Why Can’t They Just Get This Right?

Have you ever met one of those errors that simply will not go away? In Kazakhstan, Many students would say to me, “I am agree with this,” instead of, “I agree.” It didn’t matter the level of the student. I would hear students making this mistake over and over. And the standard error correction practices didn’t seem to make much of an impact.

Why is it that our students seem to have these persistent errors? And why is it that students from a particular country or culture seem to share so many of these errors?

Interlanguage?

The answer is interlanguage. Interlanguage is a sort of language (or pidgin) that students construct when they are learning a second language. Interlanguage shares features of both students’ first language and the new language, and it changes as students master the new language.

Basically what happens is that students process a new language through the filter of their first language-trying to apply the grammar and language features to the new language. If you’ve ever tried to communicate in a new language by translating an idiom from Englsih literally into the new language, that’s interlanguage. Another feature of interlanguage is the overapplication of rules of the second language. When a beginner student learns that adding -ed to verbs makes them past tense in English, they often start using that rules every where. They say things like “sitted” and “eated”.

So why were my Kazakhstan students saying, “I am agree,” instead of “I agree”? Well, in their first language, Russian, it’s common to say “я согласен” which literally translates to “I am agreeable,” i.e. the adjective form of “agree”. However in Russian, you usually drop the verb “to be” in the present tense.

So to produce, “I am agree,” my students had to apply a few rules of Russian and a few of English:

  1. They added in the verb “to be” because they know that in English we do use it.
  2. They used the correct form of “agree” (instead of “agreeable”) because they heard that form being used.
  3. However, they missed that “agree” here is a verb and therefore we don’t actually need the verb “to be”

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