Vol. 4. No. 4 R-20 December 2000
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Slips of the Tongue: Speech Errors in First and Second Language Production
Nanda Poulisse (1999)
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins
Pp. 266
ISBN 90-2724130-9

"One half of me is yours, the other half yours--
Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours--
And so all yours."
     --Portia to Bassanio in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 2)

"It [speech-blunder] is thus a means of self-betrayal."
    --Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (p. 69)

Have you ever opened a meeting by declaring it closed rather than open? Have you ever surprised others--and yourself--by blurting out something other than what you thought you had meant to say? Do you find that such speech errors happen to you more often in your second language than in your first?

Many of us have experienced this type of speech blunder at one point or another, in one language or another. As we know only too well, these verbal behaviour mistakes can be exquisitely funny for the listener, but deeply embarrassing for the perpetrator. Slips of the tongue come in many different shapes and sizes, in both first (L1) and second language (L2) speech, although not much research has been done in the latter. Until, that is, Nanda Poulisse's Slips of the Tongue came along, which proposes to fill just that lap . . . er, I mean gap.

Nanda Poulisse, researcher/lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, sets out to: a) report on a project on slips of the tongue in the speech of L2 speakers, b) relate the L2 findings with slips of the tongue produced by L1 speakers (i.e., to explore the similarities and differences between the L2 and L1 processes), and c) to interpret the findings and their implications for theories of speech production and L2 acquisition. In two appendices she also includes the L1 and L2 slip corpora on which the findings are based, with the intention of stimulating more research in this field.

Do L1 slips differ from L2 slips, and if so, in what ways? This research question was set against 35 hours of English recorded by various speaker groups, focusing on two cognate languages: Dutch and English. The data were originally collected to study a different speaker behaviour (lexical compensatory strategies).

One would readily anticipate a much higher occurrence of slips in L2. Most people would guess twice as many or perhaps even five times as many slips in L2. My own guess was around 10 times as many slips in L2 than in L1. Poulisse's results, however, outdo the "guestimate" by far. Two researchers, working independently, identified 137 L1 slips as opposed to 2000 L2 slips of the tongue in the data. Only slips identified as such by both researchers are included in the final list of slips. That makes 14.5 times as many slips in L2. [-1-]

The first chapter of the book offers a literature review of slips in adult L1 speech. I was shocked to find that the index does not include Freud, but further checking revealed that in fact the index does not include any proper names. They can only be found in the list of references, which is not as helpful as it could be.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter (p. 5), to my relief, I found a reference to Freud's work in this field ("Mistakes in Speech," chapter 5 in Freud, 1937). Disappointingly though, this reference is no more than a short sentence in passing, specifying his clinical psychological approach. Whatever you may think of Fraud . . . er, I mean Freud's work, a one-liner is surely too brief and therefore not really satisfactory given its seminal influence.

No doubt, one is bound to be selective in putting a literature review together. Still, some readers may find it puzzling that the not-altogether-minor points of how markedly Freud disagreed with the pioneers of slip studies, Rudolf Meringer and Karl Mayer (1895), and why he did so (Freud, 1937, p. 49), does not even get a passing mention.

If your interest is more in child language production, then the literature review in the second chapter is more relevant for you. If you are a practising interpreter or a second language user in general, models of second language acquisition may be more to your fancy, in which case the literature review to look for is in the third chapter, although, as it turns out, L2 slip studies and in-depth analyses are few and far between.

Chapter 4 describes the L2 slip project, its goals, research questions, and hypotheses. Chapter 5 is devoted to methodological issues, such as the definition of slips of the tongue, the reliability of detecting them, dealing with perceptual bias, and the issue of coding slips as conceptual, lexical, malapropos, phonological, and so forth. Chapter 6 details the results and discusses them. For example, in terms of organising our respective mental lexicons, as one would suspect, the findings confirm that: a) related lexical concepts are indeed connected; thus lemmas (words or phrases representing all the inflectional and spelling variants of an entry in a dictionary) of words which are semantically related can be activated simultaneously; and b) lemmas are at least partly driven by syntactic category.

One of the salient features of L2 speech production is that, whether on purpose or by accident, bilinguals often mix their two languages even though they excel at the same time, most of the time, in separating the two systems. Many of the L2 slips are L1 based, hence the inference is that L1, not surprisingly, influences L2 speech production. According to the data, not surprisingly either, this is particularly the case with less proficient L2 speakers: The less proficiency, the more slips of the tongue.

One explanation may be that both L1 and L2 systems are activated simultaneously but it takes considerable energy to suppress L1, which the speaker can ill afford when L2 is not yet automatized. Not only does de-activating L1 use up resources, but the L2 knowledge base is also not readily accessible unless the speaker is sufficiently proficient. Fundamentally, this means that learning a new language (L2) is not just about learning and automatizing the rules, the words, and the articulation; it is also about keeping a tight rein on previously learnt procedures and knowledge (L1) which are not relevant at the time. [-2-]

Slips of the Tongue is relevant and informative reading that will help language teachers gain insights into the phenomenon of language slips.


Freud, S. (1937). Psychopathology of everyday life. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Meringer, R., & Mayer, K. (1895). Versprechen und Verlesen: Eine psychologisch-linguistiche Studie (Mistakes in speech and reading: A psychological and linguistic study). Stuttgart: G¨schense Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Zsuzsanna Ardó
Writer/translator/interpreter, London

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