RELC (Singapore) Guidelines A Periodical For Classroom Language Teachers, Vol.8, No.1, June 1986

A Cure For Formal Language Errors
In Papua New Guinea (& Elsewhere)

This Is Your Problem, Friend, Not Mine

Thor May 1986
University of Technology
Lae, Papua New Guinea

Abstract: this paper proposes that teacher correction often has very little transfer effect on a student's later language behaviour. It examines reasons for this, and the motivational paradigm within which students operate. The paper argues that student self-correction is more likely to have a measurable long term effect. A mechanism to motivate directed self-correction is therefore proposed. This mechanism involves subtracting marks from assessed essays, and indicating line locations where there is a problem, without however explaining the problem. The procedure gives students the option to recover the lost marks through re-editing and re-submission within a time frame. The system has been tested empirically and found to yield promising results. The method of error evaluation also results in a lower burden of pointless correction for teachers.


Table of Contents


the PNG setting // the dilemma // the status of language errors // the motivation to learn // the medicine // the cure // bouquets for the teacher // should teachers enforce a language standard? // are errors that stem from an interlanguage condition amenable to correction? // are some language rules so complicated that the teacher has to explain them? // will self-correction by students transfer to their future language behaviour? // references


1. The Setting


Firstly, a little background. The setting for the analysis which follows is the Papua New Guinea University of Technology, where students' language difficulties are directed for a quick fix to a team of lecturers in English for Specific Purposes. A lecturer in ESP, in an institution such as Unitech has a rather nebulous task. He has no actual subject content to convey to the students himself (although extensive use is made of content material from other areas). His official brief is to remedy whatever linguistic impediments students may encounter in their pursuit of an Engineering, Science or Business degree.

Papua New Guinea tertiary students are a very select group. 0nly 61.9% of children attend primary school (Dept. of Education Annual Report, 1983). For every 1000 children of primary school age there are just 7 university students in the country (Pacific Islands Year Book, 1984). Although English is the third or fourth language of these people, they are presumed on arrival at Unitech to be at ease in the medium after many years of primary and secondary education. The reality is that they may have a recognition vocabulary of 5,000 words or less, as against an estimated 40,000 word recognition capacity for the native English speaking tertiary student (Dutton, 1977, p.29). Dutton suggests that a large part of their schooling is spent in a fog of linguistic semi-comprehension and the first few years of primary school in total incomprehension. Clearly this extreme is not true of all students in all districts. Communications with the outside world have greatly improved in many places since 1977.A large number of expatriate teachers have been (wisely) replaced by nationals who appear to prefer Tok Pisin (pidgin) in informal situations. Nevertheless, student access to reading material has generally been minimal and inappropriate. English has rarely been a preferred or frequent medium of communication in their lives. In short, it is a miracle that these students have made it to university at all.

Many unaccustomed problems arise for new tertiary students. There is the difficulty of approaching novel abstract concepts and integrating them into existing knowledge structures. Students must also learn how to think systematically and record their perceptions in a coherent sequence. It is demoralizing to face a morass of new technical terminology. These are problems known to students everywhere, and widely ignored by subject lecturers everywhere. The difference in PNG is that students have not been equipped with the linguistic and cultural resources to tackle them unaided. The ESP teacher is brought in as a trouble shooter and finds the largest part of his time (very properly) devoted to these crucial matters.

2. The Dilemma


"Funny English" is not only a problem for students. It is also considered to be the language teacher's province. There are loud protests from academic staff, the government; and finally from the business community if students emerge with a degree incapable of writing, say, a business letter or report in formal, error-free English prose.

This is a dilemma. It is no secret that Australian (and English and American) students also emerge with degrees apparently incapable of writing standard English prose. The author has been scandalized by native English speaking students of Linguistics who appear to be oblivious of English sentence structure. He has observed many teacher trainees in Australia actually teaching incorrect (i.e. non-standard) grammatical paradigms to attentive primary school children. We must presume therefore that large numbers of people lead happy and productive professional lives without having mastered the complexities of formal English.

The EFL/ESP teacher might be tempted at this point to give up the struggle. He may guess. that teachers have been correcting his students for years, and the students themselves may be fed up to the back teeth with the whole "insoluble" problem.

I want to suggest that it is important to continue to pay attention to formal errors. The individual who can write clear, correct prose has an immense professional advantage. However, a necessary condition for the continued effort to improve is that improvement must be possible. It is.

3. The Status Of Language Errors

Anyone who has mastered one language (let alone three or four) to the point where they can be understood has shown that they have a phenomenal capacity for the management of abstract systems. The systems in question are so inaccessible and complex that generations of linguists have been unable to unravel the full set of rules and constraints for any natural language. It is clear therefore that the "errors" which dog second (and first) language users in formal prose are fairly superficial in nature. These individuals have already solved the most difficult problems involved in generating the target language, although they cannot articulate their solutions as abstract rules.

The precise nature of L2 errors is well documented. It is common to distinguish "errors", "lapses" and "omissions", with the implication that their treatment requires different pedagogical techniques; (I will have more to say about this at the end of the paper). Unless otherwise indicated, "error" in this discussion should be understood as a cover term for all three conditions. Some L2 errors will be paralleled by L1 user errors. Others may be traced to interference from another language, various stages of development in the process of acquiring English ("interlanguage"). . . . and so on. A whole industry has grown up in Error Analysis. It was preceded by many other academic enterprises devoted to Contrastive Analysis, a somewhat discredited notion nowadays. (For a fairly contemporary discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these procedures the reader might refer to Dulay, Burt & Krashen (1982)). This copious activity has provided qualifications and employment, as well as certain linguistic and pedagogical insights for professional persons. For whatever reason however, it has not done a great deal for students such as those at Unitech..

At a more humble level, any competent teacher who speaks English well is able to spot errors in his students' writing. The teacher may or may not be able to attach a label to such errors. If a label is available, drawn from his own (usually rudimentary) knowledge of some grammatical theory, he may consider this to be "the explanation". Whatever the status of such meta-knowledge, the teacher is also able to correct the offending item. That is, he can put a line through it and write in an acceptable alternative. Problem solved for the student, for that sentence, at that moment in his life. As for the teacher, like tens of thousands of his contemporaries and predecessors, he is resigned to spending days and long evenings putting red lines through students' funny English.

Some of the more astute predecessors of our conscientious teacher-marker realized long ago that the red-line-&-correction syndrome had little to do with what their students learned about the language. The same errors kept coming back again and again from the same students. In short, it was smarter to spend all that correction time having a quiet beer with friends or going to the cinema. Correction procedures have been discussed with some insight by a variety of writers over the years (Stiff 1967; Shaughnessy 1977; Raimes 1978).

Other teachers, plagued by a professional guilty conscience, have developed sometimes elaborate sets of exercises to drill correct structures. Their dedication may have been rewarded with some successes. The fact is though that drills are inherently uninteresting. Language learners have a habit of storing them in a different part of their minds from the actual power house of real language production (Krashen, 1981). There can't be many language teachers who haven't had the eerie experience of getting their charges to jump through all the hoops of formal drills, only to have them revert to all the bad old habits over a cup of coffee or out of class.


4. The Motivation To Learn

Bright & McGregor (1970,154) once shrewdly observed that ". . . . the teacher who carefully crosses out or underlines every mistake in his pupils' books develops a keen eye for errors but his pupils do not. . . . It is the pupils and not the teacher who should learn to spot mistakes by practising proofreading. It is the pupils and not the teacher who should take responsibility for eliminating mechanical errors." Further to this, I want to suggest now that the solution to formal language errors by students has little to do with teacher working hours, degrees in applied linguistics or the ingenuity of corrective exercises. Rather it has everything to do with focusing the motivation of language learners down to those very particular elements of the language whose correct manipulation is eluding them. Persistent language errors can be likened to a psychosomatic disorder. The key to a cure is to excite a real wish to get them sorted out. The proposal here is that given the right kind of incentive, their brains have already resolved and internalized (in ways that are quite mysterious) the larger body of rules and constraints for the language. We might, call this the Enterprise Theory of Language Acquisition.

Students are not motivated by teacher corrections. This is plain enough. Nor are they motivated by drills. Those are a chore. We may assume that in the PNG context at least their original motivation for learning English was largely "instrumental"; (limited to a specific material goal). That is, they probably, had no special wish to identify personally with native speakers of English : this would have been "integrative" motivation (Gardener & Lambert, 1959; Krashen, 1981). Rather, they knew that to survive in the educational environment, to get a good job and to become one of the elite of this new nation, they simply had to master a language which (as children) was absolutely remote from their lives.

It is characteristic of instrumental language learning that the learning curve will flatten abruptly onto a plateau as soon as the student considers that he/she has, mastered sufficient of the language to meet immediate needs. That is, learning virtually ceases. The writer has observed immigrant process workers in Australia, for example, who have not learned a word of English, for twenty years after :reaching a basic survival proficiency.

The experience of children and young adults proceeding through an education system is somewhat different. The demands on their foreign (English) language competence are constantly extended. In many ways these demands are demoralizing, for the promised rewards also seem to recede, perpetually just beyond reach. The language environment in PNG offers little compensatory pleasure to a hesitant English language user. Large numbers of young people give up the struggle.

Of those people who do survive to tertiary level, we may surmise that their interest in English is still largely instrumental, although from this point on they will begin to mix more and more into a community where the language is socially rewarding. (There is evidence in fact that even at university level Tok Pisin remains the preferred medium for social intercourse (Swan, 1985)). Nevertheless, the students' language achievement, conceived graphically, has been a rising curve, dislocated by plateaux of non-learning where the individual felt secure enough for the moment to survive.

Somehow, as a language teacher, one has to persuade the student (wherever one meets him on this odyssey to language mastery) that an imperfect level of prose usage is not good enough for survival. This is a matter of fine judgement. We know in our hearts that perfectly error-free prose will remain a chimera for most individuals, but also that useful improvement should be possible. What is required then is a mechanism, a metaphorical carrot, to tempt the student yet again to focus his mind on a goal..


5. The Medicine


The carrot which I use is the most ancient of illusory temptations, the academic mark. It works this way. When a piece of written work is handed in for marking, my eyes run down the page, jarring to a halt as usual at each aberration from the standard code (this hyper-criticism is a teacher's occupational hazard). I do not, however, mark the offending spot. It is necessary first of all to decide whether this student, at this moment in his life, needs to be reminded of this error. If it does seem like a good idea, then I pencil a small circle in the margin. Thus:

There were many equipments in each of sections. . . . Two problem foci (pieces of equipment; the sections) occur in this short sentence; hence two circles. (Yes, I am aware that American usage sometimes pluralizes "equipment" and drops the quantifier).

I do not pause to consider an explanation for the errors, or classify them. The act of writing that small circle barely punctuates my attention as I search for the real substance and worth of this piece of writing. At the end I award a mark, make comments. . . and only then go back to add up that rash of circles in the margin.

The students have already been told that each small circle represents a minus mark. It is not unusual for someone to receive back an essay with the annotation : 7/10-9* (*errors) = 2/10. This is dreadful news for a student. The good news is that each mark can be redeemed if the error is located and rectified within a reasonable time.

The rules of the game are that the student can solve his problem by any means at all, save only that he may not ask the teacher. It is OK, for example, to consult a friend (or even another lecturer!). My observation has been that in the PNG cultural milieu most people will doggedly figure the thing out for themselves. This was a bit of a surprise. It may be because a teacher has that terrible psychological hold over students of knowing the private weaknesses of each one. These are secrets which a person will not casually exhibit to his peers.


6. The Cure


Unitech students are survivors. Long ago they will have developed a high tolerance for "red ink rash". They are no longer wounded when their hard-won prose is slashed and rebuilt by a teacher. That is what teachers do. There is a covert contract : students make mistakes, teachers correct them. Everyone has a job. But now the contract is violated : students have to correct their own work. This is a new ball game, and there are real penalties for each mistake. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. Human beings are superb problem solving creatures, and it is fascinating to observe the range of stratagems adopted by individuals when they are concerned.

A significant number of students locate and amend the bulk of their errors with little difficulty. The exercise for them becomes a form of training in proof-reading, which is precisely what they need. Others are like a boxer who shuts his eyes and flails his arms, hoping to hit something. Often, they will "correct" structures that are already correct, and ignore the real problem. Sometimes this is genuine bafflement, but more often than not it is a lack of analytic technique. After one has smilingly rejected three or four wild attacks on the problem they will finally get down to business and begin to look at things more carefully. This is an invaluable educational process for them with implications far beyond language teaching.

Some individuals will sit quietly for many minutes, gnawing at the permutations of a sentence. What is wrong with it? How can I change it? What if I do this, or this? Perhaps for the first time in their lives they are consciously learning what it is to be a linguist. They may not get the problem sorted out at first attempt, or even the second. Depending upon the individual, I may tantalize them with a hint, a clue, and send them away again. The important thing is that the final solution is theirs. We are all egotists. We remember our own inspirations.

Finally, there is the student who has no taste for introspection at all. So there is a problem? The solution is not obvious? Then get rid of the whole damned thing. This student will cross out a sentence or even a paragraph. If he can get away with it, he will leave it at that. If something has to be said, then he will rewrite it in a much simplified form. Both outcomes are acceptable, and even desirable. In the first case, the material was probably redundant. In the second, he has decided to write within the limits of certain competence instead of trying to impress with complex sentences. If the incentive is consistent enough, this individual will eventually learn to avoid the whole hassle of self-correction by developing a simple, direct prose style.


7. Bouquets For The Teacher


The practice of do-it-yourself language correction has important bonuses for the teacher. It requires far less of his time than the old contract of "you break it; I'll fix it". When people do come back with their handiwork it takes only an instant to see if they have it right. Where it is necessary to give a hint (or as a last resort, a VERY large clue), you can be sure that the student is listening. His mind is really tuned in to this problem. Best of all, the whole cycle of correction becomes a kind of game. Any good game is challenging, has high stakes, a reward for scoring, and an atmosphere of cathartic good humour.


8. Some Technical Questions


a) Should teachers enforce a language standard?


The process of identifying language errors implies that there is deviation. from a standard. On the whole, this is not controversial since without general agreement about linguistic structures, communication becomes impossible. Some argument may arise when there is conflict between a locally recognized standard and an international standard. It has been argued for example that equipments has replaced pieces of equipment in PNG English (see my correction example above). The decision about whether to adopt a local or international standard for a particular context is ultimately one for the language user (although he/she should be aware of the choice). As a general observation however, I feel that it is important to distinguish between spoken and written standards. Even where quite distinctive dialects of English are found, it is widely accepted that an international standard of written English should prevail (perhaps with a few minor local deviations).


b) Are errors that stem from an interlanguage condition amenable to correction ?

The subconscious set of rules with which a speaker generates language are considered by most linguists to be a complete, integrated and interdependent system. Thus, the modification of one rule alters the system as a whole and (it has been observed) is not something which can be achieved easily by external manipulation (such as doing language drills). Even when a user knows a language "imperfectly", as measured by the community language standard, his internal set of rules (whatever their form) are thought to. be mutually consistent, and resistant to external modification. Thus, many a parent has futilely attempted to correct the grammar of a child, only to find that the child spontaneously adopts the community standard when it is ready.

The inference drawn from first language acquisition has often been that second (or 3rd or 4th) language users also have an internal, consistent set of rules (an "interlanguage") which, however deviant it is from the standard, will be resistant to external manipulation. It will nevertheless modify spontaneously "when the speaker is (mentally) ready". Error correction under these circumstances is therefore likely to be a waste of the teacher's time, and beyond the conscious control of the speaker himself. This hypothesis is fine as far as it goes.

I question the defining conditions of the interlanguage idea. If a child learning his first language is certain to master the essential structures of that language to a recognised standard within five years, then it is reasonable to say that (for example) at 3 years of age he is manipulating an interlanguage. However, what are we to say of a 50-year old immigrant process worker who has not progressed past basic survival English after 20 years in an English speaking environment? Surely it must be recognised that his "interlanguage", the sets of rules with which he is working, is not half-way to anything, but rather the final system that he will use for the rest of his life. Now consider the PNG schoolchild and young adult slowly acquiring competence in English. At any point in the educational process, this person may drop out and cease to acquire the language. This means that the interlanguage, the set of rules which he/she has at that point, will become fixed, the final model.

It seems then that when we say that a person has an interlanguage (rather than a final set of rules), we should be implying that he/she is motivated to modify that set of rules to be more in accord with the community standard. While external teacher instruction through language structures (e.g. drills) may have only a marginal influence on his competence, we should still be able to motivate that person towards greater competence. It is motivation which sets up the psychological conditions needed for language acquisition. This is the principle behind the Enterprise Theory of Language Acquisition outlined in the first part of the paper.


c) Are some language rules so complicated that the teacher has to explain?

In any natural language, there are many thousand of rules and constraints. Nobody knows how many. It would be beyond the competence of all but a handful of linguists to explain the full set of conditions attaching to, say, the English determiner system (and even then it would be a matter of argument).

The fearful complexity of language need not prevent teachers from helping students to gain an insight into how it works. Individuals vary greatly in their ability to register and make use of the kinds of rules found in grammar books. (These written rules, by the way, are only incomplete guesses about the way language behaves). If a teacher has a clear picture in his or her head of, say, the basic constituent structure of an English sentence, and a student is willing and able to accept an explanation, then this kind of help can be of real value. Neither should fool themselves though that they have an answer to the world, the universe and everything (the very next example is bound to be an exception). By the same analogy it helps a certain type of (fairly analytic) individual to study grammatical models of a whole language (i.e. grammar books), but most people who are motivated to learn a language acquire the operational rules without conscious analysis, and in ways that are altogether mysterious.

A short answer to the question at the head of this section then is that some language rules are so simple that some teachers can attempt to explain them to some students. As for the rest, be satisfied with knowing that a structure is "right" or "wrong", and motivating the students to register that rightness or wrongness as vividly as possible.


d) Will self-corrections by students transfer to their future language behaviour?


The starting point for this paper was that teacher correction has very little transfer effect on a student's later language behaviour. Those pedagogical procedures suggested in the course of the discussion can only be justified if student self-correction does have a measurable long term effect. The argument presented above has been that a method of self-correction through linguistic discovery is much more likely to lead to transference than, say, drills. The reason is that the student is devising a linguistic solution at a much deeper level than that of surface rule formation of the kind that a teacher may explain. It is from such deep rules, which we are quite unable to articulate, that language is actually generated.

There is obviously scope for controlled empirical research to determine the conditions under which optimum transfer takes place. My informal observation has been that the consistent application of language self-correction procedures, coupled with the right kind of incentives, leads to a marked improvement in the overall standard of written English. The decrease in "lapses" and "omissions" under such a regime should be entirely predictable. A significant decline in the number and variety of residual errors would be of even greater interest.




Bright J A & G P McGregor. 1970. Teaching English As A Second Language, Longman.

Burt M K & C Kiparsky. I972. The Gooficon - A Repair Manual For English, Newbury House.

Diller K C (ed.). 198I. Universals In Language Learning Aptitude, Newbury House.

Dulay H, M Burt & S Krashen. 1982. Language Two, OUP, N.Y. Dutton T et al. 1977. Teaching At Tertiary Institutions in Papua New Guinea, Dept. of Language, University of PNG.

Gardener R C & E W Lambert. 1959. "Motivational Variables in Second Language Acquisition", Canadian Journal Of Psychology 13, 266-272.

Holzknecht S & M Smithies. 1980. "Errors in Written English Made by Students at The Papua New Guinea University of Technology", Research Report R47-80, Dept. Language & Social Science, PNG University of Technology. Also published in RELC Journal, Vol.12, No. 2, Dec. 1981, pp. 10-35.

Krashen S.1981. "Aptitude and Attitude in Relation to Second Language Acquisition and Learning", in Diller op.cit., pp.155-175.

Pacific Islands Year Book. 1984. Pacific Publications, Sydney, NSW.

Papua New Guinea Department of Education, 1983 Annual Report.

Papua New Guinea National Statistical Office (Port Moresby). 1980 Population Census; Pre-Release Summary of Final Figures.

Raimes A. 1978. "Problems & Teaching Strategies in ESL Composition", Language In Education 14, Centre for Applied Linguistics, Virginia, USA.

Richards J (ed.). 1974. Error Analysis, pub. Longman.

Shaughnessy M.1977. Errors. And Expectations : A Guide For Teachers Of Basic Writing, pub. OUP, N.Y.

Stiff R. 1967. "The Effect Upon Student Composition of Particular Correction Techniques", Research In The Teaching Of English I, 54-75, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinios.

Swan J.1985. "The Use of Tok Pisin by Students at the PNG University of Technology", paper delivered to the TESLA Conference, Goroka, PNG, in July 1985.



1. The material in this article is as relevant as it was in 1986. Some things don't change. It was first published in Guidelines - A Periodical For Classroom Language Teachers, Vol.8, No.1, June 1986, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, Singapore. 

2. This is an extended version of a paper given at the TESLA Conference in Goroka, PNG, in July 1985. Special thanks are due to John Swan, Angie Phillip, Colin Barron and Laurel Salter-Duke whose encouragement and queries led me to seek answers to some complicated questions.



This Is Your Problem, Friend, Not Mine (c) Thor May 1986; all rights reserved

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