Why do our learners often get prepositions, articles and verb endings wrong?

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This article was prompted by a question (the one in the title) a colleague asked me recently at finding lots of mistakes in their students’ essays relating not solely to prepositions, but also to definite/indefinite articles, copulas (e.g. is and are) and other function words. The answer to that question is relatively simple, but in order for the reader to fully grasp its implications for classroom instruction, one has to first get acquainted with the concept of Working Memory and Executive Control.

Working Memory

To put it as simply as possible – since one of my colleagues keeps complaining about the complex jargon in my blogposts – Working Memory is the space activated in our brain when we process information, what in the old days was called Short-Term memory. Working Memory is a ‘buffer’ between the outside world and Long-Term memory which ‘holds’ any information we are trying to decode and retrieves the information we need from Long-term memory which we need to carry out the task-in-hand (e.g. writing a sentence or understanding a text). So, for example, when we are writing a sentence in a foreign language, Working Memory is the ‘place’ along our neural network in which we actually construct that sentence (i.e. where we choose the words we need from our mental lexicon, arrange them together in a grammatically correct sequence, make sure the spelling is correct and edit the final product).

Working memory has very limited channel capacity, in other words can only store a limited number of images, words and numbers at any one time and unless we keep rehearsing it, the information will be lost easily after a few seconds only (a word stays in our brain only 2-3 seconds unless we make a conscious effort to retain in through rehearsal). That is why, in order to keep a phone number in our head as we frantically try to key it in our phone we need to repeat it in our heads (or rehearse it) a few times. Miller’s (1965) magic number 7+/- 2 indicates the number of digits we can hold in our Working Memory at any one time – a very short number indeed.

The challenges posed by foreign language writing

Writing in a foreign language is much harder than a lot of us may think, especially under communicative pressure. Let us have a closer look at how a sentence is produced in writing. First of all, it is important to point out that the starting point, both in the first and the second language is a Proposition, in other words a representation in our brain (in Semantic Memory to be precise) of the concept or idea we are trying to convey. A Proposition, unlike what we may intuitively think, is not made up of words, thus, the brain has to translate into words, whether we are operating in the first language or second language.

According to Cognitive research (e.g. Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983), the Translation process consists of four stages: Wording, Presenting, Storing and Transcribing. In the first stage, the brain transforms the Propositions into words (lexis). Although at this stage the pre-lexical decisions the writer made at earlier stages and the preceding discourse limit lexical choice, Wording the proposition is still a complex task: ‘the choice seems infinite, especially when we begin considering all the possibilities for modifying or qualifying the main verb and affected nouns’ (Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983: 32).

Once s/he has selected the lexical items needed, the writer has to tackle the task of Presenting the proposition in standard written language. This involves making a series of decisions in the areas of genre and grammar. In the area of grammar, Agreement and Tense will be the main issues, especially in languages like French, or German where a lot of permutations are required.

The proposition, as planned so far, is then temporarily stored in Working Memory while Transcribing takes place. Propositions longer than just a few words will have to be rehearsed and re-rehearsed in Working Memory for parts of it not to be lost before the transcription is complete.

The limitations of Working Memory create serious disadvantages for unskilled writers. Until they gain some confidence and fluency with spelling, their Working Memory may have to be loaded up with letter sequences of single words or with only 2 or 3 words (Hotopf, 1980). This not only slows down the writing process, but it also means that all other planning must be suspended during the transcriptions of short letter or word sequences.

The physical act of Transcribing the fully formed proposition begins once the graphic image of the output (what the sentence physically looks like) has been stored in Working Memory.

In L1-writing the decisions taken at any of the four stages outlined above are taken automatically, thereby occupying little or no space at all in Working Memory. However, in L2-writing, especially in beginner to intermediate writer, every decision will take a lot of Working Memory space, making the process slow, cumbersome and difficult to monitor because the process happens mostly consciously.

Hence, the adaptive response of the brain, especially in beginner writers, is to prioritize the most important features of each proposition (the principle of ‘Saliency first’ being at play here), i.e. : the items that are most important in terms of conveying the intended meaning. The most semantically salient elements will include mainly: Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives. Function words, which carry considerably less meaning, will be relatively neglected by Working Memory’s attentional systems as, let’s face it, even if the writer gets them wrong, they won’t impede comprehension massively (example: whether I say, in French “Je vais au cinema’ or ‘je vais à la cinema’ I will be readily understood by a reader/listener).

This phenomenon is exacerbated by linguistic distance between the first language and the target foreign language. For instance gender (masculine and feminine) as well as verb endings are not likely to be perceived as salient by an English native speaker (as they do not exist in their language), which means that they are likely to be less monitored.

The less proficient the foreign language writer is and the less time he has to monitor his/her output, the more likely he/she will be to make mistakes with function words. Hence, errors are bound to be even more frequent in oral performance, where the self-monitoring capacity of Working Memory is drastically reduced compared to the written medium.

As the learner becomes more proficient, his/her ability to juggle the demands posed to his/her Working Memory by the processes outlined above will increase. This is due to the fact that with a lot of writing practice in the target foreign language a lot of sub-processes become automatized and require only peripheral attention, freeing up Working Memory space. This enhanced processing efficiency will also allow for more accuracy, too, in the production of less salient features unless Error Fossilization throws the spanner in the works.

The danger of fossilization

When errors go unmonitored a bit too often, they become automatized and it is very difficult to ‘unlearn’ or eradicate. Mukkatesh (1986) found that despite many remedial interventions such errors cannot be eliminate at all from L2 learners’ Interlanguage. This phenomenon, called by Selinker (1972) Fossilization, is obvious in a lot of foreign language speakers, especially when it comes to pronunciation; that is why, according to Selinker, only 5 % of foreign language speakers can be said to sound 100% native-like. Their second language will always contain some fossilized item. A very good friend of mine, for instance, speaks perfect English, with accurate pronunciation and grammar and an impressive lexical repertoire wider to that of an average native speaker; however, he cannot help voicing the ‘p’ in the word ‘psychology’ (influence of his first language: Italian), despite many corrections. Such is the power of Fossilization.

Function words and any other less salient L2 features (e.g. gender, plural and verb endings and minor pronunciation inaccuracies) are particularly amenable to fossilization as they are more likely to go unmonitored and uncorrected. Therefore, the danger is that when learners do not get enough negative (cognitive) feedback at the early stages of L2 acquisition, they are likely to fossilize mistakes with the above L2 structures and to keep making these mistakes all the way to A-Level and university – as I have often witnessed in my university lecturer days.

Communicative language teaching, especially in its strong version, by prioritizing fluency over accuracy, often leads to fossilization (and pidginization) especially when the students are asked to perform in unstructured oral practice, at a level of proficiency they are not developmentally ready for and under communicative pressure. (Skehan, 1994)

Implications for MFL teaching

 

The implications for the MFL classroom are manifold but hinge mainly on the teacher’s pedagogy and on the course end-goals. If we are teaching GCSE level students and we are happy for them to make a few minor mistakes as far as they can convey their intended meaning effectively, we should not worry too much about error and we can exercise a relatively high degree of tolerance. However, if we are dealing with individuals who want to make language their career and become one day interpreters, translators or teachers, then the attitude has to be less lax and mistakes with articles, prepositions, copulas and gender agreement WILL matter.

If we do want to address this issue radically, we need to keep students focused on the importance of accuracy from the very early stages of language acquisition whilst keeping the main focus of our teaching on the development of fluency. This is not easy, even for experienced teachers. Editing instruction – through games, quiz and other fun activities – should become part of almost every lesson (through snappy starters or plenaries, for example) to remind students of the importance of accuracy and to raise their awareness of which mistakes are more likely to occur at their current level of proficiency.

More importantly, the written tasks we involve are students in must pitched to the correct level, especially in terms of the cognitive challenges they pose to an inexperienced writer. If we do not, we are likely to engender more error than we and the students can effectively deal with in the remedial phase. Fluency, as I said above, has priority, it is true; however, fluent output that is rife with errors can be stigmatizing and irritating for the reader/interlocutor and we need to be aware of that in a global era in which, more than ever before, our learners are more likely to use the target language in the workplace.

Finally, Error correction – or rather Error remediation – can also play an important role if it engages the learners in a sustained long-term self-monitoring process initially moderated by the teacher which aims at focusing them on their most frequent mistakes.

How to lessen the negative interference of our learners’ mother tongue on their target language pronunciation

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This article suggests teaching strategies based on sensory-motor research findings on bilingual speech aimed at reducing the impact of negative first language transfer on L2 target language speech. I will start by examining the process involved in language transfer and its consequence on the acquisition of L2 pronunciation in light of the latest recent research evidence. I shall then proceed to discuss the implications for the foreign language classroom.

Language Transfer

As we all know, our first language (or any other language we know for that matter) can cause interference in the process of acquiring a new one. We refer to this phenomenon as language transfer. Language transfer can be positive (i.e. facilitating learning or performance) or negative (i.e. impeding learning or performance) depending on the similarity/distance between the pre-existing language and the new language one is learning.

For instance, an English native speaker will experience negative transfer when it comes to pronouncing ‘P’ in Spanish ( negative transfer), because in this language the ‘p’ sound is a non-aspirated labial sound with a short onset time, whereas in English it is an aspirated sound with a relatively long onset time. On the other hand, a native speaker of Italian will have no problem with that sound as in his/her language it is pronounced in exactly the same way as it is in Spanish (positive transfer)

The main cognitive cause of Language Transfer is that when we learn a new language our brain uses our default language(s) – more than often our first language – as the starting point for the hypotheses we formulate to make sense of that language and/or as a communicative strategy to fill in any communicative gaps. In the specifics of foreign language pronunciation L2-learners transfer refers to the L2-learners’ application of their L1-phonological categories to decode and represent the foreign language sound system. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that their motor commands (their control over larynx, phrarynx and articulators) have been conditioned by years and years of first language pronunciation. Hence, especially at the early stages, the ‘phonological distance’ (differences in pronunciation) between two languages will play a very important role in determining the accuracy of L2- learner pronunciation.

Negative transfer is more likely to cause error at pronunciation level, when speech occurs in contexts that are difficult to monitor or which require a greater mastery of motor skills. So, for instance, a beginner foreign language learner talking spontaneously in the context of uncontrolled communicative practice will have less time to monitor pronunciation because his/her Working Memory is focused on higher metacomponents such as meaning and grammar; in this kind of context, the target language sounds that s/he finds problematic will be seriously affected by the lack of monitoring. On the other hand, the pronunciation of those problematic sounds is usually much more accurate when they are uttered in isolation, as discrete items – just like a toddler’s blabbing – due to the absence of articulatory interference from the preceding and following sounds in the word/surrounding words and ease of monitoring.

Another way in which L1-transfer affects pronunciation pertains to the fact that skilled L1-readers are very familiar with the written form of their native language, and automatically decode every grapheme (i.e. letter or cluster of letters) they read by producing a phonological representation of the sound (Snow,2002). This means that, when a learner reads a foreign language word its Working Memory will automatically match that sound with a first language phonological representation (i.e. will pronounce it the first language way). Thus, even if that learner reads a given word aloud following the teacher’s rendition of it, the L1 phonological representation of that word in the learner’s Working Memory will cause interference, with negative consequences for learning.

Another less recent finding (Neufeld, 1979) suggests that second language learners’ pronunciation might benefit from a mute period – a period of intense auditory exposure to L2 before attempting to produce the sounds. In Neufeld (1979) students were trained on pronunciation of sounds from Inuktitut, a language to which they had not been exposed previously. The learning process involved intensive listening to the language, with no attempt at producing the sounds. They were later instructed to produce the sounds and their attempts were rated as being mostly native-like. Neufeld claimed that the silent period at the beginning helped the students to accurately produce the language later. Removing students’ own attempts allowed perception to remain more plastic, such that the L2 acoustic template is heard accurately before erroneous phonetic utterances in L2 become fossilised. Producing the sound too early, and therefore incorrectly, would have influenced this acoustic template and thus hindered their production.

A mute period may prove beneficial in enabling the learner to hear (and thus produce) subtly different phonetic features, new phoneme distinctions and unfamiliar sequences of stress patterns. One possibility is that an artificially induced mute period may protect the learner from using first language phonological categories to represent the L2 system, thus enabling higher levels of production performance and avoiding L1 transfer or interference.

The threats posed by L1- language transfer to the correct uptake of  L2- pronunciation at the earlier stages of language acquisition are worrying only if we are aiming at 100 % accuracy due to the risk of fossilization, a phenomenon which, as explained in a previous post refers to the automatisation – often impervious to correction – of L2 learner errors. In most L2- classroom settings, unless we are training future international spies, we will be mostly aiming at clear and intelligible pronunciation with the majority of our learners and near-native accent only with a few talented ones.

How can we reduce the negative impact of L2-transfer on pronunciation?

Firstly, in order to avoid interference from a grapheme’s L1 phonological encoding (see the point made five paragraphs ago) on first introducing a new word it would be preferable not to expose the learners to its written form – this would avoid automated representation of the native phonological representation in Working Memory. In other words, it is better to present it orally, first in association with an image and, after some listening practice, to show it in its written form.

Secondly, L2 learners should be exposed to as much listening as possible in the context of a mute period before engaging in oral activities. Realistically speaking, in a typical state school classroom setting the pre-communicative mute period cannot be that long; but the most important lesson to be learnt from Neufeld’s (1979) research is that students should not be thrown into unstructured communicative practice straight away after presenting the target lexical items. The listening activities the students should be engaged in during this mute period should not only include test-like listening comprehension activities in the traditional sense: e.g. question and answer or true or false which focus solely on meaning. They should also include bottom-up processing activities that focus students on pronunciation and intonation, which involve matching words to sounds,  such as jigsaw listening, gap-fills with options to choose from or , at the basic level, circling a word or phrase from a choice of three or four options.

Thirdly, the observation that students seem to perform challenging L2 phonemes (sounds) more effectively when pronounced in isolation would seem to suggest – according to Simmonds, Wise and Leech (2011) that a babbling phase in which students imitate the target speech sounds in isolation might also improve non-native pronunciation. This can be done at the beginning of a lesson as a warm-up activity – I have done it quite often and it can be fun, depending on how you pitch it to the student and how you conduct it. Or, it can be set a homework activity to be carried out at home for a few minutes, recorded and sent to the teacher for feedback (were the  target sounds performed correctly? What could be done to improve them, etc.)

Finally, students need lots of practice in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities. Such activities should, in my view, be staged after:

(a) effective modelling of the correct pronunciation;

(b) the mute listening period discussed above;

(c) extensive vocabulary practice through plenty of deep processing learning activities (e.g. the work-outs found on www.language-gym.com);

(d) Structured oral activities (e.g. find someone who; structured surveys; role-plays with prompts; timed oral translations) preceded by sufficient preparation time

(e) Less structured oral activities (at a later stage) in which students, through interviews, simulations, improvised role-plays, etc. converse freely about the topic-in-hand.

Traditional pronunciation drills (audiolingual style), minimal pairs and tongue-twisters or any other activities focusing students on pronunciation can be thrown in at the pre-communicative stage, provided that they maintain students motivation high and the students understand and accept the rationale behind them.

In conclusion, it is up to teachers to decide – with the course requirement they teach on as well as the interest of the stakeholders in mind, of course – how much emphasis they should put on accuracy. What research shows is that plunging students into unstructured oral communicative practice straight away is not beneficial to the development of accurate pronunciation. The above strategies may not always be easy or practical to implement but are in my experience very effective in enhancing student grasp and execution of the target language pronunciation.