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Stop thinking about mistakes

| 15 comments | Category: guest post, learning languages

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.

Reframe it!

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

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  • WC

    Good article!

    Just the other day, the lady that owns the lunch shop I frequent said ‘You need to make a girlfriend.’ Now, since I’m a programmer, I -could- do that, so it was funny, even if unintentionally so.

    I have a ‘fear’ of mistakes, and it definitely holds me back. I’ve been trying to power my way through the fear, and it’s hard, but it’s definitely helping me in many ways. And of course, the more you work through the fear, the better you are at it.

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      Turning that fear into a secret advantage gives you a certain power. Instead of thinking about how speaking incorrectly is a weakness, think of it as an advantage… one that only you have! That lady in the lunch shop was able to say that because she’s foreign, right? If someone you know to be a native had said that, your reaction would have been completely different.

      Reframe your mistakes as advantage, and then go strut your ability to get away with them!

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you liked the post.

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    Sometimes fear of making mistakes results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The foreign language speaker can become so self-conscious about speaking correctly that it actually impedes fluent speech. If mind is constantly racing – ‘Did I say it right?… Hold on, was that the correct past tense of the verb I just used?…’ you can’t really speak naturally and fluently. Therefore by allowing yourself a few imperfections here and there you actually improve your speech down the line!Thanks for the really motivational article, everyone needs a kick in the butt sometimes!

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      I think the magic is in reframing. When you stop convincing yourself to be scared and start convincing yourself to be confident, you have the keys to success. When instead of thinking of mistakes, you start thinking of them as opportunities for fun, you gain a certain conversational power… and with that, even a bit of swagger. :)

      Thanks. I’m glad you liked the post!

      • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

        You’re definitely right about making fun out of mistakes and other situations when being a foreign speaker causes some sort of misunderstanding. For instance, this evening an electricity company’s agent called up to my house (and she happened to be a nice girl ;-) and I decided to take their offer and switch over.

        During filling in the contract we had a couple of misunderstandings because of my East-European accent and her being British. Instead of freaking out (something what I’d do a few years back) I just told her that she got me wrong and we both just had a laugh.

        Yes, it’s definitely all in the head and depending on how you look at your slight imperfections when speaking you can have reasons good enough for both becoming depressed or excited – the difference being in change of perspective or how you called it – ‘reframing’!

  • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

    I had a dutch girlfriend who used to occasionally make mistakes with English and I thought it was incredibly endearing.

    My favourite was when she would say “for your peace of sake.”

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      Mistakes can be endearing, but they are also embarassing. When some makes a mistake you should try to offer them a correction. For example, if someone said “peace of sake” to me, I would smile and say “right, yeah, I need to look out for my peace of mind.” This way you’re not being an irritating corrector, but still helping someone to be more confident.

      • http://yourlifeamp.com Your Life Amp

        Oh yes of course, I would always offer her the correct phrase, but it would be done with a smile and mutual laughter.

  • Katie

    I wish I read this before my trip to Spain and France, tho’ I did eventually figure it out on my own, if only to stay sane. If I got hung up about all my many mistakes, I’d have jumped off a building. But I connected with my friends and cousins there, they knew how hard I’d been working at it, and I was embraced. And we did get a lot of laughs at some of my peculiar way of saying things. It became a part of my personality! Certainly, overtime, I’d want to keep trying to get better at it, but in the heart of the moment, what comes out is just what’s going to come out.

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      Being able to laugh at yourself makes everything easier.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    As I like to say, you fail your way to success ;)

    And I agree, I hate the fact that school punishes students for making mistakes, I think that’s a terrible way to go about teaching people.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      Unfortunately, there are endless bad ways to teach people, and few good ways! :)

  • http://twitter.com/carlfordham Carl Gene Fordham

    I wouldn’t say mistakes don’t exist, because they do. But they are actually a very good thing because they force you to learn something new in a very memorable way.

  • http://twitter.com/numerodix numerodix

    What the heck is a “pezzo di vergogno”?

  • lilion

    great article. it’s all psychological