I’ve been having some interesting conversations on Facebook over the last few days about mistakes in English and who makes them. Do native speakers make mistakes when they speak English? And what about English teachers?!
This all started because I made a little mistake in one of my posts. I was describing the difference between “suit” and “fit”. As I was writing, I wondered what the past tense of “fit” was because I’ve heard both “fitted” and “fit”. Accidentally, I wrote that “fit” was British and “fitted” was American when actually it’s the other way around.
After that, I had a couple of comments on other posts from people who thought I’d made a grammar mistake. I assured them that I hadn’t but I’m not sure they believed me! I can understand that this is a very real worry for learners. I know that learners need to be able to trust their teacher.
When I was at school, I had two French teachers. One was English and the other was French and therefore a native speaker. The English woman corrected something in my homework and the other teacher said that I was right and the first teacher was wrong. After that, I was always more likely to believe the native speaker.
I’m telling you this story to try to show you that I understand what it’s like to learn a language. You want to know that you can believe and trust your teacher. I was very young at the time, though, and perhaps I understand better now that even native speakers can get things wrong.
But do native speakers make the same kinds of mistakes as learners? That’s what I want to explore today.
Before we get into that, I first want to say that there are different kinds of mistake. Some mistakes come from a lack of knowledge. English learners might use the wrong verb tense because they haven’t learnt about how to use the tenses correctly yet.
However, other mistakes are just temporary slips. You know that you have to add -s to a verb after “he” or “she”, right? I like, you like, he/she likes. But how many times have you forgotten to add the -s? It’s one of the most common slips that learners make. You know it but you forget, especially when you are in a hurry.
What kinds of mistakes do native speakers make?
Typos are typing mistakes. I think this is probably the most common mistake that I make and this is probably true for most native speakers.
2. Spelling mistakes
English spelling is difficult even for native speakers. This is because the spelling and the pronunciation of a word so often don’t match. For example, native speakers might confuse -ant and -ent word endings because they sound the same. Sometimes people confuse words like “discreet” and “discrete”, again because they sound the same. Double letters in words like “necessary” are a problem for some people. Thank goodness for spelling checkers and autocorrect!
Some English people are better at spelling than others. This depends on many factors, including a person’s level of education, how much they read and whether they have any difficulties like dyslexia.
3. Factual mistakes
When I’m trying to explain the difference between two things, like defining vs non-defining relative clauses, or American vs British spelling, I occasionally get the two things the wrong way round. Usually this happens because I’m tired or in a hurry, not because I don’t know the difference. It’s a slip rather than a serious mistake.
4. Grammar mistakes
Remember that we don’t learn our first language in the same way as our second language (unless you grow up bilingual). Most English speakers speak with correct grammar but they don’t know the rules. They know what sounds right but can’t explain why. For example, I didn’t learn what “present perfect continuous” meant until I trained as an English teacher.
There’s a bit of a difference here between speaking and writing. When we speak, we might change our mind halfway through a sentence and this can mess up the grammar. For example, you might know that we usually use the past simple when we use a fixed time expression and the present perfect when we don’t. Somebody might start “Yes, I’ve been to Paris” and then add “ten years ago”. This isn’t really a mistakes when speaking but it would be wrong in writing.
There are a few things that some native speakers do get wrong though. One that drives me crazy is “more bigger” instead of “bigger”. I also hear people mixing up verb 2 and verb 3, like “sang” and ”sung”, although it’s rare.
Then there are some things which native speakers disagree on. I was taught that I should say “My friends and I …” and not “Me and my friends …” at the beginning of a sentence but you can, in fact, hear both in the UK. So how do we decide what’s right? Is it what the grammar book says or what ordinary people say in everyday conversation?!
These are just a few examples for now. I might write another post about this soon!
5. Vocabulary mistakes
I don’t actually hear native speakers making vocabulary mistakes very often. I suppose this is because people automatically use the words they know and avoid the ones they don’t without even thinking about it.
You may have seen my posts about confusing words. Well, native speakers know most of these but there are one or two that cause problems, like “lie” and “lay”, or “affect” and “effect”. I’ve also heard some people mixing up idioms. Generally though, native speakers don’t use the wrong words very often.
Some native speakers definitely have problems with punctuation. They use commas when they should use fullstops, they put apostrophes in the wrong place and they don’t know how to use colons and semi-colons. People who read and write a lot are less likely to have these problems.
What kinds of mistakes do English learners make?
1. The same as above
Obviously, learners are likely to make the same kinds of mistakes as native speakers. All the things I’ve mentioned in the above list can happen for learners as well.
2. Grammar mistakes
Learners are much more likely to make grammar mistakes than native speakers. Here are some common mistakes that a learner might make but a native speaker probably wouldn’t:
using the wrong verb tense
forgetting -s at the end of a verb after “he” or “she”
word order, such as putting the adjective or adverb in the wrong place
missing out “a”, “an” and “the”
mixing up prepositions
3. Vocabulary mistakes
Learners are a lot more likely to accidentally use the wrong word than native speakers. There are some especially difficult words which we call “false friends”. These are words that sound similar to a word in your language but actually have a different meaning. For example, “librairie” in French does not mean “library” in English! It’s a bookshop!
Learners also have problems with phrasal verbs and idioms, which native speakers don’t usually have any difficulty with. Learners also mix up modal verbs, like “can”, “may” and “would” but native speakers don’t.
4. Pronunciation mistakes
Native speakers very occasionally mispronounce an unusual word but most of the time it’s learners who struggle with this and not natives.
This means the difference between formal and informal English. Native speakers might have some difficulty knowing how to write a formal letter, especially if they don’t have to do this very often. Learners are sometimes too formal or too informal because they are unaware of the differences.
Next time you wonder if a native speaker or even a teacher has made a mistake, remember that we are all human and we all make mistakes! However, the types of mistakes that native speakers make are not the same as learner mistakes and they are often typos or other little slips.
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