The official website of educator Jack C Richards

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.