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Contrastive analysis for error correction

December 7, 2011

How often have you listened to learners talking and thought to yourself: ‘you made that error because that’s the way you say it in your mother tongue’?

Here’s an example of addressing such errors from a recent one-to-one lesson, followed by some thoughts on contrastive analysis.

My student and I had been talking for some time. As I was making notes I heard a succession of errors that appeared to come from his L1 – Japanese.

When the conversation wound up we went back and analysed the language. My usual method of delayed correction is to write up errors and ask the students to suggest improvements. This time, I tried a ‘stealth’ method of error correction – you may not wish to do this with learners who are sensitive to error!

1. Write out corrected versions of the utterances
2. Show the learner(s), but don’t mention that they’ve been corrected.
3. ‘Here are some sentences from our conversation. Under each one, write how you would say it naturally in L1.’
4. At this point you have two correct versions of each sentence, L1 and L2. Next, underneath each one, write what they actually said.
5. Ask the learner(s) to go through, identify their error in each case and trace it back to how it would be said in their L1. Talk about the causes of the error.
6. Set a follow-up task to practice. Perhaps a writing consolidation for homework.

Here’s the page. 1=corrected English; 2=Japanese equivalent; 3=original utterance.


The third group is an interesting case. It turned out I’d misheard ‘although’ as ‘also’! This was principally a problem with word stress, but heightened by the fact that he pronounced ‘th’ as ‘s’. Conveniently, this is actually an L1 interference problem, this time of the more predictable phonological variety.

And the follow-up:


I’ve always been quite interested in this aspect of SLA because in my own language learning I tend to value rather highly an understanding of how something is expressed differently between L1 and L2. It helps me to make sense of language, understand its inner-workings.

In class, drawing comparisons between L1 and L2 has always seemed to me a logical thing to do. If a Japanese learner proclaims ‘I’m becoming happy’, and your knowledge of their L1 tells you that you often ‘〜になる (become+emotion)’ in Japanese, then would it not make sense to point this out? Things like this make me question the default position of many teachers of ‘no L1!’


From → Discussion

  1. You might really enjoy the book Learner English. It also shows that many learners make the same mistakes in English, and their learning follows a similar sequence to children learning English as their L1. Contrastive linguistics and translation was banned in many schools (of thought) some years ago, but is now seen as acceptable. I understand your dilemma: you can see the real-life benefits of this approach/activity but there is literature against it. The question is: who do you trust?!? 🙂

    • Regarding your last point, surely the only person you can trust is yourself! 🙂
      Learner English is fantastic, it would have been nice to have a longer theoretical discussion in the preface of the book (may have answer some of my questions!) but I guess it’s meant to be a practical manual.

  2. I’m with you on this one Oli. I think there’s a valid reason that so many teachers find it useful to point out ‘false friends’ (false cognates). I know that in my own Spanish classes comparison and translation exercises have helped me to become aware of why my own output isn’t completely natural at times.

    Maybe the point isn’t that contrastive analysis isn’t useful in certain cases, but that an over-reliance on it fails to explain the majority of student errors. Also, trainers and teachers probably shy away from it since it does require monolingual classes and confidence in the students L1.

    • Thanks for your ideas Ben. It does seem a shame that it’s shied away from on training courses, given that the majority of the world’s classes are in fact monolingual! While the L1 point is a fair one, doesn’t even a non-linguist inevitably pick up grammar knowledge by living abroad? I’ve found that with YLs especially, L1 is an incredibly powerful tool when used in a principled way, but it’s all stuff that I’ve had to figure out myself along the way. (…like everything else I guess!)

  3. dingtonia permalink

    Great post, Oli – it is just so simple when done with clarity of purpose and a defined objective. All you need is what is said and an interest in how to make it right and why it is wrong in the first place. And that doesn’t mean it is easy – it takes a lot of careful listening, a lot of reflection on language and how it is used and the ability to develop a great rapport with students. 🙂

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment! “It takes a lot of time”… Couldn’t agree more. I do everything much more slowly these days!

  4. My approach has been to plan the best I can for cross-linguistic influence in order to find those “teachable moments”. Whether through preemptive or reactive evidence (feedback), a lot depends on how errors interfere with communication or some other classroom objective. But when those teaching moments occur, I sometimes draw comparisons on how I learned (and am learning) an additional language so that students see how I dealt or am dealing with similar problems (My second language – Spanish – is my students’ L1.). I plan and try to anticipate issues, but try to make them notice cross-linguistic influences as the errors arise through some engaging and (hopefully) effective performance. Since I teach pre-service, English language teachers (mainly English for academic purposes – EAP), I perhaps make more of an effort to account for cross-linguistic influence than I might teaching a general EFL class, but I personally feel that this topic has a place in most types of language classes: general English, EAP, and English for specific purposes.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Benjamin. I’ve always been curious about the fact that my own approach to learning languages is rather academic (during focused ‘study time’ at least – I complement it with a lot of extensive speaking in daily life), in stark contrast to my teaching, which is more communicative.

      I don’t know if the term ‘situated learning’ applies to us, as teachers, living and learning in a foreign environment. It certainly seems to make sense, if only that it highlights the fact that our learners are not in a ‘situated’ L2 environment.

      I have huge sympathy for those learning English as a foreign language and not being surrounded with native speakers as a source of passive learning. In my case I find that a focus on communicative ability must be a priority, but on a personal level I strongly relate to your learners who are academically minded and would probably benefit from tuition in that vein.

  5. Kristin permalink

    Hi Oli,
    I’m currently reviewing the newish book by Guy Cook that you may be interested in titled, ‘Translation in Language Teaching’ (Oxford 2010). His argument, like your experience above is that being able to work with learners’ L1 and translate work to and from the L2 is a skill which is akin to the ‘noticing’ aspect of current SLA theory, and therefore a very suitable classroom activity. He’s got a lot of useful arguments about this reemerging aspect of language learning. It sounds like you know a lot about Japanese and can engage in this kind of activity really helpfully fwith your learners – i wish i could say the same!.

    • Kristin, thanks for the recommendation. I like Cook’s work but wasn’t familiar with this book – I’ll put it on my Christmas list!

      I suppose the trouble with this area of work is that it is somewhat excluding for those who don’t have a command of learners’ L1. It is understandable, then, that it would struggle to enter the mainstream of teacher education, but that fact does not in itself diminish its value as a tool or area of research.

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