What’s the difference between an error and a mistake?
An error is when a learner says or writes something that is incorrect but you cannot correct it because it’s something you haven’t learnt yet.
A mistake is when a learner says or writes something that is incorrect but you have the capacity to self-correct. Sometimes you notice immediately you’ve made a mistake, other times you can be alerted by someone else that you’ve made a mistake and consequently you are able to think about it and correct the problem yourself.
To clarify, here are a few examples of mistakes and errors.
- If you haven’t learnt the past tense yet, of course you’re going to omit the word đã because you don’t know it. If it’s a sentence where you need to say đã but you haven’t, this would be an error.
- One time in my Vietnamese class we were talking about trade and I mentioned exporting rice. I said cơm when I should have said gạo. I know both these words well, so that was a mistake.
- If you’d been calling a waiter a similar age to you em ơi, before I told you that you should be using ‘anh/chị ơi’ in this situation, that would have been an error. However, now that you know when to use anh ơi, if you keep on calling them em ơi that’s a mistake.
Not only can you make errors and mistakes with vocabulary and grammar, you can also make them with pronunciation. If you know a word starts with ng- but you say n-, this too is a mistake. (If you haven’t learnt to pronounce ng- yet, this would be an error.)
How this affects you as a learner
That might sound a little complicated. I’ll admit, this is a subtle difference that not even all language teachers know about, so why should it concern you?
Well, you should be getting corrections in some way, shape or form as part of your language studies. This can be through tutor, from getting your writing corrected online by native speakers or from a language partner that you’ve asked to correct you (or all of these!).
Ideally you should try to minimise the amount of makes mistakes and errors you make by getting good input and copying it.
But you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes.
When they occur, they can be a good learning opportunity if you’re made aware of them and what the correction is so that you can try to get it right next time.
If you’re not making mistakes, maybe the language your using is very simple and you should try to experiment more.
How much attention you should pay to your errors depends on what kind of error or mistake it is. Not every correction you get needs to be acted on immediately.
What to do about errors
In general, you don’t need to worry about errors that are beyond your level. If you’re making them it’s because you haven’t learnt any different yet.
For example, if someone corrects your writing and adds the structure thì…thì… which you haven’t learnt yet, you should accept their correction but you don’t need to dwell on it. If you want to look into it now, you can. But if you’re following a course, sooner or later you will learn that structure so you can leave it until then if you want.
However, ignoring errors entirely can lead to systematic mistakes (problems that are ingrained) which can become difficult to correct later on. Think of the intermediate English learner who still says ‘she have’ instead of ‘she has’ or ‘very like’ instead of ‘really like’.
Innocent errors can be made that are quick and easy to fix – such as errors you’ve made from experimenting (often influenced by your native language). These should be taken on board so you don’t keep on making this error.
For example, once I replied to someone on lang-8 saying
cảm ơn cho… when it should be cảm ơn vì…. This was an innocent error but it’s something that’s quick and simple to learn.
Pronunciation errors in particular should be corrected as soon as possible. It’s important to get feedback that you’re making an error and to work on the problem until you can correctly pronounce it.
What to do about mistakes
Referring back to the definition of a mistake, the key difference with errors is that the learner should be able to correct a mistake themselves.
As I said before, sometimes you can hear yourself making mistakes as you say them aloud and correct them instantly (aloud or mentally).
Often when you read through your writing you can spot simple mistakes. Just correct it and try to remember it next time.
It’s worth pointing out that we often make mistakes like this in our native tongue too.
However there are many times that we don’t catch our own mistakes. We know the rule or the right word or sound but we make a mistake for whatever reason, and we don’t spot it ourselves.
How to help your language partner with errors
It’s useful to think about this distinction between errors and mistakes if you take part in a language exchange where you help a learner of your native language.
Techniques to help your partner correct themselves
There are many ways of doing this that I often used as a teacher and still use in language exchanges.
Generally, non-verbal clues are best as they don’t interrupt the conversation. Verbal hints should be given after the person stops speaking. I’ve used examples from English to illustrate each point.
- Give a non-verbal clue such as a questioning look or tipping your head to one side.
- Ask a question that indicates where the problem is. (‘How do we say see in the past simple?’ → saw)
- Repeat the learner’s error back to them, in a questioning way. (‘He like?’ → likes)
If your tutor or language partner does something like this, it’s a golden opportunity to learn from your mistake by correcting it yourself. This increases your chances of getting it right next time.
What to correct?
If your partner wants feedback or if you correct other people’s essays, then it’s worth being aware of their level and what kind of things they should know and what things they may not know yet.
If a beginner isn’t using advanced grammar in English, they’re making that error because they haven’t learned those structures yet. Don’t give them a hard time over it. As long as you can understand, let them continue with the conversation without derailing them.
If there’s an error in a message they’ve written, just make an quick correction and move on.
On the other hand, if they have a systematic error they know about and want to eradicate or if they’re making mistakes you think they should know, help them to correct themselves. You can indicate it to them using one of the ideas in the previous section so they have the chance to correct it.
Over to you: What’s your experience of mistakes and errors in language learning and helping other learners?
Photo credit: nkzs