Once upon a time we knew what language errors were, what caused them, and what to do about them. Back then, second language errors were just bad habits and like all bad habits could be overcome with hard work and will power. Then came the Interlanguage hypothesis leading us far enough forward to understand that second language errors might be part of a developmental process and nothing to worry about as long as Fossilization didn’t occur. I always loved that metaphor in which errors got likened to dinosaur bones so deeply buried in rock that nothing could be done except maybe blast away at them like the teacher in the Pink Panther film as she tries to get Steve Martin to say “I would like to buy a hamburger“. What makes this funny is that we’ve all been in this situation and know better than to think error correction like this can have any real effect. Right?
When I began studying Japanese many years ago, my wonderful professor employed a version of the Direct Method in classes full of lively drills of the ship versus sheep variety. In each class for awhile I always got called on to differentiate between a map and a piece of cheese — a sort of minimal pair contrast in Japanese involving vowel length. Sandy-san. Chizu desuka? Chiizu desuka? my professor would ask me while holding up a photo of either a hunk of cheddar or a map of Japan. It is a map? Is it cheese? I always got it wrong and not because I couldn’t tell the difference between the things, but rather because I couldn’t even hear the difference between the two words. Thirty years later I still can’t and always stumble whenever I have occasion to use the word cheese or map in Japanese — which is more often than you might imagine given that I love cheese and can’t read maps.
Interestingly, what got fossilized is not the bad habit of confusing cheese and maps or the error itself, but instead the memory of being corrected repeatedly in my professor’s very light-hearted way. It’s funny now, and it was even sort of funny then, but the moral of the story if there is one is that correcting errors just might actually have effects quite different than those you intend. Be careful of what you fossilize in the minds of your students.