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.


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”?

When you’re putting the flash cards away, make sure they’re going in the right pile,” I said in my best Japanese. “Sometimes they get mixed up because we have multiples.”

Understood,” the new staff member said, using the polite form, or keigo. “Should I do anything else after that?”

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Doing scary things in another language: the phone call edition

The other day, I received a flyer in my mailbox. This is not unusual as I get all kinds of ads in there all the time–usually for pizza places, the occasional “adult” venue, about condos I will never be able to afford in my life–that kind of thing. But this time I spotted the gas company logo at the top and figured it was important, so I had a second look.

First thing I noticed: the flyer mentioned a mandatory visit from the gas rep.

Second thing I noticed: the flyer listed a date and time I was not available.

In vain, I searched for an option to go online and reschedule. However, I eventually came to the realization that I would have to call and talk to a real, live person to change my appointment time, and it would all have to be in Japanese.

Continue reading “Doing scary things in another language: the phone call edition”

Book-buying in another language

…is, all things considered, very similar to purchasing a book in your native tongue.

All right, so, you’ve gotten enough vocabulary, grammar and determination to try reading in your second language of choice. What’s your first step? How do you survive without coming away with a book that a) you don’t understand or, even worse, b) don’t like?

There are some simple things you can do to help yourself out.

  1. Look online for recommendations. Before you even go to the bookstore, think of what you enjoy reading and put your favorite search engine to good use. Let’s say that I’m looking for good Light Novels in Japanese. Well, I could search “recommended Light Novels” in English, or maybe, “ライトノベルおすすめ” or maybe “ライトノベル人気”. Have an author you hear is good? Search for their name on your favorite book or shopping website and see what comes up.
  2. Know what section of the bookstore your novel will be in. I don’t mean look up a map of your bookstore before you go, but make sure you know what the name of the section is. Is it general fiction? A self-help book? An exercise guide? Knowing what category your book falls into will help you (and potentially the staff!) in finding something relevant to your interests.
  3. Look for a cool cover. Okay I know that sounds silly; insert saying about books, judging by their covers, etc., but I fully admit to being drawn to a cool cover. Let yourself have fun choosing books in whatever way works for you once you’re at the bookstore.
  4. Can you read the title? Now you’ve got a book in your hand. Can you read and understand it without having to look anything up? This is a pretty good measure for your level versus what you’re challenging yourself with.
  5. Can you read the first page? This part is a little more flexible. Read the first page. How long does it take you? Can you do it without looking anything up, or can you see a couple words you need to check? At this point, keep in mind that you do not need to understand 100% of what you see on that page. It’s totally fine to notice some things that don’t make sense- that happens in our native languages too, right? What should concern you is if you crack it open and only understand about 50% or less of what you see. If you get around 75% or so of what you’re reading, awesome, you’re at a good level for yourself.

Another possibility is the question “can you read the blurb inside the cover/on the back of the book”, which is a fair enough gauge too, but I find that reading the first page is a great way to see if you like the writing style, as well.

These are just some ways to find what you need in a bookstore; if you  have more ideas, please do share them!

Teachers are like detectives

Take it from the students’ point of view.

Imagine you’re learning a foreign language and just barely have the pleasantries down–hello, how are you, my name is, etc. You’ve never practiced with a native speaker before, but you’ve seen television shows where they did their thing and wow, can they talk fast. You’re about to walk into a classroom with one of those people. How on earth are you going to keep up with something like that? How are you supposed to explain you don’t understand? …How many times can you say you don’t understand before things get awkward?

So you’re sitting there in this classroom and the teacher comes in, all smiles, but that’s just because they’re paid to do that. The pleasantries are exchanged, and then suddenly they’re asking you to… read things. To pronounce things.

It’s hard. You can’t figure out how on earth they differentiate between Rs and Ls, or why on earth you need to learn something as hard as “observation tower” right this second. Hasn’t anyone told this person you’re a beginner? So you go on the defense; you shorten your answers as much as possible, you do as you’re asked and not much else just to survive this lesson.

The worst part happens during the end of the lesson: the free talk. The part where you supposedly use the grammar you learned today, but the possibilities of other topics popping up are nigh-endless and you just want it to be over so you can go home.

“So, what are your hobbies?” your teacher asks, leaning forward in their chair to gaze at you intently.

Your answer is one sentence. You imagine that’ll be the end of that; the teacher will nod and say it sounds interesting, then ask a different question, and that’ll lead to something else you have to-

“Oh really? My friend does that over in the next town! I’ve been wanting to try it too,” the teacher says.

Wait, what?

“Actually, I have a question about…”

You blink.

They’re interested? And not only that, they’re interested enough to know something about your hobby and ask about it?

You straighten your posture in your seat. You cast about in your head to find an answer.

The teacher seems delighted. They start taking notes on what you’re saying. “So it’s like this?” they ask, showing you the paper.

You smile and shake your head. “No, it’s….”

You show them.

It’s awkward; you don’t know most of the words required to share the specific details in this foreign language. You have to gesture and fumble a lot. But the teacher, magically, comes up with the words, writes them down for you, confirms they’re what you want to say. Something’s opened up, and you’re scrambling for every scrap of the language you know to show them everything you know.

The ten minutes are quickly over.

Have you experienced something like this? I have, but mostly as the teacher. I once had a student who could barely answer the question, “How are you?” telling me all about her calligraphy certification once I found out that little interest of hers.

It’s a skill that I think more than just foreign language teachers possess; it’s an ability to tap into something that’ll make the other person lean forward, scribble notes intently, and make an effort on their part to reach out to you in the same way you have to reach out to them.

I’m not saying I’m great at this yet, but I will say when a student promises to see you next week and strides out with their head high, you feel like you’ve not only taught a lesson, you’ve solved a case.

Good job, detective Stefanie.

Go get the next one!

What’s a second language worth? — Part 2

Japanese class in university wasn’t my first exposure to the language. I spent my preteen and teen years playing every Pokemon game I could lay my hands on. I watched any anime that was shown on a certain cartoon channel between the hours of 4 and 7; Dragon Ball Z, Rurouni Kenshin, Ronin Warriors, Inuyasha… the list is endless.

I also got my hands on songs. They were in Japanese, but some kind souls in the universe had written them out using the English alphabet. Thus, even though I could have been singing “I’m a stupid foreigner” in Japanese for all I knew, I learned the songs in their original languages. Because I could.

So going into the class I at least had that.

My first teacher was T-Sensei, a lady who reminded me very much of a slightly younger version of my grandmother. She had shoulder-length straight hair, a small belly, and a sense of humor about languages I think you need in order to go about learning them.

For those of you unaware, Japanese has three “alphabets” you need to learn in order to be even vaguely literate in the language- hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The first two “alphabets” are sets of 47 characters that are often used for things like particles or words borrowed from foreign languages. This is important because it ties into T-Sensei’s sense of humor.

We’re sitting in class after having learned all of the katakana, and T-Sensei is teaching us some words mostly by writing the English version on the board, then asking us to attempt to write them down ourselves. One such word was イギリス、 or Igirisu. (That means the UK, by the way.) Of course, none of us knew this at the time, so we were attempting things like writing out “England” or “The UK” as phonetically as possible. T-Sensei walked along and peered at our ideas, chuckling on occasion. Finally, she came to a classmate’s desk and peered at it for a long moment, then giggled.

“That’s wrong,” she said, sounding delighted. “It’s very cute, but it’s wrong.”

None of us begrudged her amusement, because she was just as willing to share her own weaknesses in languages with us. She liked to tell us of the pronunciation mistakes she often made, such as having trouble saying bug or bag distinctly, or walk and work…. and the confusion that ensued when she tried to correct herself.

So passed four semesters of language study; by the end of those two years I was able to read the first two alphabets passably, and we were starting to dip our toes into the murky waters of kanji. Summer was approaching, and I was wondering where to go next because something strange was happening.

Language was something to be endured when I was in public school (more on that later), with no foreseeable rewards. Spanish had taught me the days of the week, something I would never need while living in the States. German had taught me how to ask where the bathroom was- again, not very useful while at home, and therefore in my mind not particularly useful. Yet there I was listening to those songs I once memorized as a teenager. Sitting at my computer desk, eyes scanning the songs’ lyrics, I started to realize I was beginning to get the gist of what had once been goobledygook to me.

Could I understand the entire song? Of course not. Could I get the hidden meanings, the cultural references? Not on your life. But could I pick out a word here and there nearly every sentence, and start to get an idea of what was being said?


It reminded me of being a pre-K kidlet struggling through a small book for my own bedtime because my parents had told me I should be able to read it on my own by then. It had been hard; the letters on the page had felt like impossible puzzles to work out, but I had managed it.

“Cool,” I said to the song lyrics, and that was about when I received an email from my university about study abroad.

More on that later.

What’s a second language worth? — Part 1

In elementary school my parents signed me up for this after-class Spanish lesson that took place at least once a week. My memory on the whole thing is fairly hazy–I can’t remember if I asked them to sign me up, how long it was precisely, or even how often it was, but I can remember feeling baffled about the idea of foreign languages in general. I mean, what was the point of them? I already knew English, and learning how to understand that had been tough enough.

While I do recall enjoying the small get-together where we sang songs to learn the days of the week and whatnot in Spanish, I also can remember feeling relieved the day I left, with a little Spanish-English dictionary as a present from the teacher for completing the program. There, I learned another language, I don’t have to do that again.

Middle school arrived with all of its inherent confusion; along with the fear that I would never learn how to handle lockers came the looming prospect of having to learn a foreign language. Again. But I already did it, I thought to myself as the language teacher at my school came to speak to the class.

“You don’t have to learn one yet,” she’d told us, as we squirmed impatiently in our tiny desk-chair combination seats. “But we offer foreign languages starting from eighth grade, so if you want to get a jumpstart on learning something that’s the time!”

Pffft yeah right! I’ll worry about it when I have to take one in high school.

I did my research; at my particular high school (which had grades from 9-12, for reference), we could either do one language for three years, or two different languages for two years in order to graduate. I opted for the former, thinking it would be less work.

My adventures in German are worth another post entirely; let’s just say I was the smart-alec in the back of the class who, when she was called, would smugly answer, “Es tut mir leid, Ich weiss nicht. Ich kann nicht verstanden.*”

Yeah. Total jerk. I know.

Three years passed, and I spent my senior year in high school enjoying the fact that I was done. I was all set for graduation. Despite being a rude brat to the German teacher, particularly in junior year, I had somehow managed a B+ average. I never needed to worry about taking a foreign language class again.

Then college came.

“Oh, you’re going to be an English major? Here’s the list of the required general education courses you need,” I was told. Upon perusing the list, I was utterly dismayed to find…

“I need four semesters of a foreign language?!” I demanded.

The man explaining the requirements smiled, either not noticing my distress or not caring. “Well, of course if you studied an AP course in a language in high school, we can count that toward your requirement,” he said.

I sat there, defeated for a moment, mulling over my options. Then, grimly, I went to the course listing to see what my choices were.

In middle school, we had only been offered Spanish, perhaps French. In high school, our options were those two in addition to German, Latin, and American Sign Language. College offered more than double that in options, including Asian languages.

Well, rather than feeling stupid for taking a beginner class in a language I already studied, let’s try something new.

Enter Japanese class.


*I’m sorry I don’t know. I can’t understand.