Errors in English Made by Romanian Speakers by hcj


									                          Errors in English Made by Romanian Speakers

                                                                           Yolanda-Mirela CATELLY
                                                                                      F.I.L.S. - U.P.B.

Abstract: The paper focuses on the problem of specific errors in spoken or written English made by speakers
who have Romanian as their mother tongue. Firstly, the input from the existing literature that lists and/or
discusses frequent errors of learners of English as a foreign language is presented and analyzed, with a view to
understanding the phenomenon in general and to selecting those elements that can recurrently be found in the
Romanians‟ free production of English. The second part of the study identifies and investigates some useful
ways and means of diminishing the number of such errors.

Key words: language error, non-errors, English as a foreign language, mother tongue, error correction.

    1. Errors and mistakes – General

     Let us start by recollecting a humorous, though so true, warning from Alexander [1],
telling us how powerfully mother tongue interference can affect our understanding of a
foreign language, with sometimes funny but other times dramatic consequences:

                                                  Little green men
In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835 – 1910) observed some markings on the planet Mars
which he referred to as canali. This was mistranslated into English as canals, suggesting man-made structures
and the existence of intelligent life on Mars, instead of channels, which occur naturally. The idea of canals
appealed to the imagination of scientists and novelists alike. The astronomer Percival Lowell used it as the basis
for his „scientific observations‟, recorded in such works as Mars and its Canals (1908). The novelist H. G. Wells
was inspired to write his story about the invasion of the earth by Martians, The War of the Worlds (1898). In
1938, a simulated newscast of this novel was broadcast, describing Martian invasion of New Jersey, which
reduced millions of listeners to a state of panic. The idea of Martians was not exploded till 1965 when the US
spacecraft Mariner 4 sent back close-up pictures of Mars, which provide conclusively that there no canals and
no little green men!

         The moral of this story gets us neatly to the importance of errors, mistakes and the
kind in communication in a foreign language. „Failure to communicate effectively is at the
root of many social ills and misfortunes, as Manser [11] shows, from war to missed career
opportunities, from industrial strife to broken relationships‟.
         We are fully aware now of the fact that language is a living organism that keeps
changing, but we do have now the means and tools of rapidly receiving information about
such changes, in our mother tongue or in foreign languages we may be studying/using, mostly
due to the amount of publications and sites focused on possible sources of errors. At present
emphasis seems to be placed on being able to produce a high standard English, in both oral
or written communication. The process of getting aware of one‟s own mistakes should start in
the foreign language class, with the teacher as a source of information or as an organizer of
activities meant to sensitize learners as to the most frequent mistakes they make; however, the
concern for self-improvement should continue autonomously, after the course, with a
permanent interest of the person in identifying and correcting their errors by means of various
sources, such as dictionaries, books of grammar, tests, Internet materials and so on.

         But what are errors, mistakes … and even non-errors? Unfortunately, the literature
and most specialists seem to have quite different opinions so it is really difficult to identify
widely accepted definitions of these terms. Most well recognized authors of works in the
domain of errors of English for instance avoid defining the terms. Thus, Alexander [1] names
his excellent collection of errors and explanations of their origin Right Word, Wrong Word.
Words and structures confused and misused by learners of English, naming the entries in the
list items, although later in the text he calls them mistakes.
         Another important author in the field, Brians {5; 6] writes: „The concept of errors in
English usage is a fuzzy one‟. He discusses the dichotomy between prescription and
description – the former representatives strive to impose traditional rigid rules and the
preservation of their ideas of correctness on the writing and speaking in public, while the
adepts of description merely report the prevailing patterns, leaving their readers to decide
whether to accept them or not.
         When we discuss the level of acceptability of errors we should realistically mention
the influence of e-mail writing and chat rooms, where „correctness‟ is simply disregarded, if
not treated with contempt. It is not before these users of the language come across a formal
situation requiring a high standard of oral or written communication that their speaking or
writing skills are attentively (critically?!) analyzed. As Brians {5] emphasizes, many
businesses consider standard English usage a prime requirement for employment in
responsible positions. So, if a person has no access to standard English and applies for an
executive position by saying “I heared t’other day you done got some jobs open!” [sic!],
chances are good they will be directed to try farther down the corporate hierarchy. That is one
important reason why everyone deserves to know what sorts of usage variations may cause
them trouble.
         I would like to emphasize the point here that there is certainly a higher level of
acceptance of mistakes with the spoken language than the written one, which definitely
requires a lot more accuracy, from the grammatical, lexical and stylistic viewpoints.
         Approaches to defining errors and mistakes range from voices maintaining they are
interchangeable as far as their general meaning is concerned, for instance: My error/mistake
was in forgetting to send you the message. In linguistics, though, there seems to be
distinctions. Thus, a mistake would actually be just a slip of the tongue, that can be
self/corrected, while an error cannot, as it is systematic (likely to appear repeatedly) and the
learner is not aware of it. Some other opinions adopt the competence-performance
dichotomy, an error pertaining to a person's linguistic competence, a mistake to their linguistic
         August [2] defines a non-error as one of those prescriptive rules of grammar or usage
that fussy people insist on pointing out, even though they are generally wrong. For example,
“since” versus “because.” He then understandably remarks: „if a mistake has been consistently
made since the 14th Century, you really can‟t call it a mistake. … It‟s certainly worth a look.‟
         It is finally the privilege of the language user – some authors maintain - to decide
whether they observe the standard language or they use, according to the context, something
else that may sound more appealing to them. This is very thin ice, though, as, (a) if one
accepts that errors are after all only deviations from the standard use of English as judged by
sophisticated users, according to Brians [6], or (b) if guidelines for usage do not have to be
regarded as „iron chains dragging you down‟, then, we believe, the result might be a very
different understanding of what is acceptable/standard and what is not. Hence, a lot of
problems for the language teacher, sometimes facing students who bring so-called „evidence‟
from sites, chat rooms and other similar typically non-standard sources; the teacher has to
raise the learners‟ awareness of         the importance of level of formality, register and other

options they should be able to make/choose from in order to communicate in various types of

         2. Errors and mistakes – in search for classification criteria

        The same fuzziness seems to be a characteristic of criteria for the classification of
errors and/or mistakes. Thus, we have analyzed a range of well known works in the field and
we have concluded that there is no such thing as a unique way of classifying errors, as criteria
vary significantly. That is why we have tried to synthetically present some of them, as

   I.       Alexander [1] – per level of study:
         a) up to intermediate, where he includes a mix of grammar errors (adjectives, verb
            phrases etc.), topic based errors (work and jobs, the human body, money),
            function errors (addressing people, doing things for people);
         b) upper intermediate to advanced, with similar categories as those under (a), but
            requiring a superior level of language knowledge: grammar (prepositional
            phrases), topic (war and peace, behaviour), function (approval, communicating).

    However, the author lists possible causes of errors, as well:
   - interference of L1 with English (as L2), the so-called „false friends‟, e.g.
   - word confusion in L1 itself, e.g. rob/steal/burgle,
   - structures specific to L1 that interfere with L2 structures, e.g. it has compared with
      there is/it is,
   - confusion of structures within L1 itself, e.g. must/had to,
   - particular words and structures which are a well-known source of error, for example
      get and enjoy.

   II.      Berman‟s [3] categories are mainly:
                    a) grammar – examples: present perfect with for, I had better,
                    b) vocabulary – examples: south vs southern,

                      but also:

                      c) topic – example: age,
                      d) function – example: ordering.

          III. In Dahan‟s [7] view, the taxonomy is deliberate and quite clearly outlined:

                      a)   vocabulary – hard vs hardly; resume vs sum up,
                      b)   grammar - on TV , *at the TV,
                      c)   spelling – differed vs deferred,
                      d)   pronunciation – service vs vice.

         IV. Brians [5; 6] prefers what he calls Category listings, which include: commonly
confused expressions, words of foreign origin, grammar, spelling and style, homonyms,
pronunciation, inexact words and phrases, problem prepositions, redundancies, commonly
misused expressions, misheard expressions, American vs British English.

         V. Another, quite interesting for us, teachers of English, criterion is that of Bond‟s
[4], who visibly has a teaching and learning oriented character. She is concerned with the
most annoying grammar mistakes, e.g.
    - *If I would have known about the party, I would have gone to it. – correct: If I had
       known about the party, I would have gone,
    - *He don’t care about me anymore. – correct: He doesn‟t,
    - *Sign at the checkout of a supermarket: “Ten items or less”. – correct: fewer,
    - *He has took the train. – correct: taken.

       VI. An interesting site [9] lists „common English mistakes by graduate students‟,
subdivided into:
       a) Number agreement between subject and verb,
       b) Number in possessive pronouns,
       c) Generic versus specific,
       d) "a" vs. "an",
       e) "good" vs. "well",
       f) Discrete vs. continuous (or countable vs. uncountable),
       g) Commas,
       h) Inappropriateness of verb to subject,
       i) Expressing a complex sentence.

        VII. The well-known site [10] provides lists of likely
errors originating in confusion with L1, whereas the Learn Spanish site [8] offers some
typical errors and mistakes in Spanish by English speakers. All these bits of information can
be helpful in identifying the specific needs of the students who are native speakers of that
        Not surprisingly in a way, there are 25 lists for 25 different languages in [10], but
Romanian is not among them. This is one more reason for our interest in identifying the most
typical mistakes in English made by native Romanians and due to the influence of the
Romanian language, with a view to enabling teachers to create tasks and activities meant to
sensitize learners as to such misconstructions and subsequently to get them to improve their
English proficiency.

        VIII. Finally, there are also numerous sites in which various authors, some even
students of those languages, have collected the most amusing mistakes of language (appeared
in photos, advertisements and so on); some of them could really be used as a starting point in
getting students aware as to the consequences of making them. Here is a selection of such

   - - errors creating fun
   - - bloopers
   -    - real horror
   - - howlers form around
       the world

   and, unfortunately
   - - medical mistakes. Mind
      these ones!

   3. Some frequent errors in English made by Romanian speakers

       When they learn and start using English, the Romanians make mistakes of various
kinds. Some are the „traditional‟ or „classical‟ worldwide errors, due to confusions generated
by the English language itself. However, there are others that are committed because of the
presence of Romanian as their L1 (mother tongue), as far as both vocabulary and grammar are
concerned. The latter are the object of our interest in this paper, as for the others there are
numerous resources that list, explain and correct them.
       The sources these examples come from range from almost thirty years of teaching, my
students‟ written and spoken pieces of communication, their scientific papers for the students‟
sessions, as well as from the translations into English made by native speakers of Romanian.
       Given the fact that in our very strict framework for the teaching of English in the
Bucharest Polytechnic as far as the time constraint is concerned, teachers must identify ways
of supporting learners in an intensive and efficient manner. This is one of the reasons I have
designed a range of tasks meant to draw my students‟ attention on the kind of mistakes they
generally make.
       The second reason is that by involving students in an explicit manner in discussing
about their mistakes we can hope that their awareness of them will help them to increase their
level of communication without too many mistakes after the end of the faculty course, as
well, when they become autonomous learners.
       The examples given below are not the only errors I have collected from my students‟
production of oral or written English, but they are among the recurrent ones and which
impede high standard communication in L2.
    There is an impressive list of „false friends‟, vocabulary confusions due to the
resemblance of some words with Romanian words which do not mean the same thing.
    - *realize for accomplish or carry out,
    - *library for bookshop,
    - *eventually for possibly,
    - *actually for currently,
    - *like for such as (followed by enumeration),
    - *assure for ensure or insure,
    - *through (spatial) for by (instrumental),
    - wrong prepositions, e.g. help//work//stay + *at for with,
    - *determinated for determined,
    - *from for in/on (The pen *from the table is red.).

        Errors that can be accounted for confusions between specific English word order
versus the Romanian one, for instance:

   -   *I like very much English.
   -   *It appears a problem with the ventilation system.
   -   *He seems being at home.
   -   *I have so many things to tell you (…that what?!…), because the film was good.
   -   *Could you tell me where is the bank?

   -   *as it follows (due perhaps to an exaggerated attention not to omit the subject)

       Grammatical errors that frequently appear with Romanian learners of English are:

   -   *The students are hard-working. (incorrect determination),
   -   *I am working for the Vodafix Company. (wrong aspect),
   -   a *mechanical impossible theory (wrong adverb of adjective),
   -   *by the bus (incorrect determination).

       Pronunciation errors that are typical for the Romanians:

   -   oven,
   -   shone,
   -   international,
   -   Danish,
   -   said vs. paid,
   -   weekend.

        Once such errors have been noticed, the teacher‟s role is to design appropriate tasks
meant to focus the students‟ attention on the types of wrong constructions they use in order to
help them to eliminate them.
        The error correction problem is not discussed here, but it is assumed that correction is
done in a non threatening manner, either by the teacher – on the spot or postponed, depending
on the lesson objectives, or in pair/group/class discussions by the students themselves.

       4. Avoiding errors – suggested tasks

        It would not be very productive to disregard the already existing task patterns
suggested by the literature. Thus, Alexander‟s [1] proposals are not actually teaching tasks,
but tests. However, they could be used, with the necessary modifications required by the
students‟ level, in the teaching process as well. The following task patterns have been
identified in his book:

   -   multiple-choice with 2 or 3 choices,
   -   choice from a list in order to fill in gaps,
   -   error (if any) correction,
   -   supply necessary prepositions, if necessary,
   -   choice from pair of easily confused words, in order to fill in gaps,
   -   use problem words in sentences/texts of your own,
   -   match definition to word - one of them is given in a sentence with gap.

       Dahan [7] adds an interesting type of support for the learners in his error hunting task,
by giving the category the error belongs to: V for vocabulary, G for grammar, O for
orthography and so on.

        In our turn we have tried to design some other interesting challenging tasks for our
students. Some of the most frequently used are briefly presented below together with their
        1) questionnaires addressed to the entire group (as an alternative – interviewing peer
in pair work, followed by reporting to class) on the topic of errors. The questions were of the
type: What mistakes do you regularly make, if any? Do other group mates also make the same
mistakes? What other mistakes have you notice your colleagues make? Can you explain what
generates these mistakes? etc. This is a good way of focusing the students‟ attention on their
frequent mistakes even from the beginning of the course;
         2) students are asked to look for the explanation of some of their errors in
dictionaries, books or on the Internet as a mini-project (individual but also pair work which is
very useful for homework);
         3) identifying errors in given texts from various sources, students being invited to
correct the message (this can be done with both oral or written input), the level of difficulty
depending on the learners‟ language level;
         4) using the sites presenting photos or other amusing input that is full of language
errors – students must not only identify and explain the source of humour/the errors made, but
they have to correct them as well;
         5) translations from Romanian into English, followed by class feedback provided by
the students.
        With most of these task patterns the use of the document camera, which allows the
students to watch the correction process in real time, is of real value. To conclude we should
mention that, although these tasks seem to be quite time-consuming, they have a really
intensive character and therefore are very efficient.


   1. Alexander, L.G. (1994) Right Word, Wrong Word. Words and structures confused and
       misused by learners of English, Longman.
   2. August, John (2005) Non-errors in English, online at, accessed 03.10.2008.
   3. Berman, J-P. et al. (2001) Teste de limba engleza, Bucuresti : Edit. Niculescu.
   4. Bond, Karen (2004) Most Annoying Grammar Mistakes in English, online at, accessed
        5. Brians , Paul (2003 ) Common Errors in English Usage, William James &
   6. Brians, P. (1997) Common Errors in English, online at, accessed 02.10.2008.
   7. Dahan, Lionel, (2007) Engleza fara greseli, Bucuresti: Edit. Niculescu.
   8. Learn Spanish (2007) Typical errors and mistakes in Spanish by English speakers,
       online at, accessed 01.10.2008.
   9. Lee, Art, Keller, R.M. and Lindstrom, G. (2000) Common English Mistakes by
       Graduate Students, online at, accessed 02.10.2008.
   10. Lists of likely errors (2008) online at
       publishers/cup/lists-likely-errors, accessed o4.10.2008.
   11. Manser, Martin (1994) Bloomsbury Good Word Guide, London: Bloomsbury
       Publishing LTD.


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