How to stop making the same grammar mistakes in English

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In recent weeks, I’ve been asking myself the question: “How can I help my students to stop making the same grammar mistakes?”

I’ve been teaching English to Polish people since 2006 so it’s natural that I’ve become accustomed to their typical mistakes. 

Many Polish learners of English suffer because English has articles (‘the’ and ‘a’), its preposition use is quite different from that found in Polish and its syntax (word order patterns) is more uniform. Indeed, affirmative sentences in English follow the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern. Conversely, Polish allows for greater flexibility when it concerns the SVO pattern.


NEGATIVE TRANSFER

I have noticed that many Polish learners of English simply can’t stop making the grammar mistakes because of a phenomenon known as negative transfer. In essence, negative transfer occurs when structural differences between two languages cause systematic errors in the learning of the second language. More seriously, in a process known as fossilisation, some errors simply become a habit and cannot be easily corrected.

Many Polish students of English say “to have right” - a clear example of negative transfer. See below:

negative transfer

Many of my students have a deep vocabulary, sufficient collocational knowledge, the confidence to speak about even the most controversial topics and a reasonable command of English grammar. Perhaps the next step for them should be to dive into the topic of negative transfer to analyse WHY they can’t stop making the same grammar mistakes.

Two researchers from The University of Gdańsk - Martyna Jaskulska and Marta Łockiewicz - wrote a great article on “the linguistic transfer impact on Second Language Acquisition stemming from interlingual differences”. In this work, they emphasise the differences between Polish as a first language and English as a second language. A copy of the article can be downloaded here


HOW TO STOP MAKING THE SAME GRAMMAR MISTAKES IN ENGLISH

I would claim that Polish students of English are not to blame when it comes to the issues of negative transfer and fossilisation. As I argue in this post, language learners are merely the victims of a pathetic and outdated system when it comes to the design of grammar heavy school curricula. Students are also at the mercy of their teachers’ complexes. Many teachers only feel comfortable when they teach grammar and dish out ridiculous time-wasting gap fill exercises. After all, it’s easy to teach grammar and check students’ answers with the help of a key. It’s not so easy for teachers to help their students build collocational knowledge, analyse their speech and go into deep linguistic detail as to why students keep making the same grammar mistakes.

Now, let’s have a look at some of the steps students can take to help them eliminate some of those “fossilised” errors:

1. BASIC AWARENESS - The first and most obvious step is to become aware of negative transfer and seek out an explanation for the error. “Call to” is another common mistake made by Polish learners of English: 

L1-L2 transfer

2. CREATING A DEEPER AWARENESS - Now you should move from a state of basic awareness to a state of deep awareness. You need to seek out resources which allow you access to many, many sentences which contain the correct structure. Online dictionaries, such as Longman, are not a bad place to start.

Another example is Reverso Context. It’s very reliable. As you can see below, I typed in the combination of words - zadzwonić do - which causes negative transfer issues. A list of sentences then appears in both languages which allows for a great deal of fruitful comparison and analysis. 

Finally, word hippo is a very useful resource for studying words and phrases in a range of contexts. Try typing target words and phrases into the ‘Sentences’ tab.


3. DEEP, DEEP AWARENESS

If you’re really serious about knocking out those language transfer issues, you could turn to corpora such as the British National Corpus (BNC). 

I won’t go into too much detail now about corpora, but a corpus is essentially a collection of linguistic data, either compiled as written texts or as a transcription of recorded speech. The British National Corpus (BNC) was created by Oxford University press in the 1980s - early 1990s, and it contains 100 million words of text from a wide range of genres (e.g. spoken, fiction, magazines, newspapers, and academic).

Click on the link above to take you to the British National Corpus website. Let’s attack another common mistake Polish learners of English make: “today morning”. The correct way to say this is “this morning”.

a. Type ‘this morning’ into the search box and hit ‘Find matching strings’:

b. There are 4054 sentences in this corpus which contain ‘this morning’. Click on ‘THIS MORNING’.

c. Thousands of contexts and sentences which contain ‘THIS MORNING’ then appear. Why not voice record a few of the sentences which have a real relevance in your life? Why not copy and paste selected sentences into your own Microsoft Excel ‘Common Mistakes Database’ document?

4. PERSONALISATION

For those of you who read my blog posts, I might be starting to sound like a broken record but I really do believe in the power of adding grammar structures to your Word-Phrase Tables

Creating personalised sentences which contain a grammar structure helps language learners to create far deeper associations with that grammar point. With regular revision of the sentences, language learners will find that they can produce the correct grammar form in future conversations. 

Coming back to the Polish learners who can’t stop saying ‘call to’:

Nothing too fancy. Just some simple real-life sentences. Students may benefit from using some colour, bold font and italics to help the correct grammar structure stand out. After all, visualisation is key when it comes to maintaining a Word-Phrase Table. 

Students are advised to employ a native speaker to sound record these personalised sentences.

5. SELF-CHECKING AND CONCENTRATION

For those students who have conversation-based online classes, the final weapon they can use to conquer their grammar troubles might be sticky notes.

Let’s say that Student David can’t stop using the present continuous tense in conversation when there’s absolutely no need to use it. He could just write on a sticky note - “PRESENT SIMPLE - PERMANENT SITUATIONS’ or “DON’T USE -ING TODAY” - and stick it on the side of his computer screen to remind him to avoid using this ‘-ing’ structure that day. Admittedly, a great deal of concentration and self-checking is involved to change such deeply ingrained habits, but it must be worth a try.

After the lesson, the student shouldn’t throw the sticky note away, but instead keep it for a future session. 

It would be too ambitious to focus on five grammar points in a single lesson. It’s better to take things slowly and just have one or two sticky note reminders per lesson.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Students need to compare structures in their first language and second language to see why negative transfer has occurred. When it comes to the role of teachers, they shouldn’t be discouraged from getting their students to use corpora and create Word-Phrase Tables to help prevent their students from making the same grammar mistakes.

My knowledge of Polish is reasonable enough to allow me to recognise when negative transfer takes place. Of course, it puts me in a powerful position to work with students on negative transfer issues. However, teachers who don’t possess knowledge of a student’s first language can still play a part in improving the accuracy of a student’s speech with some of the methods described in this post.

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