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Signaling all the mistakes

One of the big challenges most language learners will face to go from intermediate to advanced level is fixing the “little mistakes”. Incorrect word order, wrong preposition, mispronounced vowel, the list could be very long. It’s just details, or rather: every time, it’s just a detail; but altogether it’s a real cacophony.

This is usually for two reasons. The first one is that in general no one helps the student to build a habit of self-monitoring. It’s a very precious skill to have when learning a language: to be able to put our attention on the production of the sentence. More precisely: on what we do with the articulators (tongue, jaw, lips, throat, etc) and respiration, conditioning all work on pronunciation, and what we do with the words themselves, their order, their interactions (agreement, conjugation, etc).

The second reason is a lack of efficient feedback. With such an efficient feedback, the students can correct themselves and start learning what can and can’t be said in the language. They can improve their confidence in using the “good” structures and try to get rid of the “bad” structures before they get automatized.

The student might want more than just “being understood”

Relying just on conversation or on task-oriented courses, the student gets a very problematic message. These activities have a fair tolerance to the various mistakes the student is bound to make while learning. Usually he will be told that his goal is to achieve a specific task (eg. rent a virtual car during a role-playing game) or to get his point across during a conversation. So, if that goal is reached, the “tolerable” mistakes will be assimilated as something functional and automatized. It is like never caring about being off-key while learning to play an instrument, as long as someone manages to recognize the song.

But if the feedback comes in three days or even half an hour later, it might be too late. Many things are mobilized when we try to build a sentence, and we can achieve some control over them while it’s still “hot”. If we wait, the hesitations and criteria we used to build the sentence cease to be present in us. Then any correction given by the teacher just tries to answer questions that are no longer relevant.

Mistakes are just the start

So, if the student wants a solid command of the language, he needs to be able to monitor efficiently his production, which requires feedback. Getting that feedback right away allows him to adjust and reshape things while they’re still vivid and before errors get “fossilized”. The immediate feedback makes the student aware that something went wrong, and creates a mental tension mobilizing all the available resources for an instant. But giving him the right answer just kills that flame as it appeared. There was a problem, but it’s solved already: we can move on. Chances are that the incident will soon be forgotten.

Most of the time, it happens that the student already knows everything he needs to fix the problem. He just needs to become aware of his mistake, and then to get enough time to sort it out. In many cases, just by saying “problem!” the teacher will already have done enough. When signaling the problem, he engages the student in a focused puzzle-solving attitude that will allow him to form a series of hypothesis. Since he’s able to test these hypothesis right away, he can build new inner criteria and filter out or reinforce the existing ones.

This audio feedback from one of my students (as well as several of the written ones) gives a pretty clear idea of the difference it can make from the student side. If eventually the student fails to fix the mistake on his own, there are several ways for the teacher to help him. They are the object of an upcoming article.

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