“Why do Romanian learners of English make mistakes when they try to communicate something about the future?”







The question is: “Why do Romanian learners of English make mistakes when they try to communicate something about the future?”. And, of course, it is not only about the future. Actually, all learners make mistakes. This is not confined to English learners. We all make mistakes  even  when  we  speak  our  mother  tongue.  They  often  cause  a  certain  amount  of merriment. Whether we bother to correct ourselves or not seem to depend on whether we think our hearers have noticed and how urgently we want to get on with what we are saying. The important point for our present purposes is that we know how to correct them: we can recognize our own mistakes for what they are. This is not usually the case with mistakes made by a learner. Not only does he not always recognize his mistakes, but when his attention is drawn to them, he happens not to be able to correct them; he may even commit another error in trying to do so. Furthermore,  the majority of learner’s errors are linguistically quite different from those made by a native speaker.

The nature and quality of mistakes a learner makes provide no direct measure of his knowledge of the language, it is probably the most important source of information about the nature of his knowledge. From the study of his errors we are able to infer the nature of his knowledge  at  that  point  in  his  learning  career  and  discover  what  he  still  has  to  learn.  By describing and classifying his errors in linguistic terms, we build up a picture of the features of the language, which are causing him learning problems. In this respect, the information we get is similar to that, provided by contrastive analysis. Error analysis thus provides a check on the prediction of bilingual comparisons, and as much as it does this, it is an important additional source of information for the selection of items to be incorporated into the syllabus.

The mistakes made by a native speaker or by a learner of his language are for the most part strikingly different. The mistakes a native speaker makes are of several sorts: one is the changes of plan, where he starts an utterance, breaks off and starts another one with a different structure:

It is a bit – it hasn’t – I mean, I wouldn’t really care to have one just like that…

He may convert one structure into another without breaking off. These mistakes have been called

“syntactic blends”.

Then there is a class of mistakes, which we call “slips of the tongue” or “slips of the pen”. Typical of such slips are the substitutions, transposition or omission of some segment of an utterance, such a speech sound, a morpheme, a word or even a phrase.

It didn’t bother me in the sleast… slightest.

By studying slips, linguists are able to “infer the relevant properties of an unobservable system on the basis of its output characteristics”. The breakdown of a mechanism gives insights into the nature of its normal functioning. Native speakers errors are breaches of the code.

Whilst learners of a language are certainly liable to lapses and mistakes of the above- mentioned sort, the great majority of their errors are of a different kind. They result in unacceptable utterances and appear as breaches of the code. They are not physical failures but the sign of an imperfect knowledge of the code. The learners have not yet internalized the formation rules of the second language.

That’s why it is fruitful to regard the language of a learner as an idiosyncratic dialect also just like the language of a poet, one which bears as a regular relation to the standard dialect. Native speakers are able to correct their own errors, but learners cannot by any means always do so. It is therefore potentially misleading to refer to their errors as “breaches of the code” you cannot break a rule you do not know. That’s why we can scarcely blame the learner of a language for failing to obey a rule he has never learned.

Richards identified common errors and categorized them by cause into four types: “overgeneralization, ignorance of rule restrictions, incomplete application of rules, and the building of false systems or concepts”.  His two assumptions are: i) that if errors are ‘universal’ they cannot be interlingual and ii) that the four error types listed exclude reference to L1.

The study of learners’ errors is part of the methodology of language learning. It is by collecting and analyzing the utterances of the infant that the psycholinguist infers something of the acquisition process. By comparing successive states in the child’s linguistic development he plots its increasing mastery of the systems of the language.

The study of errors is part of the psycholinguistic search for the universal processes of second language learning. The interfering factors are as powerful: motivation, intelligence, social background, knowledge of the world; but there is an additional interference factor in the case of the learner of a second language namely that he receives teaching – he is required to follow an externally imposed syllabus. If we regard the course followed by an infant learning his mother tongue as a sort of ‘internal syllabus’ might there not also be an internal syllabus for learning a second language, which would represent the ‘psychologically natural route’ between mother tongue and the target language, determined by the inherent cognitive properties of the two languages involved? The answer is that we do not know.

From my experience as a teacher I could mention some of the most frequent mistakes pupils make when coming to express future actions:

Very often, students mix up present continuous with be going to. Example:

“I am going to meet my lawyer tomorrow.” (I haven’t told him yet. He does not know about it.)

RTE:  Intenţionez să-l întâlnesc / îl voi întâlni pe avocatul meu mâine. (El nu ştie pentru că nu i- am spus încă)

“I am meeting my lawyer tomorrow”. (He knows about our meeting, I have already told him.)

RTE:  Îl voi întâlni / am / o să-l întâlnesc  pe avocatul meu mâine. (El ştie despre întâlnirea noastră pentru că deja i-am spus.)

This is the rule students very often forget. Another frequent mistake they make is to use going to future with verbs of movement (to go, to arrive, to leave, to come etc.) instead of the present continuous tense.

“My cousin is going to leave in the afternoon” instead of

“My cousin is leaving in the afternoon”

A mistake frequently made by foreign learners of English is the use of a subordinate clause containing a verb in the future tense after a verb that really needs an infinitive. Likewise mistakes may occur when the learner generalizes the pattern  V+to + infinitive and uses it after verbs requiring a gerund.

“I suggest to go to the mountains for the weekend.” instead of

“I suggest going to the mountains for the weekend”. RTE: Propun să mergem la munte la sfărşitul săptămânii. “I insist on your leaving at once .”

RTE: Insist să porneşti îndată.

Among the verbs that may pattern like this are: insist on, object to, recommend etc. The RTE of this pattern is the semantic equivalent of the English verb followed by conjunctive.

The imperative and the forms labeled equivalents of the imperative are also used with future reference.

“Tell him tomorrow to finish the job by the end of the week. RTE: Spune-i mâine  să termine treaba până la sfârşitul săptămânii. “Let me tell him tomorrow to call you up.”

RTE: Lasă să-i / că-i spun eu mâine sa-ţi telefoneze.

The RTE are either the Romanian imperativ or the verb ‘lasă’ followed by conjunctiv or by a clause containing a verb in the present or future.

Another frequent mistake that students make is that of using the future simple in if- clauses or time clauses instead of ‘present simple’ or ‘present perfect’. This is because of L1 interference; when trying to communicate students think in Romanian first and then speak in English.  This is the way it is said in their native language and that is why they often make this mistake.

“He will stop if he will see the traffic lights.” instead of

“He will stop if he sees the traffic lights.” RTE: El va opri dacă va vedea semaforul.

“You will not have any dinner until you will wash your hands.” instead of

“You will not have any dinner until you have washed your hands.”

RTE: Nu vă dau de mâncare până nu vă spalaţi / nu vă veţi spăla / nu vă veţi fi spălat pe mâini.

Another problem which, although important and significant for present-day English, tends to be neglected in teaching and elaboration of grammar books, is the so-called future-in-the-past or  shifted-future.  This label is usually applied to form  will / shall /’ll+ infinitive shifted to would / should / ‘d + infinitive when the introductory verb is in the past tense.

“I’ll go on a long trip when I have finished the job. ” becomes “I said I’d go on a long trip when I’d finished the job.”

But many of other future expressions are shifted in the same way and there is no reason why the term should not be applied to them as well; they should at least be called equivalents of the future-in-the-past:

“I am leaving tomorrow.”

“I said I  was leaving the next day.” when the  present continuous with the future time reference becomes  past continuous with future time reference. The process of tense – shifting  including the shifted future expressions is generally taught and learned mechanically in connection with reported speech and the phenomenon of sequence of tenses.

As the phenomenon of tense shifting does not occur in Romanian, probably through contrastive interference, it remains a stumbling – block even to advanced learners of English. If the relatively frequent cases of non-shifting in English were insisted upon in teaching, then the situation would be similar to Romanian and the teaching / learning process might be facilitated.






  1. Kenneth, Chastain,  “Developing  Second  Language  Skills  –  Theory  and  Practice”, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers    (Florida), 1988.
  2. Leech, Geoffrey, “An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage”, Nelson, 1991
  3. Woodward,Tessa, “Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training”, C.U.P., 1991.


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