Friday, January 25, 2013

Correcting corrections

I participate in a site called lang-8. It is a community-based language learning site. You put in your native language and the language(s) you are learning, and then you write journal entries on whatever you want in your foreign language, which will then be corrected by native speakers of that language. You, of course, will able to correct entries written in your own language as well. It's not required but it's common courtesy.

Certainly, because it is community-based, the quality of your corrections will vary. This is okay, because many times you will get more than one person correcting, and in any case, the point is to connect with native speakers in a way that is much more difficult to do in real life. In fact, just writing your entries regularly is probably good practice.

What gets me frustrated, though, is when I see English sentences that are perfectly correct get marked wrong and "fixed" incorrectly, with an incorrect explanation. There is no ambiguity--it is just wrong.

When you are learning a language, the native speaker is like a king. The native speaker lives in the language, able to churn out sentences like breathing without ever once sparing a thought to particles or tense. He understands cultural context and modern usage and slang and can explain this to you better and more fluidly than a textbook can. This is the person you want to be, so when he tells your that your sentence is wrong--and this is why--you believe him. I mean, unless you have rock solid confidence, in which case--maybe you are native-like now.

Usually, this mistaken native speaker (who I will just call the "wrong person" now for brevity) is sincere and probably already knows what grammar is actually correct, but he was a little careless and just zipped through those sentences with that native speaker confidence.

Now, I am not perfect, nor am I an English expert. I like to think myself somewhat above average in my English skills because I love reading and writing, I always did well in my English classes, I lapped up both prescriptive and descriptive grammar and genuinely enjoy learning about it, and I took several linguistic classes which taught me to look at language structure more technically. I have been wrong on lang-8 before--on a word I thought I was familiar with but really wasn't ("instep")--and I corrected myself on it.

So, when I correct these mistaken corrections, I know that the wrong person might get defensive. I used to start off with things like "I don't mean to be a jerk, but..." and maybe end with a "Sorry!" and an emoticon like this: ( ;´Д`)

I decided recently that I didn't need disclaimers and apologies like that. I'm not sorry about it; I don't want the learner to be confused. I want them to know that they are on the right track and they've been right all along. To head off an empty argument and to make sure I'm not doing the same thing, I do some research first--you know, making sure I know damn well what I'm talking about, collecting resource links and examples, using crystal clear language.

What I write is meant to be addressed to the wrong person. Most of the time he understands and agrees, because after all, we are all here to help each other learn in a friendly environment anyway. Then the learner will see this reply and understand, too.

Today, I did the same thing, and instead, the wrong person implied that I was trying to impress the learner, that I was confusing her with my grammatical terms, and that he was helping her take "baby steps." This made me so, so angry. Yes, okay, what I wrote was not easy for a non-advanced ESL speaker to understand; perhaps I should've have explicitly addressed it to him (the wrong person) from the start. However, your correction was not necessary and if you had just thought about it more in the first place and left it off no one would've been confused at all. Backwards steps are not baby steps.

I just get really worked up about it because I feel it's really unfair to the language learner. I know what it feels like to get conflicting information and it just really impairs the process. Perhaps, in the long run, it'll be but a drop in an ocean, but, I don't know, it still bothers me.

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong--just do it with good proof and I will take it gracefully on the chin!

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