Language learning: Mistakes are so important

I have favorite age groups and levels of ability when it comes to teaching people English. One of them is the ages between 7-9. These are kids who are old enough to know better, but young enough to happily do dumb things with you in class so long as you show actual enthusiasm for it. As students get into the preteen age, you see them slowly and inevitably start to withdraw as they try to figure out what on earth is happening to them. Understandable, we’ve all been there. (Unless you’re five, in which case, I’m amazed at your reading skills.)

But unfortunately, it can cut into their language learning in some ways, especially when a few get hit particularly hard with the need to Play It Cool.

I was this kid; in German class I learned how to say “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know”, and “I don’t speak German” early on so I could deflect any questions the teacher asked me. My teacher at the time was gracious enough not to press the issue. But looking on it, I regret it because of what else I might have been able to learn if I had tried.

I find myself facing the situation as an instructor, and don’t think I’m nearly as gracious.

Teachers appreciate the student who speaks up every time, even if there are mistakes, because then we can help you say what you want to say. If you say nothing, we have no means to help you, and so your skills just… become stagnant.

So, with that in mind, I want to give a shout-out to all the people out there who attend language classes but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable or unwilling to speak up in front of classmates. I’d also like to give a little reassurance/advice:

Mistakes are actually a really important part of learning a language. Think back on when you were a kid. The plural for cat was cats, and for dog was dogs, but for mouse wasn’t mouses, so an adult in your life likely had to correct you on this once or twice before you got it down. It’s normal, and nobody will make fun of you for saying something goofy in a language class.

Saying something, anything, will help you and your teacher more than hiding away. If you don’t get the grammar point, ask for help. If you don’t know the vocabulary, do your best to say a word similar to it, or ask if you can peek at a dictionary. Gesturing, drawing a picture or, at the very end of it all, asking if you can say the word in your native language are all other techniques. Don’t give up until you have the word you’re looking for.

I’d like to share a story from when I was learning Japanese.

We had started with a warm-up question about rules for the road. Don’t drive too fast, wear a seatbelt, etc. I was following along okay with it, or so I thought, as someone described what you shouldn’t do on a sidewalk. Suddenly, the teacher turned to me and asked me a question. Thinking we were still discussing sidewalks, I said something like, “My neighborhood in the States doesn’t have sidewalks, so we had to walk on the road and it was dangerous.”

Everyone started giggling.

I was confused until a friend pulled up her dictionary on her phone and showed me the word I’d used for sidewalk: it was actually the word for sunburn. The teacher had changed the subject earlier and been asking if people in the class easily get sunburn.

WHOOPS.

I tell you what, though, I’m never forgetting either the word for sunburn (日焼け) or sidewalk (歩道)!

What’s your language learning mistake story? What do you wish you’d done more of when you were learning a foreign language? If you’re a teacher, how do you help coax students out of “playing cool”?

5 thoughts on “Language learning: Mistakes are so important

  1. I once mistranslated a two page story in a Latin exam about a jewellery robbery, thinking the word for jewellery actually meant beauty. I thought it was a pretty weird story, but diligently pressed on. I gave up Latin shortly afterwards… 😂

    Liked by 1 person

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