The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Technology Enhanced Language Learning


Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Institute, Iran

As it is clear, using technology in language classrooms is trending these days. I would like ask you to kindly guide us on how to use TELL (Technology Enhanced Language Learning) activities in classrooms, so that we make the most benefit of them.

Dr. Richards responds:

It would take a whole book to answer this question. Please see the chapter on technology in my book Key Issues in Language Teaching (Cambridge 2015).

The Purpose of Second Language Teaching


Submitted by Muhammad Jamil, Jubail, Saudi Arabia

  1. What is the purpose of second language teaching? (a) to enable students to be able to communicate in the target language (b) to prepare them to be achieve native like fluency?
  2. Is it practically viable to train second language learners like natives? If not then why is there so much stress on native-like fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

In formulating language policy towards the teaching of English in a country, a variety of options are available to educational planners. For example, English could be positioned as the language of English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia and be linked to the cultures of those and other English-speaking countries. Another option would be to emphasize its role as an international language and as a means of communication with the world beyond a country’s borders. A different function for English would be to position it as a tool for providing access to information needed for technical, scientific and economic development within a country, i.e., as a form of economic capital. English is learned for many different reasons. It may be an essential tool for education and business for some learners; it may be the language of travel and related activities of sightseeing for others; and it may be needed for social survival and employment for new immigrants in English-speaking countries. For some, it may be a popular language for the media, entertainment, the internet and other forms of electronic communication. For many, however, it may merely be a language that they are obliged to study, but which they may never really have any obvious need for. So to answer you first question, the goals will depend on the context and will differ accordingly.

Regarding the second question, today it is no longer assumed that learners need master a so-called “native-speaker” variety of English. When it was taken for granted that the variety of English which learners needed to master was a native-speaker one, the choice was often determined by proximity. In Europe, due to its proximity to the United Kingdom, British English was usually the model presented in teaching materials. In many other parts of the world, North American English was normally the target. In some places (e.g. Indonesia), learners are more likely to encounter Australian English, and this may be the variety of English they feel most comfortable learning. However, in recent years, there has been a growing demand for North American English in places where British English was the traditional model, particularly among young people for whom American English is ‘cool’. It seems, perhaps, that it more closely resembles their ‘idea’ of English.

The two schools of thought concerning how closely learners should try to approximate native-speaker usage can be summarized as follows: The traditional view is that mastery of English means mastering a native-speaker variety of English. The presence of a foreign accent, influenced by the learner’s mother tongue, was considered a sign of incomplete learning. Teaching materials presented exclusively native-speaker models – usually spoken with a standard or prestige accent – as learning targets. The second school of thought is that when English is regarded as an international language, speakers may wish to preserve markers of their cultural identity through the way they speak English. In such cases, learners may regard a French, Italian, Russian or Spanish accent in their English as something valid – something they do not want to lose. This is a question of personal choice for learners, and teachers, therefore, should not assume that learners always want to master a native-speaker accent when they learn English. As one learner puts it, ‘I am Korean, so why should I try to sound like an American?’

Universal Grammar and Learning a Second Language


Submitted by Burree Sultan Ray, University of Sargodha, Pakistan

If there is such a thing as universal grammar, why is learning a second language more difficult than learning a first language?

Dr. Richards responds:

The notion of universal grammar is merely a theory advocated within a Chomskian framework of cognitive linguistics. It does not speak to the query you raise. There are many factors that account for differences between L1 and L2 learning and that account for the fact that the former is generally successful but not necessarily the latter, and there is no need for a theory of universal grammar as a reference point.

Such factors include:

  • Distance between the L1 and the L2
  • Intensity and amount of exposure and practice
  • Learning contexts, meaningfulness of use
  • Motivation, and differences in communicative needs

Neuro-Linguistic Programming


Submitted by Kawthar A. Nahi, M.A. student at University of Basra, Iraq

What is the role of Neuro-Linguistic Programming in Language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

There is no research evidence to support the claims of NLP, which is a blend of new age pop psychology and 70s psychobabble. There are extensive critiques of it on the internet, which I need not repeat here. It is certainly not worth wasting time on for a master’s thesis, and despite its possible appeal to the untrained, NLP is not supported by SLA or any other field of related research in applied linguistics.

Autonomous Learner


Submitted by Urip, Indonesia

What is meant by an autonomous learner?

Dr. Richards responds:

Learner autonomy refers to the principle that learners should take an increasing amount of responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. Autonomous learning is said to make learning more personal and focused and, consequently, is said to achieve better learning outcomes, since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences. It contrasts with the traditional teacher-led approach in which most decisions are made by the teacher. There are five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  1. Active involvement in student learning.
  2. Providing options and resources.
  3. Offering choices and decision-making opportunities.
  4. Supporting learners.
  5. Encouraging reflection.

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

  • The teacher becomes less of an instructor and more of a facilitator.
  • Students are discouraged from relying on the teacher as the main source of knowledge.
  • Students’ capacity to learn for themselves is encouraged.
  • Students’ awareness of their own learning styles is encouraged.
  • Students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies.

An example of the application of the principles of learner autonomy is the Council of Europe’s European Language Portfolio, which is intended to help support autonomous learning on a wide scale. The ELP has three components: a language passport, which summarizes the owner’s linguistic identity; a language biography, which provides for a reflective account of the learner’s experience in learning and using the foreign language; and a dossier, in which the learner collects evidence of his or her developing proficiency in the language. The ELP involves regular goal setting and self- assessment.

For many teachers, learner autonomy is an important facet of their teaching, which they seek to realize in a number of different ways – for example, through careful analysis of their learners’ needs, through introducing and modelling strategies for independent learning, through giving learners techniques they can use to monitor their own learning, through regular consultation with students to help learners plan for their own learning and through the use of a self-access centre where a variety of self-directed learning resources are available.

Conscious Awareness of Language


Submitted by Tri, Indonesia

Does conscious awareness of language features play a role in language learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

It has been proposed that some aspects of language are learned more easily if the learner is consciously aware of them in the language he or she hears – i.e. the learner ‘notices’ them (Schmidt, 1990). This is known as the noticing hypothesis. Schmidt proposed that for learners to acquire new forms from input (language they hear) it is necessary for them to notice such forms in the input. Consciousness of features of the input can serve as a trigger that activates the first stage in the process of incorporating new linguistic features into one’s language competence. Schmidt  further clarifies this point in distinguishing between input (what the learner hears) and intake (that part of the input that the learner notices). Only intake can serve as the basis for language development. In his own study of his acquisition of Portuguese, Schmidt found that there was a close connection between noticing features of the input, and their later emergence in his own speech. The extent to which a learner notices new features of language in the input (for example, the use of the past perfect tense in a narrative) may depend upon how frequently the item is encountered, how salient or ‘noticeable’ it is, whether the teacher has drawn attention to it or the nature of the activity the learner is taking part in. Schmidt found from a detailed longitudinal study of his own acquisition of Portuguese that new forms appeared in his Portuguese only after he had become aware of them in the Portuguese he was exposed to. On the other hand, forms that were frequent in the input he was exposed to, but that he was not consciously aware of (i.e. that he had not noticed) did not appear in his use of Portuguese. The noticing hypothesis emphasizes the role of awareness in language learning and has implications both for the teaching of grammar as well as the teaching of listening.

Role of Schema


Submitted by Satoshi, Japan

What role do schema play in language learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

The notion of schemas  refers to cognitive aspects of learning. Schemas are mental models, or frameworks, which organize information in the mind and represent generalized knowledge about events, situations, objects, actions and feelings. They are part of prior knowledge that learners bring to new experience. For example, the schema of ‘the evening meal’, for some people, will consist of information about the time of the meal, where it takes place, the sequence of activities involved, the food items eaten and utensils used, and the participants and their roles and actions. Such a schema may differ considerably from one culture to another and may need to be revised as new experience is encountered.

Schema theory has had a significant influence on our understanding of the nature of listening comprehension and reading in a second language, and on approaches to teaching both of these skills. It has emphasized the role of prior knowledge in comprehension, and the importance of pre-listening and pre-reading activities in preparing students to understand spoken and written texts. Teaching schemas involves helping students develop the interconnected meanings and relationships that make up schemas, and an understanding of the hierarchies of meanings and connections that underlie many concepts. The role of prior knowledge in learning is a core feature of constructivist theories of learning – one kind of cognitive approach to learning. Constructivist theory emphasizes that new learning is built upon existing knowledge and understanding. In second language learning, the process that results when new learning builds on existing knowledge is known as restructuring.

Teaching absolute beginners


Submitted by N. Kazemi, Iran

How should we start teaching English to absolute beginners who neither know even a single word in English nor have any literacy skills even in terms of recognizing the English alphabet?

Professor Richards Responds:

It will be necessary to start with vocabulary recognition, phonics, and then to build up a core recognition and productive vocabulary, using pictures and translation.  Production should be very limited initially until these core requirements have been met.

Objective of Teaching English to 7-10 year olds


Submitted by Adriana Patrus, Brazil

I teach English to primary schoolchildren in Brazil. The classes are monolingual and they range from 22 to 30 students. They speak Portuguese the whole time except for a few minutes of repetition, drilling, singing and an occasional speaking activity. They have been able to master quite a range of vocabulary but no attempt to speak it yet. Should we feel frustrated that they don’t try to speak the odd words they learn in the monolingual classroom? What should be ultimately the primary objective of teaching English to 7-10 year olds?

Professor Richards Responds:

Yes I think frustration would be an approriate response.  I suggest use more activities that require production of simple phrases and words that they have learned, such as games and simple dialogs. The following are examples of goals for courses for young learners:

  • To develop a set of core vocabulary and expressions for use in simple conversation
  • To build confidence
  • To provide the motivation to learn English
  • To encourage ownership of language
  • To encourage children to communicate with whatever language they have at their disposal (mime, gesture, key word, drawings, etc.)
  • To encourage children to treat English as a communication tool, not as an end product
  • To show children that English is fun
  • To establish a trusting relationship with children and encourage them to do the same with their classmates
  • To give children an experience of a wide range of English language in a non-threatening environment

Bottom-up, Top-down or Interactive Processing


Submitted by Hannah, Korea

I wonder if the activity below makes use of to bottom-up processing,  top-down processing or Interactive processing.

Task: Read a sentence and then listen to a sentence on tape to decide if the meaning is the same or different.

Professor Richards Responds:

In order to complete this task the listener has to hold the spoken sentence in short term memory, decode its meaning, and then compare the result with his or her understanding of the written text. The extent of bottom-up or top-down processing involved will depend on the contents of the sentence, since it may or may not draw on background knowledge or culturally specific schemata. No interactive processing is involved if we use this term to refer to interaction with a speaker.

Teaching a British Accent


Submitted by P.B.S.Krishnam Raju , India

Could you please suggest procedures to teach a British Accent to Advanced Level students?

Professor Richards Responds:

I assume the issue here is the wish for learners to modify the “Indianness” of their accent in English?  Not everyone would agree that this is a necessary goal in language learning, since one’s accent is a marker of one’s cultural identity. However sometimes a strong regional or national accent my impede understanding in some contexts,  hence the basis for your question. In order to address this isse the starting point is a diagnostic profile of the chracteristicss of the  learners’ current pronunciation. This is often done with a combination of measures, such as reading aloud, an interview, and participation in communication tasks. This will enable identification of core aspects of pronunciation that may need to be modified, whether these be vowels, consonants, or suprasegmentals. Then speciifc features need to be addressed one at a time, over a period of time, using the usual procedures found in pronunciation manuals. It is important to realize that in addressing difficulties with pronunciation, learners first need to notice the problem, they then need to understand how the sound feature is produced, and then need practice activities that move from controlled to freer practice.

Difference Between Task, Exercise, Activity


Submitted by Jayanta Das, India

What is the difference between a task, an exercise and an activity?

Professor Richards Responds:

These terms are understood differently depending on who defines them. I use them as follows:

An exercise is a teaching procedure that involves controlled, guided or open ended practice of some aspect of language. A drill, a cloze activity, a reading comprehension passage can all be regarded as exercises.

The term activity is more general and refers to any kind of purposeful classroom procedure that involves learners doing something that relates to the goals of the course. For example singing a song, playing a game, taking part in a debate, having a group discussion, are all different kinds of teaching activities.

A task is normally defined as follows:

  • It is something that learners do, or carry out, using their existing language resources or those that have been provided in pre-task work.
  • It has an outcome which is not simply linked to learning language, though language acquisition may occur as the learner carries out the task.
  • It is relevant to learners’ needs.
  • It involves a focus on meaning.
  • In the case of tasks involving two or more learners, it calls upon the learners’
  • use of communication strategies and interactional skills.
  • It provides opportunities for reflection on language use.



Submitted by Gethomil, Poland

Is autonomy an approach or a method?

Professor Richards Responds:

The notion of learner autonomy is neither an approach or a method but it really a philosophy or set of principles that can be used in association with different approaches and methods, and may influence how they are implemented in the classroom. The notion of learner autonomy means shifting the focus from the teacher to the learners. This means involving learners in decisions concerning setting objectives for learning, determining ways and means of learning, and reflecting on and evaluating what they have learned.Autonomous learning is said to make learning more personal and focused and consequently to achieve better learning outcomes since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences . Benson has suggested five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  1. Active involvement by students in their own learning
  2. Providing options and resources
  3. Offering choices and decision-making opportunities
  4. Supporting learners
  5. Encouraging reflection

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

  • The teacher becomes less of an instructor and more of a facilitator.
  • Students are discouraged from relying on the teacher as the main source of knowledge.
  • Students’ capacity to learn for themselves is encouraged.
  • Students are encouraged to make decisions about what they learn.
  • Students’ awareness of their own learning styles is encouraged.
  • Students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies.

Interaction in Learning a Second Language


Submitted by Benmenni Imene, Algeria

What is the effect of interaction in learning a second language?

Professor Richards Responds:

A learning theory that has had considerable influence on language teaching is interactional theory – a social view of language acquisition that focuses on the nature of the interaction that occurs between a language learner and others he or she interacts with, and how such communication facilitates second language acquisition. Communicative language teaching and Task-Based Teaching both reflect this view of learning. Interaction is said to facilitate language learning in a number of ways:

Modification of input
At the core of the theory of language learning as an interactive process is the view that communication can be achieved between a second language learner and a more proficient language user (e.g. a native-speaker) only if the more proficient user modifies the difficulty of the language they use. If the input is too difficult or complex, of course, it may lead to communication breakdown. Therefore, when communicating with learners with limited English proficiency, speakers will typically modify their input by using known vocabulary, speaking more slowly, saying things in different ways, adjusting the topic, avoiding idioms, using a slower rate of speech, using stress on key words, repeating key elements, using simpler grammatical structures, paraphrasing and elaborating. In this way, the input better facilitates both understanding as well as learning.

The following are strategies that can be used to facilitate comprehension:

Negotiation of meaning
This refers to meaning that is arrived at through the collaboration of both people involved. This negotiation may take several forms:

  • The meaning may be realized through several exchanges, or turns, rather than in a single exchange.
  • One speaker may expand on what the other has said.
  • One speaker may provide words or expressions the other needs.
  • One person may ask questions to clarify what the other has said.

Interactions of this kind are believed to facilitate language acquisition, evidence for which may be seen both in short term as well as longer-term improvements in grammatical accuracy.

Repairing misunderstanding
If the learner is to succeed in communicating with others, despite limitations in his or her language proficiency, he or she needs to be able to manage the process of communication in a way that deals with communication difficulties. This can be achieved through the use of communication strategies such as the following:

  • Indicating that he or she has misunderstood something.
  • Repeating something the other person has said, to confirm understanding.
  • Restating something, to clarify meaning.
  • Asking the other person to repeat.
  • Asking the other person for clarification.
  • Repeating a word or phrase that was misunderstood.

In interactional theory, the learner’s ability to pay attention and request feedback is considered an essential feature of successful second language learning.

Modifying input
A feature of interactions between native speakers (or advanced language users) and second language learners is modification of the native-speaker’s language to facilitate comprehension. Modification of “input” is often seen in interactions like these:

  • Clerk to customer: You need to fill in the form. The form. You need to fill it in. Write here, please.
  • Adult to visitor: Which part of Japan are you from? Are you from Tokyo?
  • Supervisor to factory worker: You start this one first. Finish. Then you see me.
  • Advanced-level learner to lower-level learner: You need to review your essay before you hand it in – you know, go through and check the spelling and the organization carefully.

When people communicate with learners who have a very limited level of proficiency in a second language, they often use strategies of this kind, using a form of communication sometimes referred to as ‘foreigner talk’. Other examples of this kind of modified talk are known as teacher talk, and caretaker talk (e.g. the interaction between a parent and a very young child). Similarly, when a learner interacts with a person who is a more advanced language user, the input the advanced user provides often helps the learner expand his or her language resources. For example, the reformulation of the learner’s utterance may draw attention to, or help the learner notice, features of the language, as we see in these exchanges between a student and a teacher:

S: I’m going away for weekend.
T: You’re going away for the weekend?
S: Yes, away for the weekend.

T: What did you buy at the sale?
S: I bought it. This bag.
T: Oh, you bought this bag? It’s nice.
S: Yes, I bought this bag.

S: Last week, I go away.
T: Oh, you went away last week?
S: Yes, I went away.

Negotiation of meaning often occurs spontaneously as well. For example, the following negotiation of meaning was observed between a learner and a native speaker: the learner wished to express that she lived in a shared apartment near the campus with two other students.

S1: So, where are you staying now?
S2: Staying an apartment. Together some friends.
S1: That’s nice. How many of you?
S2: Staying with three friend. Sharing with Nada and Anna. Very near.
S1: It’s near here? Near the campus?
S2: Yes, it’s near the campus. On Forbes street.

Repeated opportunities to communicate in this way are said to provide opportunities for learners to expand their language resources and are often used with communicative approaches to teaching.

What is CBLT?


Submitted by Luc Danon from Cote D’ivoire

What is CBLT? What are its didactic implications?

Dr Richards responds:

Competency-based instruction is an approach to the planning and delivery of courses that has been in widespread use since the 1970s. What characterizes a competency-based approach is the focus on the outcomes of learning, as the driving force of teaching and the curriculum. The application of its principles to language teaching is called competency-based language teaching. Because this approach seeks to teach the skills needed to perform real-world tasks, it became widely used, from the 1980s, as the basis for many English language programmes for immigrants and refugees, as well as for work-related courses of many different kinds. It is an approach that has been the foundation for the design of work-related and survival-oriented language teaching programmes for adults. It seeks to teach students the basic skills they need in order to prepare them for situations they commonly encounter in everyday life. Recently, competency-based frameworks have become adopted in many countries, particularly for vocational and technical education. They are also increasingly being adopted in national language curriculums.

CBLT is often used in programmes that focus on learners with very specific language needs. In such cases, rather than seeking to teach general English, the specific language skills needed to function in a specific context is the focus. This is similar, then, to an ESP approach. There, too, the starting point in course planning is an identification of the tasks the learner will need to carry out within a specific setting and the language demands of those tasks. (The Common European Framework of Reference also describes learning outcomes in terms of competencies). The competencies needed for successful task performance are then identified, and used as the basis for course planning. Teaching methods used may vary, but typically are skill-based, since the focus is on developing the ability to use language to carry out real-world activities.

Intercultural Communicative Competence


Submitted by Symbat from Kazakhstan

What do you think is the significance of Intercultural Communicative Competence? And why is it important in ELT?

Dr Richards responds:

From the viewpoint of English as an international language, the goal of English teaching is not merely to develop communicative skills in English. Second language learning provides ‘the opportunity for emancipation from the confines of learners’ native habits and culture, with the development of new perceptions into foreign and native cultures alike. Learning English thus becomes an opportunity to compare cultures, and for learners to validate their own cultural and linguistic heritages.

The role of age in second language learning


Submitted from Iran

What is the role of age in second or foreign language learning?

Dr Richards responds:

It is a common observation that children seem to learn new languages relatively easily, while older learners, particularly adults, are often not so successful. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that adults have the advantage in several important areas, such as those involving cognitive skills, making them more adept, for example, at learner autonomy.

In terms of children’s apparent success, a reason that was offered in the 1970s was that there was a critical period for second language learning (before puberty), and that once learners had passed this period, changes in the brain and in cognitive processes made language learning more difficult. This was the critical-period hypothesis that led some educationists to argue for an earlier start for second and foreign language instruction, in order to capitalize on the special language-learning capacities of young learners. Unfortunately, the considerable amount of research devoted to this issue has not confirmed the theory that younger equals better language learner. It is true that there are some aspects of language learning (such as pronunciation) where younger learners appear to have an advantage; learners who start learning at an older age often retain a ‘foreign accent’ in their English, which is not the case with young learners. However, there are many factors, aside from age-related ability, that account for the apparent ease with which young children often appear to ‘pick up’ a new language relatively easily. In the case of naturalistic language learning, young learners are typically highly motivated to do so; they receive large amounts of input geared to their level of learning, as well as copious amounts of practice. They also receive rewards and benefits for their efforts, since learning the new language is the key to peer acceptance and to the satisfaction of basic needs. These factors are often not the same for adult learners studying English in classroom settings. Dornyei (2009) points out that, in any given situation, there are invariably a multitude of factors involved, and age is often only one of them and not necessarily the most important one. There are also documented examples of unsuccessful child language learning, as well as of successful adult language learning.

Adults, however, may have the advantage, in some respects, because there is evidence for differences in the ways younger and older learners approach language learning. Older learners are particularly good at vocabulary learning, for example , and they can make use of different cognitive and learning skills from children, since they make use of more abstract reasoning and thinking and can often learn more analytically and reflectively. I myself did not start learning a foreign language until I was in my twenties, but, at one stage, was sufficiently fluent in French to use it as a medium of instruction in an applied-linguistics programme in Quebec. Methods used to teach young learners and older learners, consequently, employ different teaching strategies, reflecting the different age-related processes and strategies these learners can make use of, as well as their very different learning needs. The educational implications of the second language acquisition debate about the age issue in language teaching, however, are somewhat minimal, since decisions on when to commence the teaching of English in public education are often made largely on other grounds. They often simply reflect worldwide educational trends or fashions, or they may be linked to the need to prepare students for the use of English as a medium of instruction in secondary school, or to better prepare them for national or school examinations.

Z. Dornyei 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

American or British accent?


Submitted by Majid Shojayee,  Iran

Do you think students should aim to master an American or British accent?

Dr Richards responds:

The role of English as an international language has refocussed interest in the role of pronunciation in teaching English. In the 1970’s the target for learning was assumed to be a native-speaker variety of English and it was the native speaker’s culture, perceptions, and speech that were crucial in setting goals for English teaching. The native speaker had a privileged status. Today local varieties of English such as Filipino English and Singapore English are firmly established as a result of indigenization, and in contexts where English is a foreign language there is less of a pressure to turn foreign-language speakers of English (e.g. Koreans, Mexicans, or Germans) into mimics of native-speaker English, be it an American, British, or Australian variety. The extent to which a learner seeks to speak with a native-like accent and sets this as his or her personal goal, is a personal one. It is not necessary to try to eradicate the phonological influences of the mother tongue nor to seek to speak like a native speaker. Jennifer Jenkins argues that RP pronunciation is both an unattainable and an unnecessary target for second language learners, and she proposes a phonological syllabus that maintains core phonological distinctions but is a reduced inventory from RP.

Setting a native-speaker target for the learning of pronunciation has also been criticized on other grounds:

Because it is largely unattainable  – Unless learners commence learning English at a very young age and are exposed to very large amounts of native-speaker input and are strongly motivated to acquire a native-speaker accent, it is unlikely that they will acquire a native-speaker accent.

Because it is unnecessary – Effective comprehension is not dependent upon the speaker having a native-speaker accent. What is more important is intelligibility and fluency, which depends upon a good control of grammar, vocabulary, a level of pronunciation which does not impede communication, effective communication strategies as well the ability to communicate with ease and without excessive pauses and interruptions. The speaker’s pronunciation should not arouse negative reactions or interfere with understanding but variance in pronunciation is a normal feature of communication.

Because the learner may not seek it – Learners may feel that it is acceptable for their English pronunciation to reflect their linguistic, and hence their cultural background. While some learners may set as their goal being able to speak like a native speaker of British, American or Australian English for example, others may feel that an accent influenced by their native language is part of their cultural identity.

Error Analysis


Submitted by Imane Begag,  Algeria

How does error analysis explain the foreign language learners’ errors?

Dr Richards responds:

Some features of learner language

The language learners produce when they are learning English reflects many different factors, such as their stage of grammatical development, the kind of communication they are engaged in, and the learner’s first language as well as the strategies the learner is making use of in communication. The result may be language that is sometimes inaccurate or inappropriate. Identifying the factors that contribute to the characteristics of learner discourse began in earnest with the field of error analysis in the 1970s, developing into what is referred to as second language acquisition today. The following processes are often referred to, although it is not always possible to assign a feature of learner English unambiguously to a specific cause.

Language transfer

Transfer is the effect of one language on the learning of another. Positive transfer occurs when both the native language and English have the same form or linguistic feature. It makes learning easier and does not result in errors. Both French and English have the word table which means the same thing in both languages. Languages may share aspects of grammar such as some patterns of word order and the use of adverbs and these may allow for positive transfer. Negative transfer or interference is the use of a native-language pattern or rule that leads to an error or inappropriate form in the target language. For example a French learner of English may produce I am here since Thursday instead of I have been here since Thursday because of the transfer of the French pattern Je suis ici depuis Jeudi and I like very much coffee instead of I like coffee very much transferring the pattern J’aime beaucoup le café. The following sentences show the result of transfer from Spanish:

What understand the children?

Can the director to speak with me now?

Will not to watch TV the boys tonight?

 Learners with some language backgrounds such as German are likely to have relatively few difficulties learning how to use definite and indefinite articles in English because German has a similar article system to English. Japanese learners on the other hand find the English article system difficult because Japanese does not have a similar article system to English. An attempt to predict the linguistic difficulties of English by comparing the grammar of English with the grammar of other languages resulted in an activity known as contrastive analysis in the 1970s.


This process refers to extending the use of a form to an inappropriate context by analogy. This is a normal and natural process and both learners of English as a second language as well as children learning it as a first language often extend the use of grammatical rules to contexts where they do not occur, as in I breaked the vase. We goes to the beach. Other examples of overgeneralization are seen in the following:

Under no circumstances we will accept these terms.

            They didn’t like it; not I liked it.

            She was unhappy at the development: so I was.

            Now I see why did they behave like that.

Sometimes overgeneralization may mean over-using a grammatical form such as the –ing form, as with these examples;

I don’t know why people always talking me.

Yesterday I didn’t working.

A common form of overgeneralization is seen when learners attempt to make irregular verbs fit regular patterns, as with break above and also with cases such as seened (for saw), ated (for ate) , and wented (for went).


This occurs when learners reduce a complex aspect of grammar to a much simpler set of rules and reflects a process that is used when messages need to be conveyed with limited language resources. For example instead of making the distinction between “he” and “she” the learner may use the masculine pronoun, or instead of distinguishing between first and third person in verbs (I like, She likes) the learner may use the first person rule for all persons (I like, He/ She like). Ortega notes that it is common in the early stages of language learning and particularly in naturalistic learning situations. Simplification of aspects of grammar such as questions tags occurs in some varieties of English. In colloquial Singapore English for example, one encounters:

That was your sister, is it?

        You are from the States, is it?


Sometimes learners may underuse a form they have studied and practiced many times. For example the learner may avoid using some constructions with if- (If I had known I would have told her about it) and use instead I didn’t know so I didn’t tell her, because it appears to them as more direct and easy to understand.

Overuse: at other times a learner may become over-dependent on certain grammatically correct forms and use them in preference to other forms that might be known and available. For example the learner may become dependent on a phrase such as last time to refer to past events and use it when other ways of referring to past time could have been used:

I like Thai food. I tried it last time.

I know her. We met last time.


Sometimes a learner’s grammatical development appears to have stopped at a certain level and recurring errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of a learner’s speech. This is referred to as fossilization. Fossilization refers to the persistence of errors in a learner’s speech despite progress in other areas of language development. For example here are a few examples of fossilized errors in an adult fluent speaker of English who uses English regularly and effectively, though often with a high frequency of what we might regard as basic grammatical and other errors.

I doesn’t understand what she wanted.

    He never ask me for help.

            Last night I watch TV till 2 am.

She say she meeting me after work.

Fossilized errors such as those above tend not to affect comprehension although they might be stigmatised due to the fact that they often reflect errors that are typical of very basic-level learners (such as omission of 3rd person “s). Since fossilized errors do not generally trigger misunderstanding and hence do not prompt a clarification request from the listener, the learner may simple never notice them or be aware that they are there. The noticing hypothesis (see below) suggests that unless the speaker notices such errors, it is unlikely that he or she will correct them.

When teachers begin to notice common features of learner language and features that appear to be fossilized. they need to decide, whether to address them or whether to accept them as evidence of learning.