You never see them coming.
They get you LOLing and even ROFLing.
Let’s face facts: sometimes messing up is the highlight of your day.
While some language mistakes are funny, if your goal is fluency, you’ll have to work hard to cut out mistakes and errors. That’s because errors in language learning can have some serious consequences.
Language acquisition comes with a lot of laughs, but that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games.
Linguists, psychologists and language teachers have studied language acquisition extensively, so if this is a topic that interests you, you might want to sample the abundant literature on the topic.
For instance, “Second Language Acquisition” by Wolfgang Klein discusses the process of learning another language. “Errors in Language Learning and Use” by Carl James focuses more squarely on the role errors can play in language education.
For now, though, let’s dive in head-first with a basic primer in common mistakes and errors you might encounter on your learning journey.
Why It’s Important to Be Aware of Common Errors and Mistakes
First, it’s important to be aware of typical errors and mistakes in order to avoid falling into common issues. For instance, if you know that many language learners avoid difficult constructs, you can try to prevent this error by putting extra effort into studying the most difficult concepts, like the subjunctive mode.
Think of errors and mistakes as potholes in the road to language learning. If you spot them up ahead, you can swerve. If not, you’re in for a rough ride.
Plus, being aware of common errors and mistakes will remind you that you’re not alone when you stumble upon them. Language learners can be pretty hard on themselves. When you encounter a roadblock, it can be easy to feel defeated.
Knowing that a lot of learners encounter these problems will help you remember that it happens to nearly everyone. Even people who have learned multiple languages have likely stumbled into mistakes and errors at some point.
Errors and Mistakes in Language Learning: A Field Guide
Colloquially, we might use “mistakes” and “errors” interchangeably, but in linguistics, they’re two distinct concepts.
Mistakes entail failing to apply the rules consistently. This means you know the rule, you just don’t always follow it. People often make mistakes in their native languages, too.
Between errors and mistakes, errors are the more threatening adversary. They’re a result of lack of proper knowledge.
Let’s look at mistakes first.
Common Mistakes in Language Learning
Failing to use proper verb tenses
When conjugating verbs in a foreign language, students might stick with simpler verb tenses than are necessary since they’re more familiar. This usually means using the infinitive or simple present tense. For instance, students learning English might slip up and say “I am sick” even if the want to indicate that it has been ongoing, which would be better captured with “I have been sick.”
Since important information such as time frames and conditionality can be conveyed through verb tenses, it’s important to use the right tense for your intended meaning. Completing verb exercises and using a wide array of verb tenses through speaking and writing practice will pay off in droves.
Many students often misuse vocabulary. You memorize words and chances are you really do know what they mean, but if you’re speaking or writing quickly, you might sometimes slip up and misuse a word or forget it altogether.
For instance, even when you know that the Spanish word embarazada means “pregnant,” you could slip up and try to use it to mean “embarrassed.” Luckily, practice makes perfect. The more often you use the words you’ve learned, the less likely you’ll misuse them.
Depending on what language you’re learning, there will be different verb endings to go along with different subjects. Ensuring that your subject and verb agree will help clarify which subject goes with which verb.
For instance, a student learning English might say “they eats.” However, learners may struggle with this due to lack of practice. The more writing and speaking practice you have, the less likely you’ll struggle with subject/verb agreement.
Many languages have gendered nouns and adjectives. Since this is something that English lacks, students may find it a little tricky. To avoid mistakes with gender agreement, it’s important to make gender an important part of your word study. Another valuable trick is to pay attention to gender patterns.
Often times, words of a particular gender will share a similar ending. For instance, someone studying Russian might not remember if метель is masculine or feminine. However, if they’ve studied that the -тель ending is masculine, they’re less likely to slip up. Over time, studying endings will make it easy to identify the gender of a word without having to consciously think about it.
Common Errors in Language Learning
“Second Language Learning Errors Their Types, Causes, and Treatment” by Hanna Y. Touchie identifies several of these common errors in language learning. For additional details on their causes and treatment, you might consider referring back to this helpful study.
Applying rules from your native language (also known as L1 interference or language transfer)
It’s widely accepted that language students take some elements of their first language and apply it to their second. While the exact nature of the transfer varies between languages, it may often include grammatical rules.
It’s only natural. Since you’re more familiar with your native language, it can be easy to transfer rules from one to the other.
What can you do to prevent it? Sadly, the verdict is out on this. Researchers continue to study L1 interference/language transfer looking for a solution.
Inaccurate or incomplete education
Whether it’s from faulty teaching or simply not learning enough, a flawed education can result in errors.
To avoid this, be sure to use quality resources and/or seek a well-prepared teacher. To ensure you have sufficient education, you can continue taking courses or using other learning materials until you reach your desired level of proficiency.
If you’re studying a language yourself, you might consider an online language teacher to help fill in the gaps or clarify certain concepts.
Avoidance occurs when a language structure is particularly difficult. For instance, native Chinese and Japanese speakers often avoid relative clauses when speaking English.
Ironically, avoiding difficult structures is self perpetuating—they won’t get easier if you don’t practice them—so try to use the most appropriate structures possible even if they require extra effort. Set a timer and plan on spending 15 minutes a day studying this topic. Soon you’ll find that it isn’t as overwhelming as you once thought.
Simplification is similar to avoidance in that it often stems from a structure being to difficult. Learners use a simpler form in place of complex structures because they don’t quite get it.
For instance, some learners may consistently use simpler verb tenses in place of more challenging tenses. While using a wrong verb form can also be a mistake (when a learner has the knowledge, but fails to implement the rules correctly), consistently choosing simpler verb forms is an error of simplification.
Overgeneralization occurs when a learner incorrectly applies a rule to a situation in which that rule does not apply. One study indicated that this may be more common in elementary students than intermediate students.
For instance, if a Spanish student conjugated the present tense yo (“I”) form of estar (“to be”) as esto, this would be an error of overgeneralization. While a similar conjugation would work for most verbs, estar is irregular and doesn’t follow standard rules.
To avoid overgeneralization, it helps to pay particular attention to exceptions to rules, such as irregular verbs.
Hypercorrection (also called “induced errors”) occurs when students have been over corrected, ironically pushing them to make new errors.
For instance, since many Spanish words begin with es, you may hear some Spanish speakers begin English-language words with a similar sound. For instance, “especial.” However, native Spanish speakers who are diligently studying English may go to the extreme to avoid this, hypercorrecting by avoiding es even when English words call for it. For instance, they may say “sential” instead of “essential.”
Like fossils, fossilization errors occur when something has been around for a long time. In this case, “fossilization” refers to how errors that have been repeated over and over can become “fossilized,” and therefore hard to get rid of.
Remember: Language learning builds on itself, so starting out with a strong foundation is important.
False concepts hypothesized
“False concepts hypothesized” refers to errors that stem when learners make incorrect assumptions about their target language. Because they believe these assumptions are correct, errors will consistently occur.
For instance, one example would be a student learning English who thinks “is” is necessary to indicate present tense. Therefore, he/she might say “She is read book.”
Obviously, avoiding assumptions is helpful, but having a teacher or tutor who can correct you before these habits become ingrained is also useful.
Remember, don’t take yourself too seriously, but keep an eye out for these mistakes and errors on your path to fluency!