Why is making mistakes important when you are learning a foreign language? Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post that discusses how you can embrace language mistakes and start speaking the language you're learning. If you struggle to find the confidence to speak, this article is for you.
You’ll learn about:
- Why mistakes are a normal part of learning a language
- 7 steps you can take to embrace mistakes and start speaking more
Errors and mistakes in language learning are inevitable when speaking, it's unavoidable that you'll make them!
Loads of them…
Grammar mistakes, mixing up vocabulary, stylistic errors; you name it.
Adults often feel embarrassed by the silly mistakes they make; the kind of mistakes even children who are native speakers don't make.
Have you ever made a really embarrassing mistake?
My Most Embarrassing Language Learning Mistake Ever
Let's start with a little story about the most embarrassing language mistake I think I’ve ever made.
The kind of mistake that makes you want to run away, bury your head under a cushion and just hide away from the world.
Would you like to hear it?
You would? Good — have a bit of a laugh at my expense why don’t you!
By the way, if you want to get fluent in a new language fast, and get comfortable with making mistakes, then using the right method is key.
My courses teach you through StoryLearning®, a fun and effective method that gets you fluent thanks to stories, not rules. Find out more and claim your free 7-day trial of the course of your choice.
So anyway, the year was 2001.
I had just moved to Paris.
I had got myself a job in a cool little youth hostel (Le Village) in the beautiful Montmartre district in the north of Paris, and I was working the graveyard shift behind reception.
One night there were these two French guys staying at the hostel who came up to me at reception and asked for some blankets.
“Strange,” I thought. “Maybe it’s cold in the room.”
Unfortunately, when they asked me for the blankets, I was busy serving another customer who had just arrived. So I said “Sure, just give me a few minutes.”
The customer took a while, and a few minutes later the same guys came back and asked for blankets again.
“What’s the rush?” I thought. “Take it easy!”
So I kept serving the customer, as I should, and the two French guys started to look very annoyed.
After about 5 minutes or so, I finished up with the customer and went off to get the blankets from the storeroom.
I took the blankets over to where the French guys were sitting and said “Voila, vos couvertures” (Here are your blankets).
There was a silence.
They both turned and looked at me with a look of death on their faces.
“Non, non .. pas des couvertures, des couverts!”
We don’t want blankets, they said, we want cutlery!
Turns out they had finished cooking some pasta (which by now was stone cold) for their evening meal, when they couldn’t find the cutlery in the kitchen.
Just so happens that “cutlery” and “blankets” in French sound pretty similar.
I apologised as profusely as I possibly could, and quickly grabbed them their cutlery from the drawer that was, ironically, right next to them, as my face began to turn the brightest possible shade of scarlet.
I apologised some more, and then immediately ran back to my reception desk, where I just tried to hide and wish that the whole world would go away.
Not my finest hour.
But the interesting thing is, that I still remember the French words for blankets and cutlery almost 20 years later, despite having never needed them since.
With crystal clarity! 🙂
Such is the power of embarrassing situations.
Or more to the point, such is the power of mistakes.
I think you’re going to find this post very useful.
Over to Julia…
Why is Making Mistakes Important? 7 Ways to Use Them to Your Advantage
Of course, once you've made one bad mistake you think twice before opening your mouth and embarrassing yourself again. But with this attitude, what happens?
You just think and think and think, and don’t open your mouth at all.
Retreating inside yourself, thinking too much and not sticking out in case you embarrass yourself by making a silly mistake is in itself the biggest mistake you can make.
The great psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that people learn by doing. And I agree with him.
Mistakes and learning go hand in hand and mistakes are part of the game.
The problem is that many people know this but still find it difficult to overcome their fear and start using the language.
Maybe you feel that way too?
Don't worry! Here are some actionable tactics to help you to beat your paralysing fear of making mistakes and get started speaking.
1. Drop Your Ego to Stop Getting Embarrassed by Mistakes
Ego is a heavyweight that you don't need on your language learning journey.
Even if you are the CEO of a big successful company, when speaking a foreign language you are just another foreigner who is bound to make mistakes.
And that's ok! It's perfectly normal.
When you speak with people, you can start by letting them know that you don't speak perfectly. Smile, apologise and say that you're a foreigner and that although you try your best, your English/French/Spanish/German, etc. is not perfect.
People will understand and appreciate that you are making an effort to speak their language even if you do make mistakes.
2. Don't Compare Yourself to Others
Again, there's no place for ego in language learning.
Yes, maybe you know people who speak your target language much better than you. And that’s ok.
Don't compare yourself to native speakers or more advanced learners.
The person you're comparing yourself to might have been studying the language for a few years already to get to that level, so don't expect to be there yourself after only a couple of months.
Each person will have their own unique language journey based on their own personality and circumstances.
- Some people are extroverts and speaking is natural to them, while others are much better with listening.
- Some people have a great musical ear and picking up the pronunciation of a foreign language is a piece of cake for them, while others really struggle with the subtleties of pronunciation.
- Some people thrive studying in a group and find time to attend courses in person, while others prefer to take one-to-one Skype lessons or study on their own.
Choose a suitable path for your learning style. Find out what fits into your daily life, then stick with it no matter what others are doing.
It doesn’t mean you cannot follow the example of others and borrow some ideas from them if you like them, but don't waste time comparing yourself to others.
Don’t feel that you are any worse off than someone else, make more mistakes or are less able to master a foreign language in general.
You are not them and your life is not theirs.
And after all there are people who don’t speak any foreign languages at all, so by learning one, you're already ahead of the game.
3. Talk to Yourself in Your Target Language to Normalise Mistakes
A great way to build confidence and become comfortable speaking your new language is to start by speaking to yourself.
Whether you are cooking your dinner, driving to work, or even taking a bath, it doesn't matter! You can practice speaking on your own anytime!
Imagine you are talking to your annoying sister, an inconsiderate friend or self-centred boss.
Talking to yourself is a great way to start overcoming your fear of speaking because you can make mistakes without feeling embarrassed.
- Speak with yourself when you have a tough decision to make, explore the pros and cons of different scenarios.
- Speak with yourself about your dreams and aspirations, your fears and concerns.
- Speak with yourself when you are just bored and feel like speaking.
Your monologues will be great training for your dialogues with other people. You'll get used to the imperfection of real speech and the fact that making mistakes is totally normal and you struggle to find words sometimes.
You'll get used to the imperfection of real speech and the fact that you do make mistakes and struggle to find words sometimes.
4. Embrace the Learning Through Mistakes Theory
In order to overcome your fear of speaking, you need to understand your mistakes and tackle them effectively.
Mistakes are usually made in one of the following two cases:
- You make mistakes because you don’t know something
- You make mistakes because you forget something that you do know
In the first case, the solution is obvious. You need to identify what it is exactly that you don’t know and learn it.
Your mistake could be:
- A grammar structure you haven’t yet studied
- A word you are not sure how to use
- A word you don’t have in your vocabulary
- A sound you mispronounce because you don’t know how to produce it correctly.
Grab your textbook, check your dictionary or just google the problem.
If you study with a teacher, they'll be able to help you identify the gaps in your knowledge and suggest how to fix them.
In the second case, where you forget things that you already know, more practice is what will put things right for you.
- Maybe you know the forms of irregular verbs but you get them wrong in speech
- Perhaps there's a word you know but keep forgetting when you need to use it
- Or a sound you know how to produce, but you just keep messing it up when you speak
If the problem is grammar, grab your textbook and do some practice exercises.
If remembering words is the problem, you can put the stubborn words you keep forgetting onto flashcards or into a spaced repetition software system to learn them.
And if you're getting stuck on pronunciation, read aloud and speak with yourself making sure you can produce every sound correctly.
Understanding why you made the mistake will help you remember the correction and increase your chances of being right next time. As your confidence in an error increases, your ability to learn from that error also increases.
5. Take it Step by Step
People who speak a language without making many mistakes (native speakers included) were not born with this ability, they learnt it.
And it took time.
So just allow yourself some time and don’t try to be where you are not ready to be.
For example, if you are a beginner, you're not used to making the sounds of your new language. Your mouth has been trained for years to the sounds of your native language and when you try to speak a new language, it rebels.
Don’t expect your pronunciation to be perfect, take it step by step and work towards improving a little each day. Errors in language learning will always happen, so be patient with your progress.
Once you are at an intermediate level, the mistakes you make will be more complicated.
There is still loads to learn and the fact that you can already speak more or less decently doesn’t mean that you will be speaking without any mistakes in each and every situation.
Your next step is to grow more specific vocabulary, tackle more complex grammar, improve your speed of speech and pronunciation while allowing yourself to make intermediate level mistakes.
And occasionally some beginner-level mistakes too!
6. Focus on Communication
Whether you are speaking to a friend, a client or just need to get by while travelling abroad, focus on the task at hand and do the best you can with the language skills you have at any given time.
After all, your main task is to communicate and get your message across. No one will give you bad marks because of your mistakes.
Work on your language in your own time but don’t let your mistakes stop you from performing real tasks in the language.
It’s a case of theory and practise – one feeds the other.
You need to dive into the theory, then apply what you've learnt in real life, then dive into the theory again. This basic cycle goes on and on.
Let your subconscious do the job and don't try to analyse how you speak while you speak, or you'll just freeze up.
7. Trust Yourself – Each Mistake Takes You One Step Closer to Your Goal
Your brain is a wonderful thing.
And it stores information you might not even know is there.
As a learner, sometimes you'll find yourself suddenly remembering words and phrases you didn’t realise you knew!
You'll be amazed when you suddenly use the exact words and phrases you need without thinking. A lot of study proceeds those ‘magical’ occasions of course.
Put in the work, then trust yourself to know things and just go for it. You might actually be making fewer mistakes than you think.
A fear of making mistakes when speaking holds you back from making any progress with your speaking skills.
You learn by doing, so if you are afraid to speak because of the mistakes you will be making, you are killing your only opportunity of learning to speak with fewer mistakes.
So, kill your fear of mistakes instead and you'll gradually correct those mistakes by speaking often. The good news is that you can beat the fear villain, no matter how powerful it might seem! Remember – it's not possible to learn something new without making mistakes!
This is a guest post by Julia, a linguist and a co-founder of the website vocBlocks.com. vocBlocks is a study tool helping busy people learn foreign languages by organising and learning new vocabulary in bite-sized blocks on the go.