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Embracing embarrassing mistakes

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“I made a new video – I look cool in it! Want to come up and check it out?”

Sounds like an innocent enough thing to say, right?

While talking to a German friend of mine (a girl, but seriously just a friend and one I've had for many years), I wanted to say this pretty simple phrase. Through very unwise use of the word “geil” (normally cool/awesome) and “kommen/bei mir” (normally come & my place), what I actually somehow said was that I was horny and I wanted her to come inside me. And that's come with sexual intonations.

That has been my biggest D'oh! moment in the last few weeks, but it definitely wasn't the first time. For example, when learning Spanish, I managed to tell the first Mexican I ever spoke to in Spanish that I like to shag/screw the bus every day. What can I say, it's a weird fetish I have (apparently).

I've told people I'm a girl hundreds of times due to gender agreement hiccups, and in France I complimented a bunch of people I had just met as having a nice arse (merci beau-cu(l)). At least I never got pregnant in Spain, unlike some of my unfortunate male friends.

These kinds of mistakes are the horror stories you will have heard many times before about learning a language, and I've made way more than I could possibly think of examples to illustrate. And I've done them in person with natives. I always seem to unintentionally find a language's hidden sexual innuendos and produce them quite innocently and cheerily and usually in the most cringe-worthy of situations.

What do you do if it happens?

So what happened after the said linguistic crimes? Was I added to the local police database as a bus sex offender? Did hundreds of people gather round, point their finger, and guffaw simultaneously at my stupidity? Did the shame of it all hit me so hard that I cried myself to sleep and packed my bags the next day to never try to speak the language again?

No. Nothing happened. My mistakes were pointed out to me, it was understood what I meant to say and the conversation went on. No parade or ceremony to commemorate how ridiculous I sounded. Sometimes we would both laugh it off for a few seconds. It's not a big deal.

This is something that I wish people still too afraid to get out there and speak, and still hiding behind their books, would realise. If you make enough mistakes in a test then you fail. But people are not keeping count of the quantity and severity of your mistakes to fail you. You will make embarrassing mistakes in a conversation… and yet somehow life will go on. You make a mental note and try not to say it again – simple as that.

There seems to be this huge fear of failure from people only familiar with a language in an examination context. I've made enough mistakes in all my languages to probably fail every test in the world hundreds of times over. And yet I speak them fluently. The path to fluency must include a lot of mistakes. The only way to make no mistakes is to say nothing and you will never learn anything that way.

The way I see it, the more mistakes you make the more you are speaking and this is a good thing. You will be interacting with people and getting closer to speaking better as you are made aware of these mistakes. If your goal is to speak perfectly with 0 mistakes you will be very disappointed. This will never happen. Even natives make mistakes. Just accept it as a natural part of the path to speaking any language well.

The best attitude to take is to just accept that it's going to happen and go with the flow. Embrace the mistakes!

The only embarrassing thing is your reaction, not the words

After that conversation with my German friend, both of us had a great laugh. I think it was very funny!

Looking at it that way meant that she could laugh too, and laugh with me. If you pause and get all red-faced and bring attention to yourself then this will make other people feel way more uncomfortable than the spoken mistake ever would.

I could have also reacted by stopping dead in my tracks, apologising for several minutes, reassuring her that I see her as an important friend I respect, beg for her forgiveness and then tone down my conversation to be “safe” for the rest of the evening, likely creating unnecessary tension. That would have created the embarrassing situation. Not a minor amusing blunder of words.

Embarrassment is always caused by reactions, not the content of the mistakes. Some people react differently, but you can control their reaction from your own reaction.

Even if you don't make the very embarrassing mistakes I suggested here, and are making grammar mistakes for example, your confidence as you speak will make these grammar mistakes seem less intense. Someone extremely aware of how wrong they are speaking will make everyone else equally aware of this.

I get complimented all the time (with just one exception) when I take on any language about how well I'm speaking, even in the early stages. This isn't because of an amazing ability to assimilate grammar and use precisely the right words. It's because I've just become numb to making mistakes after making so many of them. I don't care enough any more to become embarrassed. When the mistake is pointed out, I'll make a mental note to not make it again and I'll have learned. But I won't make a big deal out of it and will continue speaking confidently as before.

So stop worrying and make mistakes! You can decide what happens when a mistake is pointed out. You can feel inadequate when your mishap is pointed out and shy away, or you can thank the other person so that you encourage them to help you again in future. A warm smile on your face will solve most embarrassing situations. An awkward reaction will create them.

If you've made some embarrassing mistakes in your languages, feel free to share your story! Let's laugh together and encourage others to get out of their shell and make similar mistakes! That is the best way to learn 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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