The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, February 12, 2007

Italian Learner Errors - A Follow-up

As well as my work in dictionaries, one of my other areas of interest is in corpus research. And last week, this led me to be in Italy giving a series of talks based on some recent research into the type of errors made by learners of English, using the Cambridge Learner Corpus.

In preparation for my trip, I’d done some specific research into errors made by Italian learners. In general, the teachers I was talking to nodded in recognition at typical spelling errors, problems with uncountable nouns etc. At the end of several sessions though, I got asked about the issue of the missing third person -s on verbs, which seemed to be a bugbear for many teachers. So in response to the many questions, I went back and had a look at the corpus again and, for any of those teachers who’ve found their way here via my website, here’s what I found:

The corpus classifies this type of error as a verb agreement error - i.e. the form of the verb doesn’t match its subject. As a general error type, I found that it comes quite low down on the most common types of errors made by Italian students, at number 14 (below word order errors, problems with adjective and adverb forms, and missing pronouns).

Looking more closely, I found that actually a large proportion of verb agreement errors involve irregular verbs (c. 42% of errors), especially be and have:

“Young people is/are interested in …”
“Public transport are/is rather expensive.”
She have/has blonde hair.”
Everybody have/has to come.”

Lots of these errors seem to be the result of misunderstandings about the subject (the noun) - students especially put a plural verb form after nouns which they perceive to be plural or vice versa - Spaghetti are/is often overcooked”, “Many news in our newspapers are/is about …”, “The teaching staff is/are really good.” etc.

There are indeed a reasonable number of errors with missing third person -s - it cost, he take, the film start at …, etc. and unsurprisingly, they are most common at the lower levels. The bulk of these errors are found amongst KET and PET level students (twice as common at KET than PET), they then drop off dramatically from FCE onwards.

What does all this tell us? Well, firstly, perhaps the missing -s is one of those annoying little errors which particularly jumps out at teachers, but isn’t quite as prevalent as it might seem. It might also be, as one teacher suggested, a form that is acquired a bit later in the learning process, so that the error ‘naturally’ disappears as learners get to grips with the language. So whilst annoying, it may not be an error that we need to worry too much about.

Secondly, the corpus data also suggests that perhaps it’s not always the verb forms that we need to focus on, but those confusing nouns - people, staff, transport, everybody, nobody, news, etc.

If you were at one of my workshops last week, thank you very much for coming, I hope you found it useful and I hope you’ve been a bit inspired to tackle a bit of error correction with your classes.

Let me know how it goes … Julie