Why don’t foreign language teachers spend more time correcting the errors in students’ speech and writing? Isn’t that what teachers are supposed to do? Isn’t that our job, showing them where they are wrong?
Well… No! A language teacher’s job is to get the students to acquire the language, and that is done by supplying them with comprehensible input. We use interesting, comprehensible, personalized language and then we let their brains sort it out. When we do that, students acquire the language. We do not need to correct them every time they make a mistake. In fact, that kind of constant correction is not productive.
Studies by Stephen Pinker of Harvard (formerly at M.I.T.), support the idea that error correction is not a factor in language development in children:
“…attempts to show that parents correct their children’s deviant sentences, or even react differently to them, have turned up little. Parents are far more concerned with the meaning of children’s speech than its form, and when they do try to correct the children, the children pay little heed.”
(Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, Viking, 2007, p. 39)
Our students often do the same thing—they pay us little heed when we attempt to correct them.
But when we spend our time lavishly communicating in the TL about something that is interesting to both of us, magic happens. They learn almost effortlessly as they focus on the meaning of the conversation rather than the form; the content rather than the grammar. Their brains figure out the grammar unconsciously as they consciously focus on the message. They wind up using the language correctly because it sounds right to them.
When we are teaching for acquisition and fluency, error correction is not an effective teaching method. It interrupts communication, makes students more self-conscious, and can damage the student-teacher relationship by letting students know that we do not care so much what they are saying, we only care how precisely they are saying it—a sure way to get them never to talk in class. When we over-correct, students do not pay attention to it. They acquire language when they are engaged in conversations that focus on meaning rather than on form. The correct forms will come along for the ride if the meaning is there.
We don’t correct every sentence, whether spoken or written, because it is mostly a waste of all of our time.