Is “Learning from Mistakes” Really a Thing? Here’s What the Science Says…
“Did I really just say that?”
That’s the question I was asking myself as I was chatting to my future Italian mother-in-law over dinner.
I had meant to say è palese, “it’s obvious”, but I actually said è palloso, which means “it’s effing boring”.
If you’ve been learning a language for long enough, you’ve probably made your fair share of gaffes like these.
Most seasoned language learners have come to accept the idea of learning from mistakes. After all, you can’t learn a language without practising speaking, and you can’t practise speaking without dropping a few clangers along the way.
Language learners often see mistakes as a necessary evil: something they’d rather avoid, but can learn to live with if they really have to. A bit like Italian mother-in-laws.
But what if this is backwards? A look at the science of learning reveals there’s nothing evil about mistakes. Au contraire. Studies show that mistakes actually help us learn faster. It turns out that hazarding a guess significantly increases your chances of remembering something next time, even if you get it wrong.
The question to ask, then, is not “how can I stop making mistakes?” but “how can I make more mistakes?”
So let’s take a look at the science of mistakes and how they can boost our long-term memory. You’ll also learn how to make more mistakes so you can speed up your language learning.
Why Are Language Learners So Afraid of Mistakes?
Remember that feeling of getting your school work back from your teacher, covered in red pen markings?
If you feel anxious about making mistakes, you’re not alone. Right from our school days, most of us had it drilled into us that mistakes are bad and should be avoided at all costs. Many children learn to feel embarrassed about getting things wrong and carry this fear with them into their adult lives. Maybe this is you too?
It’s human nature to interpret situations that test our abilities as black and white: if you get it right, it means you’re good at something and you feel pleased with yourself. If you make a mistake, it means you’re bad at something, and you feel ashamed.
This is why language learning causes so much anxiety in adults. Many of us prefer to avoid situations where we risk getting things wrong: learning a language, where mistakes are part of the process, can make us feel like a complete idiot, or worse, a complete failure.
I’ve come across so many language learners who dislike doing things that put our knowledge to the test, like talking to native speakers. When you speak with a native speaker, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes. But is it really better to keep your mouth shut to avoid embarrassment?
This feeling of shame about mistakes is something I can relate to – and maybe you can too. But if you avoid situations where you know you’ll make mistakes, you’re missing out on a key strategy that’ll speed up your language learning.
The Science of Mistakes – and Why They Matter
Scientists have known for years that being tested on what you’ve been learning boosts long-term memory. Tons of studies show that people who test themselves remember information better compared to people who spend the same amount of time simply learning stuff.
This effect, known as the testing effect, shows that trying to retrieve something you’ve learned – that feeling of racking your brain for a word or an answer – helps you commit it to long-term memory.
In one study, a group who got tested on what they’d learned remembered 21% more than a group who simply read the same information lots of times. This difference occurred despite the fact that the reading group had seen the information over four times more than the group who were tested: the readers had seen the information 14.2 times, while the testers had only seen it 3.4 times. This means that by putting yourself in situations where you have to try and bring to mind what you’ve learned, you can dramatically reduce the number of times you need to repeat something before it sinks in.
If the word “test” brings to mind dusty grammar books or stressful language exams, know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Think about the process of learning a language for a moment. It provides tons of natural opportunities to test yourself. The most important – for the majority of us – is speaking. When you practise speaking, you’re constantly trying to recall what you’ve learned. Every time you rack your brain for a word, or a bit of grammar, the act of trying to bring it to mind will help you remember it better next time.
But what happens when you get it wrong? Turns out you get a memory boost for mistakes. A study by Potts and Shanks (2014) shows that when people hazard a guess, make a mistake and get feedback on the right answer, they’re significantly more likely to remember the information compared to when they don’t guess.
And what about those times when you literally have no idea? This is where it gets interesting. The same study showed that even if you make a random guess that you know is wrong, you still remember the right answer better next time.
This means that learning by making mistakes, right from the beginning, can help you remember more. It doesn’t matter if you get it right or wrong. If you want to speed up learning, all you have to do is give it a go.
Why “Feel the Burn!” is Good Advice
Even more surprising is that people don’t realise how much they’re learning from their mistakes. Studies show that the people who learned by reading information several times felt more confident about their knowledge, compared to the people who were tested on what they’d learned.
In other words, mistakes can make you feel like you're learning less, when you're actually learning more.
Which leads to a funny paradox: avoid situations where you’re likely to make mistakes, and you’ll feel more confident but perform worse. By contrast, put yourself out there and risk screwing up, and you’ll feel less confident, but perform better in the long run.
Most language learners want to study more before they have real conversations. That way, they believe, they won’t make as many mistakes. But science shows us that the best way to stop making mistakes is to get out there and make more of them.
Learning from Mistakes: How to Make More Mistakes – and Feel Good About Them
I hope you’re feeling ready to dive in and start learning from mistakes. Here’s a step-by-step process you can follow to do that, and have fun at the same time.
Step 1: Change Your Goal
Most of us judge our success with the question: “how much am I doing right?”
But the key to learning doesn’t lie in getting stuff right, it lies in giving it a go. So change your goal. Stop asking yourself “did I get that right?” and instead ask yourself “did I give it a go?” If your answer to the latter question is yes, you’ve just learned something and taken another small step towards fluency.
You’ve already won, whether you got it right or not.
Step 2: Aim to Fail
America’s youngest self-made female billionaire, Sara Blakely explains how over dinner, her father would ask “what did you fail at today?”. By encouraging failure, her father helped her associate a lack of mistakes with a lack of trying: if you’re always getting it right, you’re not pushing yourself enough.
Start asking yourself “did I make enough mistakes today?”.
If you aim to make as many mistakes as possible, you’ll appreciate them for what they are: a sign that you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and making progress. By framing mistakes in a positive way, you’ll stop being afraid of them.
When you’re no longer afraid of mistakes, you’ll be unstoppable.
Step 3: Start Guessing!
When you’re not 100% sure about a word or a grammatical structure, do you guess anyway? You should! You’ll be right (or very close) more often than you think.
When it comes to talking to native speakers, you might worry that it could confuse matters if you just start throwing out stuff that you’re not sure about. To keep communication running smoothly, I find it handy to learn a “disclaimer phrase” like: I’m not sure if you say it like this but…. Then you can get feedback by asking: Is that right? Do you say it like that?”
Step 4: Ask Native Speakers to Correct You
Native speakers usually prefer not to correct your mistakes as they’re worried about seeming rude. But if you’re going to make mistakes, it’s important to get feedback from native speakers so that you can learn from them.
Ask natives to correct you, and do everything you can to make sure they feel comfortable doing so. Show them you appreciate it: smile, say thank you, and keep telling them how useful their corrections are so they don’t have to worry about offending you.
Step 5: Bring Your Mistakes Home
Embracing failure doesn’t just apply when you’re speaking. It applies to studying at home too.
When you’re writing something or answering questions in apps/textbooks/audio courses, it’s easy to worry about getting it wrong. But remember why you’re doing these activities in the first place. It’s not to prove that you’re awesome by getting everything right. The idea is to learn from your mistakes. If you’re not making enough, it means the activities you’re choosing are way too easy.
Instead of getting down on yourself, see each mistake as a little win. You just found a gap in your knowledge, and you’re now more likely to get it right next time.
Step 6: Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh!
So you like the idea of seeing mistakes in a positive light, but you’re still scared of making a fool of yourself with native speakers.
The truth is, sometimes you will make silly mistakes and people will laugh. But 99% of people are laughing with you, not at you. And no one will think you’re an idiot because of it! The other 1% aren’t worth your time anyway.
Think about it, when you speak to a non-native speaker in your own language, how do you feel when they make a mistake? You might find it funny or endearing, but do you judge them because of it?
Of course not.
You understand that it’s all part of the learning process. On the flip side, when it’s you who’s the learner, others will understand that too.
I've brightened up a lot of people's days with some brilliant mistakes over the years. Here are a couple of my favourites:
- While talking to Italian friends about British food, I tried to explain “mushy peas” – a sort of pea puree that we Brits eat with fish and chips. But I accidentally said “penis purée” (purè di pisello) instead of “pea purée” (purè di piselli). We all laughed until we cried.
- When a French guy – a friend of a friend I'd just met – asked me where I was from, I tried to say “I was born in London” (je suis née à Londres), but what I actually said was “I am naked in London” (je suis nue à Londres). Despite my initial embarrassment, it turned out to be a brilliant ice-breaker. We had a good laugh about it and carried on chatting.
When you can laugh at yourself, mistakes are a great opportunity to have fun with native speakers. And having fun with native speakers is always good for your language skills. Even when you say the f-word to your mother-in-law.