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Review of  Errors in Language Learning and Use

Reviewer: Paul Watters
Book Title: Errors in Language Learning and Use
Book Author: Carl James
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 9.1026

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James, Carl. (1998). Errors in Language Learning and Use:
Exploring Error Analysis. London: Longman. ISBN 0 582
25763-8 (Paperback). RRP: 14.99.

The analysis of errors in cognitive, linguistic and other
psychological processes has a long history dating back to
the introduction of signal detection theory in psychophysics
and behavioural learning paradigms. Although many
applied linguists now favour interlanguage paradigms for
second-language acquisition, error analysis (EA) is still
widely used in language classes. The attraction of EA lies
in one's ability to isolate variability in responses, such as
distinguishing true errors from "mistakes", which simple
"correct/incorrect" paradigms tend to discard. In this new
book on EA in language learning and usage, Carl James
builds on his earlier work on contrastive analysis and
applied linguistics to further explore the role that
performance errors play in language acquisition (particularly
second-language acquisition). The book consists of a
historical overview of EA in applied linguistics, and then
embarks on an ambitious attempt to both define and
constrain the scope and methodology of EA in language
processing and language learning. This methodology
includes typologies for classifying and understanding how
errors arise, as well as algorithmic specifications for the
diagnosis and error correction in clinical and educational

The first chapter aims to give a historical overview of EA in
the context of its origins, its inspirations, its competitors,
and its influences on second language teaching. James
defines an error as "an unsuccessful bit of language" (p.1)
which seems to be as succinct and compact a description as
I've ever read! However, this very readable style of writing,
whilst appearing informal, is maintained through later
chapters where discussion of technical issues could easily
have been obfuscated by a poor writing style. First- and
second-order paradigms within language learning are
described in detail in this chapter, with the interlanguage
and crosslinguistic approaches compared with alternatives
such as EA and contrastive analysis. Idiosyncratic and
language-specific difficulties in language learnability are
also covered in the context of linguistic change and
metalinguistic influences on successful language
acquisition. Several methods for collecting data in EA are
informally introduced in this chapter (e.g., error elicitations
such as the "broad trawl"), which naturally leads into the
second chapter on defining the scope of EA in language

The second chapter begins with an enlightening discussion
of popular conceptions of what "proper" language is (such
as the King's English), and catalogues the many failed
attempts to enforce a "correct" dialect of English both in
Britain and Asia (the "complaints" tradition). This issue is
clearly relevant for defining exactly what an error is, given
the absolutist attributions made by some educators and
policy makers about the tenability or correctness of certain
forms of spoken and written English (i.e., "standard"
English). James outlines some typologies for understanding
language norms based on geographical and historical
constraints, but correctly identifies deficiencies in these
schemes (particularly the failure, for example, to understand
the role of colonialism in language preferences). This issue
is taken up with respect to the issue of power and authority
of native speakers with respect to non-native speakers of
English, and conversely how the desire to speak a second
language can unwittingly result in language loss and native-
language change.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 focus on the definition and description
of errors within the EA paradigm, having defined the focus
of the EA methodology in the previous chapters. James
begins by defining learners' ignorance of a target language
in terms of four categories of deviance: grammaticality,
acceptability, correctness and strangeness. It is a clear
advantage of the authors' approach to EA that both
grammatical/rational and performance/empirical approaches
to language acquisition are covered by his typology, thus not
"taking sides" with one viewpoint or the other. This
rationale is based on the idea that EA is a methodology
rather than a theoretical prescription. This focus continues
with a discussion of error detection methods, in the context
of locating and describing such errors in different parts of
speech and indeed with respect to discourses longer than
single sentences or phrases. The importance of a pluralistic
approach which is tolerant of differences in dialects is
emphasised, whilst ensuring that objective and stationary
criteria are applied to utterances and writing within each
dialect group. Error taxonomies, such as feature and surface
structure approaches, are outlined in detail with worked
examples, which are one of the key design features of the
authors' pedagogical approach. Computer-assisted analysis
of errors is also discussed, as are specific algorithmic
approaches to rating levels of error in lexical and
grammatical processes.

The next two chapters focus on diagnosing errors and
evaluating their seriousness and impact for second-language
learners in particular. Possible negative influences, such as
interlingual errors arising from conflicts between the target
language and mother tongue, are treated in detail, as are
intralingual errors and inconsistencies which the non-native
speaker encounters for the first time in the target language,
such as over-generalisations and false analogies. In
addition, the role of culture in influencing and perhaps
determining some aspects of linguistic behaviour is
discussed, for example, how native speakers might "gate" a
non-native speaker. Error gravity and comprehensibility are
also covered, as are some amusing examples given for "the
irritation factor". The sociopragmatic consequences of error
production in social situations, and the potentially negative
outcomes for non-native speakers, are also discussed.

Chapter 8 discusses pragmatic strategies for using EA to
correct errors in speech and writing for second language
learners. These are enhanced by a number of case studies
presented in chapter 9. The issues covered in these last two
chapters are non-trivial for applied linguistics: is second-
language teaching effective? If so, which approaches are
best suited to particular kinds of students? Are
formal/grammatical or informal/conversational approaches
superior? Although James provides no magic answers for
any of these questions, he does present a coherent
methodology for answering these kinds of questions for
individual situations, which is the great appeal of this book.
This book would be suitable as an undergraduate or
graduate text in applied linguistics or TESL programmes,
but will be an invaluable reference for researchers in related
fields such as psycholinguistics and machine translation,
who might be searching for a more formal methodology for
understanding error production in their respective fields.
This book will be an indispensable addition to every
linguist's library.

Reviewed by: Paul A. Watters, Department of Computing,
School of Mathematics, Physics, Computing and
Electronics, Macquarie University NSW 2109,
AUSTRALIA. Tel.: +61-2-9850-9541; Fax: +61-2-9850-
9551; E-mail: Paul A. Watters
is a research officer at Macquarie University in Australia,
and is currently working on computational representations
of semantics in models of language and speech production,
as well as developing pragmatic approaches to machine
translation. He is an Associate Editor of the South Pacific
Journal of Psychology.