This is a guest post from Randy Hunt who writes at yearlyglot
What would you think if I said the biggest thing holding you back in your progress doesn’t even exist? Maybe you’d think I was crazy. Or maybe you’d think I was simplifying or generalizing, or just lying to you to make you feel better. Well, I have a feeling you’re going to be surprised.
One of the biggest things that holds people back in a foreign language is a fear of making mistakes. Oh, sure, you’ll say it’s not a fear. But I don’t care what you call it. Whether you’re afraid, or averse, or just uncomfortable with mistakes, the result is the same. It’s holding you back.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m about to break the shocking news to you. Brace yourself. The truth you didn’t know is…
There are no mistakes.
No such thing. They don’t exist. Those things you are afraid of doing? They can’t be done, so you’re actually wasting your time trying to avoid them! There are no mistakes.
So what is there, then, if there are no mistakes? There is only speaking correctly, and speaking incorrectly. You’re probably thinking “yeah, well, isn’t speaking incorrectly the same as making a mistake?” It’s not.
People intentionally speak incorrectly all the time. It’s called slang. But they’re doing it intentionally, so it’s obviously not a mistake.
A real mistake is when you know how do to something, but you accidentally do it wrong. It’s rare, it’s nothing more than chance, and it happens to everyone. Like when you borrow your friend’s white Volkswagen, and the key goes in the door but it won’t turn. And when you’re about to go ask him what’s wrong with the key, you look around and notice there’s another white Volkswagen in the same parking lot.
Mistakes only matter in school, where doing something wrong — whether intentional or not — would result in a lowered score. In daily life, and in conversation, there is no score and there are no mistakes. There is no teacher grading you on how well you said something. When you do it incorrectly, there is no grade to lower.
Worrying about mistakes gives them power. Even when you’re not saying something wrong, the thought is ruling your mind. And when you do say something wrong the experience shuts down your progress until you stand still.
There are no mistakes! When you reframe the thought so that mistakes no longer exist, they lose their power over your progress. As I said, there are only things you said correctly and things you said incorrectly. Yes, the things that you say incorrectly will likely reveal you as a non-native speaker of the language. Gasp! That was probably obvious already. Use it. Own it.
Saying things wrong doesn’t have to be embarassing. It doesn’t have to be perceived as a “mistake”. It doesn’t have to be scary. Plenty of people speak wrong on purpose all the time. They’re not worried about being graded, or making mistakes.
In fact, most people who say things wrong are doing so intentionally… often to get a laugh. So when you say things wrong and you can see that you’re not being understood, just act like it was on purpose! If people laugh, you seem like a fun person! If they don’t laugh, you just say “must be my foreign sense of humor. I’ll keep trying.”
It’s nothing to be afraid of, and often it can be quite fun. It’s like when I know that pezzo is piece and pazzo is crazy, but I somehow manage to ask if it’s okay to have the pazzo di vergogno when asking for the last piece of bread. Sure, people are laughing, but they’re laughing because what I said is funny, not because I’m stupid.
With that funny situation burned into my mind, I’ll always get it right in the future… unless I want to get a laugh out of someone. But maybe I’ll intentionally say it wrong again next time! As a foreigner, you have a license to say things wrong, so sometimes you even get away with saying things that a native wouldn’t dare say!
Relax. Have fun. Stop worrying about making mistakes – they don’t exist.
Randy is on a “Fluent every year” mission; his current one is Italian. He speaks several languages and blogs about languages, travel and technology over at Yearlyglot.com