken the foundations of the complete sub-system. If teachers

do not know the role and manifestations of developmental errors, they believe that learners are

no longer making progress, or what is worse, they feel that the new item has been introduced

too soon. The usual reaction is to go back and “consolidate” present tenses, seeking to “get

them to learn each point properly before moving on to the next”. This is not only useless, as

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


the developmental errors will re-occur when a new element is introduced, but pedagogically

wrong. Knowledge, when we are talking about learning a system, means knowing how the

whole of the system works and the relative value of each element with respect to all the others.

Inter-relations are so intricate that there is no way anybody can learn “one thing at a time”.

When errors remain in the learner's production long after the expected developmental period,

they become fossilisable or fossilised and the learner develops a personal grammar. The

teacher is faced with the problem of distinguishing between developmental and fossilising or

fossilised errors, which is no easy task, because the learning pace is different for all items and

for all individuals. Things are complicated even further by the fact that the order of

presentation of items in the course curriculum is hardly ever the order in the learner's personal

curriculum, nor is there valid evidence to determine if this personal curriculum is more or less

standard for all the individuals in a particular category or age-group. Only experience,

observation and common sense can help the teacher determine if an error is developmental or


3.d Teaching-induced errors

The role of teaching and materials in error production can never be overstated. Selinker

(Ibid.) and Richards (Ibid.) called it transfer of training and listed it as one of the main causes

of errors. The word “training” is appropriate to describe instances in which learners simply

reproduce language which has been drilled into the code of their interlanguage by teachers

who are often equally conditioned to use certain practices and procedures, with little or no

awareness of their suitability or significance. It may not be appropriate to talk about “training”

when we refer to inferences, deductions, associations or conclusions induced by the materials

or the teachers, which do not entail literal repetitions of language elements. Because of this

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


distinction, we prefer to talk about teaching-induced errors, including materials, learning

contexts, course curricula and teaching proper within this concept.

We will briefly describe some error-provoking features of methods, materials and teaching

and discuss some concrete examples, hoping to induce reflection upon some classroom

practices and a revision of some of our “cherished notions” (Pit Corder, Ibid.) regarding

curriculum and materials design.

There is a difference between scientific knowledge and pedagogic knowledge. Scientific

knowledge is the formulation of general rules or principles, theories and descriptions based on

empirical research or on an analysis of academic sources. It is usually transmitted through

publications, papers, academic books and lectures.

Pedagogic knowledge is that part of scientific knowledge that reaches the learner through

didactic mediation – that is, knowledge which has been made easier, simpler for the learner, or

which is expressed by means the learner can reasonably grasp, maybe using analogies,

examples, movement or visual aids. Didactic mediation creates the bridge between science and

the classroom (Gibaja, 1993), for example, between grammar and linguistics and the learner.

The mediator per se is the teacher, aided by the materials, the method and other teaching

resources and it is a pre-requisite that teachers should possess sound scientific knowledge if

they are to engage in effective pedagogic mediation, as the simplification of incomplete or

already simplified concepts can only lead to erroneous conclusions. In the case of pedagogic

mediators, a “sound knowledge” does not mean just good grounding in grammar, phonology

and linguistics, but also in all aspects of the teaching profession.

Mediation starts through a process of selection, when the mediator decides which part of

scientific knowledge will be useful for the learner at a certain stage, or which part he can

reasonably be expected to understand, considering his previous knowledge and general

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


background. The next step is determining how to transmit this portion of scientific knowledge:

an explanation, an experiment, a visual organiser or various other means may be selected, on

the basis of the teacher‟s appraisal of which will be more suitable for different learning styles

or hypotheses.

As we can see, the decisions are quite complex and they sometimes have to be made on the

spot, in the presence of a particular query or when a problem is detected and they ought to be

based on deep knowledge of the learner‟s cognitive structure, which is usually beyond the

teacher. It is not surprising, then, that teachers should make mistakes when carrying out their

pedagogic mediation and that they should tend to cling to recommended procedures in their

wish to step on more solid ground.

The nature of the decisions regarding how much to teach and how, is closely linked to the

teachers‟ styles for leading a group of learners. The concept of the teacher as a leader is related

to the classification of groups into primary and secondary, according to Cooley‟s (1909)

traditional classification. A primary group is small and its members are engaged in close,

personal, affective relations. They share activities and culture and care for one another. A

typical example is the family. A secondary group is often larger and its members interact on a

less personal and affective level. Their relationship is often temporary and they usually have a

group objective related to a function to perform, work to do or concrete goals to achieve. A

typical example is a group of learners, a class.

To achieve their goals, the members of a secondary group need a leader who may possess

the professional knowledge to guide them, the personal qualities to keep the group together

and empathise with its members and the character to represent a role model or at least, an

example of fairness and integrity. Learners will, initially, deposit the leader‟s role in their

teacher, assuming that this professional possesses the desired qualities to guide them

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


successfully in their learning process. Should the leader fail them in any way, they may

conclude that the person performing the role is not apt and ask for another teacher or go to

another school, but the role will never be challenged or eliminated: a class needs a teacher.

How will a particular teacher play the leader‟s role? There are social aspects of the role, such

as behaviours, dress codes, activities, which have been designed by the social group and the

teacher will respect to be identified as such. The word role comes form roll and it was used to

refer to the roll of paper from which mediaeval actors read their parts on stage. The roll

contained words and patterns of behaviour written by an author or the company‟s director –

so, actors had to behave as expected and speak words which were not their own. Together with

the roll containing the text of the play, actors were often given a mask and of course, they

always wore special costumes. Of course, actors also expressed their personalities and styles

while reading from the rolls. Here we have the basic elements of the concept in modern

psychology: a role is an organised model of behaviour pertaining to a certain position of the

individual in an interaction web, defined by his/her own expectations and those of others.

There is interplay between the inner world and the outside world, that is, the social and

cultural dimension of the role and the role player‟s individual conception of the role, partly

conditioned by his personal history. So we can talk about social roles and psychological roles.

Roles have other characteristics, as well:

a) They are complementary, each role having its counter-role.

b) They generate expectations in the social group, as each player is expected to behave

according to an accepted model.

c) They are hierarchical, as different roles have different status and enjoy various degrees

of respect or consideration.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


d) They depend for their existence on general agreement as to how the role should be

played.(Wright, 1987)

The tutor may display different leadership styles, which will have particular effects on

students‟ progress. Although many and more specific types of leadership have been identified

since Lewin (1939) produced his seminal classification, they may all be considered variations

on his main three categories or subdivisions of the original groups. The most interesting aspect

of Lewin‟s classification is, to us, that the research leading to them was undertaken at schools

and the leaders being observed were all teachers.

According to Lewin and his team, leadership can be authoritarian or autocratic, participative

or democratic and delegative or laissez-faire. The authoritarian leader does not take the

group‟s needs and interests into consideration when making decisions, and is relatively

insensitive to feedback or input. However, this type of leadership is sometimes necessary in

certain situations when quick, effective decisions are required or the leader is the only member

of the group who is knowledgeable in a certain topic.

Authoritarian leadership does not seem so widespread at schools as in the past. The

traditional image of the teacher as a kind or army sergeant, armed with a red pen and the

power to punish or reward is rapidly disappearing. The problem is that an authoritarian leader

may be despotic, or overprotective and the latter is a very dangerous type of leadership, as it

creates dependent learners who do not realise very easily that they are being harmed.

Participative, democratic leaders offer guidance, advice and help to the group. They listen

to input and feedback from group members and encourage contributions and participation.

They set the pace, but taking everybody‟s needs and preferences into consideration. However,

these leaders retain the final say in most decision-making processes, particularly those

requiring knowledge and expertise. Group members gladly rely on their leader‟s decisions,

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


because they feel taken into consideration and valued. Democratic leadership means leading a

group to the achievement of their goals by empowering all the members to use their potential

and helping them overcome their shortcomings.

Delegative, laissez-faire leaders offer little guidance or help and leave decision-making in

the group‟s hands. This often leads to lack of motivation, particularly when no member of the

group is properly qualified to make decisions regarding their work. If a member of the group

is capable of actually emerging as a leader, then further discomfort will ensue, as the group

will have a natural leader who is not performing as such, and a parallel one. These situations

often lead to discouragement, confusion, anger and whenever possible, a request for a change

of teacher. Sometimes, these secondary groups with a laissez-faire leader tend to become

primary groups, for example, when all the members end up becoming good friends but drop

out of the English course.




Figure 12 – The teacher’s leadership

It is important to note that, although most teachers have a predominant leadership style, they

never use only one. In fact, situational leaders, as defined by modern management theories,

tend to use a predominantly democratic style, but are ready to switch into other styles

according to need.

When faced with the task of pedagogic mediation, the basic questions tutors ask themselves

are, “How much can these learners grasp at this stage? Are they ready for this? How should I

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


lead them to access this knowledge” Authoritarian teachers are likely to underestimate

learners and spoon-feed them some rules of thumb, or just give them the grammar book

explanation to assert their superiority on them and make the class beg for more clarification.

Democratic teachers will probably attempt a more realistic mediation, giving a slightly

simplified version of the rules but using several means, to give learners choices. They will also

act on information about what seems to work for the group, or about their learning styles and


Laissez-faire teachers may decide not to do anything, present the lesson and let the class

draw their own conclusions or send them to look up the grammar in a book.

Avoiding the problem may not be so easy, as the following example shows:

Imagine a lesson where there were several sentences like these:

It is important to book the hotel well ahead of time.

It is easy to understand why he didn‟t come.

The teacher knows that the anticipatory it is an empty carrier of a subject, used to comply

with the rule that a verb must be preceded by a subject, when the real subject of the sentence,

in this case, an infinitival phrase, is placed at the end of the utterance. This is scientific

knowledge, taken from grammar books and should be transformed into pedagogic knowledge.

Many teachers will believe that learners of English as a foreign language may not be able to

understand this explanation, as some technical knowledge of grammar is necessary and trying

to make sense of the explanation might be harder than mastering the structure by simply using

it in communicative situations. This reasoning may be prompted by the teacher‟s inability to

carry out effective pedagogic mediation, by a laissez-faire leadership style, or by blind

adherence to certain prescribed teaching practices.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The teacher, then, engages the class into communicative practice without giving them a

technical explanation of the structure of the sentence or attempting to convey it in any way,

but suddenly, a learner asks: “What does “it” mean in that sentence?” or many learners in the

group start saying “Is important to remember the restaurant‟s name” or “Is clear that you

don‟t love me”, omitting the anticipatory “it”, and the teacher‟s problems begin. How does she

mediate between the grammar book and the learners? Does she give them the complete

explanation anyway? Does she give them a simplified explanation of the rules? Does she give

them a pattern for them to copy – it+to be+adjective+to .....? Does she contrast the native

language and the foreign language? What other ways and means can she devise for this


The teacher‟s choice will then be mainly influenced by her leadership style, her actual

knowledge of grammar, her assessment of the learners‟ limitations and possibilities, and her

methodological orientation. As for the learners, their comprehension will be influenced by

personality factors, their cognitive structure, the way they have structured their native

language, their previous knowledge, the stage of development of their interlanguage and their

communicative goals but it will also depend on the type of pedagogic mediation they are

exposed to. Of course, social and cultural factors will permeate the whole process.

Lesson observation and the process of obtaining authoritative explanation of errors usually

show that most learners not only believe anything the teacher or the book says, but also take it

literally. Another observable phenomenon is that teachers are relatively deaf-and-blind to

errors caused by classroom practices which have been sanctioned as correct by other teachers

or methodologists. Like learners, teachers believe anything that books say, and take it literally.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Precious few teachers question accepted practices or the profession‟s “cherished notions”

and this is one of the reasons why approaches and methods soon become ritualised in the

classroom: the theory and general aim of the approach or teaching philosophy are soon

forgotten, and just the procedures remain. Unfortunately, without theoretical substantiation

procedures become rituals applied in a uniform and systematic fashion to all teaching-learning

situations, when it should be obvious that no procedure can serve all conceivable contexts.

The quest for understanding the learner, for stepping into his shoes, moves good-quality

teaching. To understand how the learner thinks and acts, besides having a solid professional

background, it seems that the teacher needs to be a fairly good mind-reader. But is it possible

to read somebody else‟s mind, to think along the same lines, to empathise with a learner so

closely that we may claim that we understand how he learns? According to Humphrey (1986),

human beings are born psychologists and they possess an innate capability as mind-readers, an

inner eye, which they use to detect intentions, attitudes, motivations in others and conduct

their strategic interactions according to this information.

Baron Cohen (1995) explains that the inner eye operates through the Intentionality Detector,

the Eye Direction Detector, which tries to identify what a person is looking at and why, and

the Shared Attention Mechanism, which detects the connections between the self, an agent and

an object and the Theory of the Mind Mechanism, used to infer mental states through the

observation of behaviour. In this process of mind-reading, the inner eye (Humphrey, Ibid.)

enables people to create common narrations of experience and humans seek to relate to those

with matching narrations, or with narrations which they can build and develop together.

Because of this, the problem with this inner eye is that it works according to parameters

belonging to the mind-reader‟s own mind, so that he shapes his perception of other minds on

the basis of the attitudes and beliefs present in his own. This would account for the fact that

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


thieves live, sometimes, in fear of being robbed, because they attribute a thief‟s mind to

everybody else, as they are unconsciously trying to find akin minds.

Humphrey carried out most of his research with chimpanzees, and when he was once asked,

tongue-in-cheek, if his chimpanzees were so clever that they could be teachers, he answered,

“Yes, indeed, but they would expect their students to have chimpanzee minds”.

Our research may have sought to explore the learners‟ cognitive structure, to perfect learner-

centredness as a teaching philosophy and learn more about personal curricula, but any insight

that is gained in these domains cannot translate into enhanced teaching unless teachers expect

to find responsive minds in the classroom.

3.d.1 Specific causes of teaching-induced errors

I will discuss the most outstanding and clearest cases of error-provoking elements in

methods, books or teaching practices found during our research, but it should be remembered

that this is an area where much depends on the personal, teacher-learner relationship and it is

always dangerous to present human relations as stereotyped cause-effect processes, so no

generalisable conclusions should be drawn from the experiences we will describe.

The data for the following examples of teaching-induced errors came from:

- Authoritative explanations of errors, in cases where learners referred to something they

had seen in their books or the teacher had said.

- Common errors of a group of learners using the same book or being taught by the same

tutor, which were traced back to features of the book or distinctive characteristics of the

teacher's methods and procedures. The identification of the error-provoking element was

done through lesson observation, sometimes supplemented by an analysis of the teacher's

leadership style, carried out by our psychologist.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Examples of error-provoking practises, teaching and materials:

a) Insistence on literal answers or "complete" answers that reproduce most of the


Learners answer questions on a passage by copying sentences from the text, because

the answers do not require the least elaboration.


The passage says: “.... and at night, we slept under the stars, in the vast green field.”

Teacher‟s question: “Where did you sleep at night?”

Expected answer: At night, we slept under the stars, in the vast green field.

This encourages cue-copying and results in intralingual errors due to cue-copying,

such as:


Teacher: Where may those who graduate work?

Learner: Those who graduate work, may work abroad.

Teacher: What do you do?

Learner: I do you do I am a doctor.

b) Learners are not allowed to give one-word or short answers. The teacher constantly

tells them to produce "complete" sentences even when the brief answer is also


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



Teacher: Where were you born?

Learner: In Buenos Aires.

Teacher: A complete sentence, please.

Learner: I was born in Buenos Aires.

Besides cue-copying, these practices encourage conditioning.

c) The provision of lists of lexical items and their translation into the native language, out

of context. This practice reinforces the idea of "one-form-one-meaning", which

produces Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt and runs contrary to the

formation of conceptual categories.


A teacher writes on the board, for the class to copy:

table = mesa

board = tabla

room = habitación

It is unlikely that learners will be willing to incorporate further meanings of these words,

such as “the board of directors”, for example.

d) Fictitious contrasts. Some of them have been created by course writers in their wish to

demonstrate differences and similarities between items which could very well have

been taught separately. Establishing a contrast between them does not seem to add

clarity but to confuse the learner.

- Present perfect and past simple contrasted.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


This often leads to utterances such as “I have wrote two letters today”. The

authoritative explanation of this error by a pre-intermediate learner was that have was

necessary because the day had not finished yet and wrote, because he had already

finished writing the letters.

The items had been taught contrastively and the learner was trying to combine, rather

than distinguish, the rules for both.

- The "contrast" between for and since, associated to the present perfect.

This often produces:

I have worked here since two months. (Meaning: I have worked here for two months)

Authoritative explanation: I am mentioning when I started working here, so I use “since”,

and as I am still working here, I use the present perfect.

We have come to Paris for two years. (We have been in Paris for two years)

The authoritative explanation was: I use present perfect, because I am still in Paris. I

came two years ago.

They have had this car for last month. (Meaning: They have had this car since last month)

Authoritative explanation: “last month” is a period and I should use “for”.

- The "contrast" between "very" and "too".

This may produce:

This exercise is very hard for me to do.

Authoritative explanation: I can‟t do it. It‟s impossible.

This exercise is too hard, but I know how to do it.

Authoritative explanation: It is very, very hard, but I can do it.

- Present simple and present continuous contrasted.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


This often leads to Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt, because the contrast

places great emphasis on the difference between a repeated action and an action in

progress. Learners strive to learn this and then refuse to incorporate:

 She leaves the house, gets into her car, starts the engine and leaves.

 We are leaving tomorrow.

Besides, the contrast often produces:

I am wanting a cup of tea. (Meaning: I want a cup of tea)

Authoritative explanation: I am wanting a cup of tea now.

Items presented contrastively confront the learner with three problems: learning the two

items and the contrast or comparison. Those who tend to associate by proximity and whose

categorisation style is predominantly pre-conceptual, will be hard put to grasp the contrast.

e) Oversimplified rules, taught as absolutes, or wrong statement of rules.

- Frequently heard statement of a rule: "The present simple is used to

express habitual actions or eternal truths", similar to “To express routine”.

The rule seems to leave out other uses of the present simple, as in

 I need a pen.

 When Columbus sees America, he thinks he has arrived in Asia.

 She likes your new dress.

Although it is not possible, perhaps, to teach all the uses of a tense at the same time, learners

should be made aware of the existence of several uses, so that they do not refuse to flexibilise

the structure later on.

Teaching partial concepts as general rules results in lack of flexibility in the use of the

foreign language. In the area of conditionals, for example, a lot of problems arise due to their

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


classification into four types, taught as formulae, at the moment of introducing the fifth, fuzzy

category of “mixed conditionals”. All too often, the observer sees that learners either think the

teacher introducing mixed conditionals is misleading them or that previous teachers have lied

to them or exposed them to books which contained mistakes. There is a feeling of betrayal, of

“And now they tell me” in the learners.

- Rules replaced by formulae. Often heard in the classroom: "Whenever you talk about

actions happening "now", you must use the present continuous." Even worse: “Whenever

you say “now” you have to use the present continuous”. And even worse: the teacher

writes on the board: “now = - ing”.

These over-simplified formulae, besides encouraging shortcutting or simply confusing

the learner, omit other cases or the use of “now”:

 I‟ve been working here for three days now.

 What do you want now?

 Where is she now?

Oversimplified semantic values. For example: "The modal "must" expresses obligation."

Some of the results of that statement may be:

 When learners come across “They must have left”, they understand some

people left because they were forced to, or because they had to.

 A statement such as “You must be joking” is interpreted as “It is your

obligation/duty to tell jokes now.”

 “He mustn‟t have done it” is erroneously produced to express that somebody

did something wrong, which he shouldn‟t have done.

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While observing a lesson, I witnessed a heated argument between a teacher and a group

of young learners, about twelve years old, when she told them that the modal must

expressed “moral, self-imposed obligation”. The children were completely unable to

understand the concept of self-imposed obligation, arguing that all their obligations were

imposed on them by adults. They were also puzzled by the concept of moral obligation,

which they associated with religious principles or accepted social practices. They argued

that moral obligations, taken from that point of view, were also set by adults.

The situation was very interesting for the observer and anguishing for the teacher, who

really had no arguments, as she was simply repeating something which had probably been

handed down to her by her own teachers, in a ritualised fashion. She finally settled the

matter by taking back the “moral” or “self-imposed” qualifiers and leaving just, “It

expresses obligation” in her definition. Her attitude was authoritarian all through; the final

resolution of the conflict was reached in the spirit of “We had better not discuss it any

further, because you will never understand it anyway” and the class were not satisfied with

the outcome.

Teacher-made, erroneous rules often heard in the classrooms, such as: “The Present

perfect is used to denote a past action, the results of which continue into the present.”

Learners do not see why they cannot say “I have broken my leg yesterday”. If someone

broke his leg yesterday, the results of that continue into the present: the person still has his

leg in a plaster cast. This “rule” also leads to “Shakespeare has written many plays”, as the

results of his past actions are available in the present.

f) Analogy and proximity.

These practices have been listed by Richards (Ibid.) as error-provoking. They consist in

putting analogous items next to each other in the same text, with no explanation of the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


differences and when learners are trying to acquire both. The result is similar to that of the

"contrasts", when it does not result in simplification of the syllabus.

For example, teaching "She said she was coming" together with "She told me she was

coming" will probably produce "She said me she was coming".

g) Teaching that lays particular stress on accuracy or on communication is equally error-

provoking. A balanced diet is always the best option. An analysis of long-term results in

courses where there has been excessive emphasis on either aspect shows very paradoxical

results: usually, the area that has been stressed is the one the learners have failed to grasp.

Completely grammar-based courses where a high degree of accuracy is demanded do not

succeed in teaching even grammar; on the other hand, courses where fluency is placed

well above accuracy do not produce learners who communicate effectively.

In the first case, learners do not necessarily transform the grammar in the textbook

exercises into meaningful language; in the second, they make so many errors they do not

communicate. It would not be very bold to state that a language course will fail in the areas

that have been artificially and disproportionately highlighted by the tutor or the book. In the

learners' personal curricula, language is a balanced whole.

Examples of this problem, recorded during lesson observation:


 Teacher: (Highly controlled practice, out of context aimed at teaching question

forms) Ask me where I live.

 Learner: Where you live? (He cue-copies the teacher, because he does not associate

question forms with meaningful communication, as he is practising out of context)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



 Learner: (Highly "communicative" lesson) Where you live?

 Teacher: I live at 45 Suffolk Road. (Does not correct the question because communication

has been achieved anyway. The learner concludes the question is correct and will probably

produce "Where you go?" or “Where you work?”.


 Teacher: ("Balanced diet" approach) You are the Principal. You are hiring me as a teacher.

Please fill in this form with my personal data. Get all the necessary information from me. Ask

me my name, address, etc.

 Learner 1: (To teacher) Where you live?

 Teacher: Pardon? (Shows through gesture there is something missing).

 Learner 1: Where .... do you live?

The effects of heavily communicative or non-communicative teaching have been discussed

by Lightbown and Spada (1999). They cite studies carried out in Canada (Savignon, 1972;

Montgomery & Eisenstein, 1986) which showed that learners who attended courses with a

communicative component combined with formal grammar teaching learnt better than those

whose instruction had been heavily grammar-based, thus making the case for a balanced


On the other hand, we would argue that a fully communicative approach would probably

reduce correction to a minimum and favour early fossilization of many errors.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


h) Arbitrary order of presentation of grammatical items. The sequencing of items in the

syllabus is determined by the curriculum designer‟s perception and the theoretical

framework. Many criteria have been outlined for ordering items in a syllabus, but they

may be grouped into two broad categories: learner-based or teaching-based. In a

learner-based syllabus, the order of presentation will be determined by the utility

principle (Kaur, 1990) and priority will be given to

 which is needed most immediately by the learner,

 which has high surrender value, that is, of most use to the learner,

 which is necessary to avoid a communication breakdown,

 which is flexible, that is, can be used most widely, and

 which is most frequently used by the learner.

However, this order still needs a sequence of functions, lexis and grammar items, besides

relying on fairly ambiguous criteria: it is impossible to know what would avoid

communication breakdown for a particular learner, or what a learner will use most

frequently, beyond a few functions and lexis.

Kaur (Ibid.) lists the sequencing principles of a pedagogically-based syllabus, defining it

as one which

 can be taught most effectively and efficiently given in the classroom situation,

 can be used in teaching other languages,

 is needed for classroom purposes,

 is simpler in form or meaning.

As we can see, the criteria become more ambiguous as the focus of syllabus design

moves from the learner to the teacher. The recommended design should be a combination

of learner-based and teaching-based elements, as proposed by Brumfit (1981). He

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


distinguishes between intrinsic criteria, which derives from language itself, and extrinsic

criteria, usually referred to motivational factors, coherence, usefulness and other traits

associated with learners‟ needs and interests.

Despite advances in this field, we have to acknowledge the fact that learners‟ personal

curricula will defy any order of presentation of syllabus items.

Some of the accepted sequences seem to be particularly error-provoking:

- Teaching the Past Simple of the verb "to be" before the Past Simple forms of all

the other verbs produces "I was went to the cinema yesterday" or "I was go home

early last Monday". We have already discussed that this is a normal process when

it is a developmental error, but not when the two forms tend to remain together for

a long time…. or permanently.

- Teaching the Present Continuous before the Present Simple produces "I am

work here."

Research into the learners' personal curricula would probably disclose that any order of

presentation is arbitrary and that such an order is necessary only for the sake of teachability.

The teacher should be prepared to incorporate whichever items her learners are interested in

or seem to need. She should not worry if the class do not pay attention to the course

curriculum but work very earnestly on the items they consider important. Their personal

curricula will sooner or later lead them back to the course curriculum or co-exist with it.

i) Gradation of difficulty is always relatively arbitrary, as there is no way of knowing

what will be easier or more difficult to learn. Contents are usually graded in terms of

what needs to be taught first in order to move on with the syllabus, but there are

arbitrary criteria for grading difficulty which place artificial restrictions on the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


language available to the learners, particularly when they induce learners to avoid large

language areas for long periods:

- Forcing learners to use only present tenses throughout beginner or elementary

courses creates a reluctance to incorporate past forms, which appear as second-rate

items, as learners have been making do without them for a long time. They have

also made great efforts to avoid them and the teacher has probably been helping

them to do so. Consequently, they tend to cling to their achievements. This

produces adherence to first form learnt.

- The use of gerunds is formally taught when people have already been saying "I

like swim" for quite a while. The wrong concept here, on the teacher‟s part, is that

nothing can be taught before it appears in the curriculum or the materials as formal

instruction. Books and materials often include language for passive recognition

which may be transformed into active if it seems that learners could profit from

them or if learners ask questions regarding those language elements.

- Teaching modals at a late stage, when learners have been using substitute

expressions for years, creates the feeling that modals are optional language

elements, easily replaced by utterances such as "Maybe I'll come", "It is possible to

come tomorrow", "It is your obligation to do it", etc.

j) Tutors' contradictions and erroneous statements about language, sometimes produced

by insecurity or the wish to make things easier for the learner.


 Teacher: "When we mean "now", we use "is". (Meaning: When we talk about an

action in progress at the moment of speaking, we often use the present continuous)

Possible result: Learners say "I is need a pencil now".

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


 Teacher: "We use the Present Simple to describe our daily routine. Now tell me

what you do every morning, beginning like this: It is 7 AM. I am getting up".

Possible result: Learners will confuse the tenses involved.

 Teacher: "We use "there is" when we want to say where things are. For example:

There is a book on the chair".

Possible result: Learners may well say "There is my pencil on the floor", or

"There is the bookstore on the corner."

Passive voice taught by transforming sentences from active into passive is usually

error-provoking. As an instance of language use, the operation exists only in limited

contexts, so learners do not find it meaningful. As a teaching-learning device, it results

in a lot of semi-appropriate, correct utterances, as it focuses on form but not on

meaning or appropriacy. The learners‟ conclusion is often that it is the same to say “I

closed the door” or “The door was closed by me” and that the utterance is fully correct

and appropriate just as long as the syntactic rules have been respected.

It is not possible to foresee all the misunderstandings and erroneous conclusions which may

arise in a classroom. It would not be suitable, either, for teachers to become obsessed with

everything they say or do, to the point of losing spontaneity during lessons. It would be useless

to try to eliminate communication problems between teachers and learners, which are a normal

part of any human relationship. The benefit of reflecting upon teaching-induced errors lies in

the awareness it creates of the need to question accepted practices and to consider learners

intelligent individuals who can understand a simple but complete explanation. Teachers should
Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel

not feel constrained or inhibited by the possible mistakes they can make, but neither should

they work in the blind, completely unaware of the consequences of their words and actions in

the classroom.

3.d.2 Compensation-provoking teaching

When analysing the results of language courses through error analysis, we singled out some

groups where compensation was exceptionally high and devised an informal research project

to gain some insight into its causes. We found that too much compensation may be an

indication that the course is being taught above the learners' level, or that the exigency placed

on communication is too high, or that the teacher is overambitious, or that learners are asked

to perform in open-ended activities without previous practice and preparation.

Another important factor that seems to induce compensation is the teacher's attitude towards

the language being taught. This language has to be presented as a tool for communication, and

used as naturally as the learners' native language both in life-like situations designed for

classroom practice and spontaneously, according to need. When language is presented as a

subject of study, or deprived of its communicative nature, the learners' compensatory

production in more open-ended situations is usually very high.

Regarding this point, some compensation-inducing teaching practices we may point out, are:

a) The use of native language for classroom communications not directly related to the

lesson, clearly indicating that English is the language to use for classroom practice, and

the native language for communication. This does not refer to the use of the native

language as a resource. It refers to making a clear distinction between the use of

English for lesson-related communications and the use of the native language for

personal communications, even stressed by remarks such as "Lo voy a decir en

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


castellano para que lo entiendan" or "Ahora que estamos fuera del aula, hablemos en

castellano". ("I am going to say it in Spanish for you to understand it", or "Now that

we are not in the classroom, let's speak Spanish")

b) The teacher's permanent request for examples or strings of examples of questions,

commands or other exponents of language functions that should elicit a response, when

this response is not requested. Questions are left unanswered, invitations are neither

accepted nor turned down and exclamations of surprise or anger are met with dead

silence. Textbooks often provide tables, matching activities or other forms of eliciting

questions, commands, instructions, etc. but it is not the materials writer‟s duty to

remind the teacher that these activities have to be supplemented interaction and

inserted in contexts. A similar effect is achieved by having the learner answer his own

questions, in a dialogue with himself.

c) Non-contextualized grammar practice, which causes a divorce between structure and

language use. Learners effect compensation because they do not recognise the

communicative value of the language they master and go for original, self-originated


d) Teaching above the course level or placing the communicative demands of the course

above the learners‟ level of mastery. Compensation becomes indispensable. A clear

example of this is the teacher's attempt at discussing a text that is only meant for

reading comprehension and not for an oral debate. The skill of reading comprehension

can be developed above and beyond the level of oral production and it is not

uncommon to find that these texts contain lexis and structures that learners are

supposed to recognise but not to use. Discussing the text also spoils the purpose of the

reading comprehension tasks, which is to train the learner to focus on the familiar to

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


get to the unfamiliar, grasp global meanings, make associations, inferences, skim, scan

the text, etc. When placed in the position of having to talk about the text, the learner

wants to use the language in it, something for which the reading task has not prepared

him, so he resorts to compensation.

e) Overcorrection. The learner is interrupted so often that, when he really wants to

communicate, he resorts to his native language. This produces, in the long run, the

situation described in point a) on this list and results in insufficient reliance on the

foreign language, leading to compensation.

f) Lack of correction. Learners enjoy such blissful overconfidence that they do not

monitor their language at all, and compensation becomes normal. This produces highly

remedial learners who are sometimes difficult to handle, because they are convinced

that their English is excellent, and contradicting them may erode their self-confidence.

g) Lack of transfer of language items taught in class to topics and situations within the

learners' personal experience. Conversation and writing are always centred on the

textbook topics and materials. Learners are never encouraged or allowed to talk about

themselves and their interests, to give opinions or relate anecdotes or incidents. Neither

are they asked to carry out tasks or research, write real letters or reports, etc.

In general, we may consider that approaches which present language in natural

environments, with the objective of centring the class on the learners, their level and their

needs, and where the teacher acts as a responsible monitor and co-ordinator of tasks, may be

the antidote to compensation.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Think of the teachers you have had. Identify three examples of teachers‟

authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire leadership. What effect did these

leadership styles have on you or on your classmates? Think about it.

2. Teach a new grammar point and record your lesson. You may use a tape-recorder

or a video camera. Listen to the recording or watch it. Evaluate your explanations

and procedures. Could any part of the lesson be error-provoking? You may find the

answer to this question if you analyse your students‟ errors.

3. Pay attention to class performance and answer: How much compensation do your

students make? If it is too much, could it be that you are teaching above their level?

Review the probable causes of compensation and reach a conclusion.

4. Explore the materials and the syllabus you are using and see if you can find

examples of error-provoking grading of difficulty, order or manner of presentation

of language items. If this is the case, consider how you can deal with this problem.

5. Do your students regard English as a means of communication or as a subject of

study? Do they speak English informally? Outside the classroom? Do they watch

films or read in English for pleasure? Get information about this from them and

describe their attitude. Is it favourable or unfavourable? If it is unfavourable, think

what you can do to change it.

6. How do you correct? List three correction methods that you use. Have they been

effective so far? Why/Why not? Analyse them.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


PART 3: Exploiting errors

1. Error analysis for completing progress evaluation

The usual way of measuring progress is through language tests. It is assumed that the marks

obtained will reflect the learners' progress or lack of it. This is usually a valid criterion, but

assessment carried out on the basis of test scores appears insufficient when a more

comprehensive evaluation of the learner's progress is attempted through error analysis. While

test scores may reflect achievement in terms of language performance, error analysis can tell

us whether the learner has improved his learning methods and procedures, by looking at

whether he is making more productive or unproductive errors.

The following examples show how error analysis can complement test scores in progress



An Intermediate Level learner taking lessons in periods of 90 minutes, twice a week. Her

course started in March, and finished in November. She took two language tests which

assessed the four skills, and the overall results were:

Test 1 (June 1998) Score: 79 %

Test 2 (November 1998) Score: 78 %

We might conclude that her performance at the course remained stable, requiring no major

changes in teaching or method for the following year. However, error analysis showed a

slightly different picture:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


CATEGORIES Sub-categories 1st 2nd

ERROR Appropriate, semi-correct 63.33 % 52.94 %
RATING Semi-appropriate, correct 23.33 % 32.24 %
Semi-appropriate, semi- 6.66 % 8.82 %
Inappropriate, uncorrect 6.66 % -
ERROR TYPES Syntactic 64 % 52.94 %
Semantic 23 % 38.24 %
Semantic-syntactic 13 % 8.82 %
ERROR CLASS Intralingual errors 67 % 47.06 %
Interlingual errors 33 % 52.94 %
CAUSES OF Accessing Attempts 65 % 87.50 %
INTRALINGUAL Simplification 25 % 12.50 %
ERRORS Shortcutting 10 % -
COMPENSATORY 5.88 % 6.66 %

From this picture of error, we may derive some tentative conclusions:

a) Whereas her command of syntax has improved or at least remained fairly stable, she is

making a large number of errors in lexis and appropriacy. These errors hamper

communication more than purely grammatical errors, as already discussed.

b) The absence of Inappropriate, Incorrect errors shows that her grammar has improved.

c) The increase in Interlingual errors seems to point out that the learner does not rely so

heavily on the code of the foreign language for communicating. As this happens,

mainly, within the areas of lexis and appropriacy, it may show a certain divorce

between form and meaning.

d) The absence of Intralingual Errors due to Shortcutting would be a change for the better

if her interlingual errors had not increased. It might also be assumed that, as her

grammar has improved, she has departed from her trend towards Shortcutting and

resorts more to Accessing Attempts. This hypothesis would be fairly accurate if her

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Interligual errors were all Appropriate, Semi-correct utterances, which is not the case.

She does not resort to Shortcutting for structuring language syntactically, but copies

meanings and lexis from the native language.

In view of this, we may suspect the learner is not copying cues or adhering to first forms

or meanings learnt in the foreign language because the "first forms or meanings learnt" she

is clinging to, are those of her native language.


Ms BBB needs to acquire greater fluency, precision and lexical ability. She should not be

taken into more complex grammar before she has managed to put her acquired knowledge to

communicative use. She should not be promoted to the following level, even though she has

passed this test, without a period of consolidation and adjustment. Her progress in the

syntactic area does not represent much progress in the communicative area, and if we give

priority to communication over correctness we may consider she has not made much progress

or even that her performance has deteriorated.


An adult learner taking lessons in 90 minute periods, twice a week, from March to

November. This is an analysis of three tests, each taken at the end of a nine-month language

course. Miss CCC went through three levels of instruction: Elementary, Pre-intermediate,

Intermediate. The results were:

Test 1 (November 2003) Score: 84 %

Test 2 (November 2004) Score: 84 %

Test 3 (November 2005) Score: 73 %

It seems that Miss CCC's performance remained stable for two years and then deteriorated.
Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel

Error analysis of her production shows that this is not exactly so:

CATEGORIES Sub-categories Test Test Test

1 2 3
ERROR Appropriate, semi-correct 74 % 60 % 72.22 %
RATING Semi-appropriate, correct 26 % 36.67 % 22.22 %
Semi-appropriate, semi- - - -
Inappropriate, incorrect - 3.33 % 5.56 %
ERROR TYPES Syntactic 74 % 56.67 % 72.22 %
Semantic 26 % 36.67 % 22.22 %
Semantic-syntactic - 6.66 % 5.56 %
ERROR CLASS Intralingual errors 52.18 % 63.33 % 72.22 %
Interlingual errors 47.82 % 36.67 % 27.78 %
CAUSES OF Accessing Attempts 66.66 % 63.20 % 84.62 %
INTRALINGUA Simplification 33.33 % 31.58 % -
L Shortcutting - 5.26 % 11.11 %

Tentative conclusions:

1. In the last test, there is an increase in the number of Inappropriate, Incorrect errors but

it is not accompanied by an increase in the number of Semantic-Syntactic errors.

2. The third test shows more achievement than the second in the area of Semi-

appropriate, Grammatical errors and Semantic errors.

3. There is significant and steady improvement in the percentages of Interlingual and

Intralingual errors. In this area, the third test is the most balanced.

4. She has stopped simplifying but resorts to shortcutting more than before. This is

perhaps the result of the reduction of Interlingual production and simplification: the

effort to adhere exclusively to the code of L2 is too great, and sometimes she cannot


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



The learner makes more errors than before, but not very serious ones. She may need to slow

down, to go through a period of consolidation.

These analyses offer some insight into the rules and processes governing the learner's

interlanguage. However, when attempting error analysis of a learner's production at a single

test, several considerations have to be made:

a) The qualitative analysis of a learner's production at a language test cannot override the

value of the quantitative appraisal. It is unquestionable that a learner who makes very

few errors is doing better than one who makes a lot, even if they are of a productive


b) The result of analysing errors made in one test will merely show the state of the

learner's performance in that test, not the state of his interlanguage as a whole.

Taking the result of a single test as an indication of a learner's level of achievement is

just as misleading as taking the analysis of the errors made at a single test as the

description of the learner's interlanguage.

c) Even though error analysis can disclose new information about the learner‟s progress

when contrasted with mere test scores, it has to be supplemented with process

evaluation by the teacher and self-evaluation by the learner.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Sometimes, teachers have a high opinion of a learner‟s performance and then feel

surprised when that learner does not pass a test. Has this ever happened to you? Reflect

upon the experience. Why do you think it happened? Was there anything you did not

take into account? Anything that misled you?

2. Give a writing test to your students. Analyse the errors they make. Are all the “good”

learners making productive errors? If they are not, review your assessment of your


3. Given two students with identical test scores, do you think that if one of these learners

had made more productive errors than the other, he/she would deserve higher marks?

Make a list of reasons for your answer.

4. Compare the written production of two learners, in the same task. Does error analysis

show that the learner who has made fewer errors has also made more productive

errors? Is there any correspondence between the quality and the quantity of their


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2. Error exploitation vs. error correction

Norrish (Ibid.) proposes an experiment which I have often carried out at courses and

seminars on error analysis. He asks teachers to define errors, and the most frequent answers,


 They are experiments to confirm hypotheses.

 They are learning attempts.

 They are features of experimentation on the part of the learner.

Then, he asks teachers to write down what they do about errors in class, and the most

frequent answers are of the following type:

 I always correct errors made in writing, but I don‟t interrupt students to correct

them when they are speaking.

 I write down errors and then correct them with the class.

 I point out errors and ask the students to self-correct them.

 I signal to students that they have made an error and wait for them to correct it.

Norrish then asks teachers to substitute the word “error” in these statements for the

definition they have produced, so the results are, for example:

 I always correct learning attempts made in writing.

 I write down experiments to confirm hypotheses and then correct them with the


 I point out features of experimentation on the part of the learners and ask the

students to self-correct them.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


 I signal to the students that they have made a learning attempt and wait for

them to correct it.

These bizarre statements create awareness that teachers do not always walk their talk or that

there is a gap between what we know and the actual implementation of this knowledge in our

teaching practice. I have tried the experiment and found it rather aggressive but extremely

effective. Teachers feel exposed, but if the procedure is spiced with a bit of humour, the initial

embarrassment is overcome and everybody gets down to work with a no-nonsense attitude.

The experiment provides the foundations for delving into the question of how to treat errors as

items in the learner‟s curriculum rather than focus on correcting them. This is the essential

change of mindset we need in order to begin discussing methods and activities for error


2.a Problems with correction

Lack of correction leaves learners helpless and makes teachers passive witnesses of learning

processes of mixed results; a laissez-faire situation in which some learners will develop

fossilised errors and reach their language ceiling sooner than if they have the teacher‟s

professional support and guidance (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992)

James (Ibid.) proposes subject-sensitive correction, that is to say, centred on the learner and

respecting individual learning styles and preferences. To achieve this, he advocates creating a

non-threatening learning environment and exploring learners‟ preferences regarding how they

want to be corrected. Among other aspects of corrections, he highlights the role of the learner

as an error analyst, when he is given the opportunity to contrast an interlanguage form with the

correct standard form and draw conclusions which might apparently increase his language

awareness, but he makes a distinction between language awareness and consciousness-raising.

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Language awareness would be the learner‟s implicit knowledge turned explicit and

consciousness-raising is getting explicit insight into what one does not know implicitly of the

foreign language.

I will suggest that error treatment, though not necessarily correction, is an integral part of the

teacher‟s work and it is widely accepted nowadays that it should not entail criticism,

punishment or aggression, but should encourage reflection, discussion and contribution among

learners. Although new and creative techniques for error treatment have been developed,

correction remains highly ineffective in many cases:

a) Teachers do not ask learners to discuss their errors or to clarify the meaning of

erroneous utterances (authoritative explanation) but diagnose and describe errors on

the basis of their informed assumptions (expert reconstruction), which may be wrong.

They correct errors which have never been made. We have already discussed this

problem, but we will provide one more example here:


Learner: I crashed into another car and I saw the driver, I was joke, because it was a friend

of mine I was trying to contact for several days.

Teacher: (Authoritative explanation) Do you mean you started joking with him? Or that it was


Learner: Yes, it was funny, and I was joke.

Teacher: (Expert reconstruction) …. and I joked about it…. (Writes the sentence on the board)

Learner: (Authoritative explanation) No, no, I was surprised. Very surprised, it was a “jock”.

Teacher: (Authoritative explanation) Oh! You mean “shocked”!

Learner: Yes. Yes, I was shocked.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The example shows, once again, how the root of the error is not detected unless the teacher

asks for authoritative explanation, without jumping to conclusions.

b) Teachers encourage self-correction, but errors may be at a pre-systematic stage (Pit

Corder, Ibid.), in which the learner is unaware of a particular system or rule in the target

language, makes random errors and cannot correct himself or account for the forms he has

chosen. Under these circumstances, self-correction is impossible.

This problem renders two of the most accepted correction techniques, feedback and re-

formulation (Lewis, Ibid., Krashen & Terrell, Ibid.), practically useless. Among advocates

or re-formulation, dialogues like the following, taken from Lewis (Ibid.) are considered

enough to attract learners‟ attention to their errors:

Teacher: See you all on Thursday.

Learner: No, we don‟t are here on Thursday.

Teacher: You won‟t be here on Thursday? Why not?

Learner: We don‟t must be here.

Teacher: You don‟t have to be here? I don‟t understand. Why not?

Learner: It is sports day. We are to the stadium. So we don‟t are in school.

Teacher: Oh, I see. It‟s sports day so you won‟t be here on Thursday. Well, let‟s hope the

weather is good.(p.175)

The teacher has acted, in fact, as an interpreter, and the learner has remained totally

unaware of his errors, because they are at pre-systematic level. Had they been at

systematic level, he would have profited from re-formulation and corrected his utterances.

It is not an exaggeration to suppose that the learner whose errors are at pre-systematic

stage will find the teacher‟s constant paraphrasing of his utterances slightly bizarre. In the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


case in hand, a highly productive master error, the overgeneralised use of “don‟t” to denote

a negative form, which could have helped the learner advance in his command of all

negative forms of verbs, has been left unexploited. The only justification for the procedure

suggested by Lewis is that the learner and the teacher were having an informal

conversation, probably outside the classroom, and the teacher may have preferred not to

hamper fluency in that context. As a method of error correction, it can be termed a method

of non-correction.

Lewis‟s and Krashen & Terrell‟s idea that teachers should simply provide enriched input

and hope that learners will acquire it is not even effective in second language learning

environments, as we all know immigrants who retain their accent after forty years of

residence in the host country, that is, of forty years of exposure to high-quality input.

Krashen & Terrell (Ibid.) themselves state that it is not clear whether re-formulation

actually encourages learners to speak more accurately and correctly.

The issue of stages of systematicity in errors is also relevant for giving feedback. Writing

codes beside errors, as proposed by Bartram and Walton (1991), will work if the error is at

systematic or post-systematic stage and the learner is capable of self-correction. An error

marked GR, in their proposal, is an error in grammar. The pre-systematic learner who is

not even aware of the existence of an error in that utterance will probably be unable to take

any action on the basis of the teacher‟s coding.

c) The teacher encourages one-to-one peer correction and does not monitor it. Learners

develop personal grammars which they gradually and partially adjust to the ideal system of

the target language (Selinker & Lamendella, 1981) and the person in charge of correcting a

peer may be using a rule or concept from his personal grammar. The learner being

corrected will simply change one mistake for another.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


d) Teachers edit, rather than correct, learners‟ written production:


Learner‟s production: “.... I was surprised when I saw the look on the face of Mary.”

Teacher‟s correction: “I was surprised to see the look on Mary‟s face.”

The learner is confronted with an “improved” version of his sentence. The focus of the

correction, which should have been placed on “the face of Mary”, for example, by simply

underlining the phrase and discussing it with the learner, is shifted to the whole sentence,

so that the learner cannot really know where he went wrong.

Lewis (Ibid.) advocates editing as a feedback technique, stating that, instead of

improving slightly on the learner‟s utterance, the teacher should provide a sample of

correct, appropriate language. The suggestion seems mistaken on two counts: I) the learner

may not be ready for a competent native speaker-like utterance and fail to grasp it

altogether; or feel that what he attempted to say was completely beyond him, with the

subsequent feeling of frustration; II) the item in his personal curriculum, the error he did

make, is not addressed, consequently, he is denied the opportunity of learning from it.

e) The teacher prompts words or phrases to a learner who does not command the structure of

an utterance and finds no place for the prompted elements, or who does not understand

where the mistake is because he has not been led to analyse his production or because his

personal curriculum leads him to focalise on something else at the moment.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



Learner: I not like to go to shops with my mother.

Teacher: DO not like .....

Learner: Yes, do not like to go to shops with my mother.

Teacher: "go shopping ....."

Learner: .... to go to shops with my mother go shopping.

Teacher: No. "I do not like to go shopping with my mother" Don't say "go to shops", say

"go shopping".

Learner: I do not like go shopping with my mother.

In this particular case, the teacher should have realised that addressing “I not like” was a

priority, as it is obviously a master error. She could have continued the conversation, so as not

to interrupt communication, to go back to the error later and exploit it. Trying to correct it on

the spot was not possible, as the learner was not monitoring his syntactic production but

concentrating on meaning.

This takes the discussion to the issue of whether to interrupt or not to interrupt learners when

they make mistakes. In general, it is not advisable to interrupt learners repeatedly and teachers

should prefer to keep records of mistakes and deal with them at a later stage. However, there

are also items which should receive immediate attention at the moment when the learner‟s

mind is ready for them. We will deal with these problems in the next section.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2.b Error exploitation

Error exploitation, rather than correction, can enhance learning because it aims at exploring

the learner‟s previous knowledge and assumptions about the language, encouraging reflection,

providing authoritative input from the tutor or other sources and opportunities for the learner

to try out the resulting revised hypotheses about the target language. It is aligned with Kolb‟s

Experiential Learning Model (1997):

New concrete experience

Concrete experience

Active Observation and

experimentation reflection


Figure 13 – Experiential learning model

The stage of observation and reflection will be enriched by vicarious experience: readings,

explanations by tutors or any other forms of input and contributions from peers. In this

process, the teacher‟s role is that of a consultant, facilitator and monitor and learning takes

place in a continuous spiralling of experiences, each loop reaching higher levels of

comprehension and apprehension of knowledge, with reflection acting as the vehicle for

further learning. It should also be noted that conceptualisation is at the heart of the learning

process, so learners whose hypotheses are predominantly pre-conceptual will need further


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


In their discussion of effective grammar teaching, Ellis and Gaies (1998), advocate the

development of four skills: noticing, by which learners analyse the input and focalise on what

is to be learnt; training in being able to listen to grammatical features of spoken language; a

grammar-discovery approach to texts and finally, monitoring, where learners are asked to use

their explicit knowledge of grammar to identify their errors and correct them, particularly

those they typically make.

Although their procedure did not refer exclusively to error exploitation, it is interesting to

note the role they assign to awareness, or the capability to use explicit knowledge for language

acquisition. Ellis and Gaies see this awareness as a possible means of dealing with the

requirements of the built-in syllabus, which we have called personal curriculum.

The starting point for error exploitation is to determine what errors are more significant and

typical as personal curriculum items. Our research identified three main types, which we have

already discussed in Part 1:

a) Errors that worry the learners, even when the teacher does not consider them serious or

when they are not within course level.

b) Errors which are common to a group of learners or to the whole class, particularly if

they are recurrent.

c) “Master errors” which affect vast language areas because they have ramifications into

several sub-systems.

This list is by no means complete and other types of errors may be important in the personal

curricula of different learners, according to individual needs. These three types were singled

out as most typical manifestations of personal curricula because their exploitation seemed to

have a particularly strong impact on learners‟ progress.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


In a study carried out in 1999, we asked a group of fifty five teachers from all over

Argentina what errors they would consider important, and the two most chosen categories

were “Errors which hamper communication” and “Errors which have to do with the items

being taught”. The survey was repeated in 2005, with a group of 123 teachers, with the same

results. Note that most errors hamper communication, although not all of them block it, and

that the items being taught are the most likely to produce errors, as learners experiment with

the new forms in order to internalise them. Errors in these items are simply necessary features

of experimentation and probably developmental, not “serious”. Focusing exclusively on the

topic of the lesson may cause the teacher to overlook errors which are manifestations of the

learners‟ personal curricula or to those which are becoming fossilised – that is, the really

“serious” ones.

The notion of errors which hamper communication, when further explored by asking

teachers to provide examples, turned out to be more related to instances of compensation,

when communication was interrupted because learners were at a loss for words, or to cases

when a misinterpretation on the part of a particular learner caused short circuits in the flow of

a group activity.

In both surveys, teachers regarded errors in grammar as less serious than semantic errors or

errors in appropriacy, which is perhaps a result of the present awareness of the value of lexis

in communication. The same question was posed by Norrish (Ibid.), in 1983, and the answer

he obtained was that grammar was more important than communication.

How to treat errors? As items in the learner‟s personal curriculum. First, the stigma of

embarrassment and criticism has to be removed from error production. Items in the course

syllabus are not undesirable. Why should items in the learners‟ curricula be objectionable?

Learners have to be explained that their errors show the teacher a parallel curriculum, that they

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


are positive signs of learning and valuable contributions to the course. The teacher should state

in no uncertain terms that the course has a pre-set curriculum which needs to be supplemented.

As a curriculum is a public document (Ur, 1996), a list of the learners‟ contributions should be

available to the class and they should know this is their curriculum, so they should be proud of

participating in its design.

They should also know they are expected to learn the curriculum they build up, as it is not

accessory or optional but will become an integral part of the course. The class will then exploit

errors as curriculum items, following Kolb‟s cycle, in the following way:

a) Concrete experience: The teacher records a number of master errors, systematic

errors of the group or errors that worry the learners, produced during oral work or in

writing, in fairly open-ended activities, in the manner we have outlined. Authoritative

explanation should be subtly sought, by inviting re-formulation, confirming

interlocutor hypotheses or making remarks such as, “Did you say XXX because you

thought XXXXX?”. This brief discussion may take place during the activities, if the

teacher is participating in them, or afterwards, if the teacher has acted as an observer.

When we talk about open-ended activities, we mean interactive situations with an

information gap, role-plays, mock negotiations, presentations, telling anecdotes or

stories, giving opinions, carrying out group or pair work to solve a problem,

summarising, reporting and generally performing within an activity where the

language outcome is not fully predictable, and language is a means to carry out the

task. In close-ended activities, such as blank-filling, transforming sentences from direct

to indirect speech or multiple choice questionnaires, the expected outcome is 100%

predictable and can be written in an answer key. The choices the learner has to face are

limited and may not reflect his learning hypotheses, whereas in open-ended tasks he

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


can choose from the whole of his inventory of language forms and even create new

ones, thus offering the teacher a glimpse at the contents of his personal curriculum.

b) Observation and reflection, plus abstract conceptualisation aided by vicarious

experience and carried out through collaborative learning: The following lesson, the

teacher presents a list of erroneous utterances containing a selection of the errors

recorded during the previous lesson and asks the class to correct them, acting as a

coordinator of the discussion. It may not be advisable to transcribe learners‟ utterances

literally in these activities, but to produce a slightly modified version, so that learners

will recognise their errors without feeling exposed.

The selection should include not more than ten errors, so as not to create the

impression that the class are producing nothing but wrong language and besides,

working on a long list of errors may prove tedious and go against learning. It is also

important to select errors belonging to different learners even if two or three of them

have produced the most part. The idea is not to focus on the slower learners or to create

the conditions for the faster ones to show off their achievements.

A fundamental part of this stage of error exploitation is to thank learners for their

contributions to the curriculum and remind them that they are designing part of the

course. The most usual reaction to this is that, while the teacher tries to keep the

providers of the errors anonymous, they are delighted to recognise their contributions

and call out, “That‟s my error! I said that!” when they identify their utterances.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Examples of errors, their discussion and exploration:

1 . Error: I want going to the party.

Discussion and exploration: a multiple-choice exercise including in each question:

a. the correct form of the utterance.

b. the error that a particular learner has made.

c. another kind of error referred to the same utterance.

Choose the correct form:

1. I want ............... to the park.

a. go

b. to go

c. going

2. Error: I suggest you to come back tomorrow.

Discussion and exploration:

Choose the correct form:

1. I suggest that you write this letter again.

2. I suggest you to study more.

3. I suggest that you waiting for her here.

The following is an example of a guided discussion presenting two conversations. Here,

the learner‟s utterance has been transcribed verbatim:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3. Error: Like you this cake?

Discussion and exploration:

 Where is the error?

- Do you like this cake?

- Yes, I do. May I have a piece?

- Like you this cake?

- Yes, I like. May I have a piece?

More creative activities for discussing and exploring errors include:

 Error auction. Learners are given a fictitious sum of money to spend and errors are

auctioned. They should seek to buy those that interest them, making a good

investment. Once they are in possession of the purchased errors, they have to analyse

them and produce the correct forms. This discussion has to be shared with the class

or done in groups.

 Error hunt. Several texts containing the errors to be dealt with are presented to

groups of learners who have to discuss them, find the errors and correct them. The

activity may be presented as a game and a prize may be given to the learners who

find and correct the most errors.

 Error hangman. In case of spelling errors, learners play hangman to give the correct

version of the erroneous words.

 Error domino: wrong form+correct form. The errors are written on cards and

there is another set of cards containing the correct forms or sentences. Learners play

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


domino, finding the matches. Then, they discuss the matches with the class and the


 Error draw. Errors are written on pieces of paper and put into an envelope or box.

Learners take turns to take a piece of paper out of the box, read the error

and correct it, discussing it with the class.

 Error basket. Learners keep a “basket of errors”. It is a box or an envelope where the

most important errors discussed in class are kept, written on pieces of paper

or cards, with their correct form. This is practical for revision work.

During this discussion, learners complete a personal error log where they record the

errors they find more interesting in the activities proposed by the teacher.

c) Active experimentation and new concrete experience: The teacher devises a

communicative activity and instructs the class to use items from the corrected list of

errors while carrying it out, presenting them as “useful language”.

The activity should provide a suitable context for the use of this useful language. If

we referred to the errors discussed in “a”, it could be, for example, a task for pairs of

learners where one is the travel agent and the other is a client looking for a package

holiday. The activity might include an information gap, with two role cards: one with

information for the travel agent about available holidays and the other with hints to the

client as to his/her preferences and means.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The list of useful language should not be spoon-fed to the class or copied from the

previous activities but elicited from the learners at a preliminary discussion of the task, for

example, by asking them, “Think about your ideal place for a holiday. Where do you want

to go? What do you like about that place? Listen to what Peter says. Do you have any

suggestions for him?” and so on. The answers or comments arising from this discussion

which contain the desired items make up the list of useful language and are written on the

board. Each learner is free to choose which items to use but it should be clear that they

have to be included in the activity.

Role-play, discussions of topics, presentations, negotiations, interviews and other oral or

written communicative activities are useful at this stage. The teacher‟s role during the

development of the task or while correcting written work thus produced is twofold:

Contrary to prescribed practices, the teacher will interrupt the learners to correct errors in

the forms which they have just practised or which appear on the list of useful language,

that is, recurrent errors in their personal curricula. At the same time, the teacher will record

new errors and store them for future exploitation. This is the “new concrete experience” of

producing the right form or the error. If the error re-appears and the teacher does not

interrupt the learner to correct him, she will have lost “the” opportunity for incorporating

the correct form to the learner‟s language: the moment when the item is relevant and

meaningful to the learner, because he is using it to express his ideas in a communicative


d) Follow-up: The items thus dealt with should be practised during subsequent lessons, in

properly contextualised and communicative activities, and included in tests. Learners

should review their logs periodically, so the teacher should provide contexts to allow

them to do this, similar to the interactive tasks in the previous step. A review of the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


error log could consist, for example, of analysing the errors made in a writing activity

and checking whether some of them were already in the error log. If they were, the

learner should know that he has not grasped the correct form yet and may need more

experimentation with that language item. An autonomous learner will engage in this

experimentation on his own, others may need encouragement or reminding. However,

learners who keep error logs and review them periodically tend to strengthen their

autonomy for learning by doing this.

The teacher also keeps an error log, containing not only the texts of all the activities

devised to exploit errors, but also a record of those which seem more productive and

should be reviewed periodically or those which are recurrent and need further analysis.

This method turns the teacher into a course designer, but this is a natural consequence

of following two curricula, one of which is built up as the course develops.

At courses where these methods were implemented, teachers asked whether listing

everybody‟s errors and having the class discuss them would not be meaningless for those

learners who could claim authorship of only one or two errors and might not be interested in

the rest. Experience showed that learners found it useful to review and confirm their

hypotheses about the items they seemed to master, and were glad to be given the chance to

enlighten other learners about them. In their error logs, they discarded the elements which did

not need special attention.

The issue is not only what errors to use or what procedures to follow but basically, the type

of team spirit and group dynamics the teacher creates: non-judgemental, cooperative,

encouraging, and how seriously the personal curricula are addressed. If the practice of

exploiting errors is dropped, or done only occasionally, learners will feel discouraged or lose

interest in errors or faith in the teacher.

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The method of error exploitation I have outlined relies so heavily on motivational factors

that it is inadvisable in cases where the group dynamics is determined by external factors, for

example, if an authoritarian boss is taking lessons with three of his most submissive

employees. In all probability, the boss will not want to share his errors with the class and the

employees will not want to discuss them. As usual in the classroom and in life, common sense

has to prevail and teachers should base their practice on the learners, not on recommended


1.SIGNIFICANT ERRORS Concrete experience


Observation - Reflection
3. DISCUSSION AND Abstract conceptualisation

Active Experimentation
4. COMMUNICATIVE New concrete experience


Figure 14 – The process of error exploitation.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


2.c Comments on error exploitation

My team‟s first experience with error exploitation as part of a way of addressing the

learners‟ personal curricula was an informal experiment carried out at a company where we

had a group of eight learners taking an intermediate level course.

The company asked us to divide the course into two, because four of those learners needed

to receive specific instruction in language related to some new production methods. In a few

months, they would be sent to Japan to take a course in English about these innovations.

We were left with two courses, then, which I will call Course A and Course B. Course A

continued using the materials and curriculum which had been chosen for them, which seemed

to be yielding good results. Course B was taught with materials dealing with the production

processes in question and I decided to experiment with error exploitation and teaching which

would address their personal curricula. The teacher received instructions to

 answer questions which seemed to be “out of the blue”;

 satisfy the learners‟ curiosity about language which seemed to be above their

level of mastery or was unrelated to the lesson;

 give complete explanations of grammar rules, including their exceptions,

leaving grading of difficulty aside;

 exploit errors in the manner I have outlined in the previous section.

The teacher soon reported a remarkable acceleration in the learners‟ progress and the

elimination of most of their errors from their interlanguage. A learner from Course A was

transferred to Course B because he was included in the group going to Japan and remained in

this course for two months. At that point, he was withdrawn from the travelling team, so we

were asked to send him back to Course A. His level was, by that time, considerably higher

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


than that of the other members of the group, his former classmates. It should be noted that the

learner in question had always been “the slowest” in the original class.

Besides the treatment of errors and the efforts to address the learners‟ curricula, the main

differences between Course A and Course B were the learners‟ motivation and the specificity

of the materials. One could assume that the learners in Course B learnt faster because they

were more interested in the topics dealt with and eager to go to Japan and take their training


To further explore these phenomena, the methods used at Course B were implemented in

other courses, where learners‟ motivation was not particularly high and who had no distinctive

characteristics. Experiments were also made at one-to-one courses.

In these new implementations, teachers observed a radical reduction in the number of errors,

to the point that their exploitation gradually became unnecessary. Improvement was coupled

with more fluency and an increase in appropriacy, as learners‟ accuracy ceased to be a cause

of hesitation or insecurity.

The acceleration of progress was dramatic, with learners passing on to the following levels

after at least 25% fewer hours of class than were normally needed for the same type of learners

and the same programme of instruction. In three groups and at a one-to-one course, the

textbook had to be discarded and changed for a more advanced one when learners had gone

through little more than half the units.

Although progress was fast, there was no evidence that the learners‟ language ceilings were

raised and we might consider that learners simply reached the end performance in their

curricula at a faster pace. The picture of error was the standard one for all the learners in the

error exploitation programmes, with unproductive intralingual errors increasing as they

reached their ceiling. The only significant difference was the number of errors and the fact that

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


the percentages of semi-appropriate or inappropriate utterances and semantic errors remained

fairly stable, so we might say they reached language ceilings of a higher communicative value.

Whether this means raising their language ceilings remains a moot point.

When the method of error exploitation and the concept of addressing the learners‟ curricula

were recommended to other language schools and their teachers were trained to implement

these principles, the reported results were the same as for the initial experiments. A colleague

reported the same effects with a group of children, but no further information was received

about experiences with young learners.

The extent to which a personal-curriculum-based approach can accelerate and enhance

learning remains an interesting research topic, as the experiments and experiences were rather

informal and more concrete information about the possibilities of these implementations might

shed more light into the significance of allowing the learner‟s personal curriculum determine

our practice, as well as to how many of “our cherished notions” (Pit Corder, Ibid.) we should


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



a) What errors worry your learners? Have they asked you questions which were

related to their errors but not necessarily to the topic of the lesson? Make a list

of these errors and devise ways of exploiting them

b) Which of these are more likely to be “master errors”? (A very tentative opinion,

as you do not know the contexts of the errors)

 I say she.

 He came fastly.

 My brother didn‟t seen the accident.

 Susan musts works harder.

Remember: a classification is not possible, as master errors may be personal,

but in general, they tend to have more ramifications and affect more sub-

systems of the language than ordinary errors.

c) Think of communicative situations in which your students might need to ask

questions. What errors could you address with these activities?

d) Try out the method of error exploitation outlined in this chapter for two

months. Reflect upon the results.

e) Teach a course according to the personal-curriculum-based approach described

here. Observe whether progress seems to be faster than what you consider


Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3. Teaching learners at their language ceiling

The title begs the question; can learners at their language ceiling be taught? We might well

suspect nobody can ever be taught, and in fact, we should add this concept to the list of our

“cherished notions”. The issue may be approached from a different perspective if we conceive

of teaching as guidance, advice, empathy with students and continuing professional

development. Then, we will not think about teaching as the jar and glass metaphor but rather

as a process of shared growth. In this latter paradigm, learning will also be taken as having

many facets and not just as a linear process of adding so many items to the learners‟ repertoire

of language forms. It is within this frame of mind that we should approach learners at their

language ceiling.

3.a Recognising language ceiling

We have discussed the definition of language ceiling as a point beyond which learners refuse

or an unable to incorporate new and more complex language forms and remain at the level

they have reached. Interlanguage is relatively fossilised and some errors have become a

permanent part of the learner‟s grammar. I have re-defined language ceiling as the point where

learners attain the objectives or end performance in their personal curricula, or find themselves

unable to move any further. I have also explained that low language ceilings determined

primarily by the learner‟s cognitive structuring of language are usually marked by an increase

in unproductive errors due to short-cutting, simplification or severe interference, resulting in a

large number of semantic errors and utterances which are semi-appropriate, semi-correct.

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It is not completely correct to say that learners at their ceiling cannot go on learning; it is

better to analyse in what areas their progress seems to stop. Grammar and structure are usually

the most rigidly fossilised areas, but some lexis can still be incorporated and learners can gain

more fluency within their language level. It may seem that learning a few more words without

having access to more complex grammar is not much of an improvement, but this is a relative

view which depends on the relevance of that vocabulary in the learner‟s personal curriculum.

In the area of skills development, reading comprehension can be developed above and beyond

listening comprehension, which tends to fossilise at the same level as grammar and lexis,

whereas writing seems to remain at an even lower level than talking.

Detecting the beginning of language ceiling is of paramount importance, but not easy. It is a

crucial assessment of a learner, which can make all the difference between success and failure.

If ceiling is not detected, and the unaware teacher tries to push the learner beyond it, the

learner will become a remedial case. If ceiling is wrongly detected and a learner is treated as if

he had reached it when he has not, progress may be stunted or at least slowed down due to

lack of appropriate input and challenging tasks. In both cases, learners will feel discouraged

and frustrated, because the course will not address their needs.

As learning takes place in plateaux, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a stage of

stabilisation (Selinker, Ibid.) or the lower part of a curve in U shaped-behaviour (Kellerman,

Ibid.) (a period of great achievement, followed by a period of relative confusion represented

by the dip in the “U”, followed by another leap forward in progress) and the onset of language

ceiling. Selinker (2000) reviewed all the manifestations of stabilisation and pointed out the

difficulty of distinguishing transient stabilisation from permanent fossilisation.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


He also noticed the apparent dichotomies in fossilised or stabilised language systems,

described as follows:

- systematicity and variability in the same learner‟s interlanguage.

- permeability and impermeability in the same learner‟s interlanguage.

- stability and instability in the same learner‟s interlanguage.

- transition and non-transition in the same learner‟s interlanguage.

(Selinker, 2000, p. 281)

In brief, the phenomenon we have called language ceiling has two faces: there is a part of the

learner‟s language which remains stagnant and another part which is still flexible. This makes

the diagnosis of language ceiling quite elusive and the teacher may be hard put to find the

answers to two central questions.

a) How much of the learner‟s overt production (what he says and writes) reflects inner

processes of stagnation? Or are there processes of learning and progress which

remain invisible, until a leap forward occurs?

b) How can we know that the phenomena we are witnessing are signs of language

ceiling and not of a longer stage of stabilisation?

These two questions are also addressed by Selinker in the paper we are referring to and he

suggests that longitudinal studies of learners‟ production could be useful for finding some

answers. There is an aspect which these studies need to consider, however, and that has been

the focus of my research: the cognitive processes which seem to govern error production.

Studying learners‟ production would help us to describe their interlanguage better, but it

would not shed light on inner processes determining the structuring of this interlanguage.

Our classification and description of errors, coupled with the Learning Hypotheses Test,

look like better instruments to contribute to a diagnosis of a learner‟s ceiling. They do offer

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


information on inner cognitive processes and some of our longitudinal studies point to some

correspondence between certain learning hypotheses, error types and styles, and low language


Ceiling is initially diagnosed intuitively, by teachers who get anxious due to some learners‟

apparent lack of progress and state that these people “have stopped learning”. The reliability

of such diagnoses is very relative and depends on the teacher‟s notion of progress, learning,

and her experience and knowledge. It also depends on the teacher‟s leadership style and level

of anxiety and self-esteem. Sometimes, the diagnosis reveals more about the teacher than

about the learner.

When we began performing error analysis as a means to confirm such intuitive diagnoses, it

was often found that the learner in question was not likely to have reached his ceiling, but

perhaps other factors were holding back his progress, even health problems or trouble at work

or at home. Sometimes, error analysis also disclosed teacher or materials-induced negative

processes. In one case, a teacher who was extremely keen on getting grammatical correctness

from his learners grew desperate over the case of a learner whose written production was

deteriorating instead of improving and concluded that this learner was “at his ceiling”. Error

analysis showed that practically all the learner‟s errors were due to accessing attempts, mainly

overgeneralisation, a situation which does not point at language ceiling. Lesson observation

revealed that the learner could not cope with the multitude of grammar rules he was constantly

been fed or with the in-depth analysis of language that the teacher demanded from him. The

teacher was given advice and help and the learner‟s errors began to disappear, showing that

they were not fossilised forms.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


3.b Unproductive errors and language ceiling

The descriptive analysis of errors should help us determine whether a learner is at his

ceiling, especially when this ceiling has been reached too early, due to the particular

characteristics of the learner‟s learning hypotheses. It may also show that ceiling is not related

to learning hypotheses. When this is the case, the descriptive analysis may reveal a picture of

error similar to that in Figure 10, and yet, the teacher will report no progress for that learner.

Let us examine a few cases of learners whose picture of error seemed to indicate that they

had reached their language ceiling due to the nature of their learning hypotheses:


Appropriate, 44.06 % 62.50 % 62.50 % 89.67%
Semi-appropriate, 37.29 % 7.50 % 15 % 3.44 %
Semi-appropriate, 6.78 % 2.50 % 10 % 6.89 %
Inappropriate, 11.86 % 27.50 % 20 % 0
ERROR Semantic 40.68 % 62.50 % 62.50% 89.67 %
DESCRIPTION Syntactic 37.29 % 7.50 % 15 % 3.44 %
Semantic- 22.03 % 30 % 30 % 6.89 %
ERROR Interlingual 30.51 % 20 % 17.50 % 41.37 %
CLASSIFICATION Intralingual 69.49 % 80 % 82.50 % 58.63 %
CAUSES OF Accessing 21.87 % 21.87 % 48.48 % 58.82 %
ERRORS Simplification 43.75 % 43.75 % 42.42 % 29.41 %
Shortcutting 27.50 % 27.50 % 9.10 % 11.76 %
Compensatory errors/utterances 10.17 % 7.50 7.50 % 0

Figure 15 – Students who had probably reached their ceiling

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


CASE A: The learner produces a large number of semi-appropriate, semi-

correct utterances, and compensatory production is high. This is combined with

a high percentage of intralingual errors due to simplification and shortcutting.

CASE B: An extreme case of a learner who reached his ceiling at the end

of the elementary stage. Subsequent efforts by various teachers and different

tailor-made programmes of study did not succeed in taking him to a higher

level. However, the learner was extremely keen on learning English, as this was

important for his career. The diagnosis of the Learning Hypotheses Test

showed he would probably cling to the first systems learnt and reject the

incorporation of new knowledge that might call for a readjustment or

flexibilisation of these systems. We thought this meant he would structure L2

on the basis of L1, trying to simply reproduce the system he knew, but we were

proven wrong: He stuck to the very simple elements of the code of L2

(Adherence to First Form or Meaning Learnt) and also tried to discard what he

could not grasp (Simplification) He did not use L1 as a source of reference, for

he had structured it as a pre-conceptual system and this was not very helpful.

Most of his production was Incorrect, Inappropriate. Note the low percentage

of problems due to Accessing Attempts, showing he is not experimenting with

the rules of L2 or trying to grasp them.

CASE C: Again, the learner prefers to simplify the code of L2 and discards

L1 as a source of reference.

CASE D: In this case, there is an overuse of the code of L1 as a model for

structuring L2. This is also shown by the low percentage of Accessing

Attempts problems.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


As we can see, when language ceiling seems to be low because of the characteristics of the

learner‟s hypotheses for structuring the language system, the point where learners reach their

ceiling shows a particular composition of their picture of error. We have said that error

analysis alone cannot diagnose ceiling, but if unproductive errors account for most of a

learner‟s error production, he has probably reached his language ceiling and the teacher should

be warned that an adaptation of methods and course contents is necessary.

Below you will find the results of a longitudinal study of a learner who reached her language

ceiling after only two years of instruction. The data came from 350 errors per year, made

during fairly open-ended and communicative oral and written tests, given in July and

November of each year, plus errors recorded at ten lessons, during open-ended production, by

a researcher. All the errors were authoritatively explained. The learner took one-to-one

lessons, ten contact hours per week. No important changes in teaching or the materials were

made from one year to the other, except the standard adaptations to her needs and interests,

and there were no significant events in her private life.

Ms XX was a raw beginner when she came to us, and the diagnosis of her Learning

Hypotheses Test said, "Associates by proximity. Clings to the first systems learnt. Finds it

difficult to infer general rules from concrete cases and uses pre-conceptual classification

systems. Very low degree of imagination and creativity”. In view of the poor results Ms XX

achieved after a year of learning, we asked our psychologist to give her a more in-depth LHT,

where her motivation was also analysed. Some of our psychologist's comments were:

"Unfamiliar situations, where she has to solve problems on her own, paralyse her. She needs

to be led and does not show initiative or creativity. She is passive and prefers rituals or pre-set

processes to open-ended situations. She expects THE TEACHER to achieve results. She

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


expects to be taught, not to learn. Her ambitions are unrealistic: on a scale from 1 to 10, she

places her level after 1 year of taking lessons somewhere between 7 and 10."

We worked together with the tutor preparing materials for Ms XXX, monitoring her errors

and suggesting courses of action, but she seemed to reach her ceiling despite our efforts. She

put the blame on us (to be expected, as she wanted US to achieve results) and hired a teacher

from another school. After a few months this colleague, who knew about our research, phoned

us to ask about Ms XXX‟s record and seek help.

Many variables remain out of the researcher‟s control in this analysis, of course, but the

figures are still relevant to show the picture of error which might be found at the point of

language ceiling:


1 2
Appropriate, semi-correct 42.10 % 42.50 %
ERROR RATING Semi-appropriate, correct 26.31 % 17.50 %
Semi-appropriate, semi- 7.89 % 12.50 %
Inappropriate, incorrect 23.68 % 27.50 %
ERROR Semantic 42.21 % 52.50 %
TYPE Syntactic 26.31 % 17.50 %
Semantic-syntactic 31.57 % 30 %
ERROR Interlingual 7.90 % 20 %
CLASS Intralingual 92.10 % 80 %
Accessing attempts 45.71 % 21.87 %
CAUSES (Overgeneralisation,
OF confusion,
INTRALINGUAL misunderstanding)
ERRORS Simplification (Of the 40 % 43.75 %
system, of the message, of
the syllabus)
Shortcutting (Cue-copying, 8.57 % 27.50 %
conditioning, adherence to
first form or meaning learnt)
Compensatory utterances/errors 10.57 % 7,50%

Figure 16 – Ms XXX may have reached her language ceiling.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


There is an interesting phenomenon in the ratio between interlingual and intralingual errors,

which we observed many times: when learners seem to make progress towards the supposedly

desirable 30%-70% ratio, but are not able to structure language conceptually, the percentage of

unproductive intralingual errors rises significantly, sometimes together with the number of

compensatory utterances. What is gained in one domain is lost in the other and these learners

reach their ceiling faster than if they had kept modeling the foreign language on the code of

L1, which is, after all, a learning resource. The following case study, undertaken during the

first stages of our research into the probable causes of language ceiling, clearly shows that a

large number of interlingual errors is not necessarily an indication of language ceiling. It also

shows that avoidance of translation as a learning resource does not result in improvement of

the learner‟s production when his learning hypotheses are of a pre-conceptual nature and he

associates by proximity:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Learner: Roberto

Age: 28 Course: Group. 3 hours per week.

Level: Elementary First analysis: March 1992 - Second analysis: July 1992



Appropriate, semi-grammatical 67%
Semi-appropriate, grammatical 23%
ERROR RATING Semi-appropriate, semi- 5%
Inappropriate, ungrammatical 5%
ERROR Semantic 22%
DESCRIPTION Syntactic 66%
Semantic-syntactic 12%
ERROR Interlingual 52%
CLASSIFICATION Intralingual 48%
CAUSES OF Overgeneralisation 65%
INTRALINGUAL Simplification 29%
ERRORS Shortcutting 6%
Compensatory errors 5%

Roberto was the slowest learner in his group. He constructed English mostly on the basis of

the structure of Spanish.


The learner said……… When he meant ……………

"I need a pencil for write" "I need a pencil to write with."

"My sister no go more to the school” "My sister does not go to school any more"

"She likes play tennis" "She likes to play tennis"

"We go to the work in bus" "We go to work by bus"

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The teacher thought that the problem was clearly described: the learner was resorting to the

code of his native language too much. Therefore, she took steps to prevent this learner from

using translation to structure his utterances in L2. She spoke to him and explained that this

tendency to effect word-for-word translation was not going to yield good results, and asked

him to make a conscious effort to stop using this strategy. Roberto agreed. During lessons, his

teacher constantly discouraged him from translating and he constantly struggled to oblige.

However, he did not seem to be making much progress as a user of English. He eventually

stopped producing an excessive number of errors due to interference from the native language,

but his English was almost incomprehensible.

Examples: In the structures analysed in the first instance, he would now say

The learner said …….. When he meant. ……………..

"I need pencil write" "I need a pencil to write with"

"My sister is not go more to school” "My sister does not go to school any more"

"She like is playing tennis" "She likes to play tennis."

"We are go to work bus" "We go to work by bus"

Unfortunately, resorting to translation was the symptom, not the disease, and when this

process was blocked nothing was solved, for the second analysis of his errors was as follows:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel




1992 1992
Appropriate, semi-grammatical 67% 60%
Semi-appropriate, grammatical 23% 21%
ERROR RATING Semi-appropriate, semi- 5% 12%
Inappropriate, ungrammatical 5% 7%
ERROR Semantic 22% 22%
DESCRIPTION Syntactic 66% 60%
Semantic-syntactic 12% 18%
ERROR Interlingual 52% 34%
CLASSIFICATION Intralingual 48% 66%
CAUSES OF Accessing Attempts 65% 56%
INTRALINGUAL Simplification 29% 38%
ERRORS Shortcutting 6% 16%
Compensatory errors 5% 9%

There was a dramatic reduction in the number of Interlingual errors, which was close to the

supposedly desirable 30%, but his Intralingual errors were mostly due to Shortcutting and

Simplification. As the percentage of Semantic errors and the percentage of Semi-appropriate

utterances were also very high, we suspected that Roberto was reaching his language ceiling

at the end of the elementary level. Preventing him from translating had only accelerated the

process, because Roberto had problems for conceptualising and integrating concepts into a

logical system.

The diagnosis of his Learning Hypotheses Test stated that he could not be expected to

compare, infer, organise or group elements according to logical hierarchies without guidance.

He would tend to copy, imitate, memorise, describe, relate by proximity. When the process of

transfer - positive and negative - was blocked, the learner resorted more and more to

Simplification and Shortcutting, all processes that do not seem useful for structuring of the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


language system. The increase in Compensatory Errors showed that his problems became

greater as he advanced into the course. He lost awareness of the scope of his language

possibilities as he was exposed to more words and more advanced language than he could

possibly process and organise.

He would have obtained better results if he had been trained to translate properly. A

contrastive analysis of the two languages would have been relatively easy for him to grasp,

because he was ready to deal with facts, not with abstract concepts. As regards his

communicative capabilities, his initial attempt at constructing English on the basis of Spanish

structure had resulted in a much more intelligible production. "She like play tennis" is

obviously better understood than "She like is playing tennis".

This example should invite reflection on the approach to error analysis that considers L1 as

the main source of errors, the relative value of contrastive analysis of L1 and L2 as a way of

predicting errors and the damaging effect of not allowing or inducing learners to use the code

of their own language as a learning tool.

Despite the knowledge we gained from diagnosing learning hypotheses and analysing errors,

the question of how to determine if a learner had actually reached his language ceiling was not

conclusively answered and perhaps such an answer was and remains impossible. The most

important aspect of the problem is that ceiling exists and learners reach it, no matter how

difficult teachers may find its diagnosis, so further indicators are needed in order to define it

with more precision.

In our search for such indicators, we decided to collect students‟ comments about their

learning and their courses, teachers and materials, to find out if there were some typical

remarks that learners would make when they had reached or were about to reach their ceiling.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Below is a description of some of the findings of this study, which can be considered

indicative of the value of students‟ remarks on their learning and an expression of their needs,

sometimes not even clear to themselves, let alone to the researcher.

3.b.1 The significance of learners’ comments on learning and teaching.

We observed that the onset of language ceiling was accompanied by changes in the learner's

motivation and attitude towards the course. For four years, our follow-up of learners who

were believed to be reaching or to have reached their ceiling included a record of the remarks

they made about the course or the materials at that point, which they had not made before.

What these comments had in common was:

a) They expressed the learners‟ awareness of having reached their language


b) They contained demands for stopping vertical development, for not learning

more advanced grammar,

c) They suggested changes in methodology, such as more communicative

practice, narrowing down topic fields, or not using higher level materials.

We will discuss the most frequent remarks and our interpretation:

 I want to get more practice in conversation, and less grammar. (This remark expresses the

aims and characteristics of pedagogic implementations for learners at their language

ceiling so accurately that it could have been made by a teacher. It is also a very clear

diagnosis of language ceiling, where grammar is the most stagnated area)

 I know enough grammar, but I lack vocabulary. (It was often found that learners claiming

they lacked vocabulary actually lacked fluency and appropriacy. When they reached their

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


language ceiling, they seemed to be asking for grammar teaching to stop, but they wanted

to continue developing other areas).

 I need something more useful, something related to my profession/career/studies. (The

learner is asking us to narrow the scope of the language he is exposed to – one of the

recommended features of programmes for learners at their ceiling).

 Why should I learn so much grammar? I'm not going to teach English. (Learners run

down what they cannot learn or cannot learn it because they are not aware of its

importance. In either case, they are asking us to stop vertical development and in a way,

send a message: "Can't you see I've had enough?")

 Can't we drop the book, and use videos or articles? (Again, this is a request to stop

vertical development, to stay where they are and improve without incorporating much new


 Do I need all this to talk to native speakers of English? ( The learner is probably a limited

communicator even in the native language and is telling us he considers he has reached the

end performance in his personal curriculum)

 I know as much as I need. (Sometimes, it is not a statement of linguistic limitations, but

simply the expressions of the learner's motivation or ambition, which will not take him


 They‟ll understand me anyway. (This remark is often heard when, for example, more

advanced forms of the exponent of a function are taught. The learner can say “I want a

cup of coffee” and refuses to learn “I‟d like a cup of coffee, please”, claiming that it is

useless because those unidentified people he calls “they” will understand him anyway.

Being understood is a basic objective which can sometimes be achieved without words

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


and points to limitations in the learner‟s curriculum goals. The statement is also a sign of


In general, we were greatly impressed by the learners‟ degree of awareness of the state of

their learning and the expression of their needs, and also with their specific recommendations

for changes to methods and content. Sometimes, their diagnoses were better than their


3.b.2 – Monitoring linguistic production and learning.

Another interesting research question was what correspondence there could be between the

learners' attitude towards monitoring their learning and their language, and the height of their

language ceiling.

Perhaps the most famous theory of monitoring is Krashen & Terrell‟s (Ibid.):

Our fluency in production is thus hypothesized to come from what we have 'picked

up', what we have acquired, in natural communicative situations. Our 'formal

knowledge' of a second language, the rules we learned in class and from texts, is not

responsible for fluency, but only has the function of checking and making repairs on

the output of the acquired system. ( p. 30)

According to this, to use the monitor, learners need time, they have to be thinking about

correctness and have to know the rule. Thus, monitoring seems to be accessory and not central

to learning, and but we have already discussed the importance that further research attached to

consciousness-raising, where monitoring was associated to developing the capabilities for

“noticing” and “appreciating” language, processes which may be considered central and not

peripheral to language learning: a basic learning strategy.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Even early studies of learning strategies acknowledged that “good learners” actively monitor

their language and their progress, use an active task approach, pay attention to form, initiate

communication, seeking to understand and make themselves understood, and used

clarification/verification strategies, as well as comparing L1 and L2 in an analytical fashion.

(Rubin, 1978, 1981; Reiss, 1985; Naiman et al, 1978) They all agreed that self-monitoring was

important, including looking up information in grammar books or dictionaries and paying

attention to corrections. Further studies into the strategies of “good learners” have confirmed

these initial findings, but a serious limitation of these studies is that they are based on

questionnaires asked of students, with direct questions, such as, “Do you ask your teacher for

clarification when you do not understand something?” or on academic success, measured by

test results. It may be that learners give researchers the answers they want to receive, in some

cases, and that the successful learner in the classroom is a failure as a language user in the

outside world.

Our experiment consisted in introducing monitoring possibilities and formal language

analysis for students during lessons, seeking to create awareness, in the presence of an

observer. The learners‟ errors had already been analysed over a period of at least two years, so

there were indicators of the probable height of their language ceilings. Further data came from

informal interviews with the learners, who had been divided into two groups for the purpose of

data analysis: those who had apparently reached their ceiling and those who were still

progressing towards it. At these interviews, we discussed their errors with the learners and also

offered them some advice on how they might improve their performance. Their reactions and

comments were recorded and analysed, with some interesting, though tentative, results:

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


a) Learners making a majority of intralingual errors due to accessing attempts

affected by overgeneralisation, incomplete application of rules or confusion

were interested in analysing and discussing their production in order to

improve it. Sometimes, they would initiate this discussion. In most cases,

these learners‟ ceiling seemed fairly high. We found these learners among

those who had reached their upper-intermediate level successfully or those

who were still progressing towards the end performance in their curricula.

b) Learners whose intralingual errors were mostly due to simplification looked

slightly bored and shrugged off most of their errors with remarks like:

"Come on, is it really necessary to learn all that?”, "Do English people

actually say this?", or would refuse to incorporate new language or to

discuss their errors, typically saying: "Never mind, people understand me,

anyway." or “Well, I don‟t want to speak like Shakespeare, you know…”

Many of these learners had already reached low ceilings or were not doing

very well.

c) Learners resorting to shortcutting refused to discuss or monitor their

production and sometimes became aggressive and blamed the tutor or the

method for what they considered their failure. It was very difficult to

address the analysis of their errors from a constructive point of view. A

favourite attitude of these learners was: "My problem is I have no time to

study at home", or "The trouble is I did not learn English as a child." Other

excuses included "I need a native speaker teacher", "This method is very

slow. I will try using CD's" or "I will never learn English unless I take a

total immersion course in London". They often refused to assume

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


responsibility for their progress, but placed it on external factors. These

learners also seemed to be reaching their ceilings at fairly low levels of


These interviews shed some light on the learners‟ degree of awareness of their needs and the

importance of listening to them very attentively.

The learners‟ remarks about the course or the curriculum and the degree to which learners

seem willing to monitor their performance and assume responsibility for their progress may

help the teacher to assess the learners‟ closeness to the end performance in their personal

curricula – their language ceiling. The diagnosis is still difficult and perhaps inaccurate, so

great care has to be taken not to jump to conclusions and close observation of many factors is

necessary to detect language ceiling, including an analysis of teaching practices, the teacher‟s

leadership, the materials and the course curriculum.

It is a serious and dangerous error to diagnose ceiling using only one indicator or on data

collected over two or three lessons. In what concerns error analysis, the picture of error which

supposedly describes language ceiling has to remain stable for at least six months, with proper

monitoring and follow-up, before a tentative diagnosis is made.

3.c Horizontal development.

Can teachers help learners raise their language ceiling? It is not very likely, because this task

should be accompanied by changes in the learner‟s cognitive structure – a rare and painstaking

process which might only be undertaken with the learner's full awareness and cooperation, and

with the assistance of a psychologist. It would resemble therapy more than language learning.

In twenty-seven years of research, we cannot report a single case of a learner whose language

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


ceiling was raised at a normal course of instruction, by whichever method, once we had

diagnosed it by the described means.

A basic consideration about language ceiling is that teachers are more worried about it than

learners, unless there are very heavy pressures on the learner to attain a higher level of

mastery. As suggested by the examples of the learners‟ remarks we have discussed, the adult

who has reached his ceiling will reject being pushed beyond it, probably because he has

already covered his personal curriculum and attained its end performance. He may even regard

attempts at exposing him to more complex language as a threat, as a bombardment of

information he cannot classify, categorise or process and which greatly endangers his present

level of proficiency by introducing doubts and questions into a system he thought already


The teacher‟s attempts at pushing learners beyond their ceilings have disastrous results: the

systems are practically closed, and the new items the teacher feeds the learner sneak into them

like viruses into a computer, they are not processed by logical means and the learner falls into

what our team termed Total Confusion. This is a state of "unlearning" where we witness the

destructive process we may call Indiscriminate Loss, by which learners forget things in

random hierarchical order and arbitrary degrees of complexity. They may keep a fairly

advanced item, like the conditionals, and drop the past of the verb "to be", or the use of "going

to". They will probably be perfectly able to argue a point at a meeting, but fail to spell their

names on the phone. Learners in Total Confusion do not go from Upper Intermediate level

back to Intermediate, for example, but remain at an undetermined level which has elements of

several levels. The usual type of performance is characterised by the communicative features

and possibilities of their level of attainment, with errors belonging to much lower levels – if

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


we are to judge it by what is usually taught at conventional levels: elementary, intermediate,

post-intermediate, advanced.

The phenomenon is similar to Selinker‟s (Ibid.) idea of backsliding, by which learners focus

on meaning but produce a previously learnt interlanguage form rather than the desired one.

For learners who are pushed beyond their ceiling, meaning is a crucial asset to keep, whereas

form is underrated, but the loss is indiscriminate because it is not a case of erasure of a whole

level. The state of Total Confusion differs from backsliding in that it is generalised for the

whole of the person‟s language and usually attained after having reached language ceiling,

whereas backsliding is not necessarily related to fossilisation. It is a phenomenon produced by

giving priority to meaning over form.

These learners become remedial cases, which teachers and schools often treat by placing

them two or more levels below their last level of attainment and re-teaching them. This

produces no results, because learners continue performing at their actual level even when

retaking a lower-level course, as their communicative level within their personal curricula

remains stable. This approach to remedial teaching seems to be based on the assumption that

parts of the learners‟ experience can be erased, the clock set back and learners placed in the

same situation as when they were beginners. By the same token, learners who do not do well

at university ought to go back to primary school and re-live their lives. The result is

discouragement and loss of trust in the teacher or the school, as learners find that they are

basically familiar with all the materials in the lower level courses, but they still want to

perform at a higher level. Their questions and doubts are also above course level and cause

disruption during lessons.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


The possible solution is a Horizontal Development programme of the following


a) Learners who have reached their ceiling, whether they have fallen into Total

Confusion or not, should not be exposed to new grammar or moved into

more advanced textbooks. This is sometimes regarded as a problem by

teachers who believe that the learner will object to using textbooks which

are always at the same level. Learners in this situation usually feel thankful

not to be promoted to a more advanced course and agree to join a Horizontal

Development programme if this is properly negotiated with them. As usual,

learners know what they need.

b) The course should focus on the topics learners find useful and interesting.

Very often, this amounts to an ESP course. Exposing learners to a variety of

topics, seeking to broaden their vocabulary and probably their cultural base

is not very helpful in these situations. On the contrary; the learner‟s

immediate needs should be addressed, to insure the yield of the language he

has acquired.

c) The grammar syllabus should seek to recover the elements he has lost rather

than incorporate new ones. Formal grammar exercises should not practise

new elements, but recycle those already learnt. However, they should not

take the learner to a lower level. New grammar may be introduced through

reading comprehension, for “passive recognition”, a term which has lost part

of its meaning, as we now know that comprehension is actually a dialogue

between the reader and the writer and not passive at all, for the reader is

actively constructing meanings The general aims of the Horizontal

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Development programme are: more precision, accuracy, appropriacy,

fluency in the use of the language already acquired, improved reading

comprehension. Progress should be measured accordingly. We must not

think a learner has raised his language ceiling because he improves in these

areas. It only means that his personal curriculum is better realised, and he

has to continue practising within its end level of attainment.

d) Reading comprehension may be further developed but it should be based on

texts learners are likely to encounter in their professional or personal lives.

Real texts are optimal.

e) The error exploitation method we have outlined should be implemented. It

may be found, then, that errors have not really fossilised but many can

disappear. This will not raise the person‟s ceiling to permit access to more

complex language forms. It will just improve what the learner has acquired.

The characteristics of a horizontal development programme match the learners‟ requests and

comments at the point of language ceiling which we have analysed.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Write down four reasons why you think one of your students has reached his/her

language ceiling. Compare this list to the possible manifestations of language ceiling

discussed in this chapter.

2. Talk to your students about their progress. Do they think they are learning enough?

Record their answers and compare them to the students‟ comments we have analysed

in this chapter. Is there any correspondence?

3. If you have students who may have reached their language ceiling, how are you

teaching them? Compare what you are doing to our recommendations for horizontal

development. Do you think you should introduce changes to your methodology and


4. How do you give feedback to students who may be at their ceiling?

5. Is any of your students asking for methods or procedures which might be part of a

horizontal development programme, e.g. “no grammar” or “more reading”?

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


4. The correspondence between errors and learning hypotheses

Error analysis, carried out for the purpose of disclosing learning operations and the learner‟s

style for structuring the language system, inevitably leads to an exploration of the possible

correspondence between learning hypotheses and error profiles. It remains an interesting

experiment to diagnose learning hypotheses through error analysis, but it is even more

interesting and perhaps more useful to attempt a prognosis of kinds of errors for a particular

learner through a diagnosis of his learning hypotheses. Were this prognosis possible, it might

lead us to reflect upon more of our “cherished notions” about materials, approaches, methods

and even learning and teaching styles.

4.a Errors and learning hypotheses: finding the match

When discussing learning hypotheses, I explained that our exploration had been centred on

three basic aspects; namely:

a) The learner‟s personal way of placing concepts into categories, using

conceptual or pre-conceptual systems of classification.

b) The learner‟s association style, by proximity or by analogy (Using

metonymy or metaphor)

c) The learner‟s degree of imagination and creativity, placed at the service of

structuring the language system.

These features of learning hypotheses would define the type of learning style, which in turn

would determine the observable learning strategies used by learners in the classroom. I often

referred to these concepts when analysing errors and attempted to account for the mechanisms

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


in the learner‟s cognitive structure which seemed to have generated them or which the errors

seemed to disclose.

When talking about language ceiling, I have repeatedly explained that it may or may not be

associated with these learning hypotheses in the learner‟s cognitive structure and that the

factors outside this domain which determine the height of language ceiling could well be the

topic of research for a multi-disciplinary team – which was not our case.

Both in the discussion of errors and in the analysis of the phenomenon of language ceiling,

there was an obvious connection between error analysis and the learning hypotheses listed

above, which we diagnosed by using the Learning Hypotheses Test you find in Appendix 2.

This was a two-way connection: through error analysis, we gained insight into learning

hypotheses and through the diagnosis of learning hypotheses, we gained insight into the causes

of errors.

Which process came first? When we started analysing errors, we began to develop

awareness that their causes and significance needed further research. We also regretted that to

know whether the errors a student was making were productive or unproductive, and whether

teaching and materials seemed appropriate for his learning structure, we had to wait until that

person had made a reasonable number of errors and had been attending a course for at least a

year. Sometimes, certain discoveries came too late, when the learner had already failed or

complained about the syllabus, the materials or the teacher. A question we often asked

ourselves, was, Can we know in advance what type of errors a learner is likely to make? We

felt that the answer to that question would enable us to further develop a learner-centred and

more effective approach to teaching, by helping us to prevent mismatches between learners‟

learning hypotheses, teaching and materials.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


We began diagnosing learning hypotheses and then correlating the results with error

analyses of the learners who had taken the Learning Strategies Test. The results were

interesting though not highly revealing because, obviously, the causes of errors are not

determined exclusively by the learners‟ learning hypotheses. Even considering these

limitations, the study yielded some tentative conclusions, which should be read more as

theoretical inferences than as findings. We will later on discuss how the knowledge gained

through these experiments may be put at the service of learner-centred approaches.

4.b Error prognosis

The word is odd, when used to refer to possible ways of predicting the kind of errors a

learner is more likely to make. At least, we can be sure it has not been used very frequently, if

at all, simply because it is not a popular line of research and because it seems extremely bold

and even dangerous to attempt such predictions, considering the changing nature of human

beings and their potential to adapt to circumstances or even act upon circumstances. We may

suspect that any such prognosis would most probably be proven wrong, or that it might

succeed in leading the teacher to create the necessary conditions for the learner to develop

along the lines in the prognosis, so that it can be proven right. In this section, I will attempt a

discussion of whether error prognosis is possible and desirable.

Is error prognosis possible? Not completely, but a learner‟s hypotheses may lead him more

specifically into certain error types and styles. We will outline these probabilities with

reference to the three domains of learning hypotheses described above:

a) Conceptual/pre-conceptual styles for placing concepts into categories: when learners

use predominantly conceptual, sufficiently restricted and sufficiently comprehensive

categories, the picture of error may resemble that of the learners in Figure 10.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Both the use of predominantly insufficiently comprehensive or insufficiently

restricted conceptual categories may lead learners into excessive simplification of the

language system. When they cannot very well see the limits of certain categories, they

prefer to reduce the number of elements which might fit into them. When they see the

conceptual categories as too limited, on the other hand, they tend to exclude the

elements which do not fit this narrow category. As these elements are often not

included in any other category, they are just erased or discarded.

The presence of too many self-originated categories may cause the learner to come to

hectic conclusions about the language system and its use and often results into very

abundant compensatory production of the type which tends to exasperate teachers, who

often do not know what to do with these learners who seem to be always trying new

ways of expression instead of concentrating on what they are being exposed to and

coming to the wrong conclusions about everything.

The use of predominantly pre-conceptual categories usually causes a large number of

errors due to cue-copying and adherence to first form or meaning learnt. Elements are

included into pre-conceptual categories figuratively (With reference to the group where

the element belongs), attributively (By its attributes or qualities), anecdotally or by

their use. Therefore, errors occur by proximity, with learners clinging to the first form

or meaning learnt because they adhere to the one-form-one-meaning correspondence,

or they occur by cue-copying, because this is the closest figurative association they can

make in order to remember and use an item which is placed in a category we might call

“being there”. These learners usually make more interlingual errors than those who

have access to conceptual categories, as the association by proximity is often to the

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


corresponding word or form in the native language. When this correspondence does

not exist, the learner may strive to learn the item within the system of English, discard

it or create a personal translation or equivalent form.

b) Association style: the effects of one association style or the other have to be appraised

together with the degree to which learners use conceptual categories.

Learners who associate mostly or exclusively by proximity and do not use conceptual

categories do not make errors due to overgeneralisation, but rather simplify, cue-copy

and try to construct the system of English on the blueprint of their native language.

Those who associate mostly through metonymy but have recourse to conceptual

categories incur overgeneralisation more often than the other types of intralingual

errors and keep their interlingual errors within reasonable limits.

Learners who associate mostly by analogy, metaphorically, and who make use of

conceptual categories, transfer positively from L1 into L2 and can transfer concepts to

various contexts. Their errors are mostly due to overgeneralisation or confusion and

not significantly to interlingual problems.

Learners who associate mostly metaphorically but have little access to conceptual

categorisation, may make incorrect inferences, come to mistaken conclusions, produce

a great number of errors due to interlingual problems and display large compensatory

production: their creativity prevails over their conceptualisation and makes their minds

fly into domains the teacher not always accesses. They require guidance and some


c) Imagination and creativity: as with the association style, these features of the learner‟s

learning hypotheses have to be correlated with his use of conceptual categories.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


A highly imaginative and creative learner who does not use conceptual categorisation

may use cue-copying, simplification, adherence to first form or meaning learnt and

compensatory production. Again, imagination will prevail over logic. On the other

hand, if high creativity and imagination are coupled with access to conceptualisation,

the learner will identify rule restrictions, transfer items from one context to others, find

differences and similarities and generally use his imagination and creativity to further

advance into the construction of the language system without too much guidance.

Errors may be mostly due to overgeneralisations or confusion and some interlingual

problems will be present, but not in large numbers.

The previous analysis suggests two clear general tendencies in learners, which should also

be taken into consideration when designing courses and choosing materials: the need for either

well-structured or loosely structured teaching-learning situations. Gauging the correct degree

of guidance needed by a learner or a group of learners appears as a key ability in teaching. Too

much guidance will suffocate imaginative, conceptual learners and open-endedness will

discourage and frustrate unimaginative, pre-conceptual learners.

To a point, this concern for degrees of guidance appears in Scarcella & Oxford (Ibid.) when

they discuss “orientation to closure” as a learning style:

“Students oriented toward closure have a strong need for clarity in all aspects of

language learning. They want lesson directions and grammar rules to be spelled out

and are unable to cope with much slack in the system. Not for such students are

spontaneous, rollicking conversations and games in the language classroom, un less,

of course, they have had adequate time to prepare their vocabulary lists and

understand the rules involved in any given interaction.” (p.62)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


They go on to cite a study by Ehrman and Oxford (1989) in which they found that

“Sometimes their desire for closure and control can short-circuit their ability to

participate in open-ended communication necessary for developing fluency.”(p.62)

According to the same authors, “open learners” care more for communication and “learn by

osmosis”, in a highly relaxed fashion, but do not function well in “highly structured and

traditional classroom settings”. The closure Scarcella & Oxford refer to may well be similar

to the early closure of categories I explained when describing our criteria for analysing errors

and it might go hand in hand with a trend towards simplification and cue-copying.

There are two important considerations to make at this point. The reader must have noticed

that I have not included error rating or error types in these descriptions of tentative prognoses.

The reason for this is that, although it is not very difficult to infer that the closer the

correspondence between conceptual categories-high imagination and creativity, the more

appropriate a learner‟s production will be, or that this correspondence will cause more

syntactic than semantic errors, as learners seem to use the language more appropriately, this is

not necessarily the case. The problem here has other implications, mostly, personality traits

and cultural background. A learner may resort to conceptual categories to structure the

language being learnt and aid the process with creative and imaginative efforts, and yet fail to

use English appropriately because he does not understand the culture associated to the

language. Learners may even understand but reject the culture or the ideology they associate

with the foreign language and not care very much about using it appropriately in what

concerns social customs, degrees of formality or even respect. They may refuse to be

acculturated. Some learners‟ errors in appropriacy stem from their own upbringing and will

pass on to any language. A person who stated, “I never say thank you to porters and waiters”,

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


would not learn how to thank, even if his conceptual categorisation capabilities enabled him to

do so.

In my experience, the cases I have just discussed are rare, as most individuals who have

developed conceptual thinking and display a solid degree of imagination and creativity usually

come from rich educational backgrounds, are inquisitive, seem eager to learn and display not

only tolerance of other cultures but also interest in learning more about them. The point I am

making is that the diagnosis of learning hypotheses cannot shed light on these cultural, social

and educational features of personality which will then influence a learner‟s language use,

therefore, I prefer not to include error rating and error types in the description of the general

prognosis for a particular learner.

The other important consideration I would like to make is that we should not fall into the

temptation of considering the picture of error in Figure 10 as depicting “normal values” versus

which we might evaluate other pictures of error. Those values simply show the error rating,

types and classes for learners at a particular point in time, at a particular place and under

certain circumstances and are not in any way generalisable. Within our research, they showed

the picture of error of apparently successful learners, who had passed our written and oral

tests. We might have used these results as parameters, and in fact we often did, but there is no

evidence that they reflect a “normal” picture of error for other adult learners in different

situations or cultures.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


4.c Error prognosis and teaching

We should now consider the desirability, even the advisability of attempting a prognosis of a

learner‟s errors. What would be the use of making an error prognosis for a particular learner or

group of learners? How could the results translate into concrete pedagogic applications?

The objective should not be to prevent errors but to take steps to avoid error-provoking

teaching or resorting to practices which may reinforce unproductive error trends.

Knowing what type of errors learners may make enables teachers to:

 Verify if learners who are very imaginative and creative but do not categorise

conceptually have come to the right conclusions about the material being learnt,

without taking this for granted.

 Avoid proposing too creative and imaginative activities to learners who are not capable

of performing them or to those who will carry them out beautifully, but with sizeable

compensatory production and no regard for accuracy.

 Lead learners in their process of transferring items from the context where they first

found them, to other contexts, when they cannot do this spontaneously.

 Provide proper guidance and fairly structured lessons to groups of learners who will

not tend to categorise conceptually and open-ended, fairly unstructured lessons to

groups of learners who do not need so much guidance.

 Select clearly structured or loosely structured materials, according to need, avoiding

the use of the same materials for all groups.

 Avoid error-provoking procedures, such as teaching similar items together to groups of

learners who associate mostly by proximity.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Language schools might use error prognoses to select materials and train teachers to tailor

their methods and procedures to the learners‟ personal curriculum.

Although much has been said and written about learning styles and strategies, about focusing

on the learner and not on methods, error prognosis has not received much attention, or rather,

it has been ignored as an option for tailoring courses to the learners‟ real needs. The root of the

problem is that the study of errors has been neglected, so teachers would have very little use

for a prognosis they might be relatively unable to understand, let alone use as the basis for

their teaching practice. As for detecting learning hypotheses, teaching would greatly profit

from input from cognitive psychologists who devised instruments like our Learning

Hypotheses Test or which served a similar purpose.

4.d Ceiling prognosis

If error prognosis is possible, we might ask, Is ceiling prognosis possible, too? When the

question is put to me, I always remember the old joke, I don‟t believe in witches, but they are

there. A responsible researcher should answer there is no proof or evidence that the height of a

person‟s language ceiling can be predicted, but it would be irresponsible not to claim it might

be. It would be irresponsible on my part, because although no formal research was carried out

by my team, throughout these almost thirty years we have seen many cases of learners with

low language ceilings who seemed to share certain learning hypotheses. This remains one of

the most interesting and important research questions deriving from our work: is there a

profile of learning hypotheses which corresponds to a low language ceiling in the foreign


Learners whose structuring of L1 is predominantly conceptual, and who have a reasonable

degree of imagination and creativity seem to have fairly high ceilings or the potential for high

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


ceilings. It should be remembered once again that the height of language ceiling is not

determined exclusively by learning hypotheses.

We may suspect that learners whose structuring of L1 is predominantly pre-conceptual and

who have an average degree of imagination and creativity may have a potentially high

language ceiling if they are taught with clear and simple materials and receive proper guidance

from the teacher.

Learners whose structuring of L1 is predominantly pre-conceptual, and who have very little

imagination or creativity, show trends towards cue-copying, shortcutting, simplification and

perhaps interference from L1. We may assume that their language ceilings may be relatively

low, but of course, this will depend not only on their motivation and endeavour, but on the

kind of teaching and materials they are exposed to.

Learners whose structuring of L1 is predominantly pre-conceptual, and who have a very

high degree of imagination and creativity, show a trend towards compensation, simplification

and interference form L1. Their conclusions about L2 may be hap-hazard or hectic. We may

suspect that their language ceilings will be low, maybe reached at the end of the pre-

intermediate level or before.

4.e The desirability of prognoses

The temptation to forecast success or failure at learning a foreign language has always been

the researcher‟s trap, even in cases such as Carroll & Sapon‟s (2002), with their much-

publicised and much-criticised Modern Language Aptitude Test. The use given to that test, for

example, to decide who, among a company‟s staff, might deserve to be included in a foreign

language learning programme, reeks of discrimination and ignorance of other factors which

greatly influence learning, besides being perverse. The test was also heavily biased towards

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


behaviourism and tends to find out if people can learn according to the methods prescribed by

the behaviourists. It seems to have been, however, highly successful.

The criticism levelled at the MLAT in the sense that it did not take motivation into

consideration prompted the development of the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (1966)

which tested motivation, verbal intelligence and auditory ability. Again, the exploration was

incomplete, as it did not take such factors as influence of the social medium or cultural

implications into account. Again, it proved highly successful but was used for what we might

even term unethical purposes, such as denying an employee the benefit of a language

programme because of a low result in the PLAB.

Modern researchers are more careful and discourage their students and readers from making

success or failure prognoses, despite pointing out which learning styles or strategies seem to

be more favourable for language learning. We have now gained more insight into the

unpredictability and flexibility of human beings and their potential for turning their

weaknesses into strengths. We now more about the power of social influences, the drive

people may find in self-determination or the value of alternative methods and learning

strategies, as well as having learnt more about the brain. Despite all this wisdom, prognoses of

the type we are discussing are still a valid and largely unexplored field of research.

Chapelle, in Reid (1995), describes the learning strategies of field dependent and field

independent learners and explains that research tends to show, though not conclusively, an

advantage for learners who have abilities associated with field independence; that is, having

analytical possibilities, being autonomous, not relying on guidance or prescribed methods,

setting self-imposed goals, being task oriented, all characteristics which obviously need to be

supported by conceptual capabilities and a reasonable degree of creativity and imagination.

Despite these claims, Chapelle clearly states that studies of field dependent or field

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independent learning styles should not be considered predictive…“…. but they are there”. Are

researchers afraid of making statements which are not “politically correct” in academia or is it

true that there are no reliable predictions in this matter?

I believe the latter to be the case and that academia has grown wiser. Error and ceiling

prognoses seem to be potentially dangerous weapons rather than potentially useful resources,

at first sight, and this probably accounts for the fact that those of us who have taken a glimpse

at the problem do not dare make any claims about our observations. There is great danger that

these prognoses might be wrongly used, particularly, when they are part of selection

procedures for staff recruitment or admission at educational establishments.

Another possible danger is biasing the teacher, labelling the student and thus conditioning

the student's progress to the teacher‟s or the researcher‟s expectations. The famous experiment

by Rosenthal, who prompted different probable results to two groups of researchers

performing the same experiment, and got exactly the results he had suggested, demonstrated

that the researchers‟ expectations had conditioned the results of experiments so that they

would be proven right. Rosenthal & Jacobson (1992) took their research to the classroom and

showed that students often perform to the measure of their teachers‟ expectations. This has

also been called the Pygmalion effect (after the play by George Bernard Shaw, who took it

from the ancient Greek myth) or, more explicitly, the teacher-expectancy effect. Its threat

looms in the horizon of prognoses of all types: could they possibly become self-fulfilling


According to Merton (1948) a self-fulfilling prophecy begins with a person‟s or a society‟s

false belief about a future development or event, which then changes behaviour in such a way

as to finally produce the predicted event or behaviour. The initial belief conditions the result of

the process. Similar situations are acknowledged by various schools of psychology, which

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claim that parental expectations, for example, result in their children‟s accomplishments or

failures. Neuro-linguistic programming stresses the importance of positive feedback, reduction

of self-criticism, elimination of negative comments about oneself as a way of fostering self-

confidence. Here, self-fulfilling prophecies are not even treated as influences from others or

from the medium, but created by ourselves to condition our own lives.

Because of all these considerations about the risk of hypothesising about the kind or errors a

learner was likely to make, and even worse, about the probable height of his ceiling, when we

moved into the slippery area of error and ceiling prognosis we were faced with a dilemma:

whether to share the results with the teacher or to keep them to ourselves and just tell the

teacher what materials and method to use (without giving reasons for our advice and choices),

and monitor the courses. We opted for the latter procedure, but events proved Rosenthal

wrong, as our approach had negative effects:

a) Teachers did not fully understand the reasons for the choice of materials, methods

and procedures they were instructed to use with certain learners, and used them half-

heartedly. They were simply obeying orders, a staff management policy which is the

passport to failure.

b) Teachers saw that some learners were not making much progress, or that they

consistently tended to make the same type of errors, and became very anguished

because they could not account for these problems. Some teachers even developed a

sense of guilt.

c) Some learners who had reached or were about to reach their ceiling, or who disliked

a particular type of activity, asked their teachers for changes in the syllabus or the

method and got inadequate responses: teachers either agreed to whatever they were

asked to do or tried to "convince" the learners that no changes were needed.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


d) Some teachers chose to disobey our instructions and failed. They came under heavy

criticism from their students, and some had to be removed from their courses. This

was sometimes the case with teachers who did not “like” some highly structured

books they were told to use and decided to supplement them heavily; however, the

books had been chosen on the basis of the diagnosis of learning hypotheses and

students rejected the teacher-supplied extra materials and the teacher‟s policy.

e) Some teachers of students with a low language ceiling followed our instructions to

the letter with excellent results and took their beginner students well into the

Intermediate level, only to find that this was their point of language ceiling. The

question these puzzled teachers asked, was: "What happened to them? They were

progressing so steadily .....". When we told them we had always known this would

happen, they felt terribly cheated.

It is not very sensible or respectful for the management of a language school to withhold

information from the tutors not to bias them in their appraisal of results. Teachers are

professionals, and they should have access to all the data about their learners. Also, this bias

is very difficult to produce, as further experiments demonstrated: we gave some teachers the

wrong information about their learners, and after some time they came to tell us we were

wrong. Telling a teacher that her students are geniuses does not turn them into geniuses.

Considering the assertions that have been made to the contrary, one wonders under what

circumstances the experiments were carried out, and what variables were not controlled.

Perhaps the Rosenthal, Pygmalion and teacher-expectancy effect did not work in our case

because we were dealing with adults, who are not so likely to be affected by their teacher‟s

expectations. Perhaps the Rosenthal experiment itself was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be it as it

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


may, the experience taught us to tailor research to the context where it is carried out and

pointed out the dangers of generalising research results beyond the boundaries of that context.

So we began sharing tentative prognoses with teachers, together with the pertinent

information about all the other aspects of the personal curriculum we had researched:

communication strategies, needs, interests, etc.

We may claim that teachers with a very strong tendency towards overprotection or over-

criticism can turn adult students into slow learners, because a totalitarian-overprotective or

totalitarian-despotic leader needs victims to save or slaves to command. It may also be true

that a democratic teacher can get the best out of groups of relatively average learners. We

should remember that roles are always complementary: there is no teacher without a pupil, no

master without a servant (Pichon Riviére, Ibid.). The teacher's leadership has an

unquestionable influence on the outcome of a language course, but to assume that

communicating error and ceiling prognosis to the teacher will bias the results of a course is a

naive idea. Democratic, reliable teachers should be given all the information they need. The

key to this problem seems to lie with staff selection, support and training, rather than with

disclosing or withholding information.

Another question that arose with respect to the advisability of reporting diagnoses and

prognoses to the teachers referred to how much responsibility the tutor would be willing to

assume for students who had a low language ceiling. Wouldn't this teacher just give up the

fight from the start? Wouldn't she think : "Why worry? The Head already knows these people

are not going to learn very much"? Would she wonder why she had been chosen to teach

those learners? Again, we found that the problem was personal, not institutional. Responsible

tutors always work well and take pride in their achievements. Many tutors faced classes of

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potential low-ceiling learners as a challenge, and in fact managed to raise their ceiling to the

highest possible point for those learners.

When our tutors started getting their students‟ prognoses, the results were:

a) Teachers understood the rationale of the methods and procedures they were

instructed to use with certain learners, and used them confidently. Their relationship

with the management improved, because they felt taken into consideration. They not

only obeyed instructions, but contributed useful suggestions as well.

b) Teachers who saw that some learners were not making much progress, or that they

consistently tended to make the same type of errors were fully prepared to deal with

these problems and did not panic when they arose.

c) Some learners who had reached or were about to reach their ceiling, or who disliked

a particular type of activity, asked their teachers for changes in the syllabus or the

method and got highly encouraging responses, because all teachers were prepared to

negotiate the contents of the syllabus and the activities in the course.

d) Some teachers chose to disobey our instructions and failed. They immediately

backtracked on what they were doing and came to us for help, admitting the initial

advice had been correct.

e) Some teachers of students with a low language ceiling followed our instructions to

the letter with excellent results and enthusiastically took their students well into the

Intermediate level, only to find that this was, after all, their point of language ceiling.

They were a little disappointed, but they realised our prognosis had been correct, and

accepted the facts.

f) Group dynamics improved considerably. Cases of students who complained against

the method, their classmates, the book or the teacher became very rare. We had no

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


obnoxious learners, parallel leaders or "difficult" groups. Tension and insecurity

seemed to have disappeared from most classrooms.

We learnt two invaluable lessons in staff management: hire first-class professionals, and then

trust them for using information wisely; create a non-threatening atmosphere of trust, a

community of learning in your school and you will serve your students better.

Let us not forget, however, that a person‟s performance as a foreign language learner

depends on so many factors that error and ceiling prognoses should be taken just as useful

information and not as language aptitude indicators or as predictions of failure or success.

Teachers can use them as tools to better adapt their practice to their learners‟ needs, but they

should approach each class with an open mind and great faith in their learners‟ potential. In

any case, prognoses should be supplemented with a study of the other elements of the learner‟s

personal curriculum which we outlined in Figure 5.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



1. Think about two cases of students who have surprised you by performing above or

below your expectations for them. Why did you expect them to behave in a different


2. Talk to one of your students‟ previous teacher or look at the school records. In what

way does your evaluation of these learners differ from the previous teacher‟s opinion?

3. Think of yourself as a student. Did you perform differently according to what each

teacher expected of you?

4. When you face a new class, do you rely on the previous teachers‟ evaluations of those

learners or examine their records? How useful is this?

5. Do you often find that learners‟ self-appraisal is more optimistic/pessimistic than

yours? What considerations does this prompt you?

6. What would you do if somebody told you that a group of learners you are going to

teach is “absolutely hopeless”?

7. What would you do if the school told you that the learners who obtain low marks in

your class are excellent in all the other subjects?

8. Follow up a learner you consider “very good/poor” at first sight. After three or four

months, evaluate the accuracy of this first impression.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Summing up

I learnt four fundamental lessons from this long process of study and research.

The exploration of learners‟ interlanguage and the study of errors took me into worlds I had

never meant to explore. It seemed, at many points, that events led me astray or made me divert

from the main focus of my study and venture into apparently unrelated areas such as the

teacher‟s leadership, learning hypotheses or materials design. After some time, I decided not

to question these digressions and to undertake them as an integral part of the study of errors,

their origin, role and significance, because the first lesson I learnt was that the process of

learning-teaching is also a system and as such, all its components are interrelated and each

component acquires significance because it belongs to the system.

Due to this systemic characteristic of the teaching-learning process, it was impossible to

study errors in isolation from the factors influencing the learners‟ interlanguage, although

some of them would never be explored, let alone disclosed. I was able to focus on errors, but I

discovered they were only a tiny part of a sophisticated whole I would never get to know in


The second lesson was that the learner‟s curriculum would always prevail and that teachers

do not succeed in imposing methods and contents on adult learners. Success seems better

achieved when teaching is tailored to learners‟ needs, preferences and cognitive structure,

even to their limitations. The concepts of gradation of difficulty and order of presentation, the

methodological prescriptions of theoreticians, even the linguists‟ conceptions of language and

the psychologists‟ ideas on learning are some of the “cherished notions” Pit Corder invited us

to re-consider. We can do that if we accept that learners know just as much as we do about

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


when to learn, what to learn and how to learn it – they just need professional help from their

teachers to realise their personal curricula.

The third and perhaps the most dramatic lesson learnt from this process was that teachers of

children are largely responsible for creating good language learners, by paying attention,

among other things, to four central aspects of a person‟s education: conceptual thinking,

imagination, creativity and a broad cultural base, coupled with an excellent command of the

native language.

Most of the adult learners I met during my exploration who seemed to have a very low

language ceiling were lacking in one of those aspects and were relatively unable to make up

for that lack or even interested in doing so.

In what concerns education management, I learnt the enormous value of a school which may

be a true community of learning and to achieve this through professional advice, research,

democratic leadership and an orientation towards continuous improvement, involving all the

staff in a process of successive action-research cycles. Our study was possible because we

created these conditions in the language school where we worked.

As regards the future, further research could be related to learning more about the

characteristics and components of the learner‟s personal curriculum, knowing that along the

way, the most interesting part of our exploration will be the new questions which may arise,

not the answers we may find.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



Protocol: Needs and expectations interview.

Part 1 – Personal information.

Ask questions in English, if possible, to obtain the following information:

Telephone: e-mail:
Age: Occupation: Seniority:
1a) Primary:
2a) Secondary:
3a) University: (Graduate and post-graduate)
Previous English courses – total number of months, years, etc.: Interrupted/consecutive

Part 2 – Needs and expectations

Ask the questions in English, if possible.

1) Why do you need to learn English? (The question may be rephrased to “Why do you

wish to learn English?”)

2) Would you like to use English for other purposes? Which?

3) What is your evaluation of the courses you have taken? What did you like and dislike?

4) How long do you think it can take an adult to achieve perfect command of a foreign

language? (NB: The expression “perfect command” has been chosen to assess the

learner‟s reaction to this concept – does he think this is possible?)

5) How long do you think it could take you to learn as much as you wish to learn?

6) If you placed your desired command of the language on a scale from 0 to 10, how

much would you say you have already achieved and how much do you still have to


7) What do you think is more important, and why: a good textbook or a good teacher?

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


8) Do you think you would feel more comfortable with a male or a female teacher?

9) What professional and personal characteristics would you expect to find in a teacher?

10) What kind of materials would you like to work with?

11) Would you like to suggest or contribute materials? Which?

12) Is there any cultural, artistic or historical aspect of an English-speaking country you

might be particularly interested in, or that you know very well?

13) Are there any characteristics of English-speaking countries or people that you find

either particularly attractive or particularly disagreeable?

14) What do you do in your free time?

Part 3 – Interviewer‟s evaluation

Evaluate the answers according to these criteria:

a. Is the learner driven by a personal interest in the language or by concrete


b. Is the learner realistic in I) his assessment of his level; II) his training gap?

c. Is the learner realistic in his assessment of learning processes and the time

needed to achieve results?

d. How does he see the teacher-student relationship?

e. How does he envisage his role in the course?

f. What is the learner‟s attitude towards English-speaking cultures?

g. Does the learner have a broad range of interests?

NB: This interview should be supplemented with the results of the Placement Test, the
diagnosis of the Learning Strategies Test and the transcript or recording of the Communication
Strategies Interview.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel




It tests the main abilities a person needs for developing systematic patterns of system-


1. The ability to give definitions, and how he does this. Does the learner have access to

concepts or does he use anecdotal, utilitarian, etc., pre-conceptual classificatory


2. The ability to associate, either by creating a closed-in system or by opening up a

number of related or unrelated sub-systems.

3. The ability to relate systems, by proximity (metonymy) or by analogy (metaphor).

4. The ability to use his creativity and imagination to advance into the structuring of the


The test is for adult learners of English as a foreign language and must be undertaken in the

learners‟ native language. The text herein is in Spanish because the experiment was carried out

in Argentina, and we warn our colleagues against simply translating it to suit the needs of

different nationalities.

Versions into other languages must be produced by specialised psychologists.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


A - Text of the test.

The following is the original test in Spanish. The translation into English is not the

recommended version in this language. It has been included here only for the sake of

enabling English-speaking readers to become acquainted with the text we used.


1. Defina por escrito las siguientes palabras:

manzana - almohadón - arsenal - borde - estrofa - inminente – retroactivo - aflicción

Explique el significado de cada término. No dé sinónimos.

2. Escriba, o bien un párrafo, o bien tantas oraciones independientes como desee,

con la condición de que se incluyan las palabras siguientes:

vestido - pasto - charco - sobre - habilidad - enojo.

3. Escriba una palabra relacionada con cada una de las siguientes:

raíz - baldosa - casa - maestro - templo - noche - ventana – capital

4. Diga en qué se parecen:

naranja y banana - vagón y bicicleta - periódico y radio - aire y agua - madera y

alcohol - ojo y oído - poema y estatua - elogio y castigo.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


(The Learning Hypotheses Test:

1. Define the following words in writing: apple - cushion - arsenal - edge - stanza -

imminent - retroactive - grief.

Explain the meaning of each word. Do not give synonyms.

2. Write either one paragraph or as many isolated sentences as you wish, provided you

use the following words: dress - grass - puddle - on - ability - anger.

3. For each of the following words, write a word that is related to it: root - floor tile -

house - teacher - temple - night - window - capital.

4. State the likeness between: orange and banana - wagon and bicycle - newspaper and

radio - air and water - wood and alcohol - eye and ear - poem and statue.)

NB: The word "borde" has a more comprehensive meaning in Spanish than "edge" in


The word "almohadón" is liable to be defined as "almohada grande" ("Almohada

grande" = "A large pillow") by the student using pre-conceptual categories, because of the

–ón augmentative ending in Spanish. This does not happen with the word "cushion". The

word "sobre" means "on", "over", "about", etc. but also "envelope" in Spanish.

These are some of the reasons why this English language version should be regarded as a

mere translation and never be used as a test.)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


B - Description of the testing items.

Exercises 1 and 4 measure the degree of conceptual and logical hierarchical

organisation of the answers. These are the key exercises in this test, for they reveal the

testee's personal style for language structuring.

Testees' renderings are rated as:

- Fully conceptual: The placement of a word within the language is carried out through

the use of a logical-hierarchical system of categories. The "fully conceptual" placement

makes use of categories that are

 necessary (not eventual or temporary characteristics)

 objective (as independent as possible from the speaker's personal points of view or


 adequately restricted in their scope, so that the word defined will fall within the

category used and it will not allow the inclusion of a number of other elements

within the same definition.


arsenal: establecimiento para almacenar y fabricar armas de guerra, conjunto de estas


ojo y oído: órganos de los sentidos.

poema y estatua: obras de arte

(arsenal: an establishment for the storage and manufacture of weapons; collection of


eye and ear: sense organs

poem and statue: works of art)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


- Conceptual, insufficiently restricted: The placement of a word within categories that

DO allow the inclusion of a lot of elements pertaining to subcategories thereof, within

the same definition.


manzana: es un fruto.

ojo y oído: son órganos

(apple: it is a fruit

eye and ear: they are organs)

- Conceptual, insufficiently comprehensive: The placement of a word through the use

of categories that do not permit the word defined to fall completely within the



almohadón: objeto de cuero relleno de material mullido.

arsenal: conjunto de pistolas

(cushion: a padded, leather object

arsenal: a collection of pistols)

- Vague and approximate: The testee is resorting to a concept, but it is so diffuse and

imprecise that it cannot be considered a conceptually valid response to the stimulus

provided. Rather, it allows the inclusion of an indefinite number of heterogenous

elements within the same definition.


retroactivo: referido al pasado.

aire y agua: elementos físicos.

ojo y oído: órganos vivos

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


aflicción: estado de ánimo.

(retroactive: referring to the past

air and water: physical elements

eye and ear: living organs

grief: a state of aim)

- Pre-conceptual. The placement of a word within the language is carried out without

recourse to a logical-hierarchical system of categories, but through the mention of a

particular use or function of the word defined (Utilitarian); and action it can perform or

soon can perform with it (Anecdotal); a graphic or emblematic representation of its

meaning (Figurative); an attribute or quality (Attributive); or just the testee's personal

and/or imaginary creation concerning the meaning of the word defined (Self-originated)


Utilitarian: almohadón: objeto para decoración y confort.

elogio y castigo: se usan para premiar a las personas.

(cushion: an object for decoration and comfort.

praise and punishment: they are used for rewarding people)

Anecdotal: retroactivo: ir hacia atrás en el tiempo.

aflicción: sentirse triste y dolorido.

(retroactive: to go back in time

grief: to feel sad and pained)

Figurative: ojo y oído: ambos están en la cabeza.

almohadón: almohada grande.

(eye and ear: they are both in the head.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


almohadón: big pillow - the suffix "on" denotes larger size, in

other cases)

Attributive: arsenal: lugar grande y peligroso.

vagón y bicicleta: ambos tienen ruedas.

(arsenal: big, dangerous place.

wagon and bicycle: they both have wheels)

Self-originated: retroactivo: algo que produce ciertos efectos en el pasado.

poema y estatua: son poesía

(retroactive: something that produces certain effects in the past.

poem and statue: they are poetry.)

Synonym = no answer

Exercise 1 measures the testee's ability to use logical-hierarchical categories in formulating

statements within a productive language task. The testee has at his disposal (at least,

theoretically speaking) the whole edifice of his native language for performing in this task. His

logical structuring of language will prompt him to choose certain elements of L1 for

formulating his answers. This choice will be effected within different logical-hierarchical


Exercise 4 has the same objective, but the use of logical categories is measured with respect

to recognition rather than production. The testee does not have an ample range of possibilities

as in Exercise 1, but is made to perform within a restricted, close-ended context.

Recognition and production are based on the same ability to formulate statements within

logical-hierarchical categories, but they are clearly differentiated as two particular skills by the

course designer and the language teacher. Widdowson calls them "Interpreting" and

"Emitting", other authors separate Reading and Listening Comprehension from Speaking and

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Writing as Receptive and Productive Skills respectively. Even integrated approaches make this

difference. Because of this, this test measures the same logical-linguistic ability from two

different angles.

Exercise 2 measures the testee's ability to compose, from isolated stimuli, a meaningful

peace of written discourse.

The accepted forms will be: one sentence for each word, several sentences containing one or

more of the given words each, or one paragraph where all the words have been included.

The testee's ability for composing his statements will be judged by the type of statements

produced, regardless of whether he has opted for independent sentences or a single paragraph.

However, given the same level of logical ability, the production of only one paragraph

containing all the given words will be ranked higher than the production of independent


The statements are rated as:

 Creative

 Coherent "A"

 Coherent "B" (A poor, barely sufficient, though correct contextualization)

 Puerile

 Nonsensical

 Incoherent

The parameters for rating this exercise are:

a. Soundness of the dramatic situations or scripts where the words have been contextualized.

b. Style.

c. Editing.

d. Grammatical correctness.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



Creative: En nuestra Puna, crece el pasto en las vegas, donde se aprovecha con suma

habilidad cuanto charco llega a formarse sobre la tierra, por lo general seca y


Los rostros de los coyas no muestran enojo; enfrentan la dureza del clima

llevando sobre sus cuerpos un tipo de vestido que parece demasiado pesado a

nuestros ojos.

(The following is not a translation, but rather an English language equivalent:

In our Puna, grass grows only in the lowlands. The natives have developed great

ability for exploiting every puddle that forms on the otherwise arid soil.

In spite of their daily struggle against the harsh climate, these coya people look

relaxed and happy. They dress in colourful clothes, and their music is extremely

lively. They never show any anger at their plight.)

Coherent "A": Elisa salió a pasear con hermoso vestido blanco. Cruzó la plaza distraídamente,

caminando sobre el pasto. Se detuvo al encontrar frente a sí un profundo charco,

luego pensó en probar su habilidad para saltarlo. Se impulsó corriendo, pero,

torpemente y para su gran enojo, cayó en las aguas barrosas.

(Eliza went for a walk wearing a beautiful white dress. She crossed the square

absent-mindedly, walking on the grass. She stopped when she came across a

deep puddle and then thought of testing her ability for jumping over it. She ran to

gain momentum, leapt forward but, clumsily and much to her anger, fell into the

muddy waters.)

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


Coherent "B": Al corretear sobre el pasto, la niña cayó en un charco y se ensució el vestido. La

madre descargó su enojo sobre la pequeña, demostrando muy poca habilidad para

manejar una situación sin importancia.

(As she was running on the grass, the little girl fell into a puddle and stained

her dress. Her mother made her feel the full weight of her anger, showing very

little ability for handling an unimportant problem)

Puerile: La niña mojó su vestido en el charco, y para no producir el enojo de su madre, lo

lavó con habilidad y lo puso a secar sobre el pasto.

(The girl made her dress wet in the puddle and, so as not to arouse her mother's

anger, she washed her dress with great ability and put it on the grass to dry.

Nonsensical: Sin ningún enojo, y mostrando gran habilidad, se puso el vestido sobre el que ya

tenía puesto, cuidando de no mancharse en el charco que había sobre el pasto.

(Showing no anger, but great ability, she put the dress on over the one she was

already wearing, trying not to stain it with the water from the puddle on the


Incoherent: Luego del enojo por haber manchado su vestido en el charco, demostró su

habilidad para bailar sobre el pasto.

(After the outburst of anger at having stained her dress on the puddle, she

showed her ability for dancing on the grass.)

Exercise 3 measures the testee's predominant verbal association style.

For this purpose, we have used the two basic associative lines described by de Saussure as

the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of language, that is; metonymic and metaphoric

association. This diagnosis of the associative style is evaluated by taking into account, as

regards the general style and the creative productive ability of the testee, Jacobson's

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel


discoveries on metonymy and metaphor in aphasias and other organic-psychic and

psychological pathologies and those of the psychoanalytic school of J. Lacan related to

metaphor and metonymy as being the two ways in which the symbolic net is created in the

shaping of the unconscious and, particularly, in the hysterical and obsessive structures.

Examples of verbal association styles:

Metonymic: raíz - suelo maestro - libro

(root - soil) (teacher - book)

The testee relates words by proximity.

Metaphoric: raíz - origen maestro - guía

(root - origin) (teacher - leader)

The testee relates words by analogy. He has drawn fundamental characteristics from

different areas and has created a conceptual link between two sectors of reality.

People who show a strong metaphorical trend in their verbal production are often more

creative and have a greater potential in the field of signifiers. This must, however, be

correlated with the conceptual-logical level in each case: with a clearly pre-conceptual

production, a high creative potential may well produce a lot of self-originated production and

circumlocutions, used to make up for the lack of concepts. A highly metonymic production

coupled with a low conceptual level, on the other hand, usually results into vague, imprecise

and primitive linguistic production.

When evaluating Exercise 3, allowances must be made for the fact that the presence of

metaphor is usually higher in women due to their predominantly hysterical structure, whereas

there is a predominance of metonymy in men because of their mainly obsessive structure.

Learning from Learners‟ Errors Ana María Rozzi de Bergel



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