E is for Error

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Coming home one afternoon from my job teaching English to university students, I found my four-year-old son prancing around the kitchen with a beach towel cape around his neck, fighting evil superheroes with a wooden spoon. “Spencer,” I said, “How was your day?”

“Good,” he replied. “I swimmed with Mommy.”

“No!” I sternly reprimanded him. “The verb swim has an irregular past tense verb form!”

No, of course I didn’t say that. It’s not the language or the attitude one uses with a four-year-old. Instead, I employed what is called a recast: “Oh, you swam with Mommy.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I swam with Mommy.”

Spencer’s use of swimmed is a common but intriguing utterance that gives us an insight into childhood language acquisition. It is highly unlikely that he had ever heard the construction from either his parents or his articulate seven-year-old brother. It’s possible he might have picked it up from one of his four-year-old friends but, more likely, it was an illustration of a young and flexible mind’s ability to generate grammar rules and then apply them in conversation. In this case, Spencer is likely to have intuitively noticed the pattern of regular past formation with ‑ed, in words such as walked (but not run/ran), talked (but not speak/spoke), and napped (but not sleep/slept). He then naturally—and experimentally—applied the formula to the word swim.

But was the resulting utterance a mistake or an error?

Mistakes and errors seem like interchangeable terms but, in linguistic terms, they are quite different. Even the most competent native speakers make countless mistakes in the course of a day’s speech. Often referred to as slips of the tongue, these mistakes tend to be mispronunciations or grammatical lapses that native speakers immediately know are wrong. We mispronounce words when we’re tired, or interrupted, or are speaking more quickly than the speed of thought; our brains and tongues are not in sync.

Similarly, grammatical lapses often occur because we begin saying one thing, and then our thoughts are diverted and we end by saying something else. Typical of this type of mistake are subject-verb agreement issues (Give me one or two apple—I mean apples.). Other common errors are article mistakes (I want the book—I mean, a book.), or preposition mistakes (Get in—I mean on—the bus.). Self-correction is so common that it has its own linguistic label: repair.

In texts and emails, we tend to ignore such problems as the products of stumbling fingers, and in other computer-based writing, our errors might be automatically corrected. In speech, we tend to self-correct unless our message is urgent and/or obvious mistakes are unlikely to interfere with meaning. If the listener knows what was meant, it’s most usually the polite choice not to correct the speaker. On the other hand, a speaker’s mistake that seems like an important point or one that throws the conversation into ambiguity, sometimes prompts a listener to ask for clarification. In the sentence “While I was in Germany, I went to Brussels.” might prompt the listener to query, “Did you mean Brussels or Berlin?” In this case, it might have been a slip of the tongue and the speaker did mean Germany’s capital, Berlin, or perhaps it was about going on an international trip to Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

But what about errors? Continue reading

D is for Discourse Analysis

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Discourse analysis is about understanding what is not said. Consider this conversation:

Speaker 1: Do you think we could watch a movie?
Speaker 2: Ah, yeah. That’s gonna happen. Have you practiced piano?
Speaker 1: I’ll just get a snack first?
Speaker 2: Sure. We can eat it during the movie.

If you are a native speaker of English, the conversation will strike you as easy to understand and, hopefully, humorous. But that’s because you were able to recognize a series of subtle linguistic cues. These cues are typical in any conversational exchange, but also in written discussions, such as in texts and emails. It’s worth looking at eight types of discourse-analysis cues in detail and seeing how they would apply to this short conversation.

The first cue has to do with the setting, or where the speech event is located in time and space. If you’re a native speaker, you probably realize this conversation takes place at a home in the evening because practicing the piano fits into that particular schemata (mind map of associated ideas). Although people practice piano at music schools, it’s more commonly practiced at home. This is reinforced by the idea of someone asking permission to have a snack and watch a movie, which also gives a clue about the participants.

Participants in a conversation are those who take part in the speech event, and the roles they play. In the short conversation above, the act of asking for something—a snack—helps to define roles and makes it likely that the conversation is between a child and a parent. Continue reading

A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative. Continue reading