Pedagogy of Linguistics and Ethics: Error versus Mistake

During weekly training last week, I gained new insight. One of the senior teachers asked the new joiner teachers (including me) why do we call it error correction? Not mistake correction?

I’ve always thought it’s essentially the same thing. But as someone who deals with applied linguistics, I know, different words offer different contexts. And that day, I finally understand.

Error is a condition of being wrong without prior knowledge. On the other hand, mistake is a condition of being wrong, despite knowing that it is wrong. For example, when an Indonesian say “I eat rice yesterday” without learning about past tense — and in Indonesian itself, there’s no concept of past tense — that’s a grammatical error. It is incidental. But for me, as an English teacher, saying “I eat rice yesterday”, that’s a grammatical mistake because I have learned that past tense exists, and I have to say “I ate rice yesterday.”

Understanding takes time and repetition. Errors should be corrected, of course, but what saddens me the most, teachers (at least when I was still a student) usually punish those who make errors. In education, teachers often think that they are entitled to punish students just because they can’t answer questions that the teacher considers simple.

For me, it was math.

I remember I was (and still am) really bad at finding correlations in numbers. I was the last to go home after finishing extra tasks because I can’t apply simple math formulas in class. I was crying while walking home, and it was one of the biggest embarrassments in my childhood. It doesn’t make me understand math more; it makes me hate math, and hate my teacher, and hate myself for being so stupid.

In a classroom context, I think when the students understand the subject, usually, the target is achieved. Once students understand fully about a concept, they rarely make mistakes unless they missed something or they see the numbers wrong. In language learning, most cases are simply due to not having enough practice. You know the rules about past tense, for example, but you keep using the simple present tense when you’re producing the language. You know the concept, and you just need to practice more. I will never be able to be perfect grammatically, in any language I can speak. I just keep practising, and writing here with accurate language is one of my exercises to be able to expand my language ability, and of course to make fewer and fewer mistakes. I have a responsibility to people who have compensated me to teach them English, and I will try my best to fulfil that role.

Understanding a new concept of error and mistake has opened my eyes. I am trying to integrate how I view errors and mistakes in everyday life. I’ve always had this nagging thing about different degrees of mistake, and not all mistakes are easy to forgive, depends on the intention, and I finally found the suitable words for both too. I learned a bit about ethics of care, ethics of justice, but it seems like things can be simplified. I just don’t know how to elaborate it.

About errors and mistakes, just like at school, in life I see a lot around me that people punish errors. When children are acting inappropriately, we punish them without them understanding WHY are they being punished. At times, it involves violence and abuse too.

Hitting your children if they don’t pray/obey your rules, taking money that is supposed to feed the poor in your country, cheating and lying to a partner who is worried about you at home and even taking care of your children, bully your peers who have never disturb you before: online or offline, drunk and insisting driving, are just examples of mistakes that were become normalized because it happens a lot. We know it’s almost universally believed that those things as wrong, it is wrong because you know it is detrimental to other people, yet you do it anyway. But we know so many people who do that, we think if we do the same mistake it won’t hurt, right? My parents did it anyway? Well, it does still unbelievably hurt.

In a world full of beings trying to survive, I don’t believe that people are inherently good. Nobody is normal, we all have issues and are in some degree of pain. And the roots are everywhere. Neglected parents, hostile environment, overly competitive school and capitalistic system, strangers took advantage of you, the person you loved the most betray you. As a consequence, we hurt each other in order to survive, in order to cope with pain and suffering. But if you are in pain, and your way of coping is to hurt people that are innocent, it deserves to be understood but it is not something to be tolerated.

To err is absolutely human, but to make repeating mistakes is a sign of ignorance and/or simply vile intention, and it should never be considered as part of being human. When mistakes are normalized, we are not being compassionate, we are being enablers.

There’s this line from one of my latest favourite books, Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi: “I know many people survive, but I also think people glorify resilience a little too much, forgetting that the fragile ones simply die as the world walks on over their bones. There are some things we shouldn’t be boasting about.”

Generational mistakes hurt us all, and saying you should be strong and resilient just because the world is cruel as it is doesn’t even touch the surface of its source. All we need is a willingness to understand; to learn and to listen.

If one hurt you badly, you know you can never change people, let alone change the world in an instant. What has been done is done, we know we are hurt, whether we forgive and forget or not, all we can do is trying not to repeat the same mistake on others, especially younger generations. If you hurt people, you can sincerely apologise and offer help. If they decided to burn bridges, you can respect their decision. Also, if the guilt eats you up, forgive yourself. You can’t be a good person by believing you are a bad one.

Much like language practice, not keeping making the same mistake takes a long journey of practice. Being a decent human means deciding to be decent every day, deciding to think through and pull the brake when you’re about to make the same mistake.

Not repeating mistakes requires some effort and support. I am aware, I have made countless errors and plenty of mistakes in the past and still might be in the future. It is not something I can be denial about it. Once I make a mistake, I bear the consequences. Surround yourself with a support system that have conscientiousness and remind you if you’re about to do something hurtful, instead of making jokes out of it, or worse, praising harmful and hurtful behaviours as cool.

The thing about being a teacher other than giving them an understanding of a concept of grammar and function (at least for me) is striving to provide a safe nurturing environment to learners through an open dialogue. I want them to feel secure enough to explore, and practice to gain more experience, and when they make an error, it is reassured that making an error is normal. It’s a learning process anyway. I also need to be a support system, to make sure that they respect themselves and others, hold positive life values and are still motivated to keep practising, and motivated to not repeating mistakes as well as stay curious to explore, to wonder what life has to offer.

Once their knowledge of language production and conscientiousness is integrated fully, they will be able to use their knowledge as a resource to flourish and having a better life, not only better for oneself but live better together.

Because, isn’t that all what education is about?

Wonder and wander through life, finding tiny interesting things until I die.