Get It Right: How to Apply Error Analysis to Your Language Learning

Today, we’re going to learn how to turn errors into lessons.

We’ll turn bad into good and wrong into right.

Nope, it’s not going to require any magic. It’s going to tap into a branch of applied linguistics called Error Analysis.

But what does this have to do with you, the language learner?



What’s Error Analysis?

Error Analysis (EA) is simply the systematic study of language mistakes. This analysis is done so that the identified errors can be systematically learned from and weeded out.

Stephen Pit Corder is credited with revolutionizing the field of applied linguistics in the 1960s, pointing out the utility of errors in language learning. Yes, language learners have always sought to learn from their mistakes, but Corder bolstered the effort of identifying and evaluating errors. In short, he made it less chancy and haphazard.

The steps of Error Analysis, as suggested by Corder, are:

a. collection of samples

b. identification of errors

c. description of errors

d. explanation of errors

e. evaluation of errors

Linguists basically comb through materials that have been produced by language learners, such as written tests, composed paragraphs and recorded audio. They then identify errors in the content and see if there are patterns that emerge. With the errors displayed in the light of day, explanations for them are posited and some prescriptions for course correction can be given.

Perhaps you aren’t a professional linguist, it’s true, but as a language learner you can actually use Error Analysis to inform your learning.

What linguists do for a class of Middle Eastern students learning English, you can do for yourself. You’re both the linguist and the subject at the same time.

Granted, you won’t necessarily use the rigor of statistics to assess your errors like linguists might, but casually following the above steps can still yield a ton of great information.

Even then, it’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure. This will involve the brutal honesty to admit both your strengths and weaknesses. It’ll require some metacognition on your part—an awareness and understanding of your own thought processes. But the fruits of your labor will be worth it.

Want a little taste of those juicy fruits? Here are some of the benefits of applying Error Analysis to your personal language learning experiences.

The Benefits of Applying Error Analysis to Your Language Learning

Here are the top reasons why error analysis can make for more effective language learning.

  • You Can Identify Your Weaknesses

The most obvious value of Error Analysis is that it unequivocally points out your weaknesses. By looking through your mistakes, you can say to yourself, “Ah, this is where I need work.” For example, if you notice plenty of errors in verb conjugation, then you can decide to focus your effort more on that. If the verb conjugation errors are mainly related to certain tenses, then you can plan to hone in on those.

  • You Can Identify Your Strengths

Performing your own casual Error Analysis double-checks your knowledge of the target language, giving you a good sense of what you’re already good at. You can always review the topics you’re better at, but you won’t end up devoting an excess of time to these topics anymore. In short, Error Analysis guides the focus of your study, saving you valuable time and effort.

  • You Get an Honest Look at Your Progress

Error Analysis provides you with added insights that aren’t easily obtained from other learning approaches. With Error Analysis, you dive deeper. By following the steps of Error Analysis laid out earlier, you can seek overarching patterns. Instead of cursorily looking at overall exercise scores, you’ll carefully look at each one of your slip-ups, then figure out if they’re at all connected, getting a better understanding of your current problem areas.

For example, doing this might help you realize if the grammatical rules of your first language are negatively influencing your acquisition of the target language. By looking at all your errors in a series of exercises, you might discover that a pattern of errors emerges: You’re still applying first language rules of syntax to your target language.

  • You Gain a Deeper Understanding of the Language You’re Learning

Finally, Error Analysis increases your ability to recognize nuances in the target language. Noticing, thinking about and studying your errors allows you to split hairs—which can be an excellent thing in language learning. You’ll find yourself thinking things like, “Why is this word appropriate in this context and not in that one?” or “Why is this case an exception to the rule?

As you can see from the above benefits, there’s much to be gained here. With Error Analysis, you can really make significant leaps in learning and avoid making the same mistakes over and over. Hopefully this will result in you becoming fluent in your target language faster.

So, now that you know about the objectives and benefits of trying Error Analysis out, here are some tips on how to use it all on your own. Let’s find out how to learn a language with Error Analysis in your toolbelt.

5 Hot Tips for Using Error Analysis to Improve Your Language Learning

1. Complete Plenty of Tests, Drills and Exercises

If you’re going to make the most out of Error Analysis, you’d better give yourself plenty of data to work with.

The only way you can get sufficient results is to give yourself a significant amount of material from which to draw conclusions.

A 10-item exercise on prepositions where you get 7/10 items correct doesn’t necessarily mean you’re 70% of the way home. You might need to do much more—or much less—work to really master prepositions. Go through as many exercises as possible on each topic so that you can get a clearer benchmark. Don’t stop until you’re scoring 10/10 consistently.

Written material is the type that best lends itself to Error Analysis, because you’ll actually have a record of the errors and mistakes. Audio recordings comes second, but they’re harder to keep track of and assess accurately.

The good thing is that you can find plenty of exercises and drills online—just like this one for French learners. This resource is certainly not the spiffiest of sites, but what it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for with the great number of tests and exercises you can take. You can easily rack up a solid number of completed French exercises on this site. Another advantage is that it shows you all the questions at the same time, not following the usual one-question-at-a-time format that’s so common on similar sites. There’s also the easy print feature which could come in handy for keeping records and reviewing later. Find a site like this for your target language, and get going!

2. Group Your Errors for Easy Identification

What’s an “error” in the first place? Is it the same thing as a “mistake”?

Linguists have differentiated the two. Do you know the difference?

A mistake is a slip-up, a one-off. It’s situation-specific and can be easily corrected. Even native speakers commit them. A native English speaker could unintentionally blurt out “I drinks the juice,” even though he definitely knows the correct form. Maybe he was just sleepy or distracted. He just made a one-time mistake, and he’ll probably never make the exact same mistake again.

An error is more serious. It signifies a level of incompetence and can’t be corrected quite as easily. The error is part of a pattern and not a one-time event. The person may have intentionally chosen to use that language, thinking it’s perfectly correct. For example, if someone says, “I ate the juice,” “I ate wine” and “I eat milk every day,” they’re consistently confusing two verbs, “to eat” and “to drink.” They still need to study these two verbs and how to use them when differentiating between imbibing liquids and masticating solids.

So, now you know what an error is. That’s what you’ll need to be looking out for. Once you find them, what do you do with yours?

Group them up!

There are tons of potential errors that a language learner could make in any given language. You need to create a system of categorizing your errors that makes sense to you. Coming up with a logical grouping will help you understand where you’re making most of your errors. Seeing the connections between your errors will allow you to keep your focus on a few key areas.

You can group the errors in any manner you like, as long as the groups make sense to you. Maybe you can group similar incidences. Is an error vocabulary-related, or is it grammar-related? If it’s grammar-related, then perhaps you can jot it down next to other errors made with the same part of speech. For example, you can note down all your verb problems together. You can note down all your conjugation problems together. You can note down all your gender-agreement problems together. If one group is getting large, you can even start to create smaller sub-groups.

As you can see, there are many ways to group errors. You’re free to build your own nomenclature. It just has to be personal and meaningful to you—after all, you’ll be the only one to use it.

3. Keep a Visual Record of Your Thought Processes

Now we’re really getting into the deeper levels of Error Analysis here. This will require a certain level of self-awareness on your part. Like I said earlier, Error Analysis requires metacognition, an understanding of your own thought processes. Why do you tend to make the same errors? What was your thinking behind these errors?

Here’s how to go about keeping track of errors and the thought processes behind them.

For example, when you’re speaking and you suddenly take a long pause—not for effect or for thoughtful reasons, but because you’re unsure of what to say—that could be a sign of lacking knowledge or confidence in your language. You’re probably drawing a blank. What word are you unsure about? What caused the pause? What were you just thinking about?

Indicate this moment on a sheet of paper, using your very own words. You could write something like:

forgot the past tense of the word “cut.”

didn’t know what the word for “sleep” is in Chinese.

got tongue-tied trying to pronounce the “rr” sound in a Spanish word.

When you’re answering the questions in a multiple choice exercise and you’re alternating between the choices, this indecision betrays a knowledge gap. It means you still haven’t gotten a good handle on the subject matter in question. Mark down those numbers with a star or a question mark so that when you review you can remind yourself that you had difficulty with that particular item—even if it turns out that you got the correct answer.

It’s these little marks on a sheet of paper that give you a visual of your thought process, heretofore unseen. It’s a record of the areas that are challenging to you and a great way to discover patches of weakness.

4. Evaluate Your Errors by Asking Yourself These 3 Questions

When you do personal Error Analysis, you don’t have a team of linguists positing explanations of why you made this or that error. You only have yourself to investigate and yourself to do the investigation.

You need to ask yourself these questions as you evaluate the error.

a. What rule or principle did I miss?

Asking this question forces you to think about the grammar rules that exist in your target language. It checks if you’ve been the wiser this time and are now aware why an error exists. If you can’t answer this question, then you can’t be sure that the error won’t haunt you some other time.

Note: When considering rules and principles, you should also consider their exceptions.

b. Why did I think my initial answer was correct?

This is another important question to ask when you evaluate the error because it looks into your incomplete understanding of the target language. When you completed the exercise, you did it using your present and personal understanding of the language. Comparing your original reasons to the correct answers hones more of this understanding, eliminating faulty impressions and replacing them with accurate ones.

Note: If you answer this question with, “I only guessed,” then it counts as an even bigger knowledge gap.

c. What should I do so I won’t make the same mistake?

This is the proactive part of the evaluation process. Not only are you now aware and wary of your errors, you’ll be taking active steps to weed out your weaknesses. Think of this part as the “New Year’s resolution” of the process.

Your answers to this question could be something like:

Create flashcards for the rules of this verb conjugation.

Memorize five new words a day. Review them before going to sleep.

Use my language learning app every day, for at least 10 minutes.

Listen to an audio course or podcast on my daily commute.

Most important of all, have the nerve to follow through with your plan. There’s no point in making a resolution and an action plan if you’re not going to resolve to act on it.

Language learning apps in particular have become a popular and convenient way to accomplish consistent goals and keep you on your toes when it comes to common language fumbles. That’s because apps such as FluentU can actually incorporate most of the above resolutions into one neat package.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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So if you’re worried about mistakes, push forward and hone your knowledge with reliable resources and constant targeted practice.

5. Enlist the Help of a Native Speaker

You’ve probably had the experience of listening to an English beginner, right?

The mistakes and errors are evident to you, and they poke you like a string out of tune. As a native or fluent speaker, you’ll have a sharp ear for language mistakes in English.

If you’re looking for someone to spot the mistakes and errors you make in your target language, a native speaker will do a great job. Even minor grammatical errors will ring loud bells in their heads.

A native speaker can guide you towards mastering the nuances of your target language. There may be instances when a certain word you’re using is grammatically sound, but to a native speaker it’ll sound a bit off—a little less than natural. They can point out things like this and give you a more appropriate lexicon.

A native speaker can also highlight some of the exceptions to grammatical or syntactical rules that go beyond what can be offered in any textbook. And if you want to learn the most contemporary way of speaking the target language, you’ll certainly want a native speaker to keep you updated.

Luckily, native speakers in any major language are readily available on any language exchange site. A language exchange site is a place where you can trade your innate knowledge of your native language for another person’s native knowledge of your target language. For example, let’s say you’re an English speaker who wants to learn Spanish. You can find a native Spanish speaker who wants to learn how to speak English—thus, an “exchange” takes place. You’re helping another as that person is helping you.

If that sounds great, you’ll definitely want to check out the best online language exchange sites to find your learning partner!


So, there you have it!

Don’t be too hard on yourself and always remember that linguistic errors are never fatal. Nor are they permanent. They’re but signs of an incomplete understanding and can be remedied with a little study.

You’re now ready to face the music and tango with your own linguistic errors.

And One More Thing...

If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.

With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.

Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.

You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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