A big challenge for people learning a new language is failure.
Who wants to be wrong? I know that I hate feeling I’ve messed up. Yet you can't learn a language if you can't accept failure.
Falling in love with your mistakes is the key to confident conversations in a new language. Follow these easy steps to learn to fall in love with your mistakes and make rapid progress towards your language goals.
Step 1: Put on the Mindset of a Top Athlete
Most of us will never be Olympians or professional athletes. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from the way these top performers train to improve their skills.
Athletes set goals and train hard. They also take care of themselves with time to recover, rest and have fun. This approach allows them to improve and get stronger. Successful language learners do these same things.
In addition to establishing a learning routine that is consistent, fun and allows for steady progress, athletes have an even more powerful secret to their success.
Their secret? Resilience.
How many times do you see a player get tackled in a football game? A baseball player strike out? A missed goal? These failures happen in every game. Yet despite these setbacks, players still get back up and keep playing.
Mistakes can be embarrassing. Many a Spanish learner has told people that they were embarazada (pregnant) instead of avergonzada (embarrassed). I had a taxi drop me at a Korean television station (MBC) instead of the embassy I requested. I also once thanked an elderly French woman for giving me a disease when I wanted to compliment her on her kindness!
All-star athletes like Tom Brady wouldn't be playing if they let every mistake stop them. They get back up and keep going. Otherwise, they would never be top performers.
Treat yourself like a top athlete by getting a regular workout and keep communicating despite your mistakes.
Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. The stronger you are, the longer the distance you'll be able to run. Try, fall down, and get back up every day in your target language.
Step 2: Seek Out Failure
You can’t learn a new language without making a lot of mistakes. Don't resist making them by staying in your comfort zone. Avoid mistakes and you avoid progress.
Small children make tons of mistakes learning to speak. Do we tell them to stop speaking until they can do it perfectly? No, we help by listening, encouraging them, and providing quality language input. Have that same compassion and patience with yourself.
Step 3: Use “Linguistic Tasks” to Focus on What You CAN Do (Not on What You Can’t)
Focus on what you can do, and that will provide you with what you need to be able to develop your language skills. Can you only respond with one word? Say it. Did you mispronounce something? Try again. Each attempt brings you closer to mastery.
One of the most helpful tools I have found as a language learner and a language teacher is tasks. Linguistic tasks are specific things a person can do in a language. A task might be renting a car, or understanding a shopping list. They are practical real-world prompts to build and measure your skills.
Step 4: Speak from Day One
Speak from day one, and do it every day. It gives you the perfect opportunity to keep making mistakes! Plus you’ll assimilate, process and experiment with all of the words and phrases you are learning.
When you speak with a native speaker (or even a highly proficient non-native speaker), not only are you doing important problem solving with the language you've already learned, you are getting new language from that other person to keep and use yourself. Learning from input and testing yourself with your output regularly is the key to rapid progress.
Try italki to start speaking your target language with a tutor from the start. They can model correct language use for you, as well as provide you with a lot of new language that you can use in future conversations – just as the adults in your life did for you as you learned your native language.
Too shy to dive in with a native speaker now? Talk to yourself first. You won't get the same input that you would get by talking to native speakers, but it is a great way to work through your shyness.
Record yourself. Absolute beginners can even read through vocabulary lists or a dialogue. As your confidence builds, start recording yourself without vocabulary aids. Talk regularly about any topic you wish without worrying about mistakes, and feel yourself reaching fluency fast.
If you want to ever be able to speak a language fluently, you will have to have to work through a lot of mistakes first. A workout routine of trial and error will help you do just that.
Step 5: Use Mistakes to Fail Forward
There is no more useful test for language learners than mistakes.
When you speak and write, your errors and gaps in knowledge show themselves. For example, you might not have the word you're looking for or can't remember a certain verb ending. Instead of feeling bad, take this valuable feedback as an indication of where to focus during your next study session. Fill those gaps by finding the words and phrases you didn't know or by reviewing your verb conjugations. Use your mistakes to fail forward.
To get good quality feedback on your mistakes, you can share your writing with your italki teacher, or an online community like Rhinospike. You will find the grammar and vocabulary you learn in context far more helpful than anything from a textbook.
Step 6: Remember, You Will Get to Automatic
Just as you learned that 1+1=2, you will learn the patterns and structures of your target language and not forget them.
Math and languages have a great deal in common. They both deal with symbols and sounds that represent ideas and values to us.
When you learned arithmetic, you learned it so well that many calculations eventually became easy and almost automatic. You likely made some errors along the way, but the practice and feedback helped cement the algorithms in your mind. Practice makes perfect, and mistakes are part of that process.