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Jenna Jinyoung Hwang, Nannan Mei, Duo Pan

October 11, 2016

In the transition from the 50’s and 60’s to the 70’s and 80’s, metaphors describing errors

changed drastically. In the 50’s and 60’s, the metaphors depict obvious attitude toward errors

that they are unacceptable and should be avoidable and eliminated. However, in the 70’s and

80’s, the idea that the ultimate realization of learners’ errors are not all interference from L1,

but also the learner’s attempt to do contribution to their L2 learning made people think that

this creative process with errors will provide a chance to view the learners’ learning process,

which will definitely promote or facilitate the L2 acquisition. Much attention was paid to the

forms of language in these two stages, the communicating function of language in different

contexts was neglected to some extent.

During the 50’s and 60’s, a structuralist approach, Contrastive Analysis (CA) was one of the

dominant approaches in SLA. According to Hummel (2014), CA emphasized language forms

and structures. To define linguistic contrast between language learners’ L1 and L2, CA tried

to find out similarities and differences of the structures of L1 and L2. Under the study of CA,

Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis(CAH) argued that similarities of languages would help

language learners acquiring L2 and whereas the differences of languages will cause more

difficulty among language learners. Using CAH, the approach of CA tried to eliminate or

correct language errors. Another major approach to language errors during this period was a

behaviorist view. Behaviorists viewed that L2 learning process, which includes imitation,

repetition, and reinforcement, forms habits of language usage among L2 learners who are

transitioning from their L1. Thus, they tried to establish new habits for L2 to replace L1

patterns, meaning that errors from


transfer had to


corrected by learning and

establishing L2 habits. Due to the influences of these major approaches of SLA, CA and

Behaviorist view, in 50’ and 60’s, language errors are viewed as a negative problem that

should be corrected.

Although the CA approach in the 50’s and 60’s tried to predict and eliminate errors which are

thought to be failures in language acquisition by emphasizing interference from L1 . However,

researchers ultimately get to realize errors are not just failures to language learning, they

sometimes have the opposite function that provides an opportunity to see the learners’

learning process. One distinct example of the errors is the overgeneralization, which is an

indication that L2 learners try to internalize what they have acquired, reflect, apply and then

develop their interlanguage, and in turn to apply the rules or principles in the any context

even when inappropriate. Error analysis (EA) was a dominant approach proposed in 60’s and

developed in 70’s and 80’s, which is an approach to L2 acquisition research involving the

description and classification of errors to gain insight into the learner’s current underlying

knowledge of the L2 system. Errors are a necessary part of the formulation of the learners’

interlanguage. Error analysis does help categorize the errors, clarify L2 learning situation and

is closely related to the study of error treatment in language teaching. During this period,

researchers find that errors made in learners’ later learning or at their advanced level are not

necessarily the same ones that tend to occur in the early stages, which contributes the view

that errors are changing, and learning is also a dynamic developmental process. The attitude

to errors experienced a shift from errors needing to be avoided to errors being a teaching and

learning aid, which is natural and acceptable.

We think that it is still helpful to categorize the errors to some extent, syntactic errors,

phonological errors, morphological errors, or orthographical errors. However, how to define

and decide the errors is depending on how we see the standard English and the variety, and

how we see the pronunciation of native speakers and the speakers from the outer or

peripheral circles. We think that we should not just focus on the linguistic forms, we also

need to see the errors in the global multicultural context. Sometimes the errors that we decide

according to the standard English might not be errors in other cultural contexts, which may be

better accepted as a variety. Hymes’ communicative competence is a major idea that

influences the current approaches of teaching. We also need to pay more attention to the

meaningful contexts, both social and interactional, and divide the global and local errors

according to whether the errors will interfere the comprehensibility and intelligibility of the

meaning. Teachers can treat global errors as a bridge which can help language teachers

understand students’ problems and teach students to step into higher stage of language

learning, and treat the local errors less seriously. Errors are complicated, so we cannot treat

all errors in one way. Based on our analysis of current perspective on errors, we think that a

metaphor “error is a silkworm cocoon” is most suitable. We should consider errors as

multilayered and multifaceted as a silkworm cocoon. You just see the cover and have no idea

what is inside there. We need to peel the layers and dig to the inside to discover the truth.


Kristen M. Hummel, 2014, Introducing Second Language Acquisition, Wiley Blackwell.