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Im Orangeful or Im Already Awful:

Slips of the Ear Performed by Learners of English as a Foreign Language

Monash University

Comprehending utterances in a foreign language may require great efforts on the part of
the listeners due to the nature of the speech or some linguistic differences. Therefore, it is
not uncommon for them to misperceive what is being said, resulting in errors known as
slips of the ear. Although these errors can sound very amusing, they provide more than
entertainment as they have the potentials to reveal the listeners strategies in coping with
the difficulties in perceiving utterances. This presentation aims to describe the slips of the
ear performed by Indonesian university students who learned English as a foreign
language (EFL). Analysis of the corpus consisting of 1008 data revealed that the EFL
learners made phonological, morphological, lexical and sentential errors while attempting
to make sense of the expressions spoken by native speakers of English. They
misinterpreted the oral input by omitting, adding or substituting the sounds, morphemes,
words and sentences.

The critical role of listening in the teaching and learning of English as a Foreign Language
(EFL) has been acknowledged by researchers, language educators and learners. Formerly
considered as a passive skill and assigned the least emphasis in EFL classes, it is now
recognized as a language skill which needs an active process in the learners mind and therefore
has increasingly received more attention in language learning (Vandergrift, 2004;
Herschenhorn, 1979). Despite the widely accepted claim that listening requires an active process
on the part of the learners, there are still intense debates as to how the oral input is processed.
Some argue that the processing operates in purely bottom-up fashion, while others tend to the
top-down one. To mediate these polarized claims, some scholars suggest that both are necessary
so the cognitive processing works interactively.
The present paper aims to examine this particular issue, i.e. how the cognitive processing is
carried out when the learners are attempting to perceive speech in the foreign language, as
evidenced by the errors they perform during the speech perception. Such errors are often
referred to as slips of the ear, and they turn out to provide useful information on the way aural
perception takes place in the learners mind.
The first part of the paper reviews the cognitive processing that occurs during listening,
followed by the basic concepts of slips of the ear. The third section presents the slips of the ear
which are produced by EFL learners at various linguistic levels and the next one analyzes how
these slips reflect their mental processes. Finally, the implications on the teaching of EFL
listening are discussed in the last part of the paper.

Cognitive Processes in Listening
Listening used to be thought of as a passive language skill which requires only minute effort
to perform. Fodor (cited in Appelbaum, 1998) even views speech perception as merely an
activity of computing instead of thinking. Such a statement seems to oversimplify the
complicated nature of speech perception. It has been generally agreed that while listening to a
particular utterance, learners may process this input in two modes: bottom up and top-down.

In the bottom-up model the aural comprehension takes place in an accumulative manner,
from the smallest to the largest linguistic units (Vandergrift, 2004; Rost, 2001). Thus, the
learners attempt to construct meaning by decoding the phonemes to make up a word, then
connecting a groups of words to form a phrase, making sense of several phrases into a sentence,
and finally integrating a number of sentences to build a discourse. The top-down model, on the
other hand, underscores the significant role of the learners prior knowledge to create meaning
(Vandergrift, 2004; Rost, 2001). According to this model, learners use the knowledge they
already possess to make sense of the new information they listen to.
It has been mentioned earlier that the views about the perceptual processing are divided, one
side favoring one model over the other. Samuel (2001), for instance, argues that listening occurs
in a top-down fashion as the mental lexicon affects the perception of the phonemes. Listeners
generally figure out the words they hear based on those that they already know. This is
underlined by Vandergrift (2004) who observes that the recent literature tends to favor the top-
down model. However, he also suggests that foreign language learners may rely more on the
bottom-up processing due to limited knowledge of that language. Similarly, Wilson (2003)
emphasizes the bottom-up primacy, reminding that the objective of listening is to perceive what
is exactly uttered instead of guessing it.
It is essential to note that both bottom-up and top-down processes are necessary and operate
simultaneously to ensure thorough comprehension. Rost (2002) explains the interactive nature
of these two processes as follows:

Speech perception and word recognition are the bottom-up processes in listening: they
provide the data for comprehension. If the listener does not recognize enough of these
bottom-up cues in order to process the speech in real time, he or she will rely more
exclusively on top-down processes: semantic expectations and generalizations (p. 96).

He proposes that a method that can be used to gain evidence of word identification in the
form of lexical segmentation is the misperceptions of speech. Such misperceptions are
commonly recognized as slips of the ear, and this concept will be discussed in the next section.

Slips of the ear
Slips of the earalso known as mondegreensare erroneous perception of the intended
message (Bond, 1999a:144), so they result from listeners mishearing a particular utterance.
Such misperceptions occur due to various reasons. A slip of the ear I experienced in my
childhood, for example, is probably caused by the lack of linguistic knowledge. At that time I
misheard the song which went silver bird, silver bird as seal papa, seal papa. Being a novice
in EFL, I failed to perceive the voiced consonants /v/ and /b/, and heard /p/ for both instead. In
addition to the imperfect knowledge of the foreign language, the dialectical differences inside
that particular language may also trigger the occurrence of such slips among adults. To
illustrate, an acquaintance in Australia explained once that the streets around Alberta Park was
often used for a rice. This utterance resulted in momentary confusion for me as it sounded
grammatically (the article a and the uncountable noun rice) and semantically (streets which are
used for a rice) ill. However, I could recover the intended meaning when realizing that she
pronounced the word race in the Australian dialect (i.e. /r\is/) instead of the American one (i.e.
This language phenomenon has attracted the interest of both laypeople and scholars. For
laypeople, the mishearingespecially of songscan occasionally be so amusing that they
gather a huge list of the mondegreens and disseminate them through their websites. Language
researchers, on the other hand, collect them for a different reason: the slips of the ears can shed
light on the listeners strategies in perceiving the spoken messages (Bond, 1999b) as they result
from the attempts on the part of the listeners when overcoming the oral input that they fail to
perceive accurately.

Listeners who are native speakers of English and those who are learning EFL have equal
possibilities of mishearing speech. Bond (1999a, 1999b), for example, compiled approximately
1000 perceptual errors reported from casual conversations among native speakers of English.
She found that the listeners misperceived utterances at phonetic, morphological, lexical and
syntactic levels. From the same corpus, Vitevitch (2002) selected 88 errors on the basis of a
number of criteria and conducted a further study on them in terms of neighborhood density and
word frequency. The results indicated that there was no significant difference between the actual
and the perceived speech in neighborhood density and word frequency. Smith (2003) also
examined aural misperceptions, but he obtained the corpus from non-native speakers in Hong
Kong. Having tertiary EFL learners listen to two songs and transcribe the lyrics, he presented
the phonological difficulties that the learners potentially faced when grappling to understand the
aural input in English.
Similarly, in the present paper the slips of the ear made by EFL learners will be discussed.
However, the setting, the sources of data and the points of analysis differ in a number of ways,
and these will be elaborated in more detail in the next section.

The analysis was conducted based on 1008 errors of speech perception made by EFL
learners who were enrolled in listening classes in Surabaya State University, Indonesia. While
attending these classes, the learners received oral language exposures in English (spoken by
native speakers) from various sources: movie videos, documentary films, radio news, pre-
recorded monologs or dialogs, and songs. They listened to (and viewed in some cases) them in a
language lab equipped with individual booths and headsets, then they were asked to answer
some comprehension questions about the movies, films, news, monologs or dialogs in written
form. As to the songs, they simply transcribed the lyrics or completed the clozed lyrics on a
piece of paper. From these written answers or transcriptions, the speech they heard inaccurately
could be conveniently detected and then gathered to make up the corpus.

While some learners succeeded in perceiving every single sound in the utterances accurately,
some others failed to do so. The results indicated that each learner who belonged to the latter
perceived a certain utterance quite distinctly from another. To exemplify this phenomenon, the
sentence Im already full was heard as ten different expressions by ten learners:

Im not ready for. Im rather awful.
Im already for. Im too awful.
Im already fall. Im orangeful.
Im already form. Im alright for.
Im already awful. Im orradic food.

To refer back to the title of this paper, the answer to the query of whether the learners heard
Im orangeful or Im already awful was certainly neither of these two.
In the next sections the slips of the ear will be categorized on the basis of the linguistic levels
where they occur, then they will be discussed in relation to the top-down and bottom-up
processing in listening comprehension.

Slips of the Ear at Four Linguistic Levels
The errors of speech perception occurred at the following linguistic levels: phonological,
morphological, lexical and sentential. At some levels the processes involved in the mishearing
include the addition, omission, and substitution of a particular linguistic unit.
The instances of misperceptions at the lowest level, i.e. phonological, are listed in Table 1.

Table 1
Misperceptions of Sounds

Actual Speech Perceived Speech Processes Sounds
1 You cant rush love. brush Add Consonant
2 Countries centuries Add Vowel
3 How about a truce? curse Omit Consonant
4 European Union Europe in Union Omit Vowel
5 Take a hot bath hard bed Substitute Consonant
6 Weakens Britains power weekend Substitute Vowel

In data number [1], the learner added the consonant /b/ to the word rush so that it was
perceived as brush. A possible explanation for this error was her unfamiliarity with the word
rush, which could be considered as a word with low frequency of occurrence. Therefore, she
thought that the word she was listening to was the more familiar one, i.e. brush. Insertion also
occurred in [2], where the vowel // was added between /tj/ and /r/, resulting in the perception
of centuries instead of countries. Conversely, data number [3] and [4] involved the process of
omitting a consonant or a vowel. The consonant cluster /tr/ in [3] was reduced into a single
consonant /k/, and in [4] the diphthong /i/ became a simple vowel /i/. Occasionally the number
of the sounds in a particular word remained the same, but these sounds were substituted by
others, such as [5] and [6]. Both the voiceless consonants /t/ and /O/ in the words hot and bath
were replaced by a voiced one, namely /d/, in data [5] so that a phrase hard bed was heard. This
phrase underwent misperception probably due to the discrepancy between the dialect that the
learner usually used and the dialect in the utterance. Being familiar with British English, he had
difficulties in making sense of the American English /hot bO/ as hot bath because for him it
should have been /hot boO/. Therefore, he made the incorrect conclusion that the phrase must
have been hard bed /ho:d bcd/. Similarly, in the next example the vowel /c/ in the word weaken
/wi:kcn/ was substituted by /c/ to form another word with very different meaning, weekend.
In addition to the phonological level, the slips of the ear also happen at the morphological
one. The learners might add, omit, or substitute a morpheme in a particular word, such as
demonstrated in Table 2.

Table 2
Misperceptions of Morphemes

Actual speech Perceived speech Processes Morphemes
7 bring in tax cut tag's cut Add Possessive s
8 Ill chase away those
restless fears.
cheers away Add 3
person s
9 keep you on your toes. toad Omit Plural s
10 European Union Europe Union Omit Adjective an
11 total failure. failed Substitute Adjective ure
& past ed
12 Do the ashes of desire for
you remain?
to be assessed Substitute Plural s &
Past ed

A number of learners were stumbled in identifying the free and bound morphemes in the
spoken messages. Data number [7] and [8] illustrated the cases where they failed to perceive the
words tax and chase as free morphemes. Instead, the root tax was thought of as comprising the

free morpheme tag and the bound morpheme -s indicating possession. Likewise, the root chase
was erroneously perceived as a root (cheer) and a suffix (-s). The reverse phenomenon
happened in [9] and [10], where two morphemes (toe and s; Europe and an) were perceived
as merely one. In [11] and [12], however, the number of morphemes remained the same, but the
learners mistook one bound morpheme in the form of a suffix for another. For instance, the
suffix ure in failure was misheard as ed, or es (an allomorph of the plural s) as ed.
The next linguistic level at which the slips of the ear occurred was the lexical level. As the
name suggests, such slips involved adding, deleting, or substituting words. Some examples of
the first two processes (addition and omission) are presented in Table 3.

Table 3
Misperceptions of Words (Addition and Omission)

Actual speech Perceived speech Processes
13 Have butterflies in your stomach a butterfly Add
14 Food in reasonable amounts responsible with his mouth Add
15 Is there no song is a song Omit
16 College kind of guy college kind guy Omit

Some learners reported hearing words which actually did not exist in the spoken text. For
example, a learner thought he heard the word a between have and butterflies in [13], while
actually in the text he listened to it did not exist. Conversely, in a string of words they
sometimes missed one of them, usually the ones which were not stressed such as in [16].
Aside from addition and omission, another process that could happen to words in the cases
of mishearing was substitution. At times the learners mistook a word for one or more other
words that did exist in the lexicon. However, there were many cases where they replaced a word
with a nonsense word. Out of the 1008 data in the corpus, 191 of them were nonwords. The
slips of the ear in the form of both the existent and inexistent words can be found in Table 4.
(Please note that the expressions containing nonwords are flagged with an asterisk).

Table 4
Misperceptions of Words (Substitution)

Actual speech Perceived speech

17 I would be something else entirely something mare tiredly
18 Contemptuous legislation contents of ladys lesson
19 The dispute over voting rights the british puers of roboting rights *
20 Peanut butter sandwich pinabutter *

Although some learners could maintain the exact number of words when substituting the
words with others such as in [17], others failed to identify the word boundaries so that the
perceived phrase contained more or fewer words than the actual one. Lexical segmentation
plays an essential role in word identification to recover the intended spoken message (Content,
2000; Tabossi et al, 1995); the inaccurate segmentation, therefore, would lead to the perception
of different lexical items which were remotely related semantically. In [18] the two words in the
phrase contemptuous legislation expanded to four (contents of ladys lesson) according to a
learners aural comprehension, obviously resulting in an expression with a very different
meaning from the original one. In a similar manner, the three words dispute over voting in [19]
were incorrectly segmented as four (british puers of roboting). A reduction in the number of
words, however, could happen occasionally, such as in [20] where the learner failed to

recognize the boundary between the words peanut and butter. As a consequence, a single
nonword pinabutter was perceived instead of the aforementioned two words.
The fact that the Indonesian EFL learners experienced difficulties in spotting the word
boundaries was understandable to a certain extent due to the different nature of speech delivery
in English and Indonesian. Spoken English is generally characterized by linking, a linguistic
phenomenon where a string of words are pronounced without any pause (Ponsonby, 1982;
Dobrovolsky and Katamba, 1996). This feature is absent in the learners native language. In
casual Indonesian speech a series of words are usually uttered with short pauses between them,
thus assisting the listeners to recognize the individual words. The absence of such pauses in the
foreign language can be a major hurdle for the learners in attempting to comprehend the oral
input. As a result, they may place the word boundaries at the inappropriate points in the
The highest linguistic level at which misperceptions took place in the data of the study was
the syntactic level. Similar to the obstacle in the previous level, the learners also faced
difficulties in detecting where a sentence should have ended. It is important to note, however,
that the problems of sentential segmentation only happened when the learners were trying to
transcribe the lyrics of songs. Such difficulties did not seem to obstruct them when they were
transcribing a piece of radio news. Table 5 presents some sentences which were misinterpreted.

Table 5
Misperceptions of Sentences

Actual speech

Perceived speech
21 Then lets try to talk it over. Lets
wait a while longer.
lets try to talk it over which we do all
22 Like the sea, theres a love too deep
to show. Took a storm before my
love flowed for you.
theres a love to do to show through the
stone before my love float for you.
It was obvious that the segmenting problem resulted in hearing two sentences as one, but not
the other way around. Despite the clearly audible pause between the two sentences in the songs,
they were not successful in identifying the correct place to put a full stop. For instance, data
number [21] was obtained after one of the learners listened to the song Lets Wait Awhile by
Janet Jackson (1986). There were two possible reasons why the learner merged the two
sentences as one. For one thing, the learner misheard the sentence lets wait a while longer as
the dependent clause which we do all longer, and concluded that the latter should have
immediately followed the previous sentence (i.e. Then lets try to talk it over). The second
reason was related to the musical nature of the song. The singer did not use a falling intonation
at the end of the sentence for aesthetic reason so the learner could not identify it as the end of
the sentence. This was justified by the previously mentioned fact that the problems of sentential
segmentation did not rise when the learners listened to the radio news, in which the news reader
invariably use the falling intonation to signal the end of the sentences. Likewise, in [22] the
singer pronounced the word show that ended the sentence with a slightly rising intonation in the
song Cest la Vie (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, 1993), misleading the learner to think that it was
not the sentential break and expect the next utterance would be an inseparable part of that
sentence. Additionally, the learner misinterpreted the next sentence took a storm as a
prepositional phrase through the stone, and willingly connect this phrase to the word show
because it seemed to make sense (to show through the stone).
As a concluding remark of this section, the slips of the ear above provided trustworthy
evidence of the highly strategic nature of listening comprehension. They could reveal how the
EFL learners apply appropriate strategies to compensate the lack of aural comprehension at
various degrees of understanding and linguistic levels. Furthermore, they could shed light on the

underlying cognitive processes that were taking place in their mind. These cognitive processes
deserve a separate elaboration in the next section.

Bottom-up, Top-down, or Interactive?
It has been discussed earlier in the paper that many still disagree on the cognitive processing
of oral input, supporting the bottom-up, top-down, or interactive nature of the processing. To
date, the issue on which of these three is the most acceptable has been continuously raging.
However, by taking the cases of the slips of the ear above into consideration, I argue that
bottom-up or top-down alone could hardly explain how the learners attain comprehension: both
actually operate interactively to enable them to construct meaning.
The bottom-up view holds some truth in claiming that the recognition of the spoken
messages proceeds in a serial manner, that is, phoneme by phoneme, word by word, sentence by
sentence to make up a discourse. For instance, upon hearing the word rush, the learners decoded
the phoneme /r/, followed by the phoneme /\/, and then /j/ before recognizing the spoken word
as the whole /r\j/. However, this model could insufficiently explicate how a learner came to
hear a phoneme which was actually not spoken, such as in the slip of the ear number [1]. If the
input sounded /r\j/, how did the learner hear /b/ before /r/ to form /br\j/? If the input was /hot
bO/, how did he hear /d/ instead of /t/ and /O/ to form /ho:d bcd/ in [5]? If the actually spoken
phrase was /kcntcmtocs IcdcsIcijcn/, how did he hear /kontcnts cI Icidis Icscn/ in [18]? It was in
such cases that the top-down view played a role in accounting for this processing.
From the top-down point of view, a learner makes efficient use of the context and their prior
knowledge to make sense of the input. In the above instance of brush, the learner possibly had
limited lexical knowledge and was unfamiliar with the word rush, so she compensated this by
relying on her prior knowledge. Having the word brush in her mental lexicon, she replaced the
actual word rush with the known one, brush. The origin of the mondegreen contents of ladys
lesson above could also be traced in a similar fashion. Being low-frequency words,
contemptuous and legislation were quite hard to grasp by the EFL learner. Therefore, they
depended on their prior knowledge to figure out what was actually uttered, and found four
words the pronunciation of which closely resembled contemptuous legislation in their mental
lexicon, namely, contents, of, ladys and lesson.
Nevertheless, a new complication arose if the learners failed to guess the difficult words
based on their prior knowledge, such as in [19] and [20], and then coined nonwords which
obviously did not exist in their mental lexicon. The existence of nonwords in the data could
scarcely be ignored as they made up almost one fifth of the corpus. While some of them
sounded like existent words, some others bore little resemblance to them. Table 6 lists the
nonsense words that the learners produced.

Table 6
Nonsense Words
Actual speech Perceived speech
23 when this world seems mean and cold one of this word sime meanning cold
24 our love comes shining I love consense
25 were both feeling rebo feeling
26 on that very first night on the feuver night
27 the dispute over how many votes the respuse of a harmony vote
28 the settlement weakens Britains powers wicken person power
29 offers the ability ofesiol preability
30 contemptuous legislation containcess ladislation
31 to a compromise settlement to accompromise
32 Spain and Portugal penion possigle
33 distributing discribitine


In such a situation the top-down view alone could hardly assist in finding out how the mind
treated the oral input, and the bottom-up seemed to dominate the processing. Initially, when
listening to the spoken language, the learners might attend to individual phonemes serially to
construct lexical meaning and then make sense of the words to form a phrase. Since this bottom-
up process did not work and they still had an extremely little idea of the words and phrases, they
switched to the top-down process by guessing the meaning of the words and phrases from the
context, expecting to find them in the mental lexicon. However, this attempt did not seem
fruitful either, so it was very likely that they returned to the bottom-up one, painfully retrieving
the individual phonemes. After one or more cycles of bottom-up and top-down endeavors, they
decided to coin the nonwords on the basis of the sounds they had listened to. Surprisingly, they
seemed to possess good phonotactic knowledge in English. Vitevitch el al (1997) define
phonotactics as the probability that a given segment will occur in a specific position within a
syllable or word (p. 47). In the entire corpus, none of the slips violated the rules on the
acceptable sequence of sounds in English. Despite the lack of lexical knowledge, the learners
produced nonsense words which were phonologically well-formed, indicating their adequate
knowledge of the sound systems in the foreign language they are learning.
From the above discussion on the processing of input while listening, it is quite reasonable to
conclude that the process takes place in the learners mind interactively between top-down and
bottom-up. It may be acceptable to claim that in some conditions the learners tend to use mainly
bottom-up procedure, whereas in others the top-down one seems to be more beneficial.
Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean these two operate in a completely separate manner.
The cases of slips have provided justification for the interactive model of cognitive processing.

Implications for EFL Learners
Some implications for the teaching of EFL in listening classrooms follow from the
aforementioned findings. The most obvious one is the demand of tolerance on the part of the
teachers for errors in speech perception as errors are inevitable and even become an essential
part of learning. They enable the teachers to figure out the learners thinking processes in
constructing meaning from the oral input. Therefore, the teachers should avoid viewing the
errors as a sign of failure in learning.
Another implication is the need for an evaluation of what the learners have attempted to do
in the classroom. Such tasks as answering comprehension questions or transcribing the native
speakers speech should be immediately followed by feedback on the accuracy of their answers
or transcriptions. This is an invaluable opportunity to pinpoint the sources of the misperceptions
to the learners (e.g., dialectical differences, speech segmentation, etc.). Having identified these
possible sources, the learners are expected to be more aware of their existence and,
consequently, minimize the occurrence of the misperceptions in further learning.

Learners of English as a foreign language often mishear the speech they listen to, resulting in
the erroneous perception called slips of the ear. Like the errors produced by native speakers
(Bond, 1999b), the ones performed by non-native speakers occur at the phonological,
morphological, lexical, and sentential level. These slips of the ear can occur for various reasons,
ranging from the unfamiliarity with a particular dialect of the foreign language to the lack of
lexical knowledge. The types of the slips along with their reasons can lead to a related path: the
cognitive processing carried out while listening to the oral stimulus. It has been argued that the
slips provide empirical evidence of an interactive cognitive processing instead of a purely
bottom-up or a purely top-down one. Some implications for the teaching of EFL listening have
also been suggested.


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