Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back to classics

Many scholars in second language acquisition studies consider this article the founding document of the field, and for good reason too.


Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners’ errors. IRAL 5, 161-170.  

Description: Errors (not mistakes) made in both second language learning and child language acquisition provide evidence that a learner uses a definite system of language at every point in his development. This system, or ”built-in syllabus,” may yiled a more efficient sequence than the instructor-generated sequence because it is more meaningful to the learner. By allowing the learner’s innate strategies to dictate the language syllabus, rather than imposing upon him preconceived notions of what he ought to learn, a more effective means of language instruction may be achieved. This article appeared in the “International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching,” volume 5, number 4, November 1967, Pages 161-170.

I do not remember how many times I read this article. I find it amazing that so many of the distinguishing features of second language acquisition studies are mentioned in this one article. You can see the criticism of audiolingualism, focus on input and errors as data for understanding language acquisition, influences from psychology and linguistics, an ambivalent attitude towards teaching, the conception of language as a system, transfer of the concept competence, and naturally the distinction between performance and competence, the idea of hypothesis-testing. Even the idea of interlanguage is here, if only implicitly. Isn't it fascinating?

One effect has been perhaps to shift the emphasis away from a preoccupation with teaching towards a study of learning (p. 163)


‘what goes in’ not what is available for going in, and we may reasonably suppose that it is the learner who controls this input, or more properly his intake (p. 165)

We must therefore make a distinction between those errors which are the product of such chance circumstances and those which reveal his underlying knowledge of the language to date, or, as we may call it his transitional competence. The errors of performance will characteristically be unsystematic and the errors of competence, systematic (p. 166)

In the light of the new hypotheses they are best not regarded as the persistence of old habits, but rather as signs that the learner is investigating the systems of the new language (p. 168)

We have been reminded recently of Von Humboldt’s statement that we cannot really teach language, we can only create conditions in which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way. We shall never improve our ability to create such favaroable condition until we learn more about the way a learner learnes and what his built-in syllabus is. When we do know this (and the learner’s errors will, if systematically studied, tell us something about this) we may begin to be more critical of our cherished notions. We may be able to allow the learner’s innate strategies to dictate our practice and determine our syllabus; we may learn to adapt ourselves to his needs rather than impose upon him our preconceptions of how he ought to learn, what he ought to learn and when he ought to learn it. (p. 169)

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