When you look back over your life, what stands out? I’m guessing it’s your achievements. Those small (and big!) successes that lead us to the bigger triumphs.
Here’s the rub: by focusing on success, we gloss over our failures. Aren’t those important, too?
I think failure is really important. In fact, the best language learners fail the most. Let me say that again: the best language learners fail the most.
Failure has long been given a bad rap as something that should be avoided, especially in language learning. But the truth is, failure is the road to experience. The more mistakes you make, the sooner you’ll reach your goals.
Yes, mistakes are awkward. Mistakes are messy. Mistakes can leave you feeling “Did I really just say that?”
So, embrace the ick!
If you’re NOT failing, then you’re not pushing yourself enough.
Seriously, if you imagine yourself speaking fluently in an exotic new language but fear awkward moments, don’t throw in the towel. Not until you’ve read this article.
Here are a few reasons why you actually fail faster to enhance your language learning efforts.
1. The Best Way to Fail is to Speak
The other day I was eating durian, a pungent and notorious Southeast Asian fruit with some of my friends. They stared at me and complained about the smell and asked me how I could eat it.
“It’s a required taste,” I replied.
My friends laughed in my face.
“Required! Ha! You mean acquired?”
I stared down at my sticky fingers and couldn’t help but to laugh. It was funny, but it wasn’t a big deal. See, people make mistakes and fail all the time EVEN IN THEIR NATIVE LANGUAGE. At least I do…
When you speak a language – especially a language you’re learning, you will make mistakes. Guaranteed. Accept this fact, and you will learn faster. Why? Because speaking is crucial when learning a language. I’d even argue that you don’t really know a language until you can use it in conversation.
[bctt tweet=”You don’t really know a language until you can use it in conversation.” username=”irishpolyglot”]
Be prepared to make mistakes and know that they won’t be as bad you think. Try to be stoic for a second and ask yourself, “What’s the WORST that could happen?”
I mean, would you confuse “acquired” and “required”?
Remembering my failure leads leads nicely to the next point…
2. The Harder You Fail, the Better You Remember It
It took one memorable moment for me to know that I’ll never forget the difference between required and acquired. While it wasn’t my most epic failure, it sure did help build on the knowledge I already had.
Now, every time I think of acquired, it brings me back to that memory: pungent smell, humid weather, sticky fingers, and the hot flush of embarrassment. All that is a really powerful anchor that ties me to what I learned that day.
When you fail, your heart sinks, and it can feel like the world is sinking with you. Or it can be really funny. Either way, you create a moment of strong emotion, and that burns what you learned onto your brain.
3. Failure Gives You a Bigger Language Toolbox
The movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood makes a good point about failure. In the movie, an older man lets a young neighbour boy borrow a few of his carpentry tools to make some repairs. As the boy stand in the garage, he is in awe at this man’s collection.
The man explains that each tool he has, he bought because of a specific job that required it and he learned how to use each one, mistakes and all. He says it takes time to build a collection like that, and you have to do it one tool at a time.
[bctt tweet=”The more you fall off the horse and get back on, the better you’ll be.” username=”irishpolyglot”]
It’s the same for language learning, except you’re collecting new words and grammar structures. Each failure adds one more skill to your collection, and you’ll gradually become more fluent as your “garage” fills with tools.
We’ve all heard the cliche: “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” For some of us the numbers are a little higher, and that’s completely fine! The more you fall off the horse and get back on, the better you’ll be because with each failure, you are able to learn something.
4. Even Failing Gets Easy – With Practice
I walked into a restaurant in South Korea for the first time. I was 19, alone and as soon as I made eye contact with the waitress, I felt immediately unprepared. I didn’t know any Korean, so I barely looked over my options and softly ordered the first thing I vaguely recognised. I escaped as soon as I finished my rice with mystery meat.
The experience was nothing like I thought it would be. I had hoped to engage someone in conversation, maybe even ask a few questions about my options. But no – my fear got in the way.
I messed up, but maybe that was okay.
The next day I realized how important that experience was to shaking off those travel jitters. Each day after that experience, I walked into eateries, museums, and shops with more confidence than the last. Soon, it was easy to walk up to a stranger and ask for directions.
Sure, the first time you forget a word, your body may tense up and you may get nervous. But once the experience is over and you realize it wasn’t so bad, you’ll be better prepared for the next mistake.
The best language learners make hundreds (if not thousands) of mistakes a day. But they didn’t start that way! They started by making one, then a dozen, then a few dozen. The more mistakes they made, the easier it got to make mistakes. And as it got easier, they made even more mistakes!
Want an easy way to start “making mistakes”? Ask questions – even questions that feel stupid. The more you get used to asking questions, the better you get at it. The more you native speakers about their language, the less scary it gets. You’ll discover that while not everyone will bend over backwards to help you, a lot of people will.
5. Failing Can Be Fun!
Have you ever failed at following a road map, only to find yourself in a fresh landscape meeting new people? And all because of a wrong turn! Have you ever missed a flight but ended up meeting someone incredible on your next one because of it? Good things come from failures, but only if you let them.
[bctt tweet=”Why learn a new language if you don’t allow yourself to have fun while doing it?” username=”irishpolyglot”]
It’s important not to take life -or language learning- too seriously. It’s those little sidesteps that make learning a new language a blast.
While failure does show that you’re working the language and moving forward in your venture, you should also see the fun in the experience. If you find yourself getting tense when learning, just slow down, take a deep breath, and think about all of your past failures. I promise you’ll find yourself smiling in no time! Life’s too short not to laugh at yourself. After all, why learn a new language if you don’t allow yourself to have fun while doing it?
Fail Faster, Fail Forward
Like it or not, failure is a part of life. It be embarrassing, scary, or daunting, but it’s going to happen, so might as well embrace it, right?
No matter where you are in your language learning journey, you’re going to fail. Even if you already speak ten languages, the eleventh is going to come with challenges. So when you’re diving into a new language, remember that no one becomes fluent in a day!
Language learning is a journey that can be an absolute blast, so enjoy those little failures because they will be part of the memories you tell for years to come. To quote Michael Jordan:
“I can accept failure, but I cannot accept not trying.”
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.