When Mistakes are not Mistakes.

I sometimes wonder where my students fit into the Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced classifications. Actually, they’re all over the place. I don’t work with true beginners like the teachers who use TPRS in the United States. Most of my students come to me for remedial work or hoping for a fresh start after years of failure. I live in France and over 90% of French students study English in school; many of them start in primary school. Yet in comparative studies of European countries, France is ranked very low for its ability to communicate in English, far behind the Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, Portuguese, Italians and Roumanians.

There are some plausible explanations. French belongs to the Latin language family rather than the Germanic branch, so there are structural differences that don’t hamper northern Europeans who speak languages that are more like English, both in their vocabulary and in their grammar. French doesn’t have tonic accents, so they have trouble hearing them. And French television imposes dubbing rather than subtitles, so French toddlers don’t grow up hearing English in their cartoons. Another explanation is that in spite of many well intentioned reforms, English teachers in France still feel that their students should know all about the “Préterite” and the “génétif” in English and spend a lot of class time trying to instill these notions in their students.

Another explanation of the difficulty the French have in learning foreign languages is their phobia of grammatical mistakes. A famous British author who spent a lot of time in France once said that it was the only nation in the world in which the waiters and the prostitutes never failed to correct your French grammar. This fear of making mistakes makes them reluctant to speak in any other language. You can’t make a mistake if you keep your mouth shut.

So the students that come to me are not fresh clean slates with open ears, ready to absorb and acquire compelling comprehensible input. They are wounded soldiers trailing their hopes in the dust behind them. They have already acquired a certain amount of English vocabulary and have a few fuzzy notions about grammar. The grammar I can ignore, explaining that English speakers don’t know what “préterite” and “génétif” mean, so we’ll talk about the Past and showing possession, if we have to. I try to build on the vocabulary they have acquired, even though low frequency words sometimes pop up in strange places. A lot of my work is undoing “fossilized errors”, things they have been saying and writing for years, acquired mistakes if you like.

In this my work with horses comes in handy. A horse doesn’t really understand “Do Not.”  Do Not is an abstraction created in the human brain. So instead of trying to teach a horse not to do something, you teach him to do something different when he encounters the stimulus that provokes the undesired behavior. It’s difficult to teach a horse not to move when you mount, but you can teach it to stand still. The good trainer ignores undesired behavior and rewards the slightest attempt at the behavior he wants to teach, even if it’s hesitant and incomplete. So I ignore mistakes and praise the slightest effort in the right direction.

So when a student tries to say something and I understand, I smile and nod and “echo” what I understood with correct grammar. I try to do this in a way that seems natural in the conversation, a simple verification of my understanding, and not as a correction. If the student is ready to hear the difference between what I said and what they said, they will pick it up. If not, they’ll think that I simply repeated what they said. Hopefully they’ll remember that I was smiling and nodding, so they won’t feel “corrected.”

So when is a mistake not a mistake? When it is a necessary step in acquisition. There have been many studies done on how young children acquire speech and there is a definite order to it. In their book “How Languages are Learned”, Lightbrown and Spada devote an entire chapter to “Language Learning in Childhood.” I found it fascinating. When babies are learning to speak, basically they repeat or attempt to repeat what they have heard. So some children will say things like “Papa went store”, showing they have acquired the past form of the high frequency verb go, but are not yet hearing “to the”. Later, the same children can be heard saying “He goed to the store.” This is actually a step forward. Their unconscious minds have acquired that the past tense of most verbs is “ed” and they now hear and reproduce “to the”. Shortly afterwards, they will have adjusted to the fact that not all verbs use -ed for the past tense and they will produce “He went to the store.” So the funny constructions that come out of CI kids’ mouths are not “mistakes”. They are actually a part of acquisition and should be celebrated as such.  Our students need to be encouraged as they move forward, letting their unconscious minds absorb the input they receive and sort out the structures and patterns they hear.

This means that when I am working with my “wounded warriors” who suffer from an acute phobia of errors, I must be doubly attentive to their efforts. What might be considered a mistake is actually a sign that they are working their way toward acquisition. Their “mistakes” are precious signs that show me where my students are in their journey to mastery and help me to map out our next venture forward.

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