The Art of Making Mistakes – How and why mistakes help you to learn languages (Guest post by Luca)
Today, we've got a special guest post from Luca Lampariello, who writes at The Polyglot dream.
Luca is one of the best known polyglots online, especially for the excellent accent he has in the languages he has learned. Even though he is Italian, he can speak amazing English, fantastic sounding French, very convincing Spanish, and several other languages. You can see a video he made a few years ago where he switches between eight languages here.
I was glad to have a clip from him (singing in Polish) in the Skype Me Maybe music video, and even got to meet him and chat about language learning at the Polyglot Conference recently. What I see is that I wholeheartedly agree with all of his language learning tips that I've ever seen or read, and I am really looking forward to reading an ebook that he will release this summer describing his language learning approach. Make sure to subscribe to his blog, Youtube channel, and Facebook page to find out about that, and to see the many interesting videos and posts he has come up with already!
One such idea we definitely share, is that not only is it OK to make mistakes, but that mistakes are necessary on the road to becoming successful in your second language. With this in mind, in today's guest post he will explain much more convincingly than I have done myself in the past, how and why mistakes can help you learn your target language better! Over to you Luca!
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It's quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
—Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM
Making mistakes is a fundamental part of every cognitive process, whether solving a math problem, making important decisions, or trying to convey meaning in a foreign language.
What’s more, making mistakes and learning from them is not simply a human skill. According to scientific research, animals not only learn from their own mistakes, but they can learn by observing their peers messing up. In the animal world, avoiding blunders may dramatically improve one’s chances of survival. Both humans and animals learn to live and live to learn. Human beings, however have a unique skill: the ability to process and ponder their mistakes.
This can be an advantage as well as a disadvantage. Let me explain why.
In our school systems around the world, teachers need to evaluate their students. Since languages are one of the many subjects taught at schools worldwide, we have all been judged and graded on our language skills.
Although teachers are less strict than before – I recall my grandparents talking about teachers waving sticks and sometimes punishing their pupils physically! – they still deal with their students’ mistakes in a generally punitive way. Languages are seen as a subject in which students feel constantly judged and graded, rather than a useful communication tool to embrace and better understand the world in which they live. In most cases, this has a negative impact on their performance and willingness to improve their skills.
The consequences, among others, are:
- Students are afraid of speaking.
- If they do speak, they tend to limit their conversation to a small set of sentences that they know well.
- If they get corrected, they don’t take it well.
- They don’t learn from their mistakes, but rather get discouraged by them.
The Real World
When we finish school, we all carry, consciously or subconsciously, the burden of being judged by others. Even when we willingly decide to embark upon the quest of learning a new language as independent learners, this state of mind continues to impact the way we learn and face conversations in the real world.
Like the school systems in which we were educated, we tend to grade ourselves, the people we meet on the street or in bars, and the people we talk to on the Internet.
I have heard words such as “master”, “performance”, “perfection”, “perfectly”, “perfectly native accent”, etc. countless times. The list goes on and on.
This choice of words indicates that we often see speaking a language as some sort of performance, behind the scenes of which we are quick to both judge others and get scared when it is our turn. This attitude is not just negative; it is dangerous. It can slow down or even put a stop to our language learning endeavours.
Native speakers are often considered the “role models” when it comes to speaking a language. With this lofty point of reference in mind, we tend to see them as the “perfection” we all desire and long for. But sometimes, we look at the result without really considering what has been done to achieve it.
For instance, if we consider 18-year-olds to be educated native speakers and think about the way they have learned their own native tongues, a few facts come to mind:
- They have been exposed to their native tongue for an unsurpassable number of hours. Doing the math is easy: 18 years x 365 days x 24 hours (we keep learning while we sleep) = 78,000 hours.
- They have been living in multiple social environments, interacting with family, friends, and classmates.
- They have received a formal education, and they have been tested, evaluated and corrected in numerous fields.
Although massive exposure to a language plays an important role and there is a strong value in recognizing the patterns of a given language ourselves, receiving valuable feedback and learning from it is still important. Learning a language to fluency (mainly) encompasses two main features: expansion and refinement.
We “expand” our knowledge by exposure – listening and reading. We refine it by producing – speaking and writing. The more we get exposed to a language, the more we expand our knowledge of it, and the more we produce it and get feedback, the faster we refine it, especially if we develop a sound, positive attitude (towards it).
I vividly recall my frustration when, entering middle school at the age of 11, I got rather mediocre grades when trying to write essays in Italian. After 2 to 3 months of uncertainty, I not only started reading a lot of books, but I also developed a joyous attitude whenever I found corrections on the book reports the teacher returned to me a week later.
I saved all the mistakes, corrections, and annotations in my exercise book. As a result, I found a good balance between input (reading tons of books) and output (producing, accepting my limits and learning from my mistakes). I maintained the same attitude when I started learning English and French, and it made a huge difference.
In other words, to become an educated native speaker of Italian, I spent a large amount of time exposing myself to the language, and also trying to consciously refine my learning process by accepting that, as a human being, I am bound to make mistakes. I discovered that mistakes, by learning how to deal with them, became my best friends on my language learning path. Although I am 32 and a native speaker of Italian, I am nowhere near the so-called – and much longed for – “perfection.”
Languages are constantly-evolving entities, with tens of thousands of words, expressions and secrets. If you think about it for a second, if you really do, you will find out that we actually know very little of a language – even our own – and yet, despite making mistakes and not knowing thousands of words, we are perfectly able to live a full, happy life communicating with the others.
Turn your world upside-down
If we are willing to accept (the fact) that as human beings we are limited in space and time, that there is no way to master a language, and that the main goal should be that of refining our skills through exposure with the language, native speakers and with the right attitude, then everything changes radically.
A few guidelines:
1. Find a nice language partner
Language learning material is a great resource when we start learning a language, but the more we delve into it, the more we feel the need to converse with native speakers. Humankind has reached incredible goals through cooperation. The first step when you feel ready to use your target language is to find a partner and cooperate with him/her.
In order to do this, you have two options: find natives who live in your city or find them through the internet. There is an enormous quantity of websites that provide this service. One of the best ones is Sharedtalk (www.sharedtalk.org), where you can engage with native speakers both in chat and voice rooms. You can search for people who are trying to learn your own native tongue, chat with them, exchange Skype names and, voilà, you are ready to start using your target language. It is fast, easy and free. However, it is important to find a nice person.
What do I mean by “a nice person”? Well, especially at the beginning, it is important to find like-minded, positive people. Being corrected is important, but it has to be done in the right way. Have you found yourself with a condescending native speaker who tries to correct you every 2 seconds? It is not only discouraging, but it will also disrupt your speech flow and frustrate you because you are trying to say something your care about.
Luckily, really condescending people are not that easy to stumble upon, but there might be other language partners who could irritate you in many other different ways. That’s why finding a good language partner is a trial-and-error process, but it doesn’t take long to find one, considering that a good number of people who visit these language exchange site are more than willing to learn other languages and cultures, exactly like you.
2. Expand and refine
Once you have found a good language partner, you need to talk to him or her in your target language. If you are a beginner, try to choose simple subjects that interest you. Expand your knowledge by asking “how do you say this in..?” often. It is not true that we can’t speak if we don’t have vocabulary; rather, we can get the words we need from the person in front of us just by asking a simple question.
Also ask your language partner to write them on a piece of paper (in face-to-face conversations) or on the Skype chat window (internet). Refine your language skills by recording the lessons and reviewing the new information and the mistakes you made (Step Voice Recorder is a software program very easy to download and use). The reason why it is so important to record the lessons is that mistakes – exactly like new words – don’t stick immediately in your long-term memory.
One of the reasons why this happens is that when we engage in a conversation – especially if we are not fluent yet – our brain has to grapple with a ton of things at once: pronouncing new words, speech melody, syntax, looking at your partner’s face, emotions, etc.. Once you have the recording, you will notice many more details because your brain has many less things to face and cope with.
3. Find subjects to talk about that you really like
I have been teaching 8 languages to more than 70 students over the last 2 years, and I have noticed that the ones who do better are those who are more independent when it comes to choosing their favorite subjects to talk about. I start some lessons with just the following question: what do you want to talk about today?
Think about it: if you find something you are really interested in, you are driven by passion and willing to get your thoughts across to the other person. The more you talk, the more mistakes you make, and the more mistakes you make, the more you learn from them. There are some techniques that I have developed to make my students keep talking even when they get stuck and get corrections that they can use for later conversations. All of my students have improved their oral skills dramatically in just a few months.
4. Keep a positive attitude
According to scientific research (check out this interesting article link: http://www.cdl.org/articles/the-connections-between-emotions-and-learning/), good emotions enhance our capacity for learning and retaining new information, in the same way as bad feelings slow us down and possibly even stop us from learning. Having a positive attitude towards learning and people can indeed change your life.
Making mistakes is not only necessary, it can also be fun! I will always remember when my Italian friend Martina told me once about when she was dating a French guy. After spending the evening with him, the moment came to say au revoir to each other, and she asked him, “bon, tu ne veux pas me baiser?”, thinking that baiser meant baciare (“kiss” in Italian).
The guy suddenly turned pale and didn’t know what to say. He then explained to her that baiser means “getting laid” and they had a good laugh about it. When I myself make embarrassing mistakes, I always have a good laugh with native speakers because they know that I am foreigner and that I make mistakes. Also, self-irony is extremely important. As someone once said, “he who never laughs will never be a serious person”.
Making mistakes is not only a necessary part of our learning process in all fields, but mistakes themselves can also be fun, especially in learning languages, which implies contact with native speakers. We can all achieve our goals but we have to stumble a few times to get there.
When we think about those who have accomplished amazing things, we tend to look at the results and not at the long process it took to reach them, because it is mostly invisible to us.
If you are discouraged by mistakes, think instead: they can change your life…for the better.
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
― Albert Einstein