Nobody likes to be wrong. Nobody wants to look stupid. That’s why learning a foreign language can be scary. Making mistakes feels exactly this way.
I have been both a language teacher and a language student for many years, therefore I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. And my conclusion is that making mistakes is the best and most efficient way to learn and become fluent in another language! How can we overcome the fear of sounding goofy in the face of our teacher, then? Or even worse, the fear of being laughed at by our classmates?
The answer is simple: let’s look at mistakes in another way. From another perspective. What if we could look at mistakes and see wonderful opportunities for improvement instead of scary moments of public ridiculing?
In this article, I will explain to you why I am such a convinced supporter of mistakes and hopefully will help you feel less afraid of making them.
What is a mistake anyway?
In the eyes of the students, mistakes are frowned upon; something to be desperately avoided. It’s that one word, or even that specific sound that they should have learnt how to pronounce by now, but still haven’t. It’s that “weird” sentence structure that makes sense in their head but not quite as much when they say it out loud. It’s the evidence that proves to the teacher that they didn’t study hard enough or that their teaching methods were not as effective as hoped. It’s the moment when they know that they are about to give everybody else who is in the same room a big fat laugh.
Well, I agree with you: put in these terms, making mistakes sounds like really scary stuff.
Let’s have a look at the other side for a moment, though. In the eyes of teachers, a mistake is a wonderful golden gate! A bright, shiny gate, peering into the student’s difficulties and unspoken doubts. It’s the red thread that finally leads to the dissolution of all hidden knots that cause problems and difficulties along the student’s learning path. It’s the only way that teachers can spot out both existing and potential struggles and hindrances.
So, rest assured: teachers welcome mistakes! In fact, they are looking for them in order to know how to proceed and shift their targets. They are nothing else but indicators of what may need to be changed in their teaching methods, what may need to be integrated to the students’ existing knowledge, and what is needed to help the teachers predict future problems. Not even for a second do teachers think, “oh my God, this student is really dumb!”
Does this sound less stressful than the previous scenario?
Playing with language is fundamental for better understanding
Moving words around helps students to learn sentence structure. Playing with stress and intonation enhances a more natural pronunciation and expressivity. Juggling with verbs and prepositions boosts confidence and makes it easier for students to predict language patterns.
All these techniques are so helpful and make such a great difference when learning a new language. But can they be performed without making mistakes? The answer is no. Of course not. Even in this case, making mistakes is a necessary step along the way. In this case, mistakes are the equivalent of street signs: they show you where it is allowed to go and where it is not. Think of when you were a child. How did you learn how to speak besides listening and repeating what you heard? You probably went through a phase where you used to make up new words or phrases. Did someone call you stupid? Probably not. Most likely, they simply told you that that particular word did not exist or that phrase didn’t make sense. This way you simply learnt what worked and what did not work. The logic is the same, only now you are an adult and therefore more aware of what you do. Being an adult doesn’t mean that you have to stop having fun. You can be a totally respectful example of a grown up person and, at the same time, play with words and grammar as much as you like!
For a moment, then, let’s imagine that mistakes are nothing but healthy steps along the language learning process. Let’s believe that they are the best tools that we have in order to teach ourselves how to speak correctly. Do we still find it scary to learn a foreign language? Probably, the answer is: not really. If we aren’t afraid of making mistakes, learning a language goes back to being a great, enriching experience that allows us to be able to naturally interact with people from the country that we love as well as experience and understand their culture better.
In conclusion, remember: mistakes are the best way to learn a language. Change your attitude towards them and use them in your favour by following these steps.
Make mistakes often: the more you make mistakes, the faster you will improve.
Learn from your mistakes: study your mistakes! Note down recurrent mistakes and next to each of them write your corrections and your teacher’s feedback so that you can always refer to it when you look back.
Be happy when you make mistakes and think: now I know how to say it better!
About the author:
Chiara was born in Italy, but has spent most of her adult life studying and working between Dublin and London. Originally, she is from a lovely town in Southern Tuscany. She was raised bilingually in English and Italian. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and is a CELTA and TEFL certified English and Italian teacher. She has always shown a deep interest in languages, communication, and teaching. In fact, she can speak 5 languages and has a long experience in private tutoring, teaching in class, one-to-one, and online. Her students range from teenagers to professionals and retired businessmen. At the moment, she is a full-time teacher of English and Italian. Whenever she has time for herself, she plays tennis and takes yoga classes to explore the inner depths of human nature. She has an inquisitive personality and has lots of hobbies, like reading about philosophy and ancient religions, traveling, knitting, and singing. She is very creative and loves her job.