[journal entry] on David Bartholomae’s “The Study of Error”

October 31, 2007
Journal Entry on David Bartholomae’s “The Study of Error” (The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook 258-272)

In this article, Bartholomae extends and fine-tunes Mina Shaughnessy’s realization that we must discover why student writers make certain “mistakes” if we are to really help them move closer to conventional writing. He thinks that most errors of basic writers are intentional – that is, not due to laziness or sloppiness. And intentional errors will necessarily have some kind of logic behind them.  They logic may be idiosyncratic, unique to the individual, but they can be understood: “Errors, then, are stylistic features, information about this writer and this language; they are not necessarily “noise” in the system, accidents of composing, or malfunctions in the language process” (262).

Bartholomae emphasizes that what we’re looking for when looking at basic writers’ writing is their “interlanguage” or their “intermediate system” (262) which basically means what for them is their best sense of how academic language – or any written language – should “sound.”  Again, we’re not looking for errors caused by language immaturity or by laziness or sloppiness.  And we’re definitely not looking for errors that can be “fixed” by drill or practice sentences (263). We’re looking for these writers intentional attempts to write the right way.  And these attempts end up creating a half-way language, a language somewhere between the more fluent language they speak and conventional written language.

Bartholomae discusses the kinds of errors which error analysis pinpoints, and he discusses the difficulties of applying error analysis to writing (as opposed to speaking).   But what was fascinating in this article is his analysis of one of his student’s writing and of what happened when that same student read his paper aloud.  Bartholomae discovers — and his analysis does make sense here — that John is not processing words the same way we more fluent writers do. We don’t think about it, but we hear words as well as see them. When I write the word “translate,” I am writing/spelling it based on both my memory of the sound of the word and the shape of the word.  But Bartholomae, if I understand him correctly, is saying that John is writing by using something like a photographic memory, remembering only what the word looks like, not having the luxury of also remembering how it sounds.  So, for John, “dementic” and “demerit” are the same word.  He pronounces them the same, for him they have the same meaning, and he sees no difference in them – again, because he is going by visual shape (268).

The other point I found fascinating was Bartholomae’s discovery that basic writers make many mistakes simply because of how difficult it is for them to get what’s in their memory – what they remember about language — down on paper.  In other words, their short term memory is taxed.  That seems to be one of the reasons Bartholomae’s student, John, was able to correct so many of his errors while he was reading his essay aloud: as he was speaking, his short-term memory was not taxed. It’s only when he is trying to put his “language” into writing that he has difficulty.  Bartholomae calls this “the interference of transcription” (269).  And it’s not a surprising phenomenon, when we consider that it’s possible Bartholomae is right and the student is using a lot more visual memory than we “fluent” writers do.  And visual memory takes up a lot more mental space than memories aided by other clues like sound/phonetics.

Yet another fascinating discovery in this article was that some of Bartholomae’s student’s errors resulted simply from his faulty conception of what written language is like. He assumes that there are some rules that apply to written language that do not apply to spoken language.  Bartholomae gives the example of John writing “1600 childrens” but saying “1600 children.”  John knew the rule for plurals and applied it to this noun, even though he knew not to apply it when he spoke.  Again, this makes sense, if we understand that for John written language is very much like a foreign language but one he knows a little about.  He knows it’s different from spoken language, he knows some or many of its rules, but his knowledge is spotty and often misapplied.

It’s interesting, then, to stop and think about what happens to a person when they reach adulthood without having merged, so to speak, their spoken and written languages. Ideally children grow up working with both the oral and the written parts of their brain.  The disconnect ideally never happens.  But if written language remains to that person something they never quite spent enough time with (though they were definitely introduced to it, as it were, and spent a lot of time around it), it becomes something familiar but ultimately foreign.  It becomes foreign perhaps like the discourse of laboratory science is foreign to me – but, then again, not quite like that, because I could probably learn the language of laboratory science easier than John can learn written language.  I would be moving from written language to written language, while he is trying to bridge the gap between oral and written language.  And that’s a lot harder.

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