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The perception of errors

May 25, 2007

Hello again,

I have been working with adult business people recently and found myself fascinated by the effect of errors on me as a listener. It struck me forcibly ...

...that virtually none of the grammatical errors being made impaired my understanding of the message. The most common error was omission of 3rd person singular –s in the present simple tense. But it didn’t affect the message. The next most common error was clustered around mistakes with auxiliary verbs in question and negative forms (e.g. what means X?), and again this did not impair my understanding. Use of the wrong tense was another frequently met mistake but this seldom affected the message, as the time reference was usually obvious from the context or from adverbs of time.

Mistakes with prepositions were also extremely common. Here ambiguity certainly did occur, but even the ambiguity seemed not to affect my ability to understand what was meant. Thus a learner who told me she “went to the mountain by skiing” clearly did not intend to indicate that skiing was her mode of travel but that she went to ski. It struck me that despite the fact that errors reduce the redundancy of the language, they do not seem to interfere too much with intended meaning.

Pronunciation and misplaced stress were a greater cause of misunderstanding. This worked both ways: when I asked a learner when she was going to leave, she told me she was going to live in London. Another student told me she had a “hedash” and it was only her pained expression that led me to grasp she had a headache. Of course, error in choice of vocabulary was also a source of misunderstanding. One learner complained of being constipated but fortunately I realised this word was “false friend” and he had a cold.

On the other hand I also sensed in myself a willingness to work harder to understand some learners than other. This appeared to be linked to how easy I found their intonation to accept. Those students with a fairly neutral intonation or intonation that I found attractive to listen to, had my full attention and I made an effort to understand them. Those students whose intonation was very different from English, or that I perceived as unattractive found me much less patient.

Of course, this was based on purely personal observation but, if I am right, we should be concentrating far more on the sounds of language than the grammar when we are helping students become more easily understood.

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