Why do our learners often get prepositions, articles and verb endings wrong?

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This article was prompted by a question (the one in the title) a colleague asked me recently at finding lots of mistakes in their students’ essays relating not solely to prepositions, but also to definite/indefinite articles, copulas (e.g. is and are) and other function words. The answer to that question is relatively simple, but in order for the reader to fully grasp its implications for classroom instruction, one has to first get acquainted with the concept of Working Memory and Executive Control.

Working Memory

To put it as simply as possible – since one of my colleagues keeps complaining about the complex jargon in my blogposts – Working Memory is the space activated in our brain when we process information, what in the old days was called Short-Term memory. Working Memory is a ‘buffer’ between the outside world and Long-Term memory which ‘holds’ any information we are trying to decode and retrieves the information we need from Long-term memory which we need to carry out the task-in-hand (e.g. writing a sentence or understanding a text). So, for example, when we are writing a sentence in a foreign language, Working Memory is the ‘place’ along our neural network in which we actually construct that sentence (i.e. where we choose the words we need from our mental lexicon, arrange them together in a grammatically correct sequence, make sure the spelling is correct and edit the final product).

Working memory has very limited channel capacity, in other words can only store a limited number of images, words and numbers at any one time and unless we keep rehearsing it, the information will be lost easily after 15-30 seconds only. That is why, in order to keep a phone number in our head as we frantically try to key it in our phone we need to repeat it in our heads (or rehearse it) a few times. Miller’s (1965) magic number 7+/- 2 indicates the number of digits we can hold in our Working Memory at any one time – a very short number indeed.

The challenges posed by foreign language writing

Writing in a foreign language is much harder than a lot of us may think, especially under communicative pressure. Let us have a closer look at how a sentence is produced in writing. First of all, it is important to point out that the starting point, both in the first and the second language is a Proposition, in other words a representation in our brain (in Semantic Memory to be precise) of the concept or idea we are trying to convey. A Proposition, unlike what we may intuitively think, is not made up of words, thus, the brain has to translate into words, whether we are operating in the first language or second language.

According to Cognitive research (e.g. Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983), the Translation process consists of four stages: Wording, Presenting, Storing and Transcribing. In the first stage, the brain transforms the Propositions into words (lexis). Although at this stage the pre-lexical decisions the writer made at earlier stages and the preceding discourse limit lexical choice, Wording the proposition is still a complex task: ‘the choice seems infinite, especially when we begin considering all the possibilities for modifying or qualifying the main verb and affected nouns’ (Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983: 32).

Once s/he has selected the lexical items needed, the writer has to tackle the task of Presenting the proposition in standard written language. This involves making a series of decisions in the areas of genre and grammar. In the area of grammar, Agreement and Tense will be the main issues, especially in languages like French, or German where a lot of permutations are required.

The proposition, as planned so far, is then temporarily stored in Working Memory while Transcribing takes place. Propositions longer than just a few words will have to be rehearsed and re-rehearsed in Working Memory for parts of it not to be lost before the transcription is complete.

The limitations of Working Memory create serious disadvantages for unskilled writers. Until they gain some confidence and fluency with spelling, their Working Memory may have to be loaded up with letter sequences of single words or with only 2 or 3 words (Hotopf, 1980). This not only slows down the writing process, but it also means that all other planning must be suspended during the transcriptions of short letter or word sequences.

The physical act of Transcribing the fully formed proposition begins once the graphic image of the output (what the sentence physically looks like) has been stored in Working Memory.

In L1-writing the decisions taken at any of the four stages outlined above are taken automatically, thereby occupying little or no space at all in Working Memory. However, in L2-writing, especially in beginner to intermediate writer, every decision will take a lot of Working Memory space, making the process slow, cumbersome and difficult to monitor because the process happens mostly consciously.

Hence, the adaptive response of the brain, especially in beginner writers, is to prioritize the most important features of each proposition (the principle of ‘Saliency first’ being at play here), i.e. : the items that are most important in terms of conveying the intended meaning. The most semantically salient elements will include mainly: Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives. Function words, which carry considerably less meaning, will be relatively neglected by Working Memory’s attentional systems as, let’s face it, even if the writer gets them wrong, they won’t impede comprehension massively (example: whether I say, in French “Je vais au cinema’ or ‘je vais à la cinema’ I will be readily understood by a reader/listener).

This phenomenon is exacerbated by linguistic distance between the first language and the target foreign language. For instance gender (masculine and feminine) as well as verb endings are not likely to be perceived as salient by an English native speaker (as they do not exist in their language), which means that they are likely to be less monitored.

The less proficient the foreign language writer is and the less time he has to monitor his/her output, the more likely he/she will be to make mistakes with function words. Hence, errors are bound to be even more frequent in oral performance, where the self-monitoring capacity of Working Memory is drastically reduced compared to the written medium.

As the learner becomes more proficient, his/her ability to juggle the demands posed to his/her Working Memory by the processes outlined above will increase. This is due to the fact that with a lot of writing practice in the target foreign language a lot of sub-processes become automatized and require only peripheral attention, freeing up Working Memory space. This enhanced processing efficiency will also allow for more accuracy, too, in the production of less salient features unless Error Fossilization throws the spanner in the works.

The danger of fossilization

When errors go unmonitored a bit too often, they become automatized and it is very difficult to ‘unlearn’ or eradicate. Mukkatesh (1986) found that despite many remedial interventions such errors cannot be eliminate at all from L2 learners’ Interlanguage. This phenomenon, called by Selinker (1972) Fossilization, is obvious in a lot of foreign language speakers, especially when it comes to pronunciation; that is why, according to Selinker, only 5 % of foreign language speakers can be said to sound 100% native-like. Their second language will always contain some fossilized item. A very good friend of mine, for instance, speaks perfect English, with accurate pronunciation and grammar and an impressive lexical repertoire wider to that of an average native speaker; however, he cannot help voicing the ‘p’ in the word ‘psychology’ (influence of his first language: Italian), despite many corrections. Such is the power of Fossilization.

Function words and any other less salient L2 features (e.g. gender, plural and verb endings and minor pronunciation inaccuracies) are particularly amenable to fossilization as they are more likely to go unmonitored and uncorrected. Therefore, the danger is that when learners do not get enough negative (cognitive) feedback at the early stages of L2 acquisition, they are likely to fossilize mistakes with the above L2 structures and to keep making these mistakes all the way to A-Level and university – as I have often witnessed in my university lecturer days.

Communicative language teaching, especially in its strong version, by prioritizing fluency over accuracy, often leads to fossilization (and pidginization) especially when the students are asked to perform in unstructured oral practice, at a level of proficiency they are not developmentally ready for and under communicative pressure. (Skehan, 1994)

Implications for MFL teaching

 

The implications for the MFL classroom are manifold but hinge mainly on the teacher’s pedagogy and on the course end-goals. If we are teaching GCSE level students and we are happy for them to make a few minor mistakes as far as they can convey their intended meaning effectively, we should not worry too much about error and we can exercise a relatively high degree of tolerance. However, if we are dealing with individuals who want to make language their career and become one day interpreters, translators or teachers, then the attitude has to be less lax and mistakes with articles, prepositions, copulas and gender agreement WILL matter.

If we do want to address this issue radically, we need to keep students focused on the importance of accuracy from the very early stages of language acquisition whilst keeping the main focus of our teaching on the development of fluency. This is not easy, even for experienced teachers. Editing instruction – through games, quiz and other fun activities – should become part of almost every lesson (through snappy starters or plenaries, for example) to remind students of the importance of accuracy and to raise their awareness of which mistakes are more likely to occur at their current level of proficiency.

More importantly, the written tasks we involve are students in must pitched to the correct level, especially in terms of the cognitive challenges they pose to an inexperienced writer. If we do not, we are likely to engender more error than we and the students can effectively deal with in the remedial phase. Fluency, as I said above, has priority, it is true; however, fluent output that is rife with errors can be stigmatizing and irritating for the reader/interlocutor and we need to be aware of that in a global era in which, more than ever before, our learners are more likely to use the target language in the workplace.

Finally, Error correction – or rather Error remediation – can also play an important role if it engages the learners in a sustained long-term self-monitoring process initially moderated by the teacher which aims at focusing them on their most frequent mistakes.

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