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Error Analysis

In language teaching, an error can be defining as the use of a linguistic item (e.g. a sound, a word, a
grammatical item, etc.) in a way which a fluent or educated native speaker of the language regards
as showing faulty or incomplete learning. A distinction is sometimes made between an error, which
results from incomplete knowledge, and a mistake made by a learner when writing or speaking and
which is caused by lack of attention, fatigue, carelessness, or some other aspect of performance.
According to Chomsky (1965), an error is made when a learner produces incorrect language
because they do not yet know or has not met the correct form. In this respect, an error is a
competence-based fault, which results from a gap in the learners knowledge. A mistake, on the
other hand, is a performance error i.e. the learner knows this piece of information at a cognitive
level but when they come to use the item, perhaps when speaking spontaneously, they do not
produce it accurate
Error Analysis (EA) is an approach to analyzing learner language in applied linguistics which
involves the identification and examination of the errors that are made by second/foreign language
learners. The analysis of learners errors has long interested researchers and practitioners in the
field of second language acquisition (Corder, 1981; Ellis, 2008).
Although applied linguistics previously perceived errors as problems that should be eradicated,
they errors are now considered natural ingredients of the process of second language acquisition.
(Corder, 1967).
According to Richards (1974), Error analysis may be carried out in order to:
- identify strategies which learners use in language learning
- try to identify the causes of learner errors
- obtain information on common difficulties in language learning, as an
- aid to teaching or in the preparation of teaching materials.
Conducting error analysis is therefore vital for examine errors made by L2 learners as it can reveal
the sources of the errors and the causes of their frequent occurrence. Once the sources and causes
are revealed, it is possible to determine the remedy, as well as the emphasis and sequence of future
Error analysis developed as a branch of applied linguistics in the 1960s, and set out to demonstrate
that many learner errors were not due to the learners mother tongue but reflected universal
learning strategies. Error analysis was therefore offered as an alternative to Contrastive Analysis
From a cognitive point of view which perceives errors as a natural part of the learning process
Coder (1981) suggests that there are three types of errors.
o Pre-systematic error (the learner is ignorant of the rule)
o Systematic error (the learner has found a rule but is applying it wrongly)
o Post-systematic (the learner has lapses in his/her use of the correct rule)
However, he later revised this view to simply pre- and post-systematic errors, feeling that systematic
and post-systematic errors both amount to the same thing.

Categorizing errors further can help the teacher to understand why the learner has made the error
and can help the teacher to formulate a strategy of error treatment. Attempts were made to
develop classifications for different types of errors on the basis of the different processes that were
assumed to account for them.
Richards (1974) provides a basic distinction drawn between intralingual and interlingual errors
Interlingual errors result from language transfer which is caused by the interference of learners
native language. For example, the incorrect French sentence Elle regarde les (She sees them),
produced according to the word order of English, instead of the correct French sentence Elle les
regarde (Literally, She them sees).
On the other hand, an intralingual error is one which results from faulty or partial learning of the
target language, rather than from language transfer. Intralingual errors may be caused by the
influence of one target language item upon another. For example, a learner may produce He is
coming, based on a blend of the English structures He is coming, He comes.
Intralingual errors were classified as
- Overgeneralizations: Errors caused by extension of target language rules to inappropriate

- Simplifications: Errors resulting from learners producing simpler linguistic rules than
those found in the target language

- Developmental errors: Errors reflecting natural stages of development

- Communication-based errors: Errors resulting from strategies of communication

- Induced errors: Errors resulting from transfer of training

- Errors of avoidance: Errors resulting from failure to use certain target language structures
because they are thought to be too difficult

- Errors of overproduction- Structures being used too frequently

The following categories are a summary of Bolitho and Tomlinson (1995) s classification of Errors
L1 transfer: These could be considered translation mistakes.

False analogy: The learner has compared a language item and made an untrue comparison
e.g. plait rhymes with wait.

Overgeneralization: The learner applies rules too generally e.g. the use of will for future

Overlearning: The learner may have become too focused on a piece of language because it
has been taught recently or because it does not occur in his or her own language and
subsequently overuse it.

Ignorance: The learner does not know the language item.

Attempts to apply such categories have been problematic however, due to the difficulty of
determining the cause of errors.
By the late 1970s, error analysis had largely been superseded by studies of interlanguage in second
language acquisition.
Interlanguage analysis:
In second language acquisition, the term, interlanguage refers to the type of language produced
by second- and foreign-language learners who are in the process of learning a language. The term
interlanguage was first introduced by Selinker (1972), who defined it as a separate linguistic system
based on the observable output which results from a learners attempted production of a TL [=
Target Language] norm (p.214). It is based on the hypothesis that language learners possess a
grammatical system that is different from both the first language and the target language but is
nevertheless a natural language. Therefore, interlanguages are autonomous and rule-governed
linguistic systems whose grammar cannot be described simply in terms of errors and deviations
from L2 norms. That is, interlanguages are believed to be constrained by the same principles as all
According to the interlanguage principle, learner language is influenced by several different
processes. These include:
a) borrowing structures from the mother tongue (language transfer)
b) extending structures from the target language, e.g. by analogy, overgeneralization
c) expressing meanings using the words and grammar which are already known (e.g.
Since the language which the learner produces using these processes differs from both the mother
tongue and the target language, it is sometimes called an interlanguage, or is said to result from the
learners interlanguage system or approximative system.

Bolitho, R. & Tomlinson, B. (1995). Discover English. London: Heinemann.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Corder, S. P. (1981). Error analysis and interlanguage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J.C (ed.) (1974). Error analysis: Perspectives on second language acquisition. London: Longman.

Selinker, L (1972). "Interlanguage". International Review of Applied Linguistics. 10: 209241.


1) In each of the following sentences: identify the mistake, correct it, and say why it is wrong.
The first two sentences are done as examples, to help you.

Sentence with a Where is the Correct the mistake Why is it a

mistake mistake? mistake?
(a) I go in school by car I go in school by car I go to school We use the preposition
to to indicate
movement and
(b) John feed the cat
every day

(c) I have seen that

movie last night
(d) Have you seen the
new Dior publicity? Its
(e) Snow melts if you
will heat it on a stove
(f) What time you get
home last night?
(g) I not eat your
(h) She demanded he
paying him back the
(i) Billy and Jean left
about half an hour ago.
They went to take a