Saturday, April 5, 2014

Struggles in bilingual competence: Fluency, errors, and those darn “little words”

I know, scientifically, that the process of language acquisition is dynamic and uneven. Second language learners, and even children developing their native language, experience periods of measurable growth, plateaus, and even periods of apparent regression in their linguistic capabilities. Knowing this, however, does little to quell my daily striving to improve my Italian.

Even before I came here, I said, “I speak Italian fluently, but errorfully”. This is still the case. Since I got here, I have been able to carry on a conversation, tell a story, teach a class, and even give a research presentation in a more-or-less fluid way. However, I do all of these things with many errors. My language is not “correct” by any stretch of the imagination.

There was a time in second language acquisition research when people focused on errors: how to classify them, when and how to correct them, how many to correct, etc. Actually, the delicate balance of encouraging communication and correcting errors is still a challenge in second language classrooms. Nowadays, I find myself very attuned to the question of linguistic errors in my own production.

Basically, languages contain two types of words (we could make this distinction at the level of the morpheme, but to keep it simple, I’ll talk about words). Generally, when we think of “words”, we think of lexical (content) words: the ones that carry meaning, like house, famiglia, gelato, dog, intelligente, interesting, chiesa, etc. However, languages also include syntactic (function) words: the “little words”, that don’t necessarily mean anything, but support the grammatical structure of the language, like to, for, the, per, di, in, verb endings, etc. These “little words” are the ones that usually give second language learners trouble- serious trouble!

Have you ever noticed that, when you speak to someone using English as a second language, they tend to omit the ‘s’ of third person singular verbs (“He walk to the school”)? They also tend to omit articles or overuse articles (the, a, an). Function words are less salient because they tend to be unstressed and often are not necessary to get our message across

Of course, Italian is full of these “little words”, and they drive me crazy on a daily basis. In Italian, articles, object pronouns, and prepositions change for number AND gender. Thus, the preposition in might be in, but it might also be nel, nella, nell’, nei, or nelle. Same goes for the prepositions, a, di, da, and su. Possessive adjectives have similar challenges (“my” might be expressed as mio, mia, mie, or miei), and I’m not even going to get into direct and indirect object pronouns (clitics)!

An example: two forms of the preposition "in" expressed by graffiti: "nella" (in my -feminine singular- head),
and "nelle" (in my -feminine, plural- shoes)
The question is, how does the second language speaker improve his/her use of these “little words”, and how helpful is error correction in this process? This is not a research study! This is my own personal reflection. During the last week, I have decided a couple of things.

First, it takes a lot of time. Ci vuole tempo. For the most part, I know the rules. I know the grammar. In some cases, I can even explain it better than a native speaker. However, I still make mistakes all the time (seriously, like every time I open my mouth). Thus, error correction, for spoken Italian, is not very helpful for me. Usually, when I make an error, I know it. I walk down the street trying to sort these things out in my head. Then I speak and a mess comes out, but I am aware of the mess and I know how to fix it. My brain just needs time to sort out the application of these rules in real time. Of course, I also ask for help all the time: “How do you say X? Should I use this form or that form? Is X feminine or masculine? What is the plural form of X?” This is helpful! Unsolicited error correction? Not as much.  

On the other hand, in writing, error correction is VERY helpful. I couldn’t live without Word’s autocorrect function, which corrects my grammar and spelling in Italian. Whenever I write, I learn so much from this process. I guess I need to write more.

So, this being said, my other decision is that I need to give myself a break. Not stress. Keep talking and writing. Just communicate. Just the other day, I was discussing my language drama with a friend here who really warmed my heart. She said (in Italian), “Your Italian is sincerely perfect. If it was better, it wouldn’t be as much ‘you’”. Errors and all, my Italian is part of me, at this very moment, in this beautiful city. Time to go out and use it.


  1. And I won't even go into my dislike for combination pronouns such as "glielo!"

    1. right… it's a daily struggle! better to not stress and enjoy a gelato. :)