Language Acquisition: The Blue and White Teddy Bear

English: Teddy bear.

Not pink (Wikipedia)

Picture the scene:

A two-year-old boy with his dad having a conversation about a favourite teddy bear (not unlike the one in the photo).

CHILD: Look daddy, this old teddy bear is pink.

DAD: No, son, it’s blue and white.

For a two-year-old this level of language would be pretty amazing,yet the father has chosen to correct his son because it isn’t a true, factual statement.

This can be seen when the following day the dad and the son are again talking about the same teddy bear:

CHILD: Loo daddy, teddy blue white!

DAD: Yes, excellent!  Well done!  You really are a clever boy…

This time the father has given positive feedback and praise because he is happy that the son has been accurate in the basic description of the teddy bear.  The language, on the other hand, is poor, especially in contrast with the conversation from the previous day.

I know this to be true because the second conversation is one I had with my son.

And I am not alone, because it seems that this is what most parents and caregivers do most of the time.  We don’t usually correct a child’s grammar, but we will correct them if they are not being truthful.  We assume that, given enough exposure and examples the child will eventually pick up the language without the need for overt correction.  There might the occasional fine-tuning, and maybe even more at school later in life, but not usually from parents.

In my past articles on Richmond Share about first and second language acquisition I have tended to look at the similarities between the two.  However, in terms of error correction it seems that learning a second language is as far removed as possible from learning a first language.

If you ask a student what they want from a teacher, they more often than not they will mention correction as an important element.  Most teachers feel the need to correct at some point.  Some will do it more than others, and there are many differing techniques.  While it is difficult to get teachers to agree on exactly how and when we should correct, most of us agree that we should correct our students.

Sometimes, the focus on correction can go too far, so that it becomes the opposite of the dad in the conversation at the top of this article.  Some teachers, some of the time, pay too much attention on the lexis and the grammar and not enough on the actual message.  I know this is true because I have done it myself.

Correcting too much can be just as bad as not correcting at all, because if we are only ever on the look out for opportunities to correct then we miss the chances to praise.

Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at greenelanguages.com

1 Comment
  • Dennis Warren
    Dennis Warren
    Posted at 19:40h, 21 julho Responder

    I love the stories and examples you come up in your blog(s), Stephen. Thank you!

    My son tells me that I have a green beard. It is, in my eyes, black with (sadly) lots of white. My wife, being the artist of the family, agrees with my son’s acute observation that white is rarely ever actually white, but a some mix of other hues (which if course science would agree with). So, I don’t correct him, merely express the idea that many interpretations of my beard can exist.

    Not that this helps or is relevant to correction, but correction without contextualisation is a shallow thing. In my poor learning of other languages, especially Portuguese, I have personally felt correction to be of little value to me. I know I make the mistakes, I even realise many times soon after I have said it that it was a mistake, yet this mistake is corrected without being truly corrected. I make the mistake many times, frustratingly so for me and everyone around me. To be truly corrected in the proper sense I need to be worked on, recycled, revisited and pushed into change.

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