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The paper presents an analysis of grammatical mistakes made by a student who is learning English as a second language. Peculiarities of writing in a second language are discussed. The most common positive and negative aspects of the learner’s writing are identified. Three major types of mistakes have been noticed at the levels of word classes, syntax, and discourse. Special attention is paid to syntax as one of the most important and complicated issues in language acquisition. An activity aimed at eliminating mistakes in learning the peculiarities of the English syntax is suggested. Opinions of various scholars on the issue of teaching and learning syntax are mentioned.
Mastering English as a second language may present a number of difficulties to the learners. Even when one can speak more or less fluently, there may be grammar aspects difficult to comprehend, as a result of which a person cannot be considered proficient in a foreign language. Grammar has always been a significant aspect of studying a language (Ur, 2009). Therefore, it is essential for a teacher to understand the mistakes which his/her students make to be able to help them overcome these difficulties. The current paper is dedicated to the evaluation of a learner’s work and outlining its strong and weak points.
The peculiarities of writing in a second language will be outlined. The detailed analysis of a particular problematic grammatical feature will be presented, and an activity to introduce this feature in context will be suggested. The paper will benefit the understanding of a learner’s major mistake patterns in English grammar. In conclusion, the usefulness of the analysis in the context of TESOL will be discussed.
Peculiarities of Writing in a Second Language
Writing in a second or foreign language is one of the most challenging assignments that learners meet during the academic process. To know how to produce a text, a learner needs to master the grammar of a target language perfectly. However, first of all, we should keep in mind that writing is a derivative of speaking (Blake, 2008). Not all languages of the world have a written representation of their spoken words. Writing is a conscious operation that demands specialized teaching and instructing (Blake, 2008). Written characters portray the pronunciation and meaning of morphemes and words (Fromkin, Rodman, & Hyams, 2014).
In cultures like Chinese, writing is considered a form of art that bears thousands of years of the nation’s development (Fromkin et al., 2014). Written language represents the rules and fundamentals, establishing the grammar of the language (Fromkin et al., 2014). Pedagogical grammar is a field of research that deals with analyzing the most efficient approaches to teaching and learning a second language (Keck & Kim, 2014).
Cognitive linguists consider grammar as “innate knowledge” of a language structure (Derewianka, 2001, p. 241). On the contrary, functional linguists argue that the notion of “pedagogical grammar” does not reflect any concrete grammar school (Derewianka, 2001, p. 241). While the importance of mastering grammar is acknowledged by many scholars, they also admit that grammar alone is not enough to learn a second language (Keck & Kim, 2014).
Grammar is considered to be “only one piece of the larger puzzle” in learning a language (Keck & Kim, 2014, p. 1). Mulder (2010) emphasizes the importance of grammar for teaching writing and delineates three outcomes of linguists’ proposal to refuse from teaching traditional school grammar. First of all, the renunciation of teaching traditional grammar presents a niche that can be advantageously filled by descriptive linguists (Mulder, 2010). Secondly, such an approach enables teachers to do what they consider most necessary in their classroom to provide learners with the most essential aspects of grammar teaching (Mulder, 2010).
The third benefit is that refusal from traditional grammar teaching methods allows demonstrating that mastering a language is much more than the “correct use” of grammar (Mulder, 2010, p. 64). Grammar is considered “the main inspiration” for the metalanguage (Mulder, 2010, p. 64). The latter phenomenon is used to highlight different concepts of applied linguistics (Berry, 2005). Metalanguage is used by teachers to reinforce learning appropriately and accurately (Andrews, 2007). Therefore, writing in a second language necessitates the knowledge of grammar and metalanguage awareness.
Evaluation of the Learner’s Work
The analysis of a learner’s writing makes it possible to identify both strong and weak features of writing techniques. I shall start with the description of positive elements. The learner has a good understanding of possessive pronouns, which is illustrated by such evidence as “its value,” “my attitudes,” “their things,” and others. We can see that the student operates all possessive pronouns and does not mistake one for another. What is more, he/she does not have problems with the use of “its” and “it’s,” which is a frequent problem for second language learners. The second thing in which the learner succeeds is the use of the indefinite article “a/an”: “an important reason,” “for a longer time,” “a great idea.”
These examples show the student has a profound understanding of the rule of using an indefinite article before an adjective accompanying a noun. The use of articles in English often presents a difficulty to foreign learners, and it is rather good that the student has mastered this rule. The third thing which the learner has done well is the correct formation of the continuous form of the verbs. There are t least three pieces of evidence to this observation: “living,” “coming,” and “being.” The continuous form may present a difficulty for those who study English as a second language as it presupposes either adding a morpheme ‘-ing’ to the end of the verb or omitting some letters before adding this morpheme (like in the verbs ‘live’ and ‘come’). The fact that the learner uses continuous forms appropriately testifies that he/she has mastered this rule.
However, along with positive observations, there are also several critical comments about the student’s writing. The first major difficulty for the learner is the use of passive voice. We can see this problem reflected in the following examples: “it was designed” instead of “it was designed,” “conducts 5000 events” instead of “5000 events are conducted,” and “technologies are being supported” instead of “technologies are supported.” While in the third case, the student uses a wrong tense, he/she manages to use a correct passive voice form, anyway (even if not suitable for this particular sentence). However, in the first two examples, there is no indication of understanding the passive voice formation rules of (the verb ‘to be’ in the appropriate tense plus participle two of the main verb).
The next repeated mistake in the student’s writing is observed at the discourse level grammar (textual cohesion). Particularly, there are several pieces of evidence demonstrating the learner’s use of tautology. This problem is noticed when the same word or the same-root words are used in the consecutive sentences: “firstly… – at the first time,” are used in the neighboring sentences in the first text; the word “doctors” is used in three sentences in a row in the second text; the word-combination “opera house” is frequently used in the first text. This problem in student’s writing indicates that he/she does not master a sufficient vocabulary to express his/her thoughts. This issue results in the fact that the learner cannot come up with synonyms to replace the words that are used too frequently in the text.
Another difficulty is observed at the level of syntax. The learner makes mistakes concerning sentence and clause structure. This problem is noticed in the following examples:
- “Because the opera house is situated on Bennelong Point, which reaches out into the harbor.” As we can see, this sentence lacks connection between the clauses. “Because” is an indicator of an adverbial clause of cause and reason. However, the second part of the sentence does not follow the structure of such complex sentence. Instead, the student uses an attributive relative clause, which is inappropriate in this sentence.
- “Annually, millions of traveler came to Australia but no one forgets to visit the Sydney Opera House.” In this compound sentence, a wrong connective is used. The learner employs an adversative conjunction “but,” whereas a copulative conjunction “and” is needed in this sentence. The two parts of the sentence are not contrasted. The second part merely adds another peculiarity about the fact mentioned in the first part (the travelers come and they do not forget to visit).
- “Therefore most of poor countries couldn’t take modern medicine and it has taken a commercial shape, also it is depending on money.” In this compound sentence, there are three clauses that should be used independently. Another way of correcting this sentence is to break it into a complex sentence and a simple one. In this case, a causative-consecutive conjunction “as” or “since” should be used before “it has taken.” The use of clauses and conjunction in this sentence indicates the learner’s insufficient mastery of English syntax.
Analysis of a Problematic Grammatical Feature
The major problem in the learner’s writing was observed at the level of syntax. The two major parts of grammar – morphology and syntax – belong to the most significant elements of teaching a second language (Celce-Murcia, 1991). Syntax means “sentence construction” and explains how the words are arranged together to create phrases and sentences (Tallerman, 2005, n.p.). Also, the term syntax is employed when syntactic characteristics of a language are discussed (Tallerman, 2005).
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Despite some students’ ability to choose the necessary linguistic form from exposure to the target language, not many learners can do it effectively, particularly is they learn the language in their teens or when their language contact is restricted by the classroom (Larsen-Freeman, n.d.). Larsen-Freeman (n.d.) remarks that concentrating the learners’ attention on linguistic form leads to a better understanding of grammar. Thus, it is suggested that the teachers should aim their efforts at teaching syntax through communicative interactions instead of isolated forms (Larsen-Freeman, n.d.).
Graffi (2001) notes that the study of syntax gained popularity in the second half of the twentieth century after a long period of scholars’ dedication to the investigation of morphology and phonology. Graffi (2001) remarks that the 19th-century syntax was closely associated with psychology, whereas the 20th-century syntax denied the link between psychology and syntax. The author emphasizes the existence of some “indigenous” categories of syntax that can assist in writing a history of a language (Graffi, 2001). The combination of indigenous concepts with theoretical ones makes it possible to write the history of linguistics and simultaneously accept a historical perspective of linguistic thought (Graffi, 2001).
Millar and Trask (2015) analyze the syntactic change in English and remark that one of the significant syntactic adjustments is the shift of markedness. The scholars note that the most languages have “alternative constructions” that make it possible to express ordinary and “not-so-ordinary” meanings (Millar & Trask, 2015, p. 131). Millar and Trask (2015) mention that the ordinary or unmarked word order in English has the following structure: subject-verb-object. However, when the speaker wants to emphasize some particular element in the sentence, he/she may employ the reversed word order that designates a marked form (Millar & Trask, 2015).
Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999) analyze the difficulties that syntax presents to foreign language learners. The authors note that nonreferential ‘it’ and ‘there’ may cause complications for the learners of English as a second language (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999). Foreign speakers may find it difficult to understand the agreement between the subject and verb in English. Other difficulties for foreign learners, as outlined by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999), are presented by subordinate clauses and conjunctions. As we can see, this was the case in the learner’s writing under analysis.
Collins, Trofimovich, White, Cardoso, and Horst (2009) also investigate the difficulties in mastering English syntax observed in foreign learners. The authors note that there is a differentiation between easy and difficult language constructions. Talking about the latter ones, the authors outline four approaches to establishing language features complicated: concentration on the learner’s conduct (acquisition aspect), focus on the features of language (linguistic aspect), concentration on rules and teacher’s instructions (pedagogical aspect), and focus on the cooperation between language input and the students (psycholinguistic aspect) (Collins et al., 2009). Collins et al. (2009) conclude that such aspects of language as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation should not be taught separately but should be presented to the learners in an integrated way.
Suggested Activity to Present the Problem Feature in Context
To make syntax issues easier for the learners, I will suggest such activity as a combination of reading and analyzing grammatical structures (namely, conjunctions and clauses). I will take an excerpt of a text with which the students are already familiar. Then, I will encourage them to analyze each sentence by paying special attention to the conjunctions and the way in which clauses are constructed. The students will be asked to highlight various types of coordination with different colors.
Then I will encourage them to make similar sentences based on highlighted patterns. Finally, two more tasks will be suggested to enhance the learners’ understanding of syntax. The first one will require the students to name the types of coordination in their peers’ sentences. The second task will be concerned with finding examples in the text of certain clauses and types of coordination.
The suggested task is aimed to enhance the learners’ understanding of a complicated issue. However, it will also enable me to percept the students’ needs better and focus on form while teaching English (Long & Robinson, 1998). This type of instruction evokes a lot of contradictory arguments as for its productiveness. However, under certain circumstances, it proves to be rather successful (Poole, 2005). For instance, Ellis, Basturkmen, and Loewen (2001) emphasize the success of such instruction while teaching English as a second language. The authors note that learner uptake in the conditions of focus on form instruction is generally successful (Ellis et al., 2001). Ellis et al. (2001) also remark that student-initiated focus is more productive than the teacher-initiated one.
Ellis (2006) emphasizes that the analysis of learners’ second language acquisition allows to come up with productive approaches to teaching grammar. I agree with this opinion, as well as with the one expressed by Lee (2008) who says that there are some mismatches between the teachers’ expectations and outcomes of teaching and learning process. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to pay much attention to the analysis of students’ mistakes and coming up with the ways of overcoming them.
The current paper presents an analysis of the most common mistakes in the process of acquisition of English. The suggested analysis is significant for TESOL as it incorporates several important features. First of all, the paper evaluates a learner’s writing skills. Positive grammatical tendencies in the work have been noted. Weak points in the learner’s writing have been identified at various levels. The paper provides a thorough analysis of syntax as one of the major difficulties in mastering English for foreign learners. Approaches to teaching and learning syntax presented by various scholars are delineated in the analysis. Peculiarities of the investigation of syntax are described.
The paper also provides a suggested activity that would help to eliminate the difficulties in learning English syntax. Since TESOL’s aim is to make English easier to acquire for the learners all over the world, the suggested analysis is valuable as it describes some of the most complicated issues in learning English. If the mentioned issues are taken into consideration, teaching and learning English will present fewer obstacles for educators and students.
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