Language mistakes compared
March 28, 2011 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Are grammatical errors more frequent in English than in other languages? What about spelling? Do foreign language have as many substitution errors as English? Do ewe speak a pear of foreign languages or more and what are you're experiences of these kinds of errors? Watt do there grammar Nazis do?

The ideal thing would be references to papers that looked at average error counts in various languages. Books on the subject would also be great.
posted by sien to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to get a whole lot of people telling you there's no such thing as language error...

Know, please. Their is such a thing as a language air.

And people definitely make mistakes in non-English languages.

For instance, one of the most common mistakes I made in French was using the wrong preposition--or inserting the article in a prepositional phrase when it wasn't needed. For instance, "une carafe de l'eau" instead of "une carafe d'eau". And of course, it's a "carafe à vin" and not "de vin". So... yeah. I don't know if native speakers make such mistakes, though.
posted by Netzapper at 4:19 PM on March 28, 2011

What do you mean "more frequent?" Like, per-capita according to the number of people who speak the language? Or an average number of errors per a certain number of words written or spoken by speakers of the language?

People make mistakes in every language that has grammar (i.e. every language). Frequency of error for a language as a whole is, I would posit, impossible to quantify or measure.
posted by The World Famous at 4:22 PM on March 28, 2011

[Comment removed. Predictions about what is going to happen in a thread are great for thinking to yourself but crappy things to drop into the threads themselves.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:23 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's really hard to quantify language errors because most published writing is edited. Even there were empirical studies, the error rate may vary depending on the step in the writing process or the type of writing. In addition, there would have to be an agreed-upon definition of error. Easyish for spelling, but much harder for grammatical errors.
posted by elpea at 4:23 PM on March 28, 2011

The French - okay, some French - take this very seriously indeed. THink the Academie Francaise and its cousin in Spain. Also Brazil. Consider the dreaded ordeal of the dictee is to catch your ability to write what is dictated, accents and commas all in a row, and perfection is rare indeed.

See here and here and no doubt others will have more to say on the matter. (Bernard Pivot, by the way, is the guy who gave us the questionaire at the end of the actors' studio.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:27 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you talking about errors by native speakers or by non-native speakers (the latter implying that the language is difficult for non-native speakers to learn)?
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:29 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as "intentional" errors go, I think they're prevalent no matter what language you speak.

Example: my boyfriend visited Hungary several months ago and ran into a flock of adoring teenage girls while he was there. They took a bunch of pictures with him and tagged him on facebook with comments that were the Hungarian-language equivalent of, "omgggg he is sooo hott!!!!" Both adorable and obnoxious! I guess 14 year olds are the same everywhere.

If you look at the comments on foreign-language youtube videos, you'll see this kind of thing a lot. (A good way to check is to plunk things into google translate and see what words come back as nonsense or untranslatable until you change/delete a few letters.)
posted by phunniemee at 4:29 PM on March 28, 2011

I meant errors by fairly proficient speakers and writers.

I mean errors per length of text.

I was hoping that people were looking at the text online to find error counts. This is a huge new source of unedited writing.

While it is indeed hard to quantify things someone could even have thrown the spelling and grammar checkers of MS Word at, say, blog posts in half a dozen languages and tried to guage relative error rates.
posted by sien at 4:36 PM on March 28, 2011

I guess the answers I'm looking for would be quantative linguistics but I can't find what I'm after.
posted by sien at 5:20 PM on March 28, 2011

One thing you might want to look at is the uniform exams various people have to take to become teachers or to get into a university. Here in Quebec, you have to pass a French writing test to become a teacher. Do too many mistakes and you'll have to take remedial classes and take the test again. The statistics are probably published.

There's probably also a good bit of what you're looking for in "Teaching X as a first language" literature.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:46 PM on March 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

People make mistakes in every language that has grammar

I routinely read news, blogs and comments in three languages (English, French and Italian). Of the three, English pages seem to have more grammatical and spelling errors than the other two, but only in the comments. The spelling of both Italian and Spanish words is straightforward, following the pronunciation. French has a few digraphs and trigraphs that could trip people. I have found English grammar and spelling rather chaotic.
posted by francesca too at 6:07 PM on March 28, 2011

Different languages are susceptible to different kinds of errors. In Japanese, especially if it's written by hand, one of the big problems is miswriting of kanji, such as leaving out strokes, or putting them in the wrong place. I assume it's even worse in Chinese.

Since most western languages use less than a hundred characters, they don't tend to have that kind of problem.

On the other hand, in Japanese there's no such thing as punctuation. Mora and Kanji are concatanated together without spaces for word boundaries or at the end of sentences. Punctuation errors are big problem for English speakers, but not in Japanese.

In most Germanic and Romance languages, a big source of errors is noun gender, especially in using the wrong articles. English discarded that hundreds of years ago (which is why we only have one definite article i.e. "the") so we don't have that particular problem.

I think there is a degree of observational bias here in your supposition: As an English speaker, you are sensitized to the kind of errors that English speakers make, so that's what you primarily see. For instance, English is about 200 years overdue for a spelling reform, which is why spelling errors are more common for us. And you as an English speaker are trained to notice them. But there are other kinds of errors you are not trained to see.

For instance, in Japanese there are what are known as "counter" words. English has just a few of those. One example is "5 head of cattle". But in English we don't really have to use even the ones we have. If you refer to "5 cattle" no one will look twice at you.

In Japanese there are hundreds of them, and nobody knows them all. And you do have to use them.

There was a Japanese game show for a while where people would be shown a picture of several of something and would have to count them out loud. If they didn't use the right counter word, a couple of sumo wrestlers would come out and push them around. (Japanese game shows are big on humiliation punishments.)

Using the wrong counter word makes you sound like an idiot; and it's a common mistake. But since English doesn't really have anything like that, it isn't something that an English speaker would really think about.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:44 PM on March 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

There are significantly more words in English (because of how it has developed) compared to other modern languages. That, or those same kind of historical circumstances, could lead to more grammatical errors? I don't know whether there are significantly more commonly used words, though. Also, English is notoriously harder to spell than other, more phonetically consistent languages (i.e. not French). That is why we invented spelling bees.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:47 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

English is the Perl of natural languages. It has more borrowings from other languages than any other, which makes its grammatical rules less consistent than any other, which makes them much easier to violate, both truly and apparently. I would not be at all surprised to find that English is done worse more often.
posted by flabdablet at 10:30 PM on March 28, 2011

Of course, it also matters less. English is such a mess, even when done well, that anybody who can understand it at all has already got highly developed gist-getting skills.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 PM on March 28, 2011

English's strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked -- it's a mutt, a carpet-bag, and a sponge all at the same time. This makes English quite flexible and adaptable to things like software programming and the internet and technology generally understood. It makes it an absolute nightmare in terms of grammatical coherency and by extension, as a language to either learn or teach.

What's the rule for, say, using superlatives in English? Well, you say "that girl is the smartest," "that girl is the most beautiful," or "that girl is the best." One superlative form is based on the romance construct ("plus belle"), one is based on the germanic construction ("-est"), and one is based on a highly irregular adjective.

And this is only one example among literally hundreds. The only rule in English is that there will be multiple exceptions. (Another favorite example of mine is "read." How do you pronounce it in English? What does it mean, exactly?)

As for typos in a piece of writing of a given length, English would have to have more mistakes (as mentioned) than romance languages like French or Spanish because those languages contain diacritical marks (accents) for correct pronunciation. English doesn't because, well, it can't. Blame 1066 when the French took over a largely Germanic speaking nation called England and made their language the official one, as opposed to the native one. In the simplest of terms, this led to the trainwreck that is modern English. But it's an adaptable trainwreck that will (IMO) never be replaced by Chinese, although some people are predicting the downfall of English as the global lingua franca in the coming years.

At the same time, I'm currently studying Korean. It's not an easy language for a native English speaker by any means, but one thing I appreciate it that its alphabet (Hangul) makes the sounds that it's supposed to, always. There are some contextual exceptions, but compared to English they're negligible. Having taught the differences between long and short English vowels to many Koreans, they have every right to roll their eyes up when confronted with word groupings such as "lead" and "lead."

The Korean college students I teach often complain that "Teacher, English is not fair!" And they're absolutely right.
posted by bardic at 12:24 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have pointed out upthread, you wouldn't expect many errors in a phonetically consistent, Romance language like Italian. Yet Mrs aqsakal, in whose workplace there is a constant flow of underpaid post-laureate trainees, is aghast at their generally abysmal spelling and grammar skills. OK, so we have the conjunctive (which has all but atrophied in English) and noun genders, but for Heaven's sake - post-laureates! And it's not just the kids: we sometimes exchange horrified glances when listening to newsreaders, politicians, or in general people whose professional skill-set strongly involves communication with "the public", making what would in other contexts be hilarious howlers. And the most horrifying aspect is that these are errors which I as a foreigner can immediately spot.

I'm sorry I can't come up with statistics, research papers, books or examples which would have any significance for a non-Italian speaker. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there has been a distressing drop in the level of grammatical accuracy one can expect from "educated" speakers/writers over the past few decades. And I do not believe this is a natural evolution of the spoken/written word, but a natural decline in the importance given to funding basic education.

Or maybe it's just confirmation bias. Or maybe I'm just a pedantic old fart. (But Mrs aqsakal isn't.)
posted by aqsakal at 2:02 AM on March 29, 2011

Sorry: that should have read "an unnatual decline..."
posted by aqsakal at 2:11 AM on March 29, 2011

Thanks for your responses so far. There is plenty of food for thought here.
posted by sien at 2:45 AM on March 29, 2011

> The spelling of both Italian and Spanish words is straightforward, following the pronunciation.

This is not true. The letters b and v are pronounced exactly the same in Spanish (to make one obvious point), and they are very often confused by people not writing for publication.

As for the OP's question, it is unanswerable without detailed specification of exactly what consitutes an "error." If you are talking about ending sentences with prepositions, splitting infinitives, and similar crap, they are not errors in any sense and it would be a waste of time to devote any effort to trying to count them. If you mean, say, losing track of your sentence so that a plural subject winds up with a singular verb because of stuff in between, sure, those are errors, but they don't seem very interesting and I'm not sure how you'd compare them between languages. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd make any comparison between languages, because each language has different kinds of errors (not to mention "errors"). You should think this through more carefully.

In general, native speakers do not make errors in the grammars of their own language (except for the kind of random performance error like the losing-track thing I mentioned). Anyone who doesn't believe this needs to take Intro Linguistics.
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on March 29, 2011

In general, native speakers do not make errors in the grammars of their own language (except for the kind of random performance error like the losing-track thing I mentioned).

An exception to this is the situation I live in where native speakers of a minority language (Welsh in my case) live in close proximity and constant daily contact with both people and media of a far "stronger" language (English) and the unconscious adoption of English grammar can cause errors.
posted by sianifach at 8:06 AM on March 29, 2011

This is not true. The letters b and v are pronounced exactly the same in Spanish (to make one obvious point), and they are very often confused by people not writing for publication.

There is actually a very slight difference in the pronunciation of b/v in Spanish as there is in Italian. In both cultures we spend years, from second grade up until fifth grade, taking dettato or dictado, to educate the ear in hearing these differences. I really do not think the purpose of this exercise is to make us memorize the proper spelling because I usually have no problems in spelling new words just from the pronunciation.
posted by francesca too at 8:51 AM on March 29, 2011

Ola! haber si te puedo ayudar....
nos bemosdonde el hotel a las doce....

I have seen a couple of these errors routinely but from snail mail correspondence with very old people who had been educated only to 12 yrs old.

I rarely see errors in written Spanish from educated people. I too regulaly read blogs in Spanish and outside of txt spk which is common to lots of languages the only one I routinely notice is Spanish written by Basque bloggers which sometimes has words or spellings from that language. But that's by choice.

Lengua as a subject in Spain is taught to quite a high level, much higher than the English I studied in School. And I do think it helps that the spelling is much closer to how it sounds than in the case of English of French.
posted by Wilder at 8:46 AM on March 30, 2011

> There is actually a very slight difference in the pronunciation of b/v in Spanish

No, there is not. They are exactly the same, a voiced bilabial fricative after vowels and certain consonants and a voiced bilabial stop (the /b/ sound) otherwise. What you are experiencing is the strong effect writing has on our sense of language.

Wilder: You need to spend more time reading graffiti on bathroom walls!
posted by languagehat at 11:16 AM on March 30, 2011

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