2nd Language Learning


By Chief Ankama

(Part II)
– Based on:

Reflection on L2 learners’ types of errors and why they do what they do
Response & Proposed methodology

A number of high schools (Grade 12 graduates) pass the national examinations in content subjects with good marks. Many of them have difficulties in getting a higher grade in English. Because institutions of higher learning in Namibia require a higher grade in English for admission, the affected learners do no qualify for entry at institutions like the University of Namibia, Polytechnic and others.

Failure to obtain good marks in English is attributed to varied factors such as lack of sufficient exposure to second language knowledge, and thus they make significant errors both in speaking and writing and further have a general problem in listening.

Lightbown & Spada (1999, p. 72) are of the opinion that until the 1960s, most people regarded second language learners’ speech as an incorrect version of the target language. That their errors were believed to be the results mainly of transfer from their first language and that it was contrastive analysis which identified differences between L1 and L2 and predictable areas of potential errors.

The example of French (Lightbown & Spada, 1999) given, displaying direct translation fits perfectly to the learners that I am discussing about. The University of Namibia has a shortfall of students in the sciences and mathematics faculties and has therefore opened a one-year bridging course called “Access course” now “foundation course” for qualifying learners to upgrade their grades for English mostly, mathematics and sciences.

In the light of Lightbown & Spada’s example above, I will give some sentences that can be clearly said are as a result of direct translation (in Namibia it is called informally Namlish for Namibian English), taken from Goverde (2000).

Adjectives: adverbs

1. Oshindonga (my own translation)
a. Onda nyanyukwa uunene noonkondo
b. Miiwike mbi ta yi ka landula

2. NAMLISH (inappropriate)
a. I am very much happy
b. In the next coming weeks

3. ENGLISH (appropriate)
a. I am very happy
b. In the next weeks/ In the coming weeks

What is seen here is that learners seem to use L1 rules into L2, applying interlanguage experience to facilitate communication. Interlanguage, according to Ellis (SLA, pp. 37 and 51) refers to the language systems created by language learners within themselves and thus assist learners in the configuration of language rules during acquisition aided by L1, through internal or external inputs. These L2 learners use interlanguage when appropriate in L2 communication.

Ellis states that when L1 transfer (structure) is compatible to L2, then it is regarded as positive transfer and whenever contrary it is said to be negative transfer, like in the examples given above (see Siegel 1999, p.702).

Siegel further (quoting Winer 1990) notes the concern over the Caribbean English Creole having been accepted as a local language in education by both educators and the public, showing pessimism that it might negatively affect students’ competence in standard English (p. 703).

While in Namibia this is a non-issue, it should be noted that, not all errors made by second language learners can be explained in terms of first language transfer alone (Lightbown & Spada 1999, p. 72).

The two authors say a number of studies show that many errors can be explained better in terms of learners’ attempts to discover the structure of the language being learned rather than an attempt to transfer patterns of their L1.

Structurally speaking, if these learners were to transfer back from English into Oshindonga, the sentences would be regarded as correct.

Parkhuizen (1998, p. 88) points out that language attitudes determine a level of motivation, which in turn leads to various linguistic and nonlinguistic outcomes as a result of acquiring language in formal and in informal contexts.

Learners under discussion are in an environment where the target language is an essential necessity, but dominated by conditionswhich are less conducive both in learning and acquisition.

Lack of teachers well versed in the target language is not the only problem, as these teachers are academically and professionally trained and most of them were taught in the medium of Afrikaans. It would be unrealistic therefore, to expect them to perform miraculous input in their ESL classrooms where the English medium of instruction gradually came into education just in 1993. In other words, some of the errors learners make are a probable transfer from teacher to learner.

Given the standard of English in good neighborhoods around the country where English is widely spoken and where schools are well staffed and all that, one would say that such learners would be highly motivated to speak the target language, even if it means construction of own rules or using L1 – L2 transfer.

The other example I would like to give is from “The Student Voice” (July 2001) produced by Oshakati Secondary School. I have picked on the first paragraph of the article: “What a nice School” by Mwiikeni of Grade 11E. The paragraph reads;

“I really appreciate and I am proud of this school newspaper that is found in Oshakati SSS (Senior Secondary School). I’ve read stories which I did not know before. This shows that what a nice school and good conditions we have at school.”

As stated earlier, L2 learners’ errors can have different sources Ellis (SLA p. 18-19), e.g. universal omission, overgeneralization, transfer and that they comprise of global and local as per Lightbown & Spada (1999 quoting Larry Selinker).

Ellis on learners’ interlanguage says that analysis of learners’ interlanguage shows some characteristics influenced by the learners’ previous learned language(s), some characteristics of the second language and some characteristics which seem to be very general and tend to occur in all or most interlanguage systems. That interlanguages are systematic, dynamic, and continually evolving as learners receive more input and revise their hypotheses about the second language (p. 74).

Mwiikeni’s paragraph carries a somewhat decodable message, but there are errors that are embedded within the paragraph such as of possessive, “… this school newspaper….” (L1 based knowledge) and others ranging from global-local and to creating of own rules.

If Mwiikeni’s errors are compared to Goverde’s collection (2001), one sees similarity in the pattern, but many such errors disappear with time. This was proven true after Access course students at the University of Namibia’s Northern Campus completed a one year ESL intensive course.

In response to the stated, one would like to believe that, yes grammar teaching (a blend of language teaching theories) has offered some kind of remedy to some errors.

On this Ellis (SLARLT1997, p. 48) gives an evolving account on the zero option as providing an ample chance for learners to practice second language naturally and without the strict adherence to grammar rules and heavy language input, and that at the same time such learners are quite free to acquire communication language by a combination of hands-on experience and by trying out those difficult features of L2 they would usually avoid in fear of making mistakes.

The zero option disfavours what Ellis terms as planned intervention in L2 of which he says may disrupt the focus on communication. On the contrary he refers to researchers (e.g. Stevick 1980, Smith 1981, Seliger 1979, Lightbown 1985b) who argue in favour of grammar teaching – that it increases through practice implicit knowledge that are required for communication and that formal grammar teaching has a potential of facilitating the learner’s conscious understanding of grammatical bits and pieces that are later useful to the learner to apply when his L2 learning/ acquisition develops further.

I witnessed Access course successes through evaluations which were done every term end and at the end of the academic year. ESL learners’ errors have multiple factors and causes and to address such errors, multiple strategies are needed in various circumstances as proposed within my literature


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