Error Analysis Research Paper Starter

Error Analysis

(Research Starters)

Error analysis is a way for linguists, researchers, and educators to identify errors made by second language learners. Error analysis was created by Stephen Corder in 1970 in an attempt to streamline a larger concept known as contrastive analysis. Where the latter holds that errors made by second language learners are the result of what they know of their first (native) language, error analysis poses that specific errors are made for specific reasons possibly unrelated to transfer. Error analysis is limiting in nature as the process of identifying errors is time-consuming and fails to recognize the correct usage patterns adopted by the second language learner.

English as a Second Language > Error Analysis Keywords Asynchronous; Contrastive Analysis; Error Analysis; First (native) language (L1); Interference; Interlanguage; Linguistics; Morphology; Second (target) Language (L2); Second Language Acquisition; Transference; Transitional Competence


Error analysis can be used in any field. Many mathematicians and scientists analyze the errors made by others to determine better ways of teaching or more efficient ways to communicate data. In the field of language acquisition, a category of linguistics, error analysis studies the types and causes of errors made by second language learners. Rather than counting mistakes like misplaced commas, error analysts identify the reasons why commas are misplaced. For example, if commas are regularly omitted in the same place within sentences - rather than occasional or random omissions - error analysis could identify a systematic flaw in thinking, like a faulty definition of a comma. An occasional or random comma omission, on the other hand, could be caused by any number of things, from the speed at which the L2 learner is writing to the incorrect identification of a comma (mistaking it for a semi-colon, for example).

Error analysis is part of a larger theory of acquisition, contrastive analysis, which studies a pair of languages to identify within their linguistic structures what is similar and what is different. Using error analysis, linguists and educators can further identify what errors are made from the first language (L1) to the second (L2). For example, the random omission of a comma would probably indicate that the L2 learner was writing too quickly to take a pause between two complete ideas into account. However, the systematic omission of every comma between two independent clauses is most likely indicative of a misunderstanding of the rules of a comma. Mistaking that rule in a person's L1 will probably cause the same mistake in the L2 as well; this is known as transference and is the only cause for error that contrastive analysis allows.


Transferring a rule from one language to another when the structure of the languages is similar is referred to as positive transfer. If the structure is different, however, the transference is considered negative. This categorizing is not to be confused with positive and negative as being good and bad. A negative transfer is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply a thing that happens when a second language learner tries to apply a rule of his native language to a second language that has a different structure and, therefore, different rules (of grammar, syntax, tense, etc.) From an educator's perspective, positive transfer is not particularly noteworthy. It is the negative transfer that causes teachers angst.

Dr. Steve Gras, professor and ESL Bridge Program coordinator at the State University College of New York at Plattsburgh, provides the following clarification.

Learners of English who speak Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc. have a much more difficult time attaining a high level of proficiency than do speakers of French, Spanish, German, etc. These latter languages have much more in common with the sound system, vocabulary, and grammar of English than the former languages. Conversely, Asian languages are so dissimilar that it takes two or three times as long for speakers of those languages to be proficient enough to handle college-level courses … It is much easier for Spanish or German speakers to pronounce English than speakers of Thai or Vietnamese. (Actually, difficulties in pronunciation are best explained by contrastive analysis). Also, French speakers can learn the vocabulary of English much more quickly than Korean speakers whose vocabulary has little in common with English. French grammar is quite similar to that of English in comparison to Korean or Japanese (Personal communication, January 3, 2008).

Stephen Corder is credited with establishing error analysis and distinguishing it as a vital component of contrastive analysis theory. Corder noted that without error analysis, contrastive analysis theory lacked a predictive element. Identifying L1 transfer as the cause of second language errors minimized the knowledge L2 learners acquired but could not communicate. For example, the systematic omission of commas in the second language would tell contrastive analysis theorists that a learner omits commas in his first language and is simply transfering that information to the new (second) language. Corder pushed the concept of errors as having a valuable place in the education field. After all, knowing what errors L2 students make and why they make them is crucial to effective instruction.


Corder posited that when presented with an entire system of language - in addition to the knowledge a person has about his native language - a person will make errors while learning; those errors, according to Corder, can be based on the circumstance (informal versus formal environment), or on a systematic misinterpretation of the language structure (not truly understanding the purpose of a comma, for example). Both errors point to a person's proficiency in the second language; making a mistake because she's tired is very different than making a mistake because she doesn't understand how and why a comma is used. In many instances, a second language learner will adapt to L2 acquisition through a concept known as interlanguage.

Interlanguage is a term associated with contrastive analysis and Corder. Interlanguage references a language between two languages. Second language learners sometimes create an "interlanguage" between their native language and the L2 they are trying to acquire. In these instances, interlanguage is not necessarily a negative form of adaption; it is a way for L2 learners to adapt to a new language system and does include the transfer and projection of the linguistic structure of the L1 to that of the L2. Error analysis helps to determine which rules are pooled into the interlanguage to further understand the complicated undertaking of second language acquisition.



Interlanguage may be the route of errors Crompton (2005) discovered when analyzing the written work of his Malaysian students. The teacher noted a common misuse of the word "where" in his students' writing of English, and he believed that his students were making relative assumptions about how to use the word based on other rules they already knew about English (p. 158). Crompton (2005) also indicated that while there is much discussion of relative clauses in English as a foreign (or second) language in textbooks, there was little printed in reference to the effective use of where in those same texts (p. 159). He, therefore, conducted a study focusing on his students' misuse of the word. The study had a two-fold purpose. The first was to determine the basis of the error; the second was to create interventions for instructors with regard to teaching English to students whose first language is Malay (p. 158).

The difficulty Crompton's students were having could have been predicted, especially when one looks at the big picture surrounding the use of the word, where. According to Crompton, the term is identified in various reference publications as being part of four different classes of words: it is an adverb; it is an adverb and a conjunction; it is an adverb, a conjunction, and a pronoun; and, finally, it is a preposition (2005, p. 161). It is no wonder, then that "Bruneian [Malaysian] learners of English are using where at a rate of nearly double that of native English speakers (NES) … and nearly triple that of NES academic writers" (Crompton, 2005, p. 160).

Crompton's analysis focused entirely on his students' written work. He admits that concentrating solely on writing forced him to make interpretative judgments about what his students intended. This is not a generally acceptable form of research, and as Crompton points out, it put a great deal of pressure on him (2005, 162). He notes that

An analyst is forced into two interpretative acts: (a) attempting to infer the likeliest meaning of a faulty construction and (b) attempting to find a construction which expresses the inferred meaning in a way which most resembles what the writer actually wrote … Did the writer intend to modify a noun phrase or a verb phrase; in other words are we looking at a faulty relative clause or a faulty adverbial clause? In some cases there might be simple ambiguity and in others an unacceptable sentence might permit more than one plausible re-construction (Crompton, 2005, p. 162-163).

After reviewing his students' texts, Crompton concluded that his Malay writers were attempting to write adverbial clauses using where as a subordinating conjunction, expressing a "logical relation between two clauses" (2005, p. 167). As a means for intervention, Crompton encourages that ESL students be exposed to English in its written form as much as possible. To follow up on a student's incorrect use of any part of L2 acquisition, he notes that one-on-one discussion of errors - in addition to assigned reading - is a reliable method of ceasing such errors in the future (p. 168).

Online Learning (Writing) Systems

Learning Japanese is a challenging prospect to anyone interested in second language acquisition. Without effective instruction such acquisition can pose significant problems for students. Feng, Ogata, & Yano (2000) surveyed thirty-five students from China, Malaysia, Iran, Philippines, Canada, and Bangladesh who were intermediate learners of Japanese. The students noted that writing was the most difficult skill to learn with regard to the Japanese language; the students identified the most specific causes of...

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