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Being wrong is painful. Nobody wants to look stupid. And making mistakes feels really stupid.
That’s why learning a new language is so scary. You have to make mistakes. It also explains why so many people give up at the first hurdle – they want to be perfect from day one.
As much as I emphasise this point, I still hear from language learners who are afraid to say the wrong thing.
What if there was another way to look at mistakes? What if you could embrace mistakes with the same excitement you’d feel about winning the lottery?
What is a Mistake Anyway?
Look at any dictionary, and the idea of making mistakes is riddled with judgement.
Mirriam-Webster's definition talks about making a “wrong judgement”, while dictionary.com states that a mistake is “an error or fault resulting from defective judgement, deficient knowledge or carelessness”.
With these negative connotations you can't really be blamed for being afraid of mistakes.
Here’s the truth: making mistakes is something we all do. A mistake is unintentional. It doesn’t have to be tied up in emotion or self criticism. And making mistakes certainly doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
In fact, mistakes can be really positive.
How Kids and Nobel Award Winning Scientists Handle Mistakes
When parents gleefully encourage their baby to say “mama” or “papa”, and their child spits out something that sounds closer to “morp morp”, what is their reaction?
Do they scold the child for poor pronunciation? No! They smile and clap their hands. They reward the effort their baby has made.
This is a profound lesson in how to feel about mistakes. The baby says something incorrectly and is enthusiastically encouraged to keep trying!
This is also how things work in the world of science. Mistakes are as a vital part of the scientific process. In scientific experiments, scientists make a hypothesis then try to prove themselves wrong. Messing up is not part of the deal, it is the deal. Making mistakes, says science writer Adam Frank, is “the essence of scientific heroism“.
Every time scientists make “mistakes”, they learn something new. In other words, mistakes aren't about doing the wrong thing, then judging yourself for it. They’re about educating yourself towards future success.
What To Do When You Make a Mistake
In his book, The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney says honest mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. “If you take the time to immediately process the mistake, your learning will be pure and lasting,” Westney writes.
According to Westney, the more mistakes you make, the better. Mistakes provide feedback that “reveal[s] the underlying specific reason for a particular glitch.”
Essentially, the more mistakes you make, the more you learn.
That’s why I try to make 200 mistakes a day on my language learning missions.
What Aeroplanes Can Teach Us About Mistakes
You may not realize this, but aeroplanes are almost never on course. In fact, due to random gusts and changing wind conditions they are off course 99% of the time.
Will knowing this deter you from getting on a flight then next time you want to travel? Probably not.
Learning a language is like steering a plane. Just like a plane, you will make mistakes. You will be blown off course. And just like a plane, this is the only way to reach your destination.
Why Are Mistakes so Terrifying?
What makes mistakes so scary?
According to education specialists Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien, students don't view mistakes rationally but emotionally. In other words, students feel shame when they make mistakes. The natural response to shame is to avoid its source.
Ironically, if you want to improve your skills, avoiding mistakes is the opposite of what you should do.
Why Perfectionism Hurts Language Learning
Perfectionists hate making mistakes. Mistakes are the only way to learn a language. That’s why perfectionism hurts language learning.
Perfectionism is a belief that mistakes are wrong. As Martin Anthony and Richard Swinson put it:
We don't actually fear making mistakes. We fear what we believe about making mistakes. That's what's upsetting or anxiety-producing for us.
Perfectionism is the enemy of skill development.
That’s why reaching perfection has never been my goal. I aim to make mistakes. Not to be perfect.
The only way to be perfect at a new language is to never speak it. And if you don’t speak your target language language, two things happen:
- You never build any confidence in your ability
- You never receive feedback on where you need to improve.
Perfection is a lonely path. Walk it, and eventually you’ll lose motivation because you’re unable to connect with people in your target language.
Mistakes are the Only Way to Learn
Here’s what to do to make the most of your mistakes:
- Make Mistakes Often: The more mistakes you make the faster you will improve and the less they will bother you. The best cure to feeling uncomfortable about making mistakes is to make more mistakes.
- Learn From Your Mistakes: After you have made mistakes, study them! Record yourself so you can see what you need to work on. Or better yet, ask your tutor or teacher for feedback so you know where to target your studies.
- Appreciate Your Mistakes: You now know that mistakes are the fastest way to speak a new language. That is something to be thankful for, not to resent or be afraid of! As I’ve said before you need to learn to love your mistakes because they are the keys to future fluency.
Time to Take Mistake Medicine!
What if I told you I had a magic pill? Swallow this pill, and you’ll become fluent in your target language faster than you ever thought possible.
What’s the pill? You’ve probably guessed it by now: mistakes.
You don’t need to be afraid of mistakes.
Mistakes are the natural result of taking action. Without mistakes, you’d never make any progress.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and make mistakes!