Correction: Is It Cultural?

11-0215-correction-fluid-tippex.jpgI once made a call to an offbeat landlord, using the local language to check in with her about a deal I’d struck with her family about the rent. During the conversation, she corrected my use of reported speech – it struck me as odd and confusing at the time but quite funny later. What was she thinking, correcting me for something that didn’t really matter when I was struggling to hold a phone conversation with her? She was quite a colorful person – and a nice one to be sure – but an odd one. In any case, to this day, I know how to use reported speech in that language only because she told me then.

On the spot correction – which is something some students specifically request – is something I often struggle to do. With experience in general it becomes easier for me, and I’m more comfortable doing it and more importantly knowing when to do it and when not to. But a line in a guide for students studying abroad made me stop and think: is my hesitance to correct people a cultural thing?

The line was something to the effect of – don’t be surprised if people correct you when you speak their language – it’s an American thing not to correct people.

In many English-speaking countries, it seems rude to correct people who are trying to speak our language, especially when we don’t speak their language (or any other language) well. Of course being an English language teacher is a different cup of tea, but it’s hard to just overcome an ingrained habit and do something that seems rude.

Another cultural element though might just be experience of learning another language – if you’ve done it you realize making mistakes is a normal part of it; people don’t make mistakes because they are stupid, but because everyone makes mistakes when learning. In this light correction is simply one different strategy for learning and there is no need to feel inhibited about doing it.

Still, there is much emphasis given in communicative teaching to focusing on meaning or content in contrast to grammar or form. There’s also the balance to strike between making sure, on the one hand, that students use language they know correctly and, on the other hand, that they feel unafraid to take risks with new language – something they are unlikely to do if they receive correction too much. Certainly, students are there to learn, but it does not follow that students who are corrected more learn more; there are many ways to learn and correction is just one tool.