Error correction – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy 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.

Chuck Sandy

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Chuck Sandy

Chuck is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with 30 years of experience in the US, Japan and Brazil. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press and the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. This is the reason he has built a Facebook group with over 9000 teachers from 24 countries that meet for ongoing educational discussions. It is also the reason he has worked to introduce Design For Change into Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Russia.

10 thoughts on “Error correction – Chuck Sandy”

  1. Note to self: Be careful on a road trip with Chuck or at a wine & cheese party. Lovely story and great lesson thrown in. It brought back many memories of my own trials and tribulations learning Japanese. Just one for now: A long time ago, I was always eagerly awaiting the monthly pay day in Japan, especially after coming from Canada where we were paid every two weeks. I mistakenly told Japanese friends that I was “happy because today is cucumber day” and after noticing a few polite but somehow inappropriate-looking smiles, I went home and learned the difference between Kyurinohi and Kyuryoubi.

    Thanks for the lesson and the memories, Chuck!

  2. Good point! Sometimes one may be actually contributing to “fossilizing” the error by spending too much time discussing it!
    Some errors are incredibly entenched and hard to root out. Especially when their source is language interference. The word “save”, for example. Almost all students know the meaning learnt by using the computer, as in “save” your documents. But then the same pupils say they had to save (instead of “look after”) their little sister last night! In Hebrew the same word fits both situations, in English they do not!
    Loved your story!

  3. I’ve got a similar one in Russian, Pitty and hot (Zarkha and Zalkha) which can lead to some pretty worried looks on hot days! I had never thought that I might have been trying too hard to distinguish between the two and thus embed them further into my brain. What’s interesting is that with the words Ice Cream and Freezing (from the same route) I have no such problem but at first I went around deliberately making a “joke”of saying today is ice cream (rather than freezing).

  4. I don’t know…..whilst you may still not produce cheese or map fluidly, actually, what I hear in your story, Chuck, is the stumble that you say is there when needing to produce (one of ) these words, reflecting a conscious awareness of the words and the need to differentiate their pronunciation. Isn’t this a positive?
    Indeed, the stories that we all have about mistaking one word for another and the humour associated with these makes for an optimistic learning memory; what do you think?
    K 🙂

  5. Thank you Chuck for lovely and light-hearted look at mistakes in learning. The fact is mistakes occur and always will and making some kind of monster of them doesn’t help anyone.
    I loved your story with cheese and map. Just recently my students struggled with soup/soap when talking about starters and main courses 🙂

  6. Hi Chuck. Thanks for the post.

    I do an activity in my small adult English conversation class where they take a picture card blindly and proceed to write three or four sentences to ask their fellow students. I always first check their sentences for errors before they start the activity. This way they are at least starting out right. However, would it be better for the students, if I didn’t check for errors, but let them notice first and then fix them as a group?

    Mark in Gifu

  7. Well said Chuck! I love the way you share a story of yours which simultaneously becomes ours, as well. A lot of people can identify with what you say here and only teachers can provide the ‘cure’ for the so- called fossilization.

    Thank you for another enchanting story and the final warning!

    Christina 🙂

  8. As Vladimira has said it’s such a light-hearted look at making mistakes.

    I think we can all identify with what has been said here and we can all recognise our students’ (and our own) mistakes. The same as Vladimira’s, my students sometimes mix soup with soap pronunciation, they also mix words coming from our mother tongue, Serbian, with the English ‘false friends’ – fabric and factory are their favourite 🙂 in Serbian ‘fabrika’ means factory…etc.

    Thank you for the nice story.

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