Tuesday, 19 March 2013

What are fossilized errors, and how do I get rid of them?

The best way to understand fossilized errors is to think about dinosaurs bones. They have been in the ground for so long that they have turned to stone, and they are also very difficult to remove. Look at this paleontologist and how hard he is working!

A fossilized error is just a mistake that you’ve made over and over - sometimes thousands of times - that has never been corrected by a teacher, or perhaps because you were a little bit lazy.

It is usually caused by your native language interfering with your English. It may also be because you don’t understand a word or a grammatical construction, and so you have been doing what you think is correct, but it isn’t. 

Basically, because you have heard it “wrong” for so long, it sounds “right” to you. And now it's stuck in your head, the way those dinosaur bones are stuck in the ground. You're going to have to work very hard to get these errors out.

Examples of fossilized errors that I hear a lot
(1) A classic example for Spanish speakers is this one:
I don’t like people who is unfriendly.

It should be:

I don’t like people who are unfriendly.

But because in Spanish you say “la gente es” (singular), it makes it very tricky in English to remember to say “people are” (plural).

(2) Some common pronunciation errors that become fossilized are:

 Answer pronounced with the “s”. 
No, no, no! The “s” is silent! It sounds like “Ann Sir”.  

 Island pronounced with the “s”.
Please don’t say this! The “s” is silent here too. It sounds like “Eye Land”. 

Debt pronounced with the “b”.
Nooooooooooo! The “b” is silent. It rhymes with get, set, pet, etc. 
Just think “I need to get out of debt.” 

Bought pronounced in all kinds of crazy ways.
It’s a very simple, clear vowel sound. “Bought” should sound like “robot”. 
Just say to yourself: “I bought a robot.”  

(I find that phonetic transcription sometimes can be confusing for students, so I always try to teach words that rhyme. Do what’s best for your learning.

(3) Our final example for today is one that is particular to one of my students. She uses the word “back” to mean go back, come back, etc. For example, she’ll say:

I back tomorrow.

She should say:
I’ll be back tomorrow.

This fossilized error is a MUCH bigger problem than the “people” example because it makes it hard for the listener to understand what she means. The first few times she said this to me, I had no idea what she was talking about. She’s working hard to correct it and she’s improving, but it is taking some time.

What kinds of fossilized errors do you make? It’s important to identify them and start trying to correct them now, rather than later. You can ask your teacher to do drills with you, but you also need to take responsibility for your English and think BEFORE you speak.

I find that students who make an effort to correct a fossilized error usually can do it, but it takes perseverance (a big effort over a period of time).

It’s also important to work on just one or two at a time. Ask your teacher to choose the two most important things that you personally need to work on, and start there.

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